There was a fairytale quality about the inaugural and there was a fairytale quality about the funeral rites. One half expected that when the lovely princess knelt to kiss the casket for the last time, some winged godmother would wave her wand and restore the hero whole again in a final triumph over the dark forces which had slain him. There never was such a shining pageant of a presidency before. We watched it as children do, raptly determined to believe but knowing all the time that it wasn't really true.
Of all the Presidents, this was the first to be a Prince Charming. To watch the President at press conference or at a private press briefing was to be delighted by his wit, his intelligence, his capacity and his youth. These made the terrible flash from Dallas incredible and painful. But perhaps the truth is that in some ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy died just in time. He died in time to be remembered as he would like to be remembered, as ever-young, still victorious, struck down undefeated, with almost all the potentates and rulers of mankind, friend and foe, come to mourn at his bier.
For somehow one has the feeling that in the tangled dramaturgy of events, this sudden assassination was for the author the only satisfactory way out. The Kennedy Administration was approaching an impasse, certainly at home, quite possibly abroad, from which there seemed no escape. In Congress thePresident was faced with something- worse than a filibuster. He was confronted with a shrewdly conceived and quietly staged sitdown strike by Southern committee chairmen determined to block civil rights even if it meant stopping the wheels of government altogether.
The measure of their success is that we entered this final month of 1963 with nine of the thirteen basic appropriation bills as yet unpassed, though the fiscal year for which they were written began last 1 July and most of the government has been forced to live hand-to-mouth since. Never before in our history has the Senate so dragged its heels as this year; never before has the Southern oligarchy dared go so far in demonstrating its power in Washington. The President was caught between these old men, their faces set stubbornly towards their white supremacist past, and the advancing Negro masses, explosively demanding `freedom now'. Mr Kennedy's death, like those of the Birmingham children and of Medgar Evers, may some day seem the first drops portending a new storm which it was beyond his power to stay.
In foreign policy, the outlook was as unpromising. It was proving difficult to move towards coexistence a country so long conditioned to Cold War. Even when Moscow offered gold for surplus wheat, it was hard to make a deal. The revolt in Congress against foreign aid illustrated how hard it was to carry on policy once tense fears of Communism slackened even slightly. The President recognized the dangers of an unlimited arms race and the need for a modus vivendi if humanity was to survive but was afraid, even when the Sino-Soviet break offered the opportunity, to move at more than snail's pace towards agreement with Moscow. The word was that there could be no follow-up to a nuclear test ban pact at least until after the next election; even so minor a step as a commercial airline agreement with the Soviets was in abeyance. The quarrel with Argentina over oil concessions lit up the dilemma of the Alliance for Progress; however much the President might speak of encouraging diversity, when it came to a showdown, Congress and the moneyed powers of our society insisted on `free enterprise'.
The anti-Castro movement our C.I.A. covertly supports was still a spluttering fuse, and in Vietnam the stepping up of the war by the rebels was deflating all the romantic Kennedy notions about counter-guerrillas, while in Europe the Germans still blocked every constructive move towards a settlement in Berlin.
Abroad, as at home, the problems were becoming too great for conventional leadership, and Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people and an astringent view of the evangelical as a tool of leadership. It is as well not to lose sight of these realities in the excitement of the funeral; funerals are always occasions for pious lying. A deep vein of superstition and a sudden touch of kindness always lead people to give the departed credit for more virtues than he possessed. This is particularly true when the dead man was the head of the richest and most powerful country in the world, its friendship courted, its enmity feared. Everybody is 'anxious to celebrate the dead leader and to court his successor. In the clouds of incense thus generated, it is easy to lose one's way, just when it becomes more important than ever to see where we really are.
The first problem that has to be faced is the murder itself. Whether it was done by a crackpot leftist on his own, or as the tool of some rightist plot, Van Der Lubbe style, the fact is that there are hundreds of thousands in the South who had murder in their hearts for the Kennedys, the President and his brother the Attorney General, because they sought in some degree to help the Negro. This potential for murder, which the Negro community has felt for a long time, has become a national problem. But there are deeper realities to be faced.
Let us ask ourselves honest questions. How many Americans have not assumed - with approval - that the C.I.A. was probably trying to find a way to assassinate Castro? How many would not applaud if the C.I.A. succeeded? How many applauded when Lumumba was killed in the Congo, because they assumed that he was dangerously neutralist or perhaps proCommunist? Have we not become conditioned to the notion that we should have a secret agency of government - the C.I.A. - with secret funds, to wield the dagger beneath the cloak against leaders we dislike? Even some of our best young liberal intellectuals can see nothing wrong in this picture except that the 'operational' functions of the C.I.A. should be kept separate from its intelligence evaluations! How many of us - on the left now - did not welcome the assassination of Diem and his brother Nhu in South Vietnam? We all reach for the dagger, or the gun, in our thinking when it suits our political view to do so. We all believe the end justifies the means. We all favour murder, when it reaches our own hated opponents. In this sense we share the guilt with Oswald and Ruby and the rightist crackpots. Where the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain. It is not just the ease in obtaining guns, it is the ease in obtaining excuses, that fosters assassination. This is more urgently in need of examination than who pulled the trigger. In this sense, as in that multi-lateral nuclear monstrosity we are trying to sell Europe, we all had a finger on the trigger.
But if we are to dig out the evil, we must dig deeper yet, into the way we have grown to accept the idea of murder on the widest scale as the arbiter of controversy between nations. In this connection, it would be wise to take a clear-sighted view of the Kennedy Administration because it was the first U.S. government in the nuclear age which acted on the belief that it was possible to see war, or the threat of war, as an instrument of politics despite the possibility of annihilation. It was in some ways a warlike Administration. It seems to have been ready, soon after taking office, to send troops into Vietnam to crush the rebellion against Diem; fortunately both Diem and our nearest Asian allies,notably the Filipinos, were against our sending combat troops into the area. The Kennedy Administration, in violation of our own laws and international law, permitted that invasion from our shores which ended so ingloriously in the Bay of Pigs. It was the Kennedy Administration which met Khrushchev's demands for negotiations on Berlin by a partial mobilization and an alarming invitation to the country to dig backyard shelters against cataclysm.
Finally we come to the October crisis of a year ago. This set a bad precedent for his successors, who may not be as skilful as he was in finding a way out. What if the Russians had refused to back down and remove their missiles from Cuba? What if they had called our bluff and war had begun, and escalated? How would the historians of mankind, if a fragment survived, have regarded the events of October? Would they have thought us justified in blowing most of mankind to smithereens, rather than negotiate, or appeal to the U.N., or even to leave in Cuba the medium-range missiles which were no different after all from those we had long aimed at the Russians from Turkey and England? When a whole people is in a state of mind where it is ready to risk extinction - its own and everybody else's - as a means of having its own way in an international dispute, the readiness for murder has become a way of life and a world menace. Since this is the kind of bluff that can easily be played once too often, and that his successors may feel urged to imitate, it would be well to think it over carefully before canonizing Kennedy as an apostle of peace.