recent events in the courtrooms of Florida have dredged up bad memories of a far greater political tragedy, and one that still casts its shadow over American politics-the double assassination of Jack Kennedy in 1963 and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
The assassinations ensured there would no Kennedy dynasty-the fairy story began and ended with two men; one a charismatic world leader, the other his younger brother, Robert, who should have been his successor.
Like many people of my generation in the west, I was drawn into politics by JFK. It is hard to convey to people who have only known politics in a more cynical age just how he came to have this impact-you had to be there to feel it. But JFK also has many more tangible achievements to his name.
His handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, in which a nuclear conflagration between the world’s superpowers seemed inevitable, was exemplary. He was cautious as well as courageous. He repeatedly ignored the military experts around him who advocated an invasion of Cuba and opted instead for a naval blockade. The manner in which he made a belligerent Soviet Union peacefully withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba was crisis handling at its best.
In 1963 he took the heat out of the cold war with the first test ban treaty between the two superpowers. This was a direct consequence of the US’s success over Cuba and established a process of nuclear collaboration which lasted through to the end of the Soviet Union, and continues with Russia to this day. (This argument has recently been supported by the historian Lawrence Freedman, in his book Kennedy’s Wars, which concludes: “Jack Kennedy left the cold war in a far less dangerous state than he found it.”)
Further, against the advice of his generals and senior advisers-including Lyndon Johnson-Kennedy refused to send official ground troops into Vietnam and Laos. The first introduction of US military advisers actually began in the late 1950s under President Eisenhower and there were still only advisers in South Vietnam when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. (Johnson was responsible for an about face two years later and by 1968 there were 500,000 US ground troops in Vietnam.)
In terms of economic diplomacy, too, he went some way to claiming back the moral high ground from communism. Capitalism was then widely regarded as a purely selfish economic doctrine. But thanks to the Peace Corps-and his own evident idealism-he made the western system seem far more appealing to people in the third world and in the west itself.
So how did it all end so tragically? Conspiracy theory explanations for the first Kennedy assassination have gone out of fashion in recent years. The world seems to have settled for the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was inspired by some combination of disgruntled Cuban exiles and the mafia.
Until recently I went along with that consensus. Now I am not so sure. Chilling conversations with a friend who was once a close colleague and confidant of Robert Kennedy have returned to haunt me-triggered, perhaps, by the evidence from the recent presidential election of just how ruthless American democracy can sometimes be.
The astonishing allegation made by Robert Kennedy’s confidant was that Lyndon Johnson had a hand in the first Kennedy assassination and possibly the second too. Johnson knew he was going to be dropped as vice president from the Kennedy ticket for the 1964 election. J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, was aware that his corrupt dealings were known to Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, and that he too would lose his job during JFK’s second term. Johnson and Hoover always supported each other. Both men were utterly ruthless and had a clear incentive to orchestrate the Dallas murder; in fact JFK went to Dallas at the request of Johnson in order to settle feuding between leading Texas Democrats there.
The Warren Commission into the first Kennedy assassination concluded rather limply: “the possibility of others being involved… cannot be established categorically.” So far as I am aware no serious historian or commentator has ever directly implicated Johnson in either Kennedy assassination. My friend implicated him in both.
Why the Robert Kennedy assassination too? The mutual antipathy between Johnson and Robert Kennedy is well documented. There is little doubt that having just won the New York primary Robert Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if he had lived. And he had a very good chance of going on to win the presidency. Johnson and Hoover were terrified that as president he might discover all sorts of incriminating evidence against them-including their role in JFK’s assassination. They therefore had to stop his nomination at all costs.
My friend always hinted that there was some hard evidence somewhere for his astonishing thesis. He never provided it and he is now dead. Without fresh evidence we can only speculate, but it cannot be denied that in both killings the only senior political figures to benefit were Johnson and Hoover. The tragic destruction of the Kennedy dynasty and the failure to come up with a satisfactory explanation continues to discredit American democracy. Far more so than a few uncounted ballot papers in Florida. n