John F Kennedy: Revisiting the Myth Brian Thornton
Randwick Boys’ High School
The scope of my study substantially was to investigate the teaching of John F Kennedy in a U.S. context, namely Boston, Massachusetts, and the use of the museum and archive at Columbia Point to add to the materials already available in NSW schools for the teaching of the Extension History Course. I spent five weeks in the greater Boston area looking at the imprint left by the Kennedy family on this city. Initially I made contact with the Education Officer at the John F Kennedy Library, Nina Tisch, and the Archivist/Librarians Sharon Kelly and Stephen Plotkin for help in accessing teaching materials and the vast John F Kennedy collection. I was also able to visit the Kennedy family homes in Boston, one of which is open to the public as a time capsule museum piece, capturing John F Kennedy’s early childhood, where I was able to speak to the National Parks officers who manage the site.
The bulk of the library archive collection was acquired post-assassination in the 1960s and is not a naturally evolving collection. However, key individuals like Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson have deeded their papers to the library. The archive contains over 420 million documents, photographs, film footage and taped interviews. It is organised into Pre-Presidential files, Presidents’ Office Files, National Security files, White House Central Subjects, Presidential Recordings, a book collection, Press Releases, Records of Government Agencies, Oral Sources and Family Files. Scholarly private individuals donate materials, for example, perhaps an interview that took place with Kennedy, however the library does not actively seek such donations, as problems of ownership and copyright arise with their use. Many of the files can be accessed on line, using the John F Kennedy Memorial Library web site.
The museum also contains thousands of items owned by the Kennedys which are partially displayed in 25 dramatic multi media exhibits, which attempt to recreate the world of the Kennedy Presidency, as a “first hand” experience of his life, legacy and leadership. Many items were purchased through auction, the most remarkable being the Guernsey auction in March 1998, where items such as Kennedy’s Harvard college sweater, his winter underwear (once used to pack china with when the Kennedys moved and retrieved by the removalist, only to resurface at this auction), his suits, credit cards, cuff links, personal photographs, drafts of speeches, his daughter Caroline’s childhood drawings and White House embossed stationary with Presidential “doodles”. Many of these items sold for extraordinary prices and fell into the hands of private individuals. The Library acquired many valuable items; however a State Statute now prevents the library from such acquisition processes through auctions or on e-bay. Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s Secretary believed all Presidential documents were worthy of preservation and assembled a large part of the collection. She also wrote letters of authenticity for many items which were auctioned by Guernseys.
Firstly, I was interested in accessing the family files of the Kennedys, and analysing Kennedy’s own personal reflections on his Presidency. This proved to be extremely difficult, due to Kennedy’s Irish Catholic upbringing, which meant that he kept most of his personal reflections in his head. Very little self reflection is recorded, and the Camelot School historians were able to use their own close contact with Kennedy to suppose what these might have been. I was also interested in how cartoonists depicted Kennedy during the thousand days, and the archive provided a wealth of material from Kennedy’s ‘private collection’ of cartoons, which he would acquire from newspapers and editors and from the collections of key Kennedy family members. It is my intention to publish these in the History Teachers Association journal for use in the classroom.
Kennedy’s medical records have recently been de-classified, and these covered the key times he was in the navy, as well as when he was President. This collection of documents from the files of Dr Hans Kraus, details the programs used to alleviate Kennedy’s back pain and provide a snapshot of how affected he was and how dependant on the expertise of Kraus.
The collections of the consensus historians, Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger were vast, detailed and valuable. Both wrote celebratory and monumental works where Kennedy was an object of aggrandisement, placed in a mythological setting. The writings are bold, symbolic, sanitised and polished. Kennedy transcends the mortal, being captured in the grandiloquent skill of these master rhetoricians. I found Sorenson’s files a valuable resource for evaluating the words of Kennedy and the shaping of his image while President. The florid eloquence of an impassioned Kennedy as speaker leaps from the files of Sorenson the speechwriter, and the closeness of their relationship, and its reciprocal importance must be given pre-eminence in assessing the construction of the Kennedy myth. What was most noteworthy about both the Sorenson and Schlesinger files was the number of times they re-wrote and re-worked their respective first books about Kennedy. Schlesinger, for example, did nine re-writes to perfect the story of Kennedy’s administration, all in just over twelve months, to meet a 1965 publication deadline. The files of re-worked drafts reveal the extreme care he took in crafting the work and how he avoided any controversial revelations.
