This Week's Show •

The Selma Moment

This week we’re taking the measure of the mystery known as LBJ at the Selma moment: not the cinema bully caught dragging his heels in movie theaters this month in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but the real bully who brought ...

lbjscar

This week we’re taking the measure of the mystery known as LBJ at the Selma moment: not the cinema bully caught dragging his heels in movie theaters this month in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but the real bully who brought us both the Voting Rights Bill and the disastrous war in Vietnam.

We want to look at the big historical picture — and a strange coincidence. On March 7, 1965, black Southerners, organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, began a rolling series of marches to provoke an outrage and to raise the profile of the drive to vote.

Just a day later, on March 8, the first battalion of Marines landed at Da Nang, quietly announcing the beginning in earnest of the Vietnam war.

King, who had built a relationship with Johnson over the common cause of civil rights, once apologized to the President for seeming to recommend an American withdrawal in the press. But by 1967 King had grown revolted by the war. At the podium he began to offer a deep and stinging critique of war and of modern America itself. Johnson was furious.

It’s been 50 years since Johnson passed the pieces of legislation that would remake American society, 50 years since he started a war that would claim millions of Vietnamese lives. So it’s not just modern-day moviegoers and African-Americans — we’re all figuring out the legacy of the imperial, irascible Johnson, at home and abroad.

This Week's Show •

Capitalism and Chains

We’re continuing our series on capitalism by going back to its unspeakable origins.A new wave of  historians say that the  “peculiar institution” of slavery explains more about the present than we’d care to admit: not just ...

We’re continuing our series on capitalism by going back to its unspeakable origins.

A new wave of  historians say that the  “peculiar institution” of slavery explains more about the present than we’d care to admit: not just how the West got wealthy, but the way that global capitalism evolved in the first place.

At the beginning of his biography of John Brown, W. E. B. DuBois put slavery in terms of the eternal dream of free labor: “These black men came not of their own willing, but because the hasty greed of new America selfishly and half-thoughtlessly sought to revive in the New World the dying but unforgotten custom of enslaving the world’s workers.”

It was the global slave trade that helped make America rich, and yet no part of our history was more brutally unequal, more lucrative and less regulated than the slave-and-cotton empire.

slaveadtom

The dream of cheap labor is alive and well, but are we comfortable knowing that it came in part from the empire of slaves and cotton? How should we take account of this unspeakable past? Leave us a message by clicking on the microphone, or comment below.

‘Like a Dog’

We’ve pulled two clips from the Library of Congress’s “Voices from the Days of Slavery’ project. They make for grim but human testimony: first from Fountain Hughes, a grandson of a slave belonging to Jefferson himself, and second from Harriet Smith, a woman who was thirteen when the Civil War ended in ‘the breakup’. The recordings are from 1941; you can listen to the entire small audio collection here.

‘Hancock Degraded’

At the spur of Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy we took up a search for records of Harvard’s slave history.

Rebecca Panovka surface one pair of notes that brings across the darkness of one terrifically unruly period in the middle of the 18th century, when undergraduates were toting pistols and sleeping with professors’ daughters, then running off into the night. These episodes have surfaced in several places, but here you can see the notes, thanks to the permission of the Harvard University Archives.

[pdfjs-viewer url=http://radioopensource.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/1740-Harvard-minutes.pdf viewer_width=600px viewer_height=700px fullscreen=true download=true print=true openfile=false]

On March 21, 1740, President Edward Holyoke and tutors agreed “that the scholars be again warned, by no Means & upon no pretence [what]soever, to presume either to Entertain or associate with, either […] Woodhouse of this Town, or Titus, a Molattoe slave of the late Rev’d Pres. Wadsworth’s.” They further ask that ‘the Buttery’ put up a sign advising students of the new restriction.

Now, in Samuel Eliot Morison’s much-admired Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636 – 1936, Titus is presented as a source of this trouble: “[he] was a frequent guest and entertainer on these festive occasions. Finally he was forbidden to enter the Yard” at the same meeting recorded above. (Titus was not a free man at this point, but outlived his master in what is now called Wadsworth House, still standing the round western corner of Harvard Yard.)

Wadsworth House, Stuart Dempster

Then again, eleven years later, we see several well-born men of Boston punished for making a slave the object of the fun — for intoxicating “a negroe-man-servt belonging to Mr. Sprague… to such Degree as greatly indanger’d his Life.” Among those ‘degraded’ was John Hancock: smuggler/financier, first signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and one of the first Harvard alumni to blaze a path into big business.

Edward Holyoke, the oldest-ever President of Harvard, who presided over this period, said on his deathbed: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College.” No kidding. 

 

 

 

March 13, 2014

Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?

Are we getting over 9.11? What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution? We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?
The Armor You Have
Pico Iyer: An Empire in Isolation

Mayor Bloomberg Visits Lower Manhattan Security Initiative With Police Chief Ray Kelly

Guest List

Here’s an awkward question that may be urgent: Are we getting over 9.11?  Will we ever? Do we want to?  Is it a scar by now, or a wound still bleeding? Is it a post-traumatic-stress disorder?  What is it doing to our character, our culture, our Constitution?  After a monstrous attack on the American superpower, is there anything like those five stages of individual grief — some version of the famous Kubler-Ross steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance?  We’ve been through the flags-everywhere stage, the foreign invasion response, the big build-up of surveillance and eavesdropping, interrogation, with torture – all in the name of security, but do we have a word for the fear we sense inside the new Security State?  Do we have a word for the anxiety that a War on Terror can feed on itself forever? A decade and a half out, are we a different country?

