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Editor's Corner: Fear and Negotiation

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Ask not what the ISHLT can do for you; ask what you can do for the ISHLT

November 2013 brings us Thanksgiving, dedication and devotion. We have Lincoln's dedicatory Gettysburg address delivered 150 years ago on November 19, 1863. It was presented to you and what it means to the ISHLT in the 2011 Volume 3, Issue 6 of the Links. We have the Devotion, Dedication, Emancipation, and Election: the Clash of the Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience of Mark Twain through the eyes of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Slave Jim presented to you in the 2012 Volume 4, Issue 7 of the Links. Now, 50 years ago on November 22, 1963 is the assassination of a pragmatic, patriotic, charming, brilliant, witty and glamorous war hero who together with his wife revitalized the White House, encouraged intellectual and artistic activity, and stated in Berlin that "freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free," who took pride in the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

The manner in which Jacqueline Kennedy coped with her husband's funeral pageantry during those tragic times was as follows. She told the presidential historian Theodore White that all she could keep thinking of was this line from a musical comedy: "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot." The Kennedy era turned into a fairy-tale shimmering with knights and kings and romance and heraldry in the mist of which it has been cloaked ever since.

Like President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill whom he admired enormously, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born to wealth and privilege very much unlike the poor and uneducated roots of Abraham Lincoln from "undistinguished families." Old Joseph Kennedy, JFK's father, wanted young Joe to run for President and vindicate the Irish in the highest office of America. However, young Joe, JFK's older brother, was killed during WWII. Then Old Joe convinced JFK (Jack) to take his brother's place in the plan. "It was like being drafted," Jack later recalled. "My father demanded it." Jack was almost killed in the memorable PT-109 rammed by a Japanese warship during WWII. He was decorated as a war hero with medals. He was later asked, "how did you win those medals?" His wit emerged with this response, "I got my boat sunk."

He became his father's objective for political power. But originally, Jack wanted to be a writer—he was a good writer—and he wanted to be a teacher. He studied at the London School of Economics to finish his Harvard honors thesis on "Why England Slept," closely related to Churchill's "While England Slept" highlighting why the English followed a policy of appeasement and negotiation while the Nazis were building their war machine.

In life and in politics, he was elected to the Senate and married very well. When he ran for president he grabbed America's attention. He took on Lyndon Johnson as his vice-president. During the campaign there was a balance of Massachusetts political geography with Texas physical geography. There was a balance of Jack Kennedy's aristocracy with Lyndon Johnson's homespun humor. And they won. JFK was inaugurated and gave the most inspiring speech since FDR's first inaugural address. It was a speech that would highlight the values of America at mid century.

He started off his inaugural address with ... The world is very different now. There Jack stood with his beautiful wife, Jackie: charming, beautifully dressed, a breath of fresh air. She was perfectly fluent in French and had an elegant air about everything she did. In contrast, Mrs Eisenhower before her was your grandmother. Jack continued with his speech and told the world that we have ... the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life ..., ... the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. This generation had been hardened by the Cold War. It was a generation taking up the torch of freedom throughout his address. Kennedy inspired this new generation to dedicate themselves to America and ... ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. He demanded that this new generation reach out to the world and ... let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Kennedy was not afraid of controversy. To kick off his presidency he appointed his brother Bobby Kennedy to serve as Attorney General of the U.S. Many responded by saying you can't make your brother Attorney General, he is inexperienced and unqualified. "Why!" quipped President Kennedy, "he needs experience to be a lawyer." Kennedy was a patriot and an idealist. He charged the young Americans with different tasks to put America on the move. The Peace Corps was started to promote world peace. Many Americans would learn a foreign language, bring proper hygiene to other nations that needed it and teach English in many foreign countries. But within his first hundred days in office the Bay of Pigs loomed ahead of him.

To better understand the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a review on communism and the Cold War is necessary. Communism today does not evoke the visceral response that it once did in Americans of the 1950's and 1960's - at that time Communism was synonymous with evil. The movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, represented Hollywood's view on Communism. "Commies" would invade our bodies, then we would all look alike and do evil things. In 1959 Fidel Castro had overthrown the corrupt dictator Batista. The American State Department had looked uninformed just as it did in the early 1950s with China. America had originally looked at Castro as an agrarian reformer, but he was a communist. The most ruthless communist dictatorship in the world emerged terrifyingly close to American soil. A regimen about as ruthless as Mao Tse-Tung's China. The fear of all fears to 1950's America suddenly was realized with a communist foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Leading up to this fear was the Cold War that led to the communist takeover of China and Russia boasting that it would bury America and Capitalism. The Cold War led to a Soviet atomic bomb and then the Russians were first to send a satellite into space. The education system in America began questioning itself. Communism seemed to have a better education system. The Cold War left America shackled with terror that any day might actually be America's last. Children were taught in preparation of a nuclear holocaust to dive under their desks, "duck and cover" in case of an atomic explosion. (I'd like to know how diving under a school desk might protect us from the potential evaporative effects of a nuclear explosion.) Also, throughout 1950's and 1960's America, some kids were issued dog tags for easy identification in the "end."

Yet here was this flash of brilliance—John F Kennedy peering through the horizon giving America and its new generation the potential of a brighter future. But in his first hundred days as President, the Bay of Pigs dampened Kennedy's spirit as well as America's inspiration.

