President Kennedy's Speech in Forth Worth, Texas, on the Morning of November 22, 1963
At the time of his death, was JFK still a Cold War hawk, or was he a peacemaker in the making?
Once again, as we approach November 22nd, we head into what is sometimes called "Assassination Season," when we analyze in excruciatingly minute detail the Zapruder film for the umpteenth time while re-parsing various conspiracy theories and waxing nostalgic about the Kennedy presidency and what might have been, but this year it is especially poignant, as it will mark the 50th anniversary of that day's tragic events. It seems like only yesterday to me that we passed the 25th anniversary in 1988. I remember thinking at the time, while watching old Walter Cronkite videos, how far away those days in 1963 felt, and that feeling is compounded today. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the Kennedy assassination, and I can't help but to feel amazed at time at how much the country has changed in the intervening years.
Speaking of those intervening years, it is interesting to see the evolution in how that presidency has been perceived and evaluated. In the first few years, it was all about Camelot and the most saccharine hagiography you could imagine. You would think Kennedy was one of the three or four greatest presidents in our nation's history. In the years that followed, the pendulum swung completely the other way, and all you heard about was this reckless young man who was intellectually challenged, if not disinterested, and that JFK was not only an overrated president, but a dangerous one at that. You would think Kennedy did nothing but have sex parties in the White House pool all day with interns and press secretaries, in between trysts with Marilyn Monroe. While there was undoubtedly some of that going on, I think there has been a corrective shift in recent years to a more balanced and realistic view. John F. Kennedy was actually a pretty good president, and a more serious thinker than he has been given credit for. I think there was a tendency from the 1970s through the 1990s to judge him through his younger brother Ted. Ted, the so-called "Wizard of Uhs," was rather inarticulate without a prepared text, and in addition to his being a lush, it is well-known that in his years in the Senate, he had very accomplished staff doing a good deal of his work for him. John was not that way. In his monthly press conferences (which he was the first to hold), he showed himself to be engaged, quick on his feet, and well versed on the issues. Very much in command. Glib. Poised and at ease. For example, I think he handled himself very well in this press conference, where he fielded questions about rumors of independent CIA activities in South Viet Nam.
It's interesting that he defended the CIA in that press conference, when rumor has it that in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco he had fired Allen Dulles and said that he wanted to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces."
Which is the truth? This is a paradox of sorts, which brings me to the main point of the post...
The other day I was listening to some recent America Magazine podcasts, and came across an interview with James Douglass, the author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters.
The Non-Violent Cross: A Theology of Revolution and Peace. He was in Rome in 1963, when he heard about Kennedy's murder. He was at the Second Vatican Council, working as a theological adviser on matters related to nuclear war and conscientious objection. These days, Douglass has apparently taken advantage of a lot of newly declassified information about the assassination, and according to some people, has done an outstanding job in connecting enough dots to resurrect Oliver Stone's thesis that the CIA and the military industrial complex planned and executed a conspiracy to eliminate Kennedy based upon the fact that he had abandoned plans to liberate Cuba by force, had appeased the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was going to withdraw from Viet Nam, and planned to pursue a path towards nuclear disarmament. Douglass maintains that over the course of his presidency, Kennedy had learned to mistrust the military, the intelligence agencies, and other members of the National Security apparatus. He was chastened by the missile crisis and the standoff over Berlin, and was horrified by his generals' plans and advocacy for launching a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. Douglass cites in particular Kennedy's "Peace Speech" at American University in June of 1963, where he spoke about a comprehensive nuclear test band treaty, and made some conciliatory remarks about the Russians. He said that day, among other things...
First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.... For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.I've only started reading Douglass' book, but I have seen and heard some people claim that he makes a very compelling case with the evidence he says is very readily available, if we would only open our eyes to take a hard honest look at it. What he claims is the "Unspeakable," the very evil that lurks within our own government, first arose during the Cold War, and has only become even more powerful in our current "War on Terror."
It does give one pause... Do I think he's right? Well, I've always been of the opinion that there was a conspiracy of some kind. In my view, it was probably some kind of blowback operation related to Cuban exiles, rogue CIA elements, and Mafia figures. When someone like Oswald lived in the Soviet Union, had ties with US intelligence agencies, and was murdered with ease by a low level mob figure, it does lead one to doubt that Oswald was just an alienated lone gunman with grudge.
In any case, is Douglass right? The problem with Douglass' theory is this... There is another speech he doesn't mention in his book. It was the last speech President Kennedy ever delivered. He spoke before the Chamber of Commerce in Forth Worth, Texas, on the morning he was killed, and it was one of the most hawkish, militaristic speeches I've ever heard anyone deliver, anywhere, at any time.
