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U.S.: 40 Years After His Assassination, Kennedy's Mystique Lives On (Part 1)

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Forty years after his assassination, U.S. President John F. Kennedy continues to inspire and fascinate Americans and people around the world. But does the popular image of Kennedy as one of the great U.S. presidents have any basis in reality? RFE/RL takes a look at Kennedy's enduring mystique.

Washington, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- At the age of 42, he was the youngest man ever elected president of the United States -- a handsome, seemingly vigorous war hero with a glamorous wife and beautiful kids who rose to power in a period of hope and optimism in the United States.

John F. Kennedy captivated the imagination of millions of Americans and, indeed, people around the world. Forty years after his assassination -- on 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas -- his mystique appears as strong as ever.

But is it warranted? According to the U.S. public, it is. A Gallup poll released this week says Americans still believe that Kennedy was one of the nation's greatest presidents -- on a par with Civil War leader Abraham Lincoln -- even if he only served 2 1/2 years in office.

Most historians, even sympathetic ones like Peter Kuznick, are more ambivalent. Kuznick, a professor of contemporary U.S. history at American University in Washington, told RFE/RL that Kennedy's popularity is mysterious, given that it is based on a limited record in office. Nevertheless, he says Kennedy is widely identified with hope and an era of optimism.

"There's a sense, especially a popular sense, that with Kennedy's assassination, things turned dark for the United States. It's sometimes seen as a turning point in American history -- the dividing line between a period of hope, optimism, progress, vitality and then a later period associated with urban conflict, a period associated with domestic civil war, a period associated with [the] Vietnam [war]," Kuznick said.

In recent years, a far more complex picture of Kennedy the man and politician has emerged with the release of more than 4.5 million pages of previously secret government papers. The papers were declassified in 1995, in part to dispel conspiracy theories about Kennedy's death fanned by Oliver Stone's film "JFK."

From them, historians are beginning to learn that key parts of Kennedy's popular personal and political image -- that he was a vigorous man with a liberal agenda that would have transformed the politics of the Cold War -- are highly questionable.

On the personal side, no one has done more to challenge the image of a vigorous Kennedy than Robert Dallek. The Boston University historian was given exclusive access to secret papers by the Kennedy family. Earlier this year, he revealed that, despite all appearances, JFK was a sick man who kept his illnesses secret for fear he would not be elected.

Dallek revealed that Kennedy, who suffered a major back injury during World War II, was in almost constant pain. His ailments included osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and Addison's disease, which impaired his ability to produce adrenaline.

To fight these maladies and their debilitating symptoms, Dallek says Kennedy was administered a daunting array of medications during his last eight years, including hydrocortisone, which he injected into his thigh to fight the effects of Addison's disease.

Three doctors oversaw this chemical regimen, sometimes without White House knowledge. Dallek says that one of them, Max Jacobson -- dubbed "Dr. Feelgood" -- gave Kennedy amphetamine shots during his first summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Reaction to Dallek's work has ranged from criticism by conservatives, who say it shows Kennedy was a liar and manipulator, to admiration from liberals for Kennedy's apparent ability to achieve greatness despite illness.

But if Kennedy's personal life appears clearer, his White House record -- whether he deserves to be considered one of the great U.S. presidents -- remains the subject of heated debate. That debate pits those who feel that Kennedy was a bold visionary who would have led America in a new direction against those who say he was a cautious, calculating politician unlikely to change the course of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

American University's Kuznick counts himself among the Kennedy faithful. But even he acknowledges that Kennedy's record is fraught with ambiguities, including his stand against the Soviet Union, embodied in his 1960 election campaign pledge to narrow the nuclear-missile gap with Moscow. In office, Kennedy doubled U.S. defense spending and stood firm against the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba and threats to encroach on West Berlin.

However, Kuznick says those experiences appeared to effect a significant change in Kennedy. Coupled with his embrace of a partial nuclear-test-ban treaty with Moscow and an apparent willingness to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam, Kuznick says that had Kennedy lived, there are signs he would have taken the United States in a totally different direction.

"Kennedy was a fierce Cold Warrior. [But] I don't think he would have gotten us involved in Vietnam in the way that [his successor, former President Lyndon] Johnson did. I do think that he was looking to change policy toward the Soviet Union. I do think he was rethinking parts of the nuclear arms race. It's possible that Kennedy might have become the visionary that many people hoped he would be," Kuznick said.

But for historian John Prados, that's just wishful thinking. "I think you have to say that the hagiography has built to such a point that there's no way almost any human being could meet those expectations," he said.

Prados, with the National Security Archive in Washington, recently wrote a book that details Kennedy's backing of a coup against then-South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed in the putsch. Prados's research is based on audiotapes of a White House meeting in which the coup is discussed.

Prados told RFE/RL that much has been made of Kennedy's reported plan to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. In "JFK," director Oliver Stone cites an executive order by Kennedy to do just that. But Prados says new evidence shows Kennedy only wanted to pull out 1,000 U.S. troops to force the South Vietnamese to take harder action against the North Vietnamese communist insurgents.

But after Diem was deposed, Saigon still failed to take action while the rebels intensified their insurgency. And Washington, Prados says, was then forced to commit even more resources to the fight. "Come 1964 and after, with a Kennedy government, assuming he survived, it would have faced the same dilemmas that eventually faced Lyndon Johnson," he said. "So Kennedy would have been faced with the same decisions. And having supported the Diem coup, he would have then been in the position of having to assume an even greater degree of responsibility for the South Vietnamese. So the Kennedy withdrawal thesis becomes impractical."

Likewise, Prados argues that Kennedy was much more conservative toward the nascent civil rights movement than his liberal admirers make him out to be. He says new audiotapes show that Kennedy, in speaking to the movement's leaders in 1963, insisted that change could come only gradually. Prados says history reveals a man who saw mostly obstacles in an era that was full of opportunities for progressive change.

Kennedy is remembered for the promise he seemed to offer a new and idealistic generation of Americans. Whether the historical record justifies that perception, Prados says it's likely to endure. "It's a manifestation of the huge yearning and disappointment that Americans felt when Kennedy was taken from them by the assassination," he said. "It's this idea of the unfulfilled promise and the inability to have reached those goals that people felt he was striving for."

(In Part 2: New research sheds light on the Kennedy assassination, but mystery remains.)