Countdown to Dallas 1963: the inside story of a Sophoclean tragedy
This is a great year for conspiracists – from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy to the constant dribble (and occasional torrent) of government surveillance revelations. It’s all happening. So i’ve been trying to get my head around the whole Kennedy thing. A few years back, I read the seminal bio by Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life, which is the best place to start (beautifully written, brilliant insights). But have just finished Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days which is a week by week account of those final months of his life and presidency. Tragedy is a word much diluted by overuse and misuse – but this story amply qualifies. The story ends in disaster, which we the audience knows perfectly well is coming. On that journey, there are constant moments of brutal dramatic irony – with the power of retrospective, we see their chilling significance The only difference is that this tragedy is not cathartic for the simple reason that it actually happened.
The slaying of a king will invariably divide opinion. This is no exception. Yet what was so extraordinary about this regicide is that it was of a president in his prime, as Clarke’s book makes clear, a man just getting into his stride and preparing for a possible second term. But like any great tragedy, one is so swept up in the tension of the drama that one is desperately willing for it to turn out differently. The occasionally minute decisions that led inexorably to the fateful end we all know is coming seem so inconsequential. But they are irrevocable. And as Clarke counts the days down from August to November 1963, I found myself subconsciously holding my breath for extended periods, wishing things were otherwise.
Kennedy was of course a deeply flawed man. His assassination led to inevitable hagiography and whitewashing. He was a complex and contradictory personality (though aren’t we all) whose recklessness in his personal life (tales of his womanising are legendary and faced in this book) was contrasted with his profound sense of caution on the international stage (which was arguably responsible for keeping the planet alive).
But a number of things came through loud and clear in this book – researched from the myriad accounts of people close to JFK, official documents and ledgers, the secret recordings of Oval Office discussions (it was not Nixon but Kennedy who installed the equipment); the details then regularly placed within the wider context of his life and career. These simply serve to ratchet up the sense of loss and tragedy. As the book’s subtitle has it, this was a time of his emergence as a great president.
LIfe with Jackie
Just a week before the final 100 days, Jackie gave birth to their fourth child, Patrick, who then died two days later. They were devastated. But as many friends and colleagues, this had a profound effect on their marriage. For years it had been difficult – not least because of the constant affairs. [This is one reason why Kennedy was obsessively concerned with what was happening to Macmillan’s government in Britain after the Profumo Affair (p81)]
A friend who knew the truth offered a more realistic assessment, saying, “For a man who was very kind to people, and was very concerned about how he treated people, Jack was not very conscious about how much he hurt his wife.” (p15)
But after Patrick died, everyone noticed how concerned he was for Jackie’s welfare, how much more he focused on his two living children, Caroline and John Jr; and there was a new intimacy and mutual love. Far from looking as though she would leave him, it now seemed that almost because of their grief, they were happier together than they had ever been before.
A number of observers had noticed their relationship changing for the better. The reporter Helen Thomas thought they had ‘grown closer’ after Patrick’s death and ‘appeared genuinely affectionate towards each other.’ Roswell Gilpatric would later say, “You could see now that he liked being with her… I think their marriage was really beginning to work out.” Jackie agreed, telling Father McSorley, “it took us a very long time to work everything out, but we did, and we were about to have a real life together.” Because these statements were made after Dallas, they cannot escape the suspicion that they were motivated by a desire to paint the couple’s final days together as happy ones. There may have been some wishful thinking and exaggeration, but there is enough contemporaneous evidence to confirm the essential truth. (p244)
How different things could have been…
The Cold War world
Kennedy got elected in part by building a platform of paranoia about the Soviet Union – by trumpeting the worries about a ‘missile gap’ in USSR’s favour over the US which had apparently been allowed to develop under the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, he squeaked into power. The truth was the complete opposite – which if he didn’t know before his election, he certainly knew after. On pragmatic grounds, though, perhaps he had to claim to be a genuine Cold Warrior in order to get elected. His finest hour was obviously the Cuban Missile Crisis which meant that the world was not destroyed in a nuclear holocaust.
But he was determined to get past the ideological brinkmanship.
When Norman Cousins, who served as an intermediary between them during the spring of 1963, met with Kennedy before leaving for Moscow in April, Kennedy predicted that Khrushchev would say that he wanted to reduce tension but could see now reciprocal interest in Washington. “It is important that he be corrected on this score,” he said. “I’m not sure Khrushchev knows this, but I don’t think there’s any man in American politics who’s more eager than I am to put Cold War animosities behind us and get down tot he hard business of building friendly relations.” (p93)
He was convinced that “in the atomic age, great men avoided war rather than leading nations into it.” (p133) Cuba had hardened him to be wary of his military top brass:
Kennedy told John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who was serving as his ambassador to India, that he never had the slightest intention of doing this [bombing Cuba with nuclear weapons], and that the worst advice always seemed to come “from those who feared that to be sensible made them seem soft and unheroic.” (p59)
What is really striking in this book is that his great Cold War antagonists recognised this virtue in him. Through various channels he made it clear to Castro that he could live with his politics but not his alliances – so if Cuba dumped Moscow, the could tolerate each other. Agonizingly, Castro saw this – and spoke to noted French journalist and socialist Jean Daniel (who had acted on accession as intermediary between JFK & Castro) just three days before the assassination.
