The Letters of John F Kennedy edited by Martin W Sandler; JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke; Who Killed Kennedy? by Matthew Smith; My Kennedy Years by Jacques Lowe – review

Fifty years after JFK’s assassination, the questions – and the books – keep coming

John F Kennedy has, as the late, great Christopher Hitchens would have put it, “had a lot of ink”. But there will be still more to mark the half-centenary of his assassination in Dallas on Friday 22 November 1963.

All four of these titles leave one with a sense of yearning for what might have been. In one sense, JFK left no real legacy. The years after his death were followed by the strafing of Vietnam and Cambodia with chemical weapons, then Ronald Reagan’s very dirty wars across the Americas, while at home the country remained and remains as divided as ever; Nob Hill is still Nob Hill, the ghetto still the ghetto.

History happens, but only just – there is this whole history on the other side of time that nearly happened but not quite. If John Lennon had lived, would he be making an idiot of himself at the Queen’s jubilee like Paul McCartney, or still singing Working Class Hero? It’s the same with Kennedy. On that flip-side of history, Kennedy might have averted or at least ameliorated the worst, but may well have been drawn into it. These are the hypotheses that justify yet more ink.

The Letters of John F Kennedy are written by a president with a command of language and calibre of literacy that shames any politician nowadays, let alone their imbecile twitter. The volume is carried by curios: correspondence with Josephine Baker and Pablo Casals; with an initially sceptical Eleanor Roosevelt; enchanting exchanges with children about Santa Claus. But at its core are the correspondences with Martin Luther King and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Indeed, two themes prevail: civil rights, and the threat of nuclear war. These – along with women, dynasty and Ireland – were Kennedy’s passions.

Everyone knows that it was JFK’s younger brother and attorney general Bobby Kennedy who propelled desegregation in the south, alongside King. The president was involved too, telling Bobby as his civil rights bill faced defeat: “If we’re going down, let’s go down as a matter of principle.”

The correspondence, though, shows King forever pressing the president. He hails and thanks him in a series of telegrams, but needs constantly to urge: “Dear Mr Kennedy a virtual reign of terror is still alive in Birmingham Alabama … the tacit consent of high public officials … Gestapo tactics of the police … I appeal to you to use the influence of your great office…”

In Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days, we see President Kennedy wield a one-time-only voucher to swing crucial Republican enemies to his side. (It was a typical Washington deal – a political calculation by Kennedy in return for a favour to a corrupt friend of former President Eisenhower’s.) Intriguingly but articulately, Kennedy chooses to secure passage of a nuclear test ban treaty over the civil rights bill. To free the planet from the threat of nuclear war was, it seems, his priority over freeing black America.

Kennedy famously brings the world back from the brink by facing Khrushchev down over the deployment of missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev foresees “new conflagration” and “military catastrophe”. Kennedy retorts that “free peoples in all parts of the world do not accept the claim of historical inevitability for communist revolution”. Khrushchev writes from his dacha about the “beauty of the sea and grandeur of the Caucasian mountains”, to which Kennedy replies from Hyannis Port that “my family has had a home here overlooking the Atlantic for many years”. So it proceeds, by tiptoe, until the president calls the chairman’s bluff and the missiles facing Florida are withdrawn.

Kennedy and Khrushchev respect each other, but there is more to it than that. What JFK’s Last Hundred Days reveals is that each is acutely aware of being pushed by his own hawks towards the very war they averted – and confides as much to the other.

In 1980, I had the strange and unforgettable experience of arranging and witnessing an interview for Granada TV with Edward Teller – inventor of the atomic bomb and the man Dr Strangelove was based on – beside his garden pool in Palo Alto, California. Teller growled and expounded his belief that nuclear war could be fought and won; at that time the issue was space-based defence systems.

Teller is everywhere across these pages – Kennedy’s nemesis, urging the same insane belief, this time with regard to the superiority of US warhead power. This is what drove Kennedy to deal with the Soviets and stumble upon the notion of mutually assured destruction (MAD). As he puts it to a US air force general: “Even if we attack the USSR first, the loss to the US would be unacceptable.”

Kennedy talks to Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko candidly about “people who are always opposed to improvement for ideological reasons”. The official account of a meeting between Kennedy and Soviet diplomat Anatoly Dobrynin omits the tape-recorded moment at which Kennedy confides: “What can I do with people like Teller or Senator Goldwater, impervious to reason?” Khrushchev hints at similar pressures “from hard-liners” within his own government and military. If these men share a legacy it is shown here to be that they held the line as much against their own masters of war as each other.

There is plenty more detail in these books to add to the ink that exists – the president’s obsession with a statuette of an ancient Greek athlete; attempts to reform his sexual urges after the death of his baby son Patrick; and the question of why Jackie Kennedy had to take that sailing holiday with Aristotle Onassis so soon after the infant’s death.

But many people are more interested in Kennedy’s death than his life, which is why Matthew Smith’s book Who Killed Kennedy? had to appear at this juncture. It explores much familiar ground – of likely CIA involvement in the murder – and some new avenues within it: that Kennedy proposed to scale back intervention in Vietnam. There is more detail on an opaque and terrifying gathering also in Dallas on the eve of the assassination: of oil barons, J Edgar Hoover, vice-president Lyndon Johnson and opponent Richard Nixon.

But most compelling is Smith’s generosity in pointing up a forthcoming book by Robert Kennedy Jnr, JFK’s nephew and Bobby’s son. I declare an interest: Robert Jnr presents his work in conjunction with his sister Rory, a serious and talented film-maker who was an acquaintance of mine in my Washington days. So far, brother and sister have insisted that their uncle’s assassin was “not a lone gunman”, that their father “thought somebody was involved – rogue CIA”, and hinted at the notion that their own father was assassinated in 1968 in part because of his intention to open further files on JFK’s assassination. All of which seems utterly credible. For the story has no end, nor will it ever. This is why we remain entranced.

Only the committed will want to spend money on My Kennedy Years, a lavish book of photographer Jacques Lowe’s “era-defining images” of JFK and his life, including the president’s own favourite of his children cavorting in the Oval Office and another that speaks volumes: Bobby, the young attorney general, and J Edgar Hoover, occult chief of the FBI, staring one another down across an empty room. Two irreconcilable Americas eyeballing each other, as they still do. If there is a Kennedy legacy, perhaps it is simply the fact that Hoover’s invincible legacy has a fight on its hands at all. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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