My first memory of John F. Kennedy comes from the1956 Democratic convention, which my parents attended in a vain effort to secure the Democratic nomination for President for Averell Harimman, the Governor of New York for whom my father was then working. At the age of nine, I had already known for four years that my family’s future depended on the whims of the American electorate, and I was already a history buff. Watching the Democratic convention in Chicago on television, I saw something that I have never seen since and will probably never see again: a nominating contest that went on for more than one ballot. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, had thrown the vice presidential nomination open to the convention, and Kennedy was trying for it. His principle opponent was Senator Estes Kefauver, a liberal from Tennessee (yes, that was possible in those distant days) who had just lost the nomination to Stevenson for the second time in a row. The contest went into a second ballot and at one point Kennedy seemed certain to win. I was rooting for Kefauver, because, somehow, I knew that my parents in Chicago wanted him to win. On the second ballot he did, but Kennedy had established himself as a national figure. A year or two later, I heard my best friend’s father, a Catholic resident of the Albany suburbs, predict that Kennedy would become President. “He’s a smart guy,” he said.
In November 1958 virtually every Democratic candidate in the country, including Kennedy, won a smashing victory at the polls—but Harriman was the exception. My father parlayed his governmental experience into a position at American University in Washington and we returned to Bethesda, the scene of my earliest memories. When the 1960 campaign began my father firmly supported Hubert Humphrey, and so did I. After Humphrey crashed in the West Virginia primary we numbered ourselves among the millions of Democrats who hoped that Adlai Stevenson would make a third run. In early July I went off to music camp in Maine for a month, and when I returned the Democratic convention was over and Kennedy was the nominee. My father had signed on with Citizens for Kennedy, a “non-partisan” arm of the campaign, thanks to his friend and fellow Rhodes Scholar Byron “Whizzer” White. For some reason, White, who was a year behind my father at Oxford, had met the Kennedy family while old Joe was Ambassador to the UK, but my father had not. Still, he was on board, and he impressed Robert Kennedy, the campaign manager, by telling him frankly that Jews (of which he was one) didn’t trust Jack because they regarded his father Joe as an an appeaser and anti-Semite—both of which were true. What struck me when I reconnected with my family in early August was that all their previous loyalties had gone out the window. Kennedy was the nominee, and he was their man. My father’s attitude, I can now see, was the attitude of a professional, one that has been sadly lacking in American politics for a long time.
My family received the Washington Post (which I delivered) and the New York Times every morning in the second half of 1960, and I read every word relating to the campaign—and Time and Newsweek as well. I watched all four debates and participated in a debate of my own at North Bethesda Junior High School in my history class. I lost—Bethesda, in those distant days, had more Republicans than Democrats. I also read both The Facts About Nixon, which had been commissioned by the Democratic National Committee, and The Remarkable Kennedys by Joe McCarthy (not the Joe McCarthy), which filled us all in on the whole Kennedy family. And I accompanied my father to the Citizens for Kennedy office on a few Saturdays, and on one of them, I actually met Robert Kennedy and about 6 of his kids. He was quiet and sympathetic. I never was fated to meet his brother.
The last two weeks of the campaign seemed to herald a Kennedy victory. Election night in 1960 remains, without question, the most exciting night of my entire life. Every nerve of my 13 year old body was attuned to the results. By 8:00 PM JFK was opening up an early lead, carrying Connecticut and New York, and soon he was doing very well in Pennsylvania as well. His lead in the popular vote grew and grew, and eventually reached almost two million votes. It was clear that his choice of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate had brought him Texas, and much of the south had remained Democratic as well, even though Virginia, Florida and Tennessee were not.. But Ohio, another big industrial state (and in 1960 the northeastern and Midwestern industrial states had far more electoral votes than they do today), was going for Nixon. That was the first straw in the wind of what was to come.
My parents were at a party, and I was up well past midnight. By then Kennedy’s lead had begun to slip, and the western states were all going for Nixon. The early returns from California were close. By about 2:00 AM, when I must have gone to bed, Kennedy was very close to an electoral majority, but not quite there. “Alaska will do it,” my father said when my parents finally got home, but he was wrong—Alaska went for Nixon. When I awoke again after a few hours’ sleep at about 7:20, NBC had just gone off the air, having given Kennedy the election on the basis that California had gone for him. (They were using computer projections.) But that, too, turned out to be premature, and within a few minutes they had reversed themselves. By about 10:00 AM Minnesota and Illinois were clearly in Kennedy’s column, and he had won the election. My parents allowed me to skip school, and I saw Kennedy and a very pregnant Jackie come out to accept Nixon’s concession at Hyannis Port. We had won. I did not know what that was going to mean for me.