We’re imagining this as an ongoing series, with conversations and podcasts to be added as we go. Have you any suggestions for people we should speak with? Writers? Historians? Critics? Your next-door neighbor?

Reading List

Osama expected to die by violence, as he did.  Sadly, he probably died a satisfied man.  In addition to alienating Muslims and the West from each other, as was his aim, he achieved so many other transformations of the order he sought to overthrow… He catalyzed two wars.  He bears responsibility for the death of thousands in the West and hundreds of thousands in this region.  The unfunded financial burden of the conflicts he ignited has come close to bankrupting the United States.  Indirectly, it is upending the international monetary system.  It has produced recession in the West.  Osama will have been pleased.

From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

By the Way • December 24, 2013

Waking up to the BRA

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the ...
Boston Redevelopment Authority

Illustration thanks to Boston Magazine

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the dire need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Today, the Boston Globe reiterates her claim in an article that reveals some shady deals by the BRA, contrasting Mayor Thomas Menino’s public statements supporting affordable housing in the city. By law, developers are required to allocate at least 13 percent of their housing units for middle-income families or pay fees to build the units in a different location.

However, Globe reporters discovered hidden “discounts” unequally granted by the BRA to some developers but not others. In one particularly egregious example, the BRA staff awarded a $5.9 million discount to Anthony Pangaro, the developer of the luxury Millenium Place and campaign contributor to Menino. Additionally, the Globe writes, “a four-month Boston Globe investigation has found that the BRA has allowed at least four other developers breaks on affordable housing fees valued at a combined $3.4 million without disclosing them publicly.”

Unfortunately, the problem seems to extend beyond the secret tax breaks and loopholes that erode public funds for affordable housing. When money is collected, it is misused. According to the Globe, “the BRA has spent just $18 million on affordable housing since Menino established the housing program in 2000, less than a quarter of the $75 million the agency should have collected if the BRA had consistently followed the rules… the rest either has not been collected, was diverted to other purposes, or languishes in a BRA account.”

Four out of five of the BRA board members are appointed by the Mayor, and all report directly to him alone. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Martin Walsh acknowledged the need for change in the BRA, saying “the BRA must be reformed for efficiency and transparency.”

Will he keep these promises and prevent the siphoning of money away from affordable housing and into the pockets of developers? How will these uncovered deals impact the legacy of Mayor Menino? Is the BRA giving away the city of Boston to its political friends?

December 19, 2013

Waiting a New Mayor, a New Radio Show

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway?Where’s ...

Where’s Boston? We’re piloting a new radio show here for WBUR in Boston and puzzling about the hometown. What can you tell from the pick of the first new mayor in a century well underway?

Where’s the emergent Boston — in the old cradle of liberty that’s become a perfect example of the new inequality? Where prices keep rising and real incomes keep falling: meaning an average worker in Boston can’t afford an average home. Where’s the spirit of Boston — the Puritans’ city on a hill, ready for another Irish Last Hurrah at City Hall… when the Boston accent is fading and in fact 100 different languages are spoken in the city… where most of the people (and three of every four school kids) are black, brown, Asian or Hispanic? In the city of champions — baseball, football, med tech and higher ed… On the new bicycle paths over the ancient cow paths: where’s this reinvented Boston going?

In the land of The Last Hurrah, mayor’s races are markers of social history: James Michael Curley’s Irish wars with the Protestant Yankees in four decades of the 20th Century; John Collins and Johnny Powers and then Kevin White and Louise Day Hicks in Irish contests among themselves; Ray Flynn against the black contender Mel King in the 1980s; then the Irish eclipse through the 20 year reign of Tom Menino. And finally this year in majority-minority Boston (you could argue the most globalized immigrant city in America) we had a final choice between two very different Irish flavors: the favorite John Connolly was Harvard educated and school-reform minded, but he was defeated in the end by the trade-union lobbyist and recovering drinker from the working-class and waterfront precincts, Marty Walsh.

Our guests in the WBUR studio are: John Connolly, because so often it’s the loser who learns more in the game than the winner. Shirley Kressel, a mere housewife from the Back Bay who may be the most relentlessly informed and critical citizen in the Republic of Boston — a combination of Jane Jacobs and I. F. Stone. And Barry Bluestone, the progressive and prolific social scientist who’s had an outsider’s eye on Boston for 40 years now.

The upshot of an hour’s gab seems to be that Boston — for all the knocks — is in a spot that almost any big city in America would dream of occupying. And further, that the hero and villain of the moment is the Graduate Student, most particularly the ones from “away” and “abroad.” It’s those graduate students who (for want of dormitories) are sucking up the three-decker apartments built for workers back in the day — at the same time they’re confirming Boston’s attractiveness and conceiving its future.

Our question — “Where’s Boston?” — was the title of a brilliant little bicentennial film collage of pictures and voices of Boston as of 1976, almost 40 years ago. It makes you wonder: do we still sound that interesting?

Thank you to Cambridge Seven Associates and Executive Producer Peter Chermayeff for the”Where’s Boston” video.

November 14, 2013

Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night ...

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.

You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013

Robert Dallek brings passion and a sympathetic curiosity to my last three simple questions about John F. Kennedy — subject of Dallek’s mainstream classic: An Unfinished Life.

First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.

Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?

Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.

DallekProfessor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.

Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.

Podcast • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot ...


James Douglass
is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

Podcast • June 25, 2013

Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

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. ...

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.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963


Jeff Sachs
will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.

Podcast • June 4, 2013

JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the ...

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “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 future. And we are all mortal.”