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I've been watching the mini-series on the Kennedy's and enjoying it more than I expected. I'm a history buff and it's a fascinating time socially as well as historically. And JFK is one of the most significant figures of the last century, charismatic and symbolic. He, and the Kennedy's as a whole, have come to embody different things, aspirations and a kind of nobility of purpose, as well as wistful could-have-beens and tragedy.
Watching it last night two questions stirred in my head:
- How is that such good, noble men like JFK and his brother Bobby could have come from the one family, led as they were by the opportunistic, self-aggrandising Joseph Kennedy?
- What's the American obsession with Cuba all about?
To the first question first. JFK had very human flaws and was certainly no saint, but there was also in him much that was authentically good. Arguably Bobby was even better. Both believed passionately in a better world and strived for it without exemptions. They were idealists. I have a recording of a very emotional Teddy Kennedy eloquently eulogising Bobby Kennedy at his funeral. He quotes his brother:
Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never where and wonder, why not?
It seems to me that is a philosophy both JFK and Bobby lived by in office and out of it. They achieved some great things, were capable of much greater had they survived longer, but left a legacy of hope and the belief that we can do better. They were great humanitarians in the truest sense of the word.
Joseph Kennedy can be described as many things, but humanitarian isn't among them. Disgraced and seen by many as a traitor, he famously sought to appease Hitler and keep America out of the war when ambassador to England. Ruthlessly and obsessively ambitious for himself first, then his boys, he would do anything to achieve it. Obviously very capable, he seemed to possess few real scruples in how he did his business.The ends justifies the means seems to sum up much of his philosophy.
How did two such noble idealists like John and Robert Kennedy emerge from such a family? Have we got Joseph wrong? The boys loved him clearly, and there was an uncommon relationship between father and sons right till the end. For all his faults loyalty was not one of them.
I figure he was a man impatient of the usual ways. If there was a quicker, more direct way between A and Z then he was going to take it. There was no doubt he was awful keen to get to Z no matter what it took. It led to misjudgement on occasion and misunderstanding of how it should be played. It was that which blinded him to Hitler, and which ended his ambitions for the top job – which he then transferred to his progeny.
I don't know if he was a bad man, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't a good one. Still, he must have done something right. His sons were peaches. Somewhere along the line they learned the virtue of doing right by others. And somewhere along the line they refined their father's pragmatic ways into something generally more charming – certainly in Jack's case – and very effective. It remains a mystery, but it's a good one.
So, what's with Cuba then? Even today, more than 50 years after the Cuban revolution, there is no bigger bogy in American political perspective than lil' old Cuba.
It was strange watching last night as the Bay of Pigs played out and wondering how in the world they ever thought it might be different? The invasion was always going to fail, as clear in hindsight as it should have been then. Poor intelligence, shoddy planning and a big pair of rose coloured glasses guaranteed failure. Strange to consider that in JFK's cabinet he had some of the smartest people going around, particularly Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy.
Why did they have to invade Cuba though? What's the big deal now?
Freedom, that was the deal I think, though freedom is a pretty rubbery concept depending on which side of the wall you look at it from. It was only a few years before that Battista (in America's pocket) had been overthrown by Castro, Guevara and an oppressed people. They thought they were fighting for freedom – and they probably were.
There's always going to be someone disappointed. In this case it was a bunch of Cuban 'patriots' exiled to the States and supported as the anti-communist vanguard for the 'liberation' of Cuba. That was the thing – Castro and his government were communist, and they were on America's doorstep.
Does being communist make you evil? Certainly for a time that was the perception and the law. The darkest days of the McCarthy witch hunts passed, but the stain lingered. Russia and the eastern bloc weren't great adverts for it, but that was less aboput ideology than the corruption of it. I'm certainly no advocate for communism – I don't think it works – but I don't believe it's any more evil than capitalism is.
The evil was Stalinism. The evil was oppressing your own people, locking them up in the dead of night or torturing them till they owned up to acts of betrayal they never committed. Certainly that happened in Stalin's Russia, much of the eastern bloc, and in Mao's China. But it also happened in alleged capitalist 'democracies', and still does. The evil is not the ideology but in those who corrupt it for their purposes.
The difference is, as always, whether the despots are on our side, or on theirs.
As it happened back then a bearded Castro and his communist cohorts enraged America simply by existing, and by thumbing his nose at the Americans from spitting distance away. Did the exiled Cuban 'liberators' deserve to succeed at the Bay of Pigs? Deserved is a word looking for a subjective answer, but the reality is they probably didn't. The Cuban people had spoken and overthrown their brothers just a few years before.
We've come a long way since then I think. The Berlin wall has come down, the communist bloc dissolved. Cuba remains, as does Castro, a bit of an anochronism both, but probably not deserving of the ongoing American isolation. I still don't get it entirely, but I doubt anything is going to change until Castro finally passes on.
- For Kennedys, legacy preservation becomes life's work (boston.com)
- Like JFK, Obama must learn decisiveness (politico.com)
- John F. Kennedy (hilobrow.com)
- Looking back on five decades of Kennedy biopics (canada.com)
- 1959: Revolution: Cuba, Castro and the Communists (guardian.co.uk)
- How did president kennedy respond to missiles being placed in cuba (wiki.answers.com)