Former headmaster, Mr Phil Davies is better known as the BBC Wales Pop Historian, yet he would now seem to have reinvented himself as a historian of post war Americana. This year he took the career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as his topic, universally known as JFK. He described his topic as being one which was shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories, most of which will never be unravelled.
Beginning at the assassination of Kennedy, Mr Davies explained that Texas with its 24 seats in the Electoral College was essential to the 1964 Presidential Campaign of JFK and LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson) and a visit to Dallas was needed to shore up the support of the reactionary ‘Whig’ Democrats of the South despite also being a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy. Ironically, he had said prophetically “All it takes to kill a president is a high building, an open window and a long range sight”. Even more ironic, was the probability that the last words he heard were those of the wife of a local politician “You can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you”.
Born in New England in 1917,the second son of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants, Joe and Rose Kennedy. The family became deeply involved in both politics and the organised crime of the period. His father, controversially became the American Ambassador to the UK in 1938, being both a presumed supporter of Sinn Fein and with some sympathy for the German cause. JFK attended private school and Harvard, and during that period he sustained a back injury playing American Football, worsened by Addison’s disease, which meant he wore a back brace (ironically this made him a less agile target in Dallas Ed.) though this did not stop his later indulgence in the family trait of philandering. During his studies at Harvard, JFK visited Eastern Europe including Soviet Russia and it is probable that this helped him in later life in his dealings with Kruschev.
Following Pearl Harbour, the USA joined the second world war,and Joe Kennedy was anxious that his sons should serve. JFK’s elder brother was a fighter pilot killed in action, so making him the heir apparent to the Kennedy dynasty. Despite his injury, JFK showed bravery in action as a naval lieutenant in charge of a torpedo boat near the Solomon Islands, and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy Medal. This was later made into a feature film “PT49”.
Following the war, Joe Kennedy retired from active politics but remained a puppet master for his sons’ careers in politics. In the period between 1953 and 60, JFK entered Congress, married the vivacious Jackie Kennedy and had two children. The decade was dominated by the Republicans under both Harry S Truman and Dwight Eisenhower with his infamous future president VP, Richard M. Nixon. Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, played an important part in making his older brother embrace the nascent civil rights agenda which would later play a part in his election and short presidency. Bobby Kennedy’s role as his brother’s ‘conscience’, seems rather bizarre considering that he spent his early career working for Senator Mc Carthy unearthing “reds”, from under beds.
Despite, being unsuccessfully nominated as Vice President in 1956, JFK gained the Democrat nomination 1960 when he beat popular Hubert Humphrey . The WASP press did not like Kennedy’s Catholicism, however this was allayed by a brilliant speech when he described himself as a democrat who happens to be a catholic. The race for President was very close and it might be described as the first modern election in that Nixon agreed to televised debates with his telegenic opponent. It transpires that listeners on the radio came down on the side of Nixon but those who watched the televised debates saw Nixon as a rather unsavoury character with ‘five o’clock shadow and sweating profusely under the lights, so giving the advantage to JFK. The undercurrent of support from ‘the Mob’, cannot be discounted in the election of Kennedy with the backing of such celebrities as Frank Sinatra.
JFK became President in January 1961 and began his term with the famous “Ask not”, speech. The tenor of his early presidency showed tensions with Russia over the fate of the western enclave around Berlin. Nikita Kruschev, enflamed the situation with a fence in Berlin, which later morphed into the infamous Berlin wall. In his dealings with JFK,the abrasive Kruschev ( after all he had survived the purges of Stalin)judged him to be intelligent though politically weak. This sentiment was echoed by J Edgar Hoover, the formidable Director of the CIA, who had not forgiven Kennedy for withdrawing US air support from the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Castro’s victory had not needed to be a communist one, since the main cause of his concern had been the corrupt mafia inspired American business interests on the island. With Fidel Castro now firmly in the Moscow sphere of influence, spy planes picked out Russian bases on Cuba resulting in the Cuban Rocket Crisis of October 1962. Kennedy showed his steel by making the Russian convoy turn back as against all-out attack, averting a third world war. Historians have discovered however, that it was diplomacy that won the day, in that a “tit for tat”, deal had been done in the removing of NATO missiles targeting the Black Sea ports. However, Cuba was blockade dfor many decades until the glacial tension was partially thawed under the Obama administration.
Despite the relief at the successful resolution of the Cuban crisis, CIA involvement embroiled the USA in Indo China with the sending of military advisers to Vietnam and the fight with the communist insurgents. Kennedy developed a policy of “Mutual Tolerance”, towards Russia and this was followed by a tour of Europe including the famous visit to Berlin (famously incorrectly describing himself as doughnut). Bobby Kennedy was also taking on the Mafia as Attorney General , Civil Rights for the black minority and also equal pay for women were all coming to the fore. Incidentally, Kennedy also made the brave promise that man would walk on the moon by the end of the decade so heralding the space race and the extra funding of NASA.
The multitude of conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas will be the subject that Mr Davies will return to finish in the next season of the history society. Suffice to say that the legacy of JFK was sufficient to guarantee a record victory for LBJ in 1964 over Barry Goldwater.
Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Davies for a memorable talk and looked forward to hearing “part two”, in a year’s time.