Kennedy had talked a great deal during the campaign about refurbishing America’s image around the world, and he had definite ideas of how to do so. He turned the job of selecting new Ambassadors over to Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, and he approached the task differently from any other modern President. I do not think that a single major Ambassadorship went to a campaign contributor without visible diplomatic qualifications. Kennedy appointed at least 20 Ambassadors from outside the Foreign Service, but he picked them based on their previous record of public service, their experience abroad, and the sense that they would ably represent him and his generation, especially among the emerging nations of the world. They included retired General James Gavin, who became Ambassador to France; historian George F. Kennan, whom John Foster Dulles had fired from the State Department in 1953, whom he sent to Yugoslavia; Edwin Reischauer of the Harvard Government Department, who became Ambassador to Japan, his academic specialty; Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who became Ambassador to India; William Attwood, the foreign editor of Look magazine, who went to the African trouble spot of Guinea; and my father, Philip Kaiser, who knew French and had represented the US in the International Labor Organization under Truman, who was chosen to be Ambassador to Senegal. I had had no idea that we might be going abroad as a result of the election, and to say that I was unhappy would be a gross understatement. I had already had too much moving in my life. Yet there was no choice, and I had four months to learn enough French to handle the Lycée in Dakar. It turned out, though, that I had a sympathetic listener in the White House.
On April 2, 1961, I brought the Washington Post into our Bethesda house and found a remarkable story on page one. John Kenneth Galbraith, it seemed, had mentioned to the President that one of his children, Peter, was especially unhappy about leaving his friends and his school to move to New Delhi. (My first thought, I must say, was that my own father would never have shared my feelings with the President.) Kennedy had responded with a personal letter to young Peter, saying that he knew how he felt because his own younger siblings had gone through the same thing more than twenty years earlier when their father was appointed Ambassador to Great Britain. But he knew, he said, that Peter enjoyed animals, and India was sure to offer many fascinating ones. But Peter was only one of many children going abroad for the New Frontier, the President continued, and he liked to think of them “as junior Peace Corps,” a reference to the new agency he was then establishing. “You and your brothers will be helping your parents do a good job for our country and you will be helping yourselves by making many friends,” he said. “I a little wish I were going too,” he concluded in a handwritten postscript.
That letter meant a lot—and not only to Peter Galbraith.
Like many expatriates, the Kaiser family became news junkies after arriving in Senegal in July 1961, although our news sources were few. While we could sometimes find the Voice of America on a short wave broadcast, we had no television of any kind, and depended on the American newspapers from Paris (which arrived a day late) and the international editions of Time and Newsweek. The news was grim during 1961, including the Berlin crisis and the erection of the wall and the Soviet resumption of nuclear tests, culminating in the detonation of a 50-megaton bomb. (I vividly remember a Newsweek cover showing what that bomb would have done had it landed in Battery Park in Manhattan.) But in 1962 President Kennedy began to hit his stride, and a series of dramatic stories found their way to us. In the spring he forced the steel companies to roll back an inflationary price increase. “It’s a revolution,” my father remarked, as he handed me the paper with the news. In September came the battle over the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. And then, the next month, one Monday morning, my father called me into my parents’ bedroom to brief me on the President’s announcement that Soviet missiles had been discovered in Cuba. With events unfolding so rapidly, our lack of news was never more painful than it was then. We received film of the president’s address and watched it during the week, but it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how close we had come to war. But my father the following Sunday got word through the Embassy that Khrushchev had agreed to pull the missiles out. It was another triumph for the President. The most rueful moment of those two years came a couple of weeks later, the day after the midterm elections, when I, glued to the short wave, heard Richard Nixon’s press secretary read his concession in the California governor’s race. “Vice President Nixon will not be making a statement himself,” he said, and I turned off the radio and ran to give my parents the news. As it turned out, of course, Nixon did appear and gave some of the most famous remarks of his career, including, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
I returned to a very different United States on July 5, 1963, from the one I had left. Americans were orbiting the earth, the economy was booming, and the Administration had introduced a massive civil rights bill and was negotiating a test ban treaty with the Russians. History, in short, was moving rapidly, and generally in the right direction. My life was another matter: after a struggle lasting several months, I bowed to my parents’ wishes and agreed to go to boarding school in Connecticut. They remained at home on leave for most of the fall, and it fell to me, on November 22 at about 2:00 PM EST, to place a collect call and give my mother the terrible news that I had just heard on the radio. A few minutes later, sitting in the apartment of a teacher at the end of my dormitory corridor, I saw Cronkite read the news of the President’s death. It was my first and perhaps even now my worst experience of real trauma, and I turned out to be the kind of person who simply shuts down. For at least an hour I could not speak to anyone. Our Saturday classes were not cancelled the next morning, and in English I was supposed to write an in-class essay on 1984, one of my favorite books. I struggled for the whole hour but literally could not write one sentence. My parents, who had been masters of denial since trauma in their own childhoods, tried to reassure me. “Work, that’s the answer,” my father said. I came home for Thanksgiving five days later, and on Saturday night my parents had a huge party for all their many Washington friends. To my shock and amazement, I could not find one single person there who wanted to talk about Kennedy. All they could think about was Johnson, the great start he was making, and his ambitious plans for the future.
