I was only six years old, but I can recall it with great clarity: the principal visited our classroom—the President had been shot. My mother was crying when she picked me up from school; my teacher was crying; everyone was crying. I was too young to remember
This review goes to press on the fifty-fourth anniversary of that day, November 22, 1963, that ever altered American history. The nation has never been the same since the assassination, and the act itself has never been satisfactorily explained, spawning a wealth of conspiracy theories that still resound in the millennium. Just recently, thousands of classified documents, long shrouded in secrecy, have been released, while some are yet withheld. Like most Americans, I have never accepted the official explanation, that Oswald acted alone. As a historian, I know full well that history is ever replete with irony and coincidence. Still, there has always seemed to be far too many strange circumstances, far too many coincidences, for the Warren Commission conclusions to completely ring true. The mystery clings, but recedes into the past. This year marks one hundred years since Kennedy’s birth, but those of my generation will always see him in a grainy color photo as a vibrant forty-six, flashing white teeth in a wide smile on a ruddy face, seated in a limousine, with an unwittingly wave goodbye to an America about to be damaged so gravely that some might argue it has never fully recovered.
In a remarkable achievement, author Thurston Clarke has adroitly rewound the clock to the time just prior to that great goodbye with JFK’S Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. I have read more than a half-dozen books on JFK, and I was delighted to find one that actually brought a fresh and surprisingly unique look to a subject that has been covered by so many from so many angles. So much that was Kennedy has become myth; Clarke has presented us with a chronicle of the last days of the living man, and lets us draw our own conclusions.
Kennedy was only President for less than three years, yet his time in office was so tumultuous for America—Bay of Pigs, Berlin Crisis, Civil Rights, Laos, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis that set us on the edge of nuclear cataclysm—that looking back it seems impossible that so much could have transpired in such a compressed timeline, amounting to a mere 1,036 days. Scion of wealth and notoriety, war hero, intellect, playboy, undistinguished legislator, the dashing and witty Kennedy stumbled into office to push the button on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion he inherited, then was humiliated in his first summit meeting with Khrushchev, who treated him like a foolish boy. But JFK quickly learned on his feet. He was highly intelligent, had strong instincts, demonstrated flexibility, and ever carried about him a sense of history. His political acumen accorded him that rare ability to be able to peek out from the eyes of his adversaries, and to put that perspective to work to his own advantage. Thus, he deftly negotiated his way out of a looming conflict in Laos, knew where to draw the line in Berlin to protect American interests without provoking war, and—most significantly—brilliantly sidestepped a potential Armageddon with the Soviets over missiles in Cuba so that peace prevailed without dishonor to either side. Kennedy was a markedly changed man after that: the seasoned leader who shepherded the landmark Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to passage was not the truculent cold warrior of three years prior who came to office denouncing a non-existent missile gap. The change echoed beyond that too, in almost everything that informed the remainder of his time in office. Alas, that time was to be very brief, and much hung in the balance.
The standard report card of a new President in the modern era is the “First Hundred Days,” but what about the “Last Hundred?” Is that relevant? Rarely, but as it turns out there are important exceptions. Lincoln’s last hundred included Appomattox, and the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of Civil War, with clues of some significance as to how he might steward Reconstruction. FDR’s final months also edged to the conclusion of a great war, with victory in view but not yet obtained, and hints at how a post-war world might be constructed. Thurston Clarke’s magnificent work demonstrates that Kennedy’s last quarter rivals these in consequence and leaves many more questions.
Clarke does not go there, but many before him have juxtaposed Lincoln and Kennedy, who came to office exactly a century apart, presided over a great existential crisis, and then died at the hands of an assassin. It might be a stretch: Lincoln was clearly the greater figure, the greater President. But there were nevertheless striking parallels in their respective trajectories: Lincoln’s prime directive was to save the union; Kennedy’s was to save the world from nuclear annihilation. This virtually demoted all other considerations into secondary matters, which was a magnet for critics and tarnished their legacies. Ironically, the shared central element was the fate of African-Americans. For Lincoln, it was his failure to embrace and move faster on abolition. For Kennedy, it was his own failure to embrace and move faster on Civil Rights, a direct descendant of Lincoln’s struggle. Both men were solid centrists who continuously fought off pressure from the left and right flanks of their own parties. And both were superb politicians who understood that politics was ever and only the art of the possible. Lincoln came to office with a loathing for slavery tempered by an acceptance of the institution as constitutionally protected; he came to abolition slowly and much later, driven by the events of secession and war. For Lincoln, saving the Union was paramount, with or without slavery.