Kennedy's speech begins at 31:26 in the video at the top of this post. It was a testimony to the work of the defense industry in Fort Worth, as Kennedy spoke appreciatively and enthusiastically about the capabilities of the Iroquois helicopter, the B-58 Bomber, and the TXF tactical fighter. It shows no hint at all of backing down from what Kennedy had indicated emphatically in his Inaugural Address; that the USA would "bear any burden" in the defense of liberty, and was willing to engage in limited wars in order to do so. Excerpts...
Three years ago last September I came here, with the Vice President, and spoke at Burke Burnett Park, and I called, in that speech, for a national security policy and a national security system which was second to none--a position which said not first, but, if, when and how, but first. That city responded to that call as it has through its history. And we have been putting that pledge into practice ever since.
And I want to say a word about that pledge here in Fort Worth, which understands national defense and its importance to the security of the United States. During the days of the Indian War, this city was a fort. During the days of World War I, even before the United States got into the war, Royal Canadian Air Force pilots were training here. During the days of World War II, the great Liberator bombers, in which my brother flew with his co-pilot from this city, were produced here...The B-58, which is the finest weapons system in the world today, which has demonstrated most recently in flying from Tokyo to London, with an average speed of nearly 1,000 miles per hour, is a Fort Worth product.
The Iroquois helicopter from Fort Worth is a mainstay in our fight against the guerrillas in South Viet-Nam. The transportation of crews between our missile sites is done in planes produced here in Fort Worth. So wherever the confrontation may occur, and in the last 3 years it has occurred on at least three occasions, in Laos, Berlin, and Cuba, and it will again--wherever it occurs, the products of Fort Worth and the men of Fort Worth provide us with a sense of security.
And in the not too distant future a new Fort Worth product--and I am glad that there was a table separating Mr. Hicks and myself--a new Fort Worth product, the TFX Tactical Fighter Experimental--nobody knows what those words mean, but that is what they mean, Tactical Fighter Experimental--will serve the forces of freedom and will be the number one airplane in the world today....There has been a good deal of discussion of the long and hard fought competition to win the TFX contract, but very little discussion about what this plane will do. It will be the first operational aircraft ever produced that can literally spread its wings through the air. It will thus give us a single plane capable of carrying out missions of speed as well as distance, able to fly very far in one form or very fast in another. It can take off from rugged, short airstrips, enormously increasing the Air Force's ability to participate in limited wars.
In the past 3 years we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent. I hope those who want a stronger America and place it on some signs will also place those figures next to it.
This is not an easy effort. This requires sacrifice by the people of the United States. But this is a very dangerous and uncertain world. As I said earlier, on three occasions in the last 3 years the United States has had a direct confrontation. No one can say when it will come again. No one expects that our life will be easy, certainly not in this decade, and perhaps not in this century. But we should realize what a burden and responsibility the people of the United States have borne for so many years. Here, a country which lived in isolation, divided and protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, uninterested in the struggles of the world around it, here in the short space of 18 years after the Second World War, we put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defense of alliances with countries all around the globe. Without the United States, South Viet-Nam would collapse overnight. Without the United States, the SEATO alliance would collapse overnight. Without the United States the CENTO alliance would collapse overnight. Without the United States there would be no NATO. And gradually Europe would drift into neutralism and indifference. Without the efforts of the United States in the Alliance for Progress, the Communist advance onto the mainland of South America would long ago have taken place.
So this country, which desires only to be free, which desires to be secure, which desired to live at peace for 18 years under three different administrations, has borne more than its share of the burden, has stood watch for more than its number of years. I don't think we are fatigued or tired. We would like to live as we once lived. But history will not permit it. The Communist balance of power is still strong. The balance of power is still on the side of freedom. We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom, and I think we will continue to do as we have done in our past, our duty, and the people of Texas will be in the lead.As much as I would like to believe what Jim Douglass has said about Kennedy's "teshuvah," or "repentance" (change of heart) on issues of war and peace, it was very little in evidence on the last day of his life.
Is it possible that Kennedy may have merely been playing to the crowd? Perhaps. Kennedy did in fact know that he was running a risk in visiting the super-heated cauldron that was Texas in November of 1963, but he had some fence-mending he needed to take care of inside of the Democratic Party, specifically, to heal the rift between Senator Ralph Yarborough one one side, and Governor John Connally and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson on the other. It's possible that Kennedy was giving a pork-barrell speech to an appreciative defense industry town, but on the other hand, those words about a willingness and readiness to fight limited wars are still in there.
Author and commentator Jeff Greenfield has recently written an encomium to Kennedy titled If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History. What if Kennedy have lived? What would have happened in Viet Nam, with the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, etc... It's hard to know and we will never know. While I do think Kennedy was a good president who was learning in the job, there was that Kennedy clan penchant for secrecy which I think would have undone them in the long run somehow.
So, while I plan on reading Douglass' book in full, I'm not sure I agree with him on where Kennedy was headed in terms of geopolitics. I am very much in agreement with Lawrence O'Donnell, however, who puts Kennedy's finest domestic policy moment here....