One who turned out to be different was William Attwood, another Ambassador, who wrote a moving memorial of Kennedy for Look. We were close to the Attwoods and a couple of weeks later I received it at school in the form of their Christmas card. Here is the conclusion of his piece.
The Kennedy administration was an exciting time to be alive, and a good time to be busy. I think the Johnson Administration will be, too, for the new President has the experience and the drive, and the nation now has the momentum. But my thoughts are still turned to the years just past, ratherthan to the years just ahead. All I know, as I end this memoir, is that I shall always be proud to have been involved with the history of this time--the New Frontier period, as the historians will surely call it--and that my children--the two old enough to have worn Kennedy campaign buttons and the one soon to be born--will also remember and be proud of what their father was doing in the early 1960s. So I have that to thank Jack Kennedy for, too.
I knew his children well, and it was at that point—for the first time—that I began to cry.
And now, with Christmas almost upon us, I find myself thinking of last Christmas and the present I brought back to my 11-year-old daughter from the White House. It was a note from the President in answer to a letter she had written him. She had it framed, and it has been on her bedside table ever since. The note is signed, 'Your friend, John F. Kennedy.'
As I read those words today I still feel a stab of pain and jealousy. Had I written such a letter I too would have gotten a reply—but I never did.
She never met the President, but she always thought of him as her friend, and she was crying that terrible weekend because her friend was dead. This Christmas, I think a lot of Americans, like my daughter, feel they have lost a friend. They have.
I became a history major in college, which I entered in 1965. My father was still in the diplomatic service, and his generation and mine began to divide over the war in Vietnam. By the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be an academic and probably a historian, but I first had to reach an agreement with Uncle Sam over my military obligations—a process which led me into the Army reserves. In 1971 I returned to Harvard for graduate school in history, but I was studying western Europe, not the US. My lifelong interest in my own nation had not died out, however, and it seemed to me increasingly, as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, that Kennedy’s death had been a most unfortunate turning point in our history, followed as it was by urban riots and, of course, the disastrous war in Vietnam. I had also kept abreast of the controversy over his assassination, and particularly with the work of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had concluded in 1979 that he had probably been assassinated by a conspiracy of organized crime figures. In 1983—then a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon—I was commissioned to write two of the dozens of articles that appeared on the 20th anniversary of the President’s death. One, a contribution to a special issue of The New Republic, focused on JFK’s extraordinary political skills and the confidence he had managed to inspire, and it drew a very friendly comment from a reviewer in the Boston Globe. The second, written for the Outlook section of the Washington Post, summarized the state of our knowledge of the assassination without taking a definite position for or against conspiracy. Yet I spent the rest of the 1980s writing a very long book about European war. When that book came out in 1990 I felt it was time to return to my youth.
The State Department in the early 1990s began publishing the basic documentation on U.S. policy in Vietnam, first under Kennedy and then under Johnson. I was now determined to find out exactly how and why we had become involved in that war, and these releases offered me the chance to do so in my new job at the Naval War College in Newport—coincidentally, another old JFK haunt. And what I learned was quite astonishing. While some aspects of his Vietnam policies will always be controversial, one thing emerged with startling clarity. Again and again during his first year in office in 1961, his entire national security team, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy—to say nothing of the Joint Chiefs—pressed him to go to war in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both. Repeated proposals to that effect reached him in the oval office. He rejected them all. He specifically said, in one climactic meeting, that the enemy seemed to have all the military advantages, that our allies around the world would not support us, and that the war would be extremely difficult to explain to the American people. He did approve an increased advisory effort, but the evidence suggests that in 1962, when that immediately became controversial, he told Robert McNamara to wind it up by 1965. That in any case is what McNamara announced privately and publicly that he was going to do.
