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JFK’s assassination and the making of myths
London, On.- His murder was both a crime and a tragedy. But fabricating mythologies around it doesn’t do history any favours
With the 50th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination looming, the media deluge is already underway. And as the fateful date of November 22nd approaches, be prepared for more.
It’s really nothing to be surprised at. Indeed, the question of where were you when you heard the news has become a touchstone for people of a certain age.
As for myself, I was a second-year university student living at home with my parents in Ireland. And while it would be retrospectively respectable to say that we were traumatised by the news, such wasn’t the case.
To be sure, we were shocked and saddened. But my parents still went out to their pre-planned card game, and I went to the local cinema, which was something I always did on Friday nights. Life went on, as it usually does.
Still, there’s no doubt about one thing. As the years have unfolded, Kennedy’s murder has spawned its fair share of myths.
A particularly pervasive one has to do with blaming Dallas, the city in which he was shot. Popped into circulation within 24 hours of the assassination by the likes of James Reston of the New York Times, the story is that the city’s climate of right-wing extremism was instrumental in facilitating Kennedy’s murder. And it’s a meme that persists to this day.
Now it’s true that Kennedy was distinctly unpopular in right-wing Dallas circles. And his UN ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, had been heckled, jostled and spat upon by protestors from the right-wing National Indignation Committee. But unless you subscribe to the thesis that people inhale their motivations from the air, the case implicating Dallas is patently absurd.
After all, Kennedy’s assassin wasn’t a right-wing extremist. He was a communist.
And when it came to ideology, Lee Harvey Oswald was the real deal. Having defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, he subsequently lived there for almost three years, during which he wrote to his brother that “In the event of war, I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American government.”
But the reality of life under the revolution wasn’t entirely up to expectations, so Oswald returned to the United States in 1962. However, his disappointment didn’t motivate him to change his ideological stripes. Instead, he developed an enthusiasm for Fidel Castro. And less than two months before the assassination, he was at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City trying to score a visa to travel to the island en route back to the Soviet Union.
Whatever ideological demons drove Oswald to shoot Kennedy, they clearly had nothing to do with right-wing extremism. To borrow a phrase from author James Piereson, those who argue otherwise “have reached an instinctive conclusion about the cause of the event without any reference to the actual identity of the assassin.” Or put another way, they’re just making it up.
Another popular notion is that Kennedy’s death led to the Vietnam War. If he had lived, so the story goes, he would never have permitted the situation to escalate the way it did.
Of course, as with all historical might-have-beens, we’ll never conclusively know how things would have developed. But we do know what actually happened while Kennedy was alive.
When he took office, Kennedy increased the American military presence in South Vietnam, and the first American military fatality there occurred less than a year into his presidency. By the time he died, 50 American soldiers had been killed. Further, he approved the coup that overthrew South Vietnam’s President Diem – hardly the action of someone who was intent on disengagement.
When I wrote about this several months ago, an old friend chided me for being too hard on Kennedy. I had, he said, overlooked the fact that Kennedy inherited a situation where the domino theory and drawing the line in South Vietnam were already established tenets of American foreign policy. And that’s true.
Still, all presidents and prime ministers inherit situations. It’s what they do with them that defines the quality of their leadership.
John F. Kennedy was an attractive public figure who, had he lived, might have become a great president. His murder was both a crime and a tragedy. But fabricating mythologies around it doesn’t do history any favours. –TroyMedia
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.