Attached to the Kennedy Assassination has always been what was lost when the President was murdered. For some, it was America’s innocence; for others, it was the center, which would no longer hold.
Perhaps the most peddled of these answers comes from the Camelot camp. For them, what was lost when Kennedy died was the opportunity to end the Cold War, and thus, avoid the quagmire of Vietnam. In their history lesson, Kennedy, chastened by the Cuban Missile Crisis, became an American Gorbachev, attempting to normalize relations with Castro and withdraw troops from Vietnam.
But time has not been kind to Camelot merchants. Kennedy was hardly a Cold War dove. Indeed, he may have been the last libertarian Democrat. As Ira Stoll has shown, Kennedy favored tax cuts (passing the first one in 1962, with the intention of making them permanent) and was a fervent supporter of the Cold War. If he was attempting detente with Castro, then his actions were counterproductive. In a declassified document unearthed by Max Holland, JFK had approved a sabotage operation against Castro two weeks before the assassination. In addition, he had greenlighted an invasion plan against the Castro regime for Dec. 1963.
As for Vietnam, Kennedy was decidedly a hawk. While in office, he increased the number of advisers. In a March 1963 letter to Bobbie Lou Pendergast, whose brother was killed in Vietnam, the president argued that the US must stay the course there:
“Americans are in Vietnam because we have determined that this country must not fall under Communist domination…Your brother was in Vietnam because the threat to the Vietnamese people is, in the long run, a threat to the Free World communist, and ultimately a threat to us also. For when freedom is destroyed in one country, it is threatened throughout the world.”
Court historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr have proclaimed that had Kennedy lived, he would have withdrawn American advisers.
But in an interview with Walter Cronkite two months before the assassination he indicated otherwise:
“I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.. I think we should stay.”
And Bobby Kennedy, the figure most privy to his brother’s private thoughts, told an interviewer in 1964 that JFK would have kept the advisers there.
With Kennedy’s death, Democrats would never again be the party of tax cuts and vigorous anti-communism. Liberals have always lamented that their hero was replaced by that crude reactionary Lyndon Johnson. But unlike Kennedy, Johnson gave them everything they wanted in the form of the Great Society. Had Kennedy lived it is difficult to see how he could have reconciled his libertarian distrust of big government with Johnson’s big government programs.
Following Johnson would be a series of Democrats such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter whose views on communism would have been shunned by JFK. Hating socialized medicine, he would have been in the forefront of those opposing Obamacare and been shunned by the very liberals who today champion him as one of their own.