Kennedy did not want war in Southeast Asia largely because he had so many other foreign policy goals: limiting nuclear weapons, easing relations with the Soviets generally, eliminating the Castro regime (a goal he never abandoned), and strengthening America’s image in the Third World. He had an extraordinary rapport with foreign leaders, similar to George H. W. Bush in that respect, but entirely different from LBJ, George W. Bush, or, sadly, Barack Obama. Johnson had no real background in foreign affairs and had traveled abroad only briefly. Within a week of taking office, he had defined Vietnam as the most important problem facing his Administration—exactly what Kennedy had refused to do. By early 1964 it was clear that the situation in South Vietnam was much worse, and Johnson got the same advice from his inherited foreign policy team that Kennedy had: to use American military force to try to solve it. Kennedy refused. Johnson, as soon as he was elected himself, said yes—and the era of optimistic consensus that Kennedy had symbolized came crashing down within three years. It has never returned.
My book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War appeared in 2000 and was widely reviewed. But meanwhile an even bigger research opportunity had opened up. Oliver Stone’s dreadful film JFK had spread the worst kind of disinformation about the Kennedy assassination, but it had moved the Congress to pass a law mandating the release of all relevant records. I remained interested in the assassination—although totally convinced that Oswald had actually committed the crime—and I was determined to go through those records. From 2001 to 2007, in a series of trips to the Washington area, I did. They are incomparably the biggest release of FBI and CIA records ever, and they told an incredible story. I established that although Robert Kennedy thought he had turned off the Mafia assassination plot against Castro that the Eisenhower Administration had set in motion in 1960, it had continued all the same well into 1963. I found that Kennedy himself had never given up the objective of overthrowing Castro despite the assurances he gave Khrushchev at the time of the missile crisis. (The White House, it turned out, had not been interested in the efforts of my old friend William Attwood at the UN in the fall of 1963 to arrange some sort of reconciliation with Castro.) I saw first hand in the FBI files the depth of Robert Kennedy’s hatred for the mob and the extent to which they returned it. And I was able not only to show that Oswald and Ruby acted as part of a mob-organized conspiracy, but to identify the key players in that conspiracy, including one, John Martino, who told his family that the assassination was going to happen before it did and discussed his role with two friends before his death in 1975. Santo Trafficante of Florida, Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, and possibly Sam Giancana of Chicago sponsored the assassination with the encouragement of Jimmy Hoffa to stop Robert Kennedy’s war on the mob, and it worked. I also found that new mob hits in 1975 had protected the secret at a moment when it seemed that it might come out. For the most part, authors on the assassination remain divided into two faith-based camps: the church of the lone assassin, which insists that all evidence of conspiracy must be false, and the church of the grand conspiracy, which assumes Oswald was framed and that any discrepancy in the evidence shows both a conspiracy and a massive cover-up. There’s a kind of Gresham’s law in assassination research—the bad theories drive out the good ones—but I feel very strongly that I solved the case.
The Road to Dallas appeared in 2008, drawing somewhat less attention than American Tragedy, and I resolved to stop writing about my own lifetime. My next book, on U.S. entry into the Second World War, will appear next spring. A lifetime as a professional historian allows one to find out the truth about the current events of one’s youth, and I have taken full advantage of that opportunity and then some. I now see, however, that I shall not live into a new era anything like that of the Kennedy years. The mid-century consensus he embodied grew out of the New Deal and the experience of the Second World War. It was politically extraordinarily impressive, and its achievements ran from the interstate highway system through Medicare and the landing on the moon and civil rights. But it was emotionally constricted, and my own Boom generation was certain to rebel. Had it not been for Vietnam, I shall always believe, that rebellion might have been less destructive and important parts of the postwar consensus might have survived. Instead, for forty years I have watched my contemporaries tear down most of our political inheritance. Someday new generations will rebuild it—but that day is a long way off. I am very glad to have been a small part, and a chronicler, of the Kennedy era.
[p.s. Readers interested in my thoughts about the assassination can find them in this post from five years ago.]
[p.s. Readers interested in my thoughts about the assassination can find them in this post from five years ago.]