The files of Jacqueline Kennedy have extremely limited access for researchers and I was unable to have permission to source them. Many other members of the Camelot inner sanctum had materials which bare the hallmark of Jackie, for example, letters, notes and memorandums from her which gave some small insights into her strong desire to protect and promulgate the memory of Kennedy. The copyright rules surrounding such items is extremely strict, with no permission granted for the use of any item which bears the handwriting of Jackie herself. Her personal files have a long embargo period placed on them, which will not see them released for public viewing in the foreseeable future.
The John F Kennedy National Historic site at 83 Beals Street, Brookline, Boston is dedicated to the memory of the President. It was the first home of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Built in the popular Colonial Revival style, it represented their aspirational status between 1914 and 1921. Kennedy was born in this house, and even though it was in private hands between 1921 and 1967, it was eventually re-purchased by Rose Kennedy four years after the assassination. Rose restored it based on her memory of the period of her early residence there, collecting significant family items, furniture and belongings for display. It was donated to the National Parks Service in 1967, as “a gift to the American people.” The Kennedys shared a fierce determination to pass onto their children, what they considered most important in life: personal discipline, competitive spirit, family loyalty, religious faith, public service and an educated mind. “When ever I held a newborn baby in my arms,” remarks Rose Kennedy, “I used to think that what I said and did could have an influence . . . not only for a day, or month, or a year, but for all eternity.”
John F Kennedy’s Childhood Home
(1917 – 1920) 83 Beals Street,
It was interesting to note that on the second floor of this three-storey house, was a small office which Rose Kennedy occupied with an open doorway, where she could watch the movement of her servants and her children, from the lower to higher levels. On the small desk in this office, she kept a small box containing cards which detailed the health, weight, height, medical notes and other observations of her children. Rose lived to be 104, and through her long life, she continued to collect everything associated with her children’s lives. Her significant personal archive at the John F Kennedy Memorial Library is indeed vast and comprehensive. Whilst it was quite common for that generation to keep letters and documents for long periods of time, one cannot help but think that she in some prophetic way was collecting and storing even in her early life for posterity.
The suburb of Brookline also contains the second Kennedy home at 51 Abbottsford Road (now in private hands), purchased to accommodate the growing Kennedy brood, and paid for from the profits of Joseph Kennedy’s interests in the stock market and the new motion picture industry. At 175 Freeman Street is the Noble and Greenough Lower School/Dexter School, attended by Kennedy to prepare him for a future Ivy League education. At this school Kennedy did well in History and English, distinguished himself as an athlete and leader and was selected as captain and quarter back of the Dexter football team. At 347 Harvard Street is the Edward Devotion House and School, which Kennedy also attended. It specialised in academic excellence, but Kennedy apparently preferred daydreaming to lessons. On Freeman Street stands the Saint Aidan’s Roman Catholic Church. Much has been concluded about Kennedy’s Catholic upbringing, and his claim to the first Catholic President. Rose Kennedy was a strict Irish devotee and reinforced the words of Saint Luke to her children: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.”
The second part of my research involved analysing The Cold War through the Kennedy Years, using the conference of the same name as my focus. The Kennedy Library education specialists Nina Tisch and Sam Rubin, provided documentary sources each day, which were suitable for classroom use in the senior school, and a number of expert speakers from the period gave their reflections on the Kennedy Years.
The first of the speakers was Martha Mautner. Martha Mautner (then Halleran) joined the State Department in 1945, and was immediately posted to Moscow. Returning to Washington in 1948, she served in the Bureau for Intelligence and Research (INR) as an analyst of Soviet internal affairs. In 1950 she was sent as Political Officer to the US Berlin Mission where she married Karl Mautner, the U.D. Mission’s liaison officer with the Berlin City Government. In 1959 she returned to INR’s Soviet and East European Office, first as the GDR Analyst, then to the Soviet Foreign Policy Division covering Berlin/German issues throughout the Wall crisis and serving as a member of the Berlin Task Force. After a hiatus in the mid-60s, when she accompanied her husband on assignment to Sudan, Mrs Mautner continued at INR, adding Middle East coverage to her portfolio and eventually becoming chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Division and then Deputy Director of the Soviet and East European Office. Upon retirement in 1993, she received the National Intelligence Community’s Distinguished Service Medal.
The focus of her reflections was on the Berlin Crisis and the relationship between Khrushchev and Kennedy. She concluded that the U.S. was not familiar with Communist ideology in the period of handover from Stalin to Khrushchev, and that the refugee crisis, as escapees from Soviet ‘collectivisation’ headed to East Germany, was the reason the Berlin Wall was constructed. Her view was that Berlin locals did not believe that Soviets would go to war over Berlin, but that Washington, 3000 miles away, did. She claims that powerful Eastern European groups within the U.S. were placing pressure on Kennedy to react. She dismisses the revisionist viewpoint about Kennedy’s escalation of the Berlin Crisis, stating, without doubt that “he bent over backwards to calm things down . . . he would not give up territory in West Berlin. She concluded that Kennedy’s calling up of the National Guard was only a political gesture, as he did not want a crisis in Berlin.
