Why JFK's Life Should Have Been Spared
Because we might have done better, but could have done worse.
by James Leroy Wilson
November 27, 2003
Why JFK's Life Should Have Been Spared_James Leroy Wilson-Because we might have done better, but could have done worse.
The question of assassination is always controversial. We always have the “what would have happened if” scenario, which is properly called counter-factual history. What if Abraham Lincoln had lived? What if the German Lutheran pastor and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer had succeeded in assassinating Hitler? What if JFK lived to face re-election?
Thinking these things can cause discomfort. If Hitler’s life had been cut down sooner than when it actually was (self-inflicted), we might never have found out the depths of his evil. Bonhoeffer is now revered throughout Christian circles precisely because we now see that what he did was heroic - but it probably would have been less heroic if it actually succeeded. Because we know now how evil Hitler is, we add to Bonhoeffer’s stature the fact that he tried to kill Hitler.
But if Bonhoeffer succeeded, we would probably now ask how can one man, or a conspiracy, could have the right to take down a national leader who so clearly had the support of the majority of the people? And whose anti-Communist “Axis” would have spared tens of millions dead in China would have saved eastern Europe from enslavement for decades? *That* would be the question we’d be asking, precisely because we don’t know what the immediate replacement of Nazi government would have looked like. Maybe events still would have unfolded as badly as they did. Bonhoeffer’s personal stature actually benefits because his attempt on Hitler’s life failed.
(Yes, I believe Bonhoeffer did the right thing. What I’m suggesting is that since he failed, we have no idea what the “counter-factual” history would be, and can only assume it would have been better. But there’s no guarantee it would have been better, especially if another Nazi was able to assume power)
Contrast that with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Booth is now a villain of history, but what did he actually accomplish?
He restored at least some semblance of Constitutional government to the United States, after four years of Lincoln’s military dictatorship. This was accomplished with the ascension of Andrew Johnson to the Presidency. Johnson was Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 in a coalition “Union” ticket, even though Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat of the Andrew Jackson tradition and Lincoln a Republican.
I don’t think we can really comprehend the differences, which were more stark then than today. Republicans believed in high tariffs for “internal improvements” - to build canals for the convenience of merchants and to subsidize the railroad companies, whereas the Democrats believed in free trade to make prices competitive for small farmers - who were then the majority of the population.
When Johnson became President, he immediately clashed heads with the Republican-dominated Congress, even to the point of being impeached by the House of Representatives and being spared removal from office by just one vote in the Senate. Lincoln’s military dictatorship came to an end, and Presidents were relatively weak, and Congress dominated national politics (as the Constitution designed it), for the rest of the 19th century.
If Lincoln was never assassinated, his military dictatorship might have come to an end, but because he was killed it did in fact come to an end. But because Americans today assume that Lincoln’s dictatorship was justified because we falsely believe that he wanted to free the slaves, we vilify Booth. Booth killed a tyrant, and spared a generation of Americans from the martial law, the suspension of habeas corpus, and the suppression of free speech and of the free press.
But Lee Harvey Oswald did not. Oswald murdered John F. Kennedy precisely because Kennedy wasn’t a tyrant - that is, not a Communist dictator.
In assessing John F. Kennedy’s life and politics, what is most impressive is all the numerous myths surrounding him. Maybe his personal sex life was scandalous, and maybe he wasn’t much of an intellectual whose books and speeches were largely ghost-written. But even if he wasn’t a man of great substance, there’s no reason to doubt that he actually believed in the things he said. His own, and his family’s, sacrifices in World War II separate him from the cynical criminality of Bill Clinton or the “chicken-hawk” posture of George W. Bush and his aides. JFK is more like Bush’s father, and the younger Bush more like JFK’s brother Teddy, both of whom earned the “right” to rule not because of their sacrifice to their country, but because of their wealth and name.
JFK left us with two legacies, one conservative, one liberal. The conservative Kennedy cut taxes and was a stalwart Cold Warrior against the Soviet Union. Even National Review in the 1960 election couldn’t make an endorsement for the Republican Richard Nixon; it chose to not make an endorsement.
But the “liberal” (read: Leftist) legacy is quite important in its own way. Kennedy’s rhetorical vision was that of a “New Frontier” and of telling us “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Kennedy was the first Catholic President, and he told us religion doesn’t matter and is less important than patriotism. Kennedy was not only young and handsome as Presidents go, he was the first to exploit this in the television age in which “sex appeal” was considered important - even in men.
JFK’s rhetoric still holds power - otherwise, the Peace Corps would have disbanded a long time ago. In some ways, he carries on the “America as Messiah for the world” myth that started with McKinley’s murderous attempt to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Philippines, and Woodrow Wilson’s attempt in World War I to “make the world safe for Democracy.”
This is the culture and national psychology which led young aristocrats like JFK and the elder Bush to courageously encounter enemy fire in World War II. I don’t hold it against them. When you’re young, you believe in the causes you were taught, even to the point of death. After the viciousness of Truman, and the savvy management of Eisenhower, America was ready for idealism to return. JFK personified that idealism of “public service” and “good intentions.” It’s not his actual policies, which in retrospect look quite conservative, but rather the idealism of his rhetoric, that still holds power.
There are myths of “counter-factual” history that Kennedy would have saved us from the Vietnam quagmire, and that he would have initiated Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program, but somehow would have made it work.
The fact is, we can’t and don’t know. Kennedy’s record and promise were too spotty for a judgment. But it is safe to say that , however attractive he was as a President, he was no match for Lyndon Johnson’s - his successor’s -legislative skills. Who’s to say he could have pulled off a spectacular lie like the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that “authorized” the President to wage undeclared war in Southeast Asia? Or the Civil Rights Act, which repealed for all time the concept of property rights? Or Great Society programs which automatically assume that the poor are faultless victims of their own problems - that is, to completely change the equation: “ask only what your country can do for you.”
It is hard to say any of this would have happened, but equally hard to say it wouldn’t have. It seems - from a non-partisan point of view, that Kennedy and his brother Robert better understood the role of markets and capitalism to achieve whatever national goals the politicians want.
They may have been among the original neo-conservatives, and the Democratic party moved leftward, precisely because both were assassinated. Their brother Teddy has for a long time been enjoying the fruits of being a Kennedy and remaining a Democrat, but not by actually agreeing with what his older brothers stood for.
In JFK I think we see the first neo-conservative President: a nationalist who in principle would have the government control everything, and who places national destiny ahead of religious belief, but on the other hand had enough understanding of economics and markets so as to still believe, pragmatically, that government should be limited.
When all is said and done, we can’t make too much of Kennedy, other than to say he was the first President to really benefit from the television age. The counter-factual history of “what if” scenarios can, at best, help us understand and clarify some issues, but at worst it can produce hero-worship of the “martyred,” which is the ultimate in wishful thinking.
I think what we can say on this account, is that for all Kennedy’s faults, Kennedy’s murderer was worse than Kennedy himself. But it is our responsibility, not to dwell on past events, but to learn from history in order to do better in the present, and from that, improve the future.
The world would have been better if Kennedy lived. But that’s not an excuse to worship JFK the man, but rather to learn why the world would be better off with JFK instead of LBJ. And the reason isn’t because a personality cult is stronger in one than another, but rather because of ideas.
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