In Havana on Tuesday [19th Nov], Castro told Jean Daniel, “He [Kennedy] still has the possibility of becoming, in the eyes of history, the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists…. I know, for example, that for Khrushchev, Kennedy is a man you can talk with. I have gotten this impression from all my conversations with Khrushchev. Other leaders have assured me that to obtain this goal ‘coexistence’ we must first await his reelection.” (p321)
How different things could have been…
The Problem of Vietnam
One of arch conspiracy-theorist Oliver Stone’s traumas is Vietnam. He’s made various films about it: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July are the obvious. But actually a big agenda behind both his Nixon and JFK is also the problem of Vietnam. His line is that if Kennedy had lived, America would not have gone into Vietnam in the way it did. It always seemed to me wishful (if deeply understandable) thinking.
The extraordinary thing is that this book seems to show him to be right, on this issue at least. Kennedy really did want to avoid war in Vietnam. And even though the numbers of ‘military advisers’ increased on his watch, it is clear that if he won a second term (not a shoe-in, but certainly more likely than his first term victory), he would have been radical. Many people testify to this.
He told Newman that MacArthur and de Gaulle had used identical words to warn him against committing U.S. Forces to a land war in Asia. “The first thing I do when I’m reelected, I’m going to get the Americans out of Vietnam,” he said. “Exactly how I’m going to do it, right now, I don’t know, but that is my number one priority – get out of Southeast Asia… We are not going to have men ground up in this fashion, this far away from home. I’m going to get those guys out because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war that’s impossible to win.” (p241)
Then the day before his death, he said to a colleague on Air Force One
[Thurs 21 Nov] Before returning to his compartment, Kennedy turned to Gonzalez and said, “oh, and by the way, Henry, I’ve already ordered… all the helicopters to be out of Vietnam by the end of the year.” (p331)
Within days of Johnson’s assumption of the presidency, US efforts in Vietnam were radically intensified.
How different things could have been…
Premonitions of Dallas
Dallas was always going to be a difficult place. Kennedy was deeply unpopular – and accused of being soft on communism (for reasons that the previous two points perhaps explain). The military didn’t trust him, the right despised him and he seemed a million miles apart culturally. The infamous wanted for treason poster was being circulated (right) and on the day of his arrival, a full page advert in the Dallas Morning Post was ‘welcoming’ him to Dallas with incendiary words (second right).
The agony of this book is that many people had premonitions and foreboding about this trip. Including Jackie and JFK themselves. Dallas aside, Kennedy always acknowledged that it was impossible for the Secret Service to give him 100% protection and so he was fairly fatalistic about assassination. He was morbidly obsessed with the details of President Lincoln’s last days. Even more bizarrely, he considered the possibility of a coup d’état masterminded by the military top brass. But he wouldn’t let it stop him going about his business.
But as the time drew closer to the proposed Texas trip, the concerns grew amongst many. A senior Texan Democrat (Byron Skelton) had written to Bobby
“Frankly I am worried about President Kennedy’s proposed visit to Dallas. You will note that General Walker says that ‘Kennedy is a liability to the free world.’ A man who would make this kind of statement is capable of doing harm to the President. I would feel better if the President’s itinerary did not include Dallas. Please give this your earnest consideration.” (p283)
Others were also genuinely concerned:
That morning [19th November] Salinger had received a letter from a woman in Dallas saying, “Don’t let the President come down here. I’m worried about him. I think something terrible will happen to him.” He decided not to mention the letter, because he knew Kennedy would dismiss it, just as he had the other warnings. But Mrs Lincoln (JFK’s secretary) had no qualms about relaying her husband’s premonitions to him. Before going home that evening she told him that for days Abe had been telling her that he had a bad feeling about the trip, and wished the president were not going. “If they are going to get me,” he said, “they will get me even in church.” (p324)
But most chillingly of all, the Kennedys themselves seemed aware of the risks.
During the flight back to Washington (18th Nov) , he told Smathers, “God I hate to go out to Texas.” He added that he had a “terrible feeling about going”. His “terrible feeling” was that the feud between Vice President Johnson and Texas senator Ralph Yarborough would sabotage the trip. … He told Powers, “Thank God nobody wanted to kill me today!” He made this kind of comment so often that Powers usually shrugged it off. This time, he added that if anyone tried to kill him with a high-powered rifle outfitted with a telescopic sight, he would do it during a motorcade, when there would be so much noise and commotion that no one would be able to point and say, “It came from that window!” (p316)
And once in Texas
[22nd November – the day of the assassination] He handed the Dallas Morning News to Jackie, open to the nasty advertisement. “Oh you know, we’re heading into nut country today,” he said. “But, Jackie, if somebody wanted to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?” (p340)
The dramatic ironies of this tragedy are deafening. If only they’d heeded the suggestions of those on the ground simply to avoid Dallas.
How different things could have been…