Wayne S Smith also gave his perspective on Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs incident, and how this affected his relationship with the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wayne S Smith served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1949 to 1953 and saw combat during the Korean War. He joined the Department of State in 1957, and was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 1958 until the closing of the embassy in January 1961. That same year, President Kennedy appointed him to be Executive Secretary of his Latin American Task Force. He subsequently rose to the position of Director for Cuban Affairs in the State Department. Dr Smith returned to Cuba in 1979, serving as Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In 1982 he decided to leave the Foreign Service because of fundamental disagreements with the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy. He is now Visiting Professor of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University and directs that institution’s academic exchange program with the University of Havana. Since 1992, he has also been a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. and director of the centre’s Cuba Program. Wayne Smith is the author of numerous articles and books, including Portrait of Cuba and The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of the Castro Years. Smith began by stating that he was a supporter of Kennedy, and that he believed that Fidel Castro was a product of Cuban nationalism. He did not believe Castro was a true communist, but that he was an egalitarian with a pragmatic approach, and that the only reason he came into conflict with Kennedy was because he kept the lines of communication open with the Soviets. Smith concluded that Kennedy took a lot of personal responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but that it was not his fault. Kennedy, he says, looked at the plans and asked that the location be changed to the city of Trinidad. Smith went on to say that the local population around the Bay of Pigs was very pro-Castro, because of his support for the fisheries industry, and that Kennedy and his advisers did not know that the photographs of the Bay of Pigs, which showed shadows in the waters, were in fact coral reefs and not seaweed, which caused much of the disaster. Thus Kennedy, was not responsible and could not really solve this issue.
Had Kennedy tried, Smith believes, the Alliance for Progress (agreed alliance with Latin American States), would have been reinstated through the progressive members of Kennedy’s inner circle and Kennedy himself. The failure of the Bay of Pigs caused Kennedy to be much more cautious about the advice he accepted from both the CIA and his Joint Chiefs. He concluded that the Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding (the secret communication between the two made during the Missile Crisis), was able to stand the test of time, and revealed the respect each had for the other. Sergei Khrushchev also spoke about his personal recollections of his father, and how his father viewed Kennedy and the United States.
Sergei Khrushchev is the son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He was trained as an engineer and participated in the Soviet missile and space program (1958-68), including work on cruise missiles for submarines, military and research spacecraft, moon vehicles, and the “Proton,” the world’s largest space booster. From 1968 to 1991, he served at the Control Computer Institute in Moscow, rising to First Deputy Director in charge of research. Dr. Khrushchev served as editor of his father’s memoirs and is the author of numerous books and articles, including Khrushchev on Khrushchev, The Political Economy of Russian Fragmentation and Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower. Since 1996, he has been a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University. He lectures widely on Russian economic and political reforms; US-Soviet relations from 1950-64; the history of the Soviet space program; and Nikita Khrushchev’s economic, political and security reforms.
Sergei believes his father was a pragmatic communist, who looked for an effective system to work for the Soviet Union, and that he was keen to learn from U.S. economic policy. He was keen to point out that the erection of the Berlin Wall was systematic of stopping the mass movement of people, in the same way as the walls built in Israel and on the U.S. and Mexican borders, have also served this purpose. He recognises that in America his father’s legacy is taught in a fairly standard and expected viewpoint. He asserts his father never thought about manipulating the U.S. or Kennedy and that he respected Kennedy’s youthful framework, believing the 40s the best age to run a country. He remembered his father saying of Kennedy, ‘I support my system and Kennedy is supporting his system.’ Interestingly Sergei’s view about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the connection to the U.S. missiles also stationed in Turkey did not contain the same urgency as was portrayed from the U.S. perspective. In the U.S. the Crisis elicited the building of bomb shelters, food stock-piling and evacuation measures, whereas in the Soviet Union, the missiles in Turkey just symbolised “another enemy at the gate” given the Soviets’ long history of invasion from others.
In conclusion, I would recommend to any teacher of Extension History, the John F Kennedy Memorial Library website as a valuable source. The opportunity to access the archives first hand was invaluable, and I hope to publish a collection of documents with activities designed for Extension Students who are gifted and talented, in the near future, through the History Teachers’ Association.
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