The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition

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During the summer of 2018 I was approached by Elephant House productions and asked to contribute to a new, two-part documentary series detailing the history of the Kennedy family.

Thirty years ago, TV documentaries on the Kennedy family first inspired my interest in US politics, so it means a great deal to have been invited to contribute to this project.

The show has now been aired in the UK on Channel 5 and I am delighted to share the results of this with you. I hope you enjoy

The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition Part One

The Curse of the Kennedys: Fatal Ambition Part Two

 

Parkland and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination

Following an article that I was widely quoted in that appeared in the Metro newspaper recently, I was invited to attend a screening of the movie, Parkland, at the American Embassy in London. The film addresses the immediate aftermath of the ambush that awaited President Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and is named after the hospital that tended all too briefly to JFK.

The first hour of the film appears to proceed in virtual real time, with the action (if that is the appropriate word) focused on the events in Trauma Room One and the frantic efforts to resuscitate the stricken chief executive. For the remaining 35 minutes or so, the movie speeds through the events of the following 2 days culminating in the simultaneous funerals of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin.

Much like the 2006 movie Bobby, Parkland feels like a small, independent movie, packed to the rafters with A-C list Hollywood actors, eager to be associated with the Kennedy legacy. As with Bobby, Parkland suffers as a direct result since one is all too often thinking, ‘Oh look, it’s (fill in the blank) in a funny hat.’  The movie also suffers from a lack of direction or obvious intent: It is never clear what the message of the movie is meant to be or who it is aimed at. It is certainly moving in places but this a result of the storyline more than the actual movie itself. As always, Paul Giamatti is excellent in his work as Abraham Zapruder, less successful, however, is Billy Bob Thornton, who as always, plays Billy Bob Thornton, this time in a hat and suit that appear 2 sizes too small and seems to be in a little movie all by himself, never quite appearing to be part of the wider events portrayed on screen.

Parkland continues the recent attempt to move away from focusing upon the graphical content of the Zapruder film, despite this being at the centre of the film. This is a strange decision, but far from the only challenging aspect to the film: For a movie that seems to want to stress it’s grasp of detail it singularly fails to include an appearance by Abraham Zapruder on American television that destroyed weekend.

The role of the FBI is singularly unquestioned. No mention is mentioned of the memo that was sent to every FBI field office on the eve of the assassination, warning of a threat to the president. Even the destruction of evidence linking Oswald to the FBI, which began that weekend, is presented in a very matter of fact manner, and not as part of a far larger effort to destroy evidence.

Despite the vast about of achieve footage of the doomed motorcade, hardly any is utilised, presumably due to the cost involved. This however, removes what could have been an interesting way in which to present the interaction between the president and everyday Texans as he glided to his untimely end. Considering the effort of the film to address the murder through the eyes of average citizens, this would have been a logical and effective addition.

Missing also from the film’s use of archive footage is the scene at Love Field when secret service agents were ordered to stand down from the presidential limousine. Missing entirely is the figure of Clint Hill, the sole secret service agent who leapt to action as the bullets were fired.

Vitally, at no point is Oswald’s innocence raised in a serious fashion. Only Oswald’s mother holds out the possibility that there may be more behind the shooting than meets the eye, but she is routinely portrayed as being unstable. Indeed, the widely addressed conspiracy theories are only raised as straw men, to be demolished by Oswald’s brother Robert. No serious consideration is given to any debate or discussion surrounding the assassination.

Parkland singularly fails to develop upon the myriad tales of individual involvement in the aftermath of the shooting or how the events impacted the rest of their lives. Clearly, many involved never recovered and never moved on from the events portrayed in the movie. As with Bobby, there were many interesting stories that could have been told around the historic event, but this is not one of them. Indeed, there really is no story at the centre of the movie. The medical team in Trauma Room One in particular were haunted by the events and their actions and reactions questioned and investigated ever since. This would have been a tale to tell, but one that may have required greater acting capacity than provided by Zac Efron, whose doe eyed look is the extent of his emotional range.

The release of Parkland raises a serious issue surrounding the portrayal of the assassination on film. In the decade following the president’s murder, a series of movies emerged that directly challenged the official version of events. These included Executive Action, Winter Kills and The Parallax View. Then came JFK, Oliver Stone’s behemoth that brought the events to a new generation and which resulted in the release of a slew of previously unreleased documents. However, in the years that have followed, challenges to the official record have disappeared. Parkland is only the latest in a series of cinematic recreations that blindly accept the lone gunman theory despite the fact that this has been directly challenged by a House Committee investigation in the late 1970s.

The movie fits into a very strange and increasingly conservative interpretation of the assassination and indeed, Kennedy’s life and legacy. 25 years ago, in 1988, it was not only permissible, but encouraged to look for complexity and contradictions in the official verdict and several programs aired that claimed to name second gunmen. While these efforts clearly went too far and were revealed to be flawed, they did at least seek to present a series of dilemmas that are at the heart of the assassination to the wider public. This is no longer the case. 2013 has revealed a near total failure to challenge the Warren Commission and indeed, has served merely to reinforce some of the more bizarre and far-fetched findings of that troubled report. It is indeed a strange world when a president can be killed in suspicious circumstances and it is those who are asking the difficult questions that are portrayed as being nutcases….

JDB on JFK 50

On November 22, 2013, I was deeply moved to participate in the BBC’s coverage of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I made a series of appearances on both BBC World News and on the BBC News Channel throughout the day, starting at 12:30 and ending at 20:30 as the station reflected on events from 1963 and the ensuing impact on US politics.

I was gratified to be able to work with the likes of Stephen Sackur, Nick Bryant and Tim Wilcox, as well as with the former White House correspondent for Time Magazine, Jef McAllister. Having watched Martin Sixmith’s report on the BBC news reflecting on the 25th anniversary in 1988 it was a poignant moment to be working with the BBC to mark this solemn occasion.

Whilst the BBC’s coverage of events was admirable, the ceremony designed to do so in Dallas was a travesty that appeared more to mourn the impact that the events had on the city than on the loss of the young president and the implications that this had for the nation and the world.

It was, in many ways, all too appropriate, for it reminded us of the manner in which Kennedy’s style, grace and charm was extinguished and replaced with Texan BBQ and crass antics 50 years ago.

Those chosen to speak clearly had no knowledge or interest in Kennedy; what he stood for, or what he sought to achieve. This was, along with move of the television coverage in general this week, an attempt to whitewash history and to deny certain truths. No mention was made, for example, of the Texan schoolchildren who cheered upon hearing the news of the shooting, having been raised in a climate of loathing toward the president in a city known then as The Hate Capital of Dixie. The clergy, tasked with reflecting on JFK, chose to use words initially spoken by George Bernard Shaw, adopted by RFK during his ill-fated campaign in 1968 and used so memorably in Ted Kennedy’s speech at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Great words, but singularly unconnected with JFK. Asking David McCullough to speak was also strange. A gifted author and orator, but again, where was the Kennedy connection?

The crass nature of the remarks, the glib attempt at a memorial service made a mockery of the events being observed. Hardly any surprise that no one intimately associated with the family was represented.

The death of President Kennedy was a dark day in the history of the United States and one whose impact is all too often forgotten. The ceremony in Dallas did little to improve the city’s standing and served only, perhaps, to remind us further of what was lost 50 years ago.

Obama and Cameron on the Road to Damascus

During his all too brief time as president, John F. Kennedy was understood to have lamented the difficulty he faced in making the threat of American power credible. ‘The place to do so,’ he speculated, ‘is in Vietnam.’ Whether JFK would have escalated the war as LBJ did is impossible to know. What is all too apparent is that President Obama faces a similar dilemma today in regard to US credibility due to events in Syria.

US prevarication over Syria has raised a series of questions regarding the potential decline of US global influence and in relation to the general competence of the Obama administration. Many of these questions are appropriate, but let us consider for a moment the position of the White House.

The Obama administration came to power on the basis that it was not George W. Bush. Now safely into his second term, Barack Obama does not wish to perpetuate any suggestion that he is merely continuing previous policies, despite the many suggestions to this effect.

The world had grown accustomed to George W. Bush’s cowboy style and rhetoric, even if it didn’t necessarily approve. By way of contrast, Barack Obama’s cool and detached demeanour appears all the more distinct and withdrawn from the passions of the moment and presents the impression of a lack of engagement or emotional commitment, which may well be at odds with reality.

Whatever one makes of the Obama administration, it did not come to office to slay foreign dragons. It has withdrawn from Iraq and is set to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama, unlike his predecessor, can be accused of being a withdrawer, but not an invader, and he appears content with this position. When military action has been required, such as in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, he has demonstrated a willingness to act, although this always appears to be the last option and one that is delayed as long as possible. After George W. Bush, seen by many as being too trigger-happy, such a stance may be welcomed. However, it now appears to many that Obama is going too far in the opposite direction to prove his non-Bush credentials.

A similar situation is playing out in Downing Street. David Cameron may have referred to himself as the heir to Blair but he cannot afford for that impression to take hold in regard to military operations of this type. The Prime Minister has overhauled the UK’s national security architecture in a deliberate attempt to prevent decisions involving the deployment of British forces being made on the Downing Street sofa. The new UK National Security Council, with its American name if not necessarily its political or military muscle, is an indication of Cameron’s clear intent to do things differently from Blair. On one level, at least, it seems to be working. No one hears reference to Cameron being Obama’s poodle.

One thing is certain; neither President Obama nor indeed the United States, can afford to use Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext for war in another Middle East nation. No wonder, therefore, that the administration is treading carefully. Just as in the early days of the lead up to the war in Iraq, there are in weapons inspectors on the ground seeking access to chemical weapons sites and scenes of atrocities. Getting them to these sites must be a priority. For Assad to deny them access would be seen by many as tantamount to an admiration of guilt that would be very difficult for his allies to justify.

Another challenge for the Obama administration is that this crisis is breaking at the exact time that official Washington is on vacation. Congress is out of town and so is the president, merrily golfing in Massachusetts. Alