The 60th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy came with new revelations about whether or not Kennedy died at the hands of one or more assailants. Of particular interest is the documentary “JFK: What the Doctors Saw,” a live interview conducted 10 years ago with physicians from Parkland Hospital. These were the doctors who treated the president in the emergency trauma room at Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963. There is general agreement that Kennedy’s neck wound was an entry wound, while his head wound was an exit wound. The question here is if the physicians’ expert opinions are correct, and there is no reason to doubt their clinical assessments. Who is still living that may know more about the assassination and who could speak with authority all these decades later? The chances of someone speaking out, or documents giving some clarity to these events may be nonexistent.
Just over two months before his assassination, John Kennedy was interviewed on CBS by Walter Cronkite. From a contemporary perspective looking back at Walter Cronkite’s September 2, 1963 interview with President John Kennedy, it presents many significant issues, some of which seemed more for public consumption than completely factual.
In addition to the strikingly few appointments of minorities by Kennedy, his judicial selections to the federal bench tarnished the president’s legacy. Most striking was Kennedy’s willingness, at the instigation of southern senators, to nominate and appoint jurists who supported segregation, a phenomenon reported by Professor Sheldon Goldman in his 1997 monograph titled “Picking Federal Judges,” (U.S. News and World Report, November 20, 2013).
The Cronkite interview shows Kennedy repeatedly straining to stay out of an Alabama school integration crisis and he repeatedly states that the issue is a local one needing the action of a local Alabama school board. Watching that part of the CBS interview was like Waiting for Godot.
Much has been said about John Kennedy’s intention to withdraw troops from Vietnam. Here is the national security memorandum that gives credence to that claim:
“National Security Action Memorandum Number 263 (NSAM-263) was a national security directive approved on 11 October 1963 by United States President John Kennedy. The NSAM approved recommendations by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor. McNamara’s and Taylor’s recommendations included an appraisal that ‘great progress’ was being made in the Vietnam War against Viet Cong insurgents, that 1,000 military personnel could be withdrawn from South Vietnam by the end of 1963, and that a ‘major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965.’ The U.S. at this time had more than 16,000 military personnel in South Vietnam.
“NSAM-263 has served as an important source for many authors who have claimed that President Kennedy planned to withdraw U.S. military forces from Vietnam and would have completed the withdrawal after achieving reelection in 1964.”
The reality on the ground was much different from McNamara’s and Taylor’s rosy predictions of the US intervention in Vietnam. There is no significant evidence about the actual so-called progress of that war. What is known is that John Kennedy was a Cold War warrior and assertions that he would have left Vietnam make no sense after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The so-called domino theory of all of Southeast Asia falling after a communist victory in South Vietnam would have been heinous to the significant actors in the Kennedy administration and Kennedy himself. Kennedy favored a more “nuanced” approach to US fighting in Vietnam with special forces used rather than the ultimate massive troop deployments that would follow under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy repeatedly says during the interview that the Vietnam War is for Vietnamese boys to fight. Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara became the ultimate chameleon of the Vietnam War with his advice changing with the seasons and the demands of the administration he served. That he wandered through Washington, D.C. seemingly lost decades later over his part in the quagmire of Vietnam was hardly a just end for his part in the massive deaths in Southeast Asia.
There were 16,000 so-called advisors in Vietnam when John Kennedy was assassinated. That was up from the 11,000 who were there in late 1962. What would have happened is impossible to predict because November 22, 1963 ended John Kennedy’s role in that war, but not the reality of 16,000 troops and fierce anti-communism in the US and among US allies.
David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1993) is a seminal work illuminating those, including McNamara, who worked in the Kennedy administration. Reading this book leaves no doubt that the Kennedy administration’s trajectory was singularly toward continued war in Southeast Asia.
Halberstam’s fellow journalist Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1989) is a companion work to The Best and the Brightest and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Sheehan shows how the war, an early lost cause, would go on and on with almost no resolve on the part of the government in Saigon to fight the war.
Cronkite’s 1963 interview with Kennedy has a segment on unemployment that accurately described the state of the economy, where unemployment was a significant problem, and who the people were that the economy impacted in a negative way. In November 1963, the rate of unemployment in the US was 5% and 2.2 times higher for Black people. Today the unemployment rate is 3.9%, or 6.5 million people. The differences in the US economy in 1963 and in 2023 are enormous. Many people of color experience higher unemployment and the effects of racism on employment. Many in the economy in 1963, especially whites, had jobs that provided a livable wage enabling members of the working class and middle class to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing, education, and medical care.
Attempting to reconstruct the Kennedy administration decades later is impossible. John Kennedy lived in an era much different from our own and his experiences were remote from the contemporary world. The halo of what was attributed to John Kennedy by way of a modern Camelot is far from the truth. Kennedy was the first president to successfully master the media and particularly television. Like today, however, war is a constant, including the threat of nuclear war, but the economy provides many with fewer opportunities to live without fear from want. I think the latter may have shocked John Kennedy.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).