In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Clarke echoes the now familiar reproach to Kennedy’s slow journey to the championing of Civil Rights as the great moral cause of his day, although he was indeed moving in that direction. But Clarke does not have to spell out what the great body of his narrative quietly underscores: like Lincoln’s devotion to the Union, for Kennedy—especially after the close call of the Missile Crisis—there was no greater issue than the prospect of nuclear war and how to avert it. Still, it was hardly his only focus. With a 58% approval rating, Kennedy fully expected to be re-elected in 1964, and he was mapping out strategies that looked beyond the need to depend upon the support of the solid bloc of southern Democratic segregationists in Congress, especially with regard to Civil Rights. And that is the great ghost that looms over the narrative. What would Kennedy have done, or strived to do, had he lived?
We know what did happen after he was gone: escalation in Vietnam, race riots, massive protests, a near breakdown of society, violence and more assassinations (including JFK’s brother and political heir), two consecutive failed Presidencies led by men—Johnson and Nixon—Kennedy had privately confided that he thought unfit for office. America cannot help but collectively wonder how history might have been written had JFK not gone to Dallas, but such musings must be informed by the man he was becoming in the months leading up to that day. In the wake of the related yet diametrically opposed extremes of the Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty, for JFK literally everything was on the table. He looked to developing a more permanent détente with the USSR. He considered long-term accommodation with Castro: if Fidel divorced himself from the Soviet orbit, he might treat Cuba as a kind of Caribbean Yugoslavia. For his domestic agenda, he looked beyond a sometime recalcitrant Congress to the aftermath of the next election for both tax cuts and Civil Rights. He wondered whether he could replace LBJ—who lacked Kennedy’s confidence and remained isolated in the administration—on the ’64 ticket. It seems likely that part of his strategy in undertaking the somewhat thorny trip to Dallas was to gauge whether he could carry Texas without Johnson.
The greatest controversy has always swirled about the potential fate of American involvement in Vietnam had Kennedy lived. There is no new material in Clarke’s book, but what there is reinforces what we already know. In his famous interview with Walter Cronkite, as well as his private comments, it seems clear that Kennedy was seeking a way out. The changing relationship with Khrushchev could present opportunities to do just that. The model of both Laos and Berlin demonstrates that Kennedy liked to have that “Big Stick” Theodore Roosevelt once brandished, but—to the frequent consternation of his more hawkish generals—he was reluctant to use it except as last resort. A decorated combat veteran who nearly lost his own life in the Pacific, JFK decried more than once the casual eagerness of those who would lightly spend American lives in war. Ambivalent about blessing the coup to topple Diem that was urged upon him, JFK was truly horrified by Diem’s death—only weeks before Dallas—which seemed to steel his determination to look to pull back the growing corps of “advisors” and seek a non-combat solution. Given all of this, it seems highly unlikely Kennedy would have countenanced the commitment of ground troops in Vietnam, certainly not on the kind of pretext Johnson was to use in the Gulf of Tonkin.
If the subtitle of Clarke’s work— The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President—hints at a kind of fawning, court biography, that is not at all the case. The author clearly admires his subject, but hardly overlooks Kennedy’s many flaws, especially his addiction to serial philandering that ever put his Presidency, and his chances for re-election, at risk. Nor, as noted, does he excuse JFK’s tone deafness to the clarion call of Civil Rights, which won his sympathy but hardly unqualified commitment. Clarke skillfully places all of it in carefully nuanced context, and lets the narrative speak for itself.
That narrative—a numbered countdown of days that just barely contains a palpable sense of impending doom—is ever ominous, bookended early on by the death of Kennedy’s infant son (like Lincoln once more, Kennedy lost a child in the White House), and the assassination. Famously, Kennedy compartmentalized his life, and Jackie—despite the glamour and prestige in her role as First Lady—was frequently the sad and lonely occupant of one of those walled chambers. The tragic death of their baby seems to have brought Jack and Jackie closer together than ever before. Yet, like Lincoln before him, JFK could not really devote the appropriate time to mourn, or to comfort his wife; the fate of the nation, even the world, demanded that he ever be present and in command. Of course, Kennedy himself could only approach each day and ponder his options, while the reader is fraught with the terrible knowledge of how the story will end.
It is said that Lincoln dreamt of his own death in the days that preceded it. There are disturbing harbingers here, as well. It seems eerily prescient when Kennedy muses about his odds of being murdered, once even play-acting his own assassination. He confided to a friend that death by gunshot would be best because “You never know what’s hit you.” As he jousted with the generals—especially LeMay, who to JFK’s horror advocated for first use of nuclear weapons and privately disparaged the President as a coward—Kennedy thought a military coup possible, and perhaps even likely. He read himself into the plot of the recently published novel based on just this scenario, Seven Days in May, which he took as a forewarning of what might befall him. An Ian Fleming fan, Kennedy was also reportedly at work on writing a kind of James Bond style thriller of a coup masterminded by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. For some reason, no drafts of this effort survive …
In The Phenomenon of Man, Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin speaks to the process of “becoming,” in which an individual evolves and is transformed each day into a changed human being who has been informed by all of the days that preceded that one. Thurston Clarke’s fine study clearly shows that Kennedy was, on each and every day, likewise “becoming” and transforming. That is, until November 22, 1963.