Pritchett: Sixty years later, sadness of JFK loss is profound


Daniel Pritchett is a resident of Dover.

The coldblooded murder of our 35th president 60 years ago was a transforming event for our country and the world. He was gunned down in broad daylight just as he was becoming a transformative leader, who could have led us into a very different future than the one we have experienced. Just as his eloquent words still powerfully resonate today, his policies, had they not died with him (with the exception of civil rights, which Lyndon Johnson admirably continued), might have made the history of the past six decades incredibly different (and happier). I was reminded of this when I picked up and read Monika Wiesak’s wonderful new book, “America’s Last President: What the World Lost When It Lost John F. Kennedy.” Ms. Wiesak was too young to have remembered him or his assassination, but she became very interested in learning more about him and his apparently contradictory and puzzling public image, so she began a quest to learn the truth about him. And, as she puts it, “The more I learned, ... the more impressed I became. I realized that the public image of him as a careless, thoughtless, self-involved playboy obscured the depth of what he was trying to achieve and (the) intensity of the opposition he faced. I felt cheated out of understanding our true history and, out of extension, understanding the world around me.”

Ms. Wiesak is so right. John F. Kennedy, though still quite popular in opinion polling, is still very incompletely understood, and as a result, the tremendous impact of his loss is not really appreciated.

The greatest reason that his loss was so horrific is that John Kennedy was a man of peace and a true peacemaker. Even though he campaigned as a typical cold warrior, his true agenda, once he took office, was to end the Cold War and the arms race. “All I want people to say about me is what they said about John Adams,” he once said. “He kept the peace.” He certainly did that. Even though he had been advised by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, that the U.S. would probably need to intervene with troops in Laos (not Vietnam), he resisted pressures from his top generals to do so and instead supported a United Nations plan to establish a neutralist government in that country. He refused several times — from November 1961 on — to send combat troops to Vietnam (though he did relent to the pressure and sent “advisers,” not combat units). In October 1963, one month before his death, he signed an executive order to withdraw 1,000 of those soldiers by the end of the year, which was to be the first step toward removing all American military personnel by the end of 1965. On the day before he left for Dallas in November, he told the head of his National Security Council that he wanted to do a complete review of our Vietnam policy. “I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.” He had traveled to Vietnam as a congressman in 1951 and had witnessed the French quagmire, and had always been skeptical about the ability of a Western country to militarily succeed there. But it went further than that. In 1943, as he served in the Navy in the Pacific, he had written, “All war is stupid.” It is simply unimaginable that John Kennedy would have plunged our country into the nightmare that became the Vietnam War, and imagine, then, how different our country might be if he had lived and been elected to a second term.

In the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, he literally saved the world from an indescribable catastrophe by resisting incredibly intense pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to bomb missile sites and then invade Cuba with ground troops. Since, unbeknownst to us, the Soviets had secretly installed tactical nuclear weapons inside Cuba, with authorization to use them if an invasion came, this would have certainly led to a nuclear war. I cannot think of any other president who could have resisted the temptation to “look tough” or “show strength” and instead navigate through that crisis to a peaceful conclusion. By doing so, JFK saved literally millions of lives (including mine).

A few months later, in June 1963, he delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he called for an end to the Cold War and the arms race, and called on the American people to see the people of the Soviet Union as their fellow human beings, not evil adversaries with whom we could not live with in peace. Two months later, a nuclear test ban treaty was signed in Moscow, and in September, at the United Nations, the president spoke about further steps toward disarmament (and he really meant it) and even a joint mission to the moon instead of a race to the moon.

After JFK died, his Alliance for Progress died with him. This effort to push and promote reform and democracy in Latin America, and to give better lives, economies and governments to our neighbors to the south was starting to have an impact, and it made JFK a beloved figure to the ordinary people of those countries. He had stated in his inspiring inaugural address, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” When he visited Colombia, the president of that country said to him, “Do you know why those workers and campesinos are cheering you like that? It’s because they believe you are on their side.” He was. But his successor was not, and JFK’s Alliance died. I think about it every time I see pictures of desperate immigrants on our Southern border.

I could go on, but I want to make one final and important point. Monika Wiesak’s book has a very interesting chapter on JFK’s rather prickly relations with the government of Israel. Even though he was a great supporter of the state of Israel, he was at loggerheads with its prime minister, who did not like JFK’s efforts to build a good relationship with their archenemy, Gamal Nasser of Egypt, but mainly because JFK kept pressuring them to deal with and resolve the problem of all the Arab refugees in places like the Gaza Strip. If only they had listened to the unwelcome advice and pressure from their friend in the White House, that part of the world might look very different today.

I have no way to prove it, but I have long believed that more tears were shed during the weekend of Nov. 22, 1963, than any other time in the history of the world. The reason is that people were crying all over the world, not just in the United States. Whether instinctively or intellectually, people on every continent and every country understood what a tragic loss had just occurred. I do not believe that either our country or our planet has ever recovered from it.

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