It is part of the mystique essential to the leadership cult that the leaders themselves, dead and alive, are surrounded by myths. When they die in as dramatically horrible a way as the late President Kennedy, the myths may become more exaggerated than usual. Everyone, except for a few lunatics like the Deep South segregationists who cheered when they heard it, must have felt a chill of horror at the news of Kennedy’s assassination. Everyone must feel for Mrs. Kennedy in her endurance of an experience to haunt her for the rest of her life. It is never pleasant to look upon the results of violence, especially the sort of which simmers beneath the garish shell of a city like Dallas.
But the world is larger than one man, no matter how powerful he may be—and Kennedy was a very powerful man indeed. The eminence of the people who attended his funeral is proof—if more proof were needed—of the fact that the United States stands supreme in world capitalism today. But whatever sympathy we may feel for Kennedy we also feel for the millions of other people who suffer under capitalism. We feel it for those who meet, without headlines, equally horrible deaths in wartime. However much we sympathise with Mrs. Kennedy in her grief, we have the same feelings for the relatives of those who died in battle, or in air raids. We feel for all the unnecessary suffering which property society imposes on the human race—for the hunger and the fear and the cruel struggle that is so often the business of living.
Because we feel these things, and want to do something about them, we are Socialists. And because we are Socialists we try to dispel the myths which help to sustain capitalism, no matter what or whom they concern.
The first notion we have to examine is the one which is held, in different ways, by the man who shot the President and by the people who applauded, and by those who grieved, his death. This is the notion that murdering Kennedy will substantially alter the course of history. Predictably, there have been many comparisons with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. Yet Lincoln’s murder did not change anything. It did not alter the fact that the North had won and that as a result the American Union would continue to be solidified and to develop into the great power that it is today. If the American Negro is still, in many parts of the United States, held in near slavery, that is only because one of the real factors in the moulding of history—the massive will of a people—wants him to remain so and not because a man who is mistakenly supposed to have stood for Negro freedom was murdered.
In the same way, the policies which Kennedy followed, whatever superficial effect he himself had upon them, were basically determined for him by the conditions of his time. Kennedy, it is said, regarded politics as the art of the possible which means, among other things, that he tried to acknowledge the realities of modern capitalism. The new President, Johnson, lost no time in declaring that he, too, would work within these realities. Thus there will probably be no change in Washington’s new attitude towards the Soviet Union. This attitude sprang, not from a change of heart on the part of Mr. Khrushchev, nor from a pacific impulse on the part of President Kennedy, but from the new balance of power after the rift between Russia and China. This rift, incidentally, was symbolised by different reactions to the news of Kennedy’s assassination—regret in Moscow, jubilation in Peking. This situation has brought about a change in Russo/American relations; American policy is now the compound of firmness and caution upon which the dead President put his stamp.
We are accustomed, now, to hearing such changes described as the actions of peace-loving leaders. President Johnson has run true to form on this; in, his first speech to Congress he said:
“We will be unceasing in the search for peace—resourceful in our pursuit of areas of agreement even with those with whom we differ—and loyal to those who join with us in common cause.”
There will, too, be no change on civil rights. Racial intolerance is a considerable obstacle to the advance of organised industry in some parts of America; any government which faces modern realities must be opposed to it. Here was one of Kennedy’s greatest difficulties. He knew the importance of desegregation but he also knew that to push a programme of equal rights would cost him votes. And so it did. He was, in fact, in Texas in an effort to heal a split in the local Democratic ranks, and to rally support for his presidential campaign next year, when he was shot down.
The Kennedy policies, then, will continue because they expressed the conditions and the needs of American capitalism today. If some Congressmen opposed them, if fanatical racialist Senators from the South persisted in regarding Kennedy as a dangerous revolutionary, that is only a measure of the fact that they reflect the ignorance of the people who elected them. This ignorance need not concern only such things as class consciousness; it can also apply, as it does in the case of racial intolerance, to the realities of modern capitalism. Johnson will also do his best to make the United States face these realities. “I hate this as much as you do,” he once shouted at some obstinate Congressman, “But this is happening.” Which is a typically Texan way of summing it up.
Kennedy’s image was of a gracefully relaxed, yet energetically driving, young man. A cultured, sincere man; a man whose good looks, background and accomplishments made him something of a model for every modern sales executive. Kennedy was rich enough to have had, and to have taken advantage of, a very good education. One report put his personal fortune at between £3½ million and £4¼ million, and that of his father at something like £100 million. His social regime in the White House showed that he was deeply appreciative of the arts. But at the same time Kennedy was a very cool politician. He planned years ahead for his assault upon the Presidency. The manner in which he convinced the Democratic Party that his comparative youth and his Roman Catholicism did not weaken his power to attract votes was a classical example of his single-minded political campaigning. His professed sincerity and ideals did not prevent him, when he named Johnson as his Vice-Presidential candidate, from working the vote-catching compromise which is usual in American presidential elections. The campaign itself was a masterpiece, with Kennedy the man very much in control. Alistair Cooke reporting the campaign for The Guardian, contrasted the possible reactions of the candidates if they lost. Nixon, he thought, would take defeat bitterly but Kennedy would not let it worry him—he would “sleep sound o’nights.”
There is no reason to suppose that Kennedy’s death will basically change anything. Perhaps there will be different decorations at the White House, or fewer famous musicians performing there. But the ideas and the policies which come out will be to all intents and purposes the same as if Kennedy were still alive. This is what American investors thought; Wall Street slumped when the President was shot, but a couple of days later it recovered with a rise the like of which has not been seen for over thirty years. The Stock Exchange in London, and its equivalent in other capitals, were also not slow to express their opinion that, whoever is in the White House, capitalism is going to live on.
The Cuban crisis made Kennedy the first man ever to have wielded, in apparent earnest, the threat of nuclear war as an instrument in capitalism’s international disputes. The manner in which he handled that crisis may be enough to set him down as one of the world’s more incisive leaders. Because of this, he will be buried in the myth that a leader’s political skill, or lack of it, substantially alters history. In fact, Kennedy was very much like the men who were Presidents before him, and the man who has succeeded him. He worked within the art of the possible. Perhaps at times he hated what he was doing yet was compelled to do it—because it was happening.