The plan of the Bay of Pigs, inherited by Kennedy's administration, used Cuban exiles routed by an extremely well-trained Cuban army supplied with Chinese and Soviet weapons. Early on this made Kennedy and his administration appear totally incompetent in foreign affairs. And Kennedy accepted full responsibility. But Kennedy was determined and not afraid to negotiate. He did not negotiate out of fear. The handsome debonair Kennedy, born of wealth and privilege, met with the bald headed, snaggletooth Khrushchev, a hooligan of peasant stock, in Vienna. The young President's first test did not go well. Khrushchev decided that Kennedy was weak, young and inexperienced. Therefore Khrushchev decided that America was weak. It had only been 7 years since the Korean War had ended and the Americans would not fight to the end. And America's and Kennedy's greatest sign of weakness was now the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs.

Khrushchev reasoned he could deploy missiles in Cuba, because Kennedy initially appeared incompetent in foreign affairs and there were US missile sites surrounding Russia, especially in Turkey. These missiles provided Castro some security. This brings us to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Americans once again crowded around their televisions and radio as they did during Kennedy's first inaugural address. Kennedy laid out exactly what was going to happen: 1/ There were missiles in Cuba, 2/ They were in violation of our Monroe policy, 3/ If we allowed them to stay there, no friend or foe would take our word seriously. Kennedy was a pragmatic politician-proactive, not reactive. He and his advisors led by his most trusted advisor, his brother Bobby, had found a way out that allowed the Soviets to save face. America removed some of our obsolete missiles from Turkey. The Russians removed their missiles from Cuba. No armed engagement took place and the world breathed easier. This was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Kennedy did not negotiate out of fear and he did not fear to negotiate. The dreaded nuclear holocaust was averted.

Later, Kennedy took his beautiful wife to Europe and introduced himself as Jacqueline Kennedy's husband. With the crowds in his hands, he was going to Berlin to make a statement. At that time, Berlin was divided by a great wall. On the East side was a constant reminder of the failure of communism. On the West side was a little Island of Freedom amidst communism, bustling with well fed and successful people who could say and write what they wanted. Kennedy went to Berlin to proclaim our utter devotion to the freedom of Berlin, Germany. No nation mourned more deeply when Kennedy was killed than the Germans.

President Kennedy had a strong and vigorous foreign policy. But he was not loved by every American. Parts of the news media were frequently critical of him. There were elements of the African American community unsure of the depth of his commitment to Civil Rights. He was unpopular and considered weak on communism by very influential and well-funded groups throughout America. Some looked upon him as a communist the same way some looked upon Eisenhower as a communist. In the south Kennedy was considered far too strong on his civil rights policy. Many in the Democratic Party, the "dixiecrats," hated him.

In the fall of 1963 the subject of re-election came up. He was confident he would win because most Americans believed in a moderate approach to contain communism and were comforted by not having blown ourselves up. Also, many believed in a moderate approach to civil rights. Kennedy believed African Americans had a right to go to any school they wanted and have all the freedoms Americans were supposed to have.

He believed an educated public devoted to its country would be willing to consider many different forms of ideas. Fundamental tenets of Marxism were debated openly. Others believed communism must be absolutely resisted. It was better to be dead than red. This group believed America must return to a social and economic system back in the day of Herbert Hoover. Kennedy had accepted Roosevelt's New Deal. He wanted to expand health care and have a liberal approach to the economy and he believed that Government had an important role in the economy.

After much debate, Kennedy decided to give his incumbent VP Lyndon Johnson another chance, but Johnson did not seem to control the deeply split Democratic Party in Texas. The liberal side admired Kennedy. The very conservative faction opposed civil rights totally, preferring a doctrine approach to communism and wanting government totally out of business. Kennedy went on a goodwill trip to Texas to fuse the feuding parts of the Democratic Party together and directly expose them to some of his ideas. He was warned against going to Dallas, but he was a man never to be afraid. He and Jackie flew into Fort Worth to speak to the Chamber of Commerce on Friday morning, November 22, 1963. She was late and he said, "Mrs Kennedy is late, when she gets here, she will look a whole lot better than the rest of us." They later flew into Dallas. They landed and began that procession toward the Texas Book Depository and there, as we were told, was this lone assassin—Lee Harvey Oswald—a failure in everything he had done. He had been a marksman in the Marines. He had spent a good deal of time in Russia. His background was never fully understood, and his reason for what he did was never clear. But if what we were told is true, he fired that rifle with extraordinary marksmanship. JFK was dead. He was shot at 12:30 PM Central Standard Time on November 22, 1963 and pronounced dead just after 1:00 PM.

If Kennedy had lived, how would the world be different?

We were already involved in Vietnam. Military advisors were already there. Kennedy was reevaluating the Vietnam situation. He probably had the political wisdom, the political stature, and the political courage to understand by 1965 not to escalate our efforts in Vietnam but to withdraw. Vietnam was the one issue that tore the very fabric that held America together. Vietnam divided us into two factions that still today we have yet to overcome. Vietnam led to a distrust of what we were told by our Presidents and Congresses and continues to cast a shadow today. In the immediate aftermath of Vietnam another country fell to communism. JFK's assassination changed history.

And what really happened on the grassy knoll?

Disclosure Statement: the author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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