By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Nov. 24, 2023)
(A Guest column by Patrick Lawrence.)
President Kennedy was assassinated while driving through Dallas, Texas 60 years ago last Tuesday. There is no danger of overstating the significance and or consequences of Kennedy’s murder.
Let us consider these. What else slumped over on the afternoon of November 22, 1963? What did America lose besides a president? Extending the thought to take in our decade of assassinations, what did Americans lose with the murders of Malcolm X (February 1965), King (April 1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (two months later)? Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the only one of these four to have a dream. They all did.
Many writers and analysts have implicated Dulles and the CIA in John Kennedy’s assassination with varying degrees of certainty. Most recently, we have David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government and Oliver Stone’s two films, JFK (1991) and JFK Revisited (2021). As Stone asserted in an interview two years ago, Dulles was operationally responsible, in all likelihood in the service of various New York financial interests who considered Kennedy a threat to the order, global and domestic, from which they benefited.
I drew lessons from Stone’s remarks:
One, by 1963 the government that is supposed to serve Americans would no longer be legible to them. Events, contexts, responsible parties and their motivations and intentions: None of this would any longer be transparent. The age of secret government had arrived. When we consider the CIA’s confidence as it executed a coup in broad daylight—and the murder of a sitting president has no other name—we have to conclude that by 1963 the Deep State considered its power and autonomy beyond challenge. It could do anything and get away with it.
This is to say that JFK’s murder marked that moment when the national-security state put Americans on notice. That afternoon it asserted what we are best off recognizing now as its ultimate authority—its hidden hegemony, its anti-democratic pre-eminence—in determining the direction of post-war American society. Anyone who may doubt this can fast-forward to the Russiagate years, when the Deep State’s various manifestations—the intelligence agencies, law enforcement, the judiciary, and the media, conspired to take down another president, this time bloodlessly.
Two, the democratic process in America has been severely compromised since the early 1960s. If there is a Deep State that permits democratic procedures to take place but does not permit change unacceptable to it, can we speak of such a nation as a democracy, or do we speak of such a nation as a democracy so as to comfort ourselves, to avoid facing what has become of us and been done to us—to flinch, at last, from the hard work of retrieving our public life?
Am I saying that American democracy died in Dallas on November 22, 1963? That we lost that day an authentic democratic process the power of which, according to the Constitution, is supreme? It is precisely what I am saying, the truth once again proving bitter. Look at the decades since. Have we done much more than spin our wheels, getting nowhere close to the kind of society with the kind of domestic and foreign policies we deserve? This is what comes of not, to keep it simple, facing up.
I am not among those who unduly glorify JFK, or for that matter his brother. Kennedy arrived in the White House a committed Cold Warrior with his share or more of the orthodoxies of the age. But the unmistakable feature of his presidential years was growth. At the time of his death his vision of America and of the world, was very different from what it was at the start. He seems to have achieved a certain new enlightenment.
Somewhat in the way of FDR, Kennedy came to favour a cooperative coexistence with the Soviet Union, in part, maybe, because of his experience with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had ordered the beginning of a radical withdrawal from Vietnam shortly before he was killed. Kennedy wanted to cultivate and project another image of who Americans were, to display another attitude, to tell the world we would be different from what we had been by way of another posture and ultimately another purpose. We would go to others in peace and with respect, not war and one or another kind of abuse or coercion.
Can we count JFK an advocate of multipolarity decades before his time? I think so. Multipolarity was the inevitable consequence of the collapse of the Cold War binary. Kennedy, we must wonder, may have seen that far ahead. Was he our first post-exceptionalist president? The scholars can address this thought better than I, but I am perfectly happy to pose the question.
There is a photograph of Jack and Bobby standing in the Oval Office staring at one another in what looks to be a state of anxiety on the way to mild shock, as if to say, “Whaaat???” It was taken around the time of the Bay of Pigs episode, when Dulles tried to trap Kennedy into supplying air cover and JFK shut him down. I have always read the picture to show that moment when the two Kennedys realized the CIA and the national-security state altogether had become a monster, that they would have to take it on, and, maybe, that they were both courting trouble. It is well-known that Kennedy had concluded that the agency should be dismantled and that he fired Dulles in November 1961, seven months after the Bay of Pigs disaster. And it is better known what happened two years after that.
We lost the promise of a better way of life, a more honest way of life, a fairer and more decent way of life when Kennedy lost his life, one that drew from the well of common dreams, not separateness and self-interest — “Ask not,” etc. A better way of life and a better world, one that would have had aspects of beauty about it. America was to remake itself in a new image so far as I understand JFK’s aspirations as they evolved during his White House years. This promise was vibrantly alive during that decade. Bobby and King and in his way Malcolm saw it as JFK did. Then the decade turned into a murder spree intended to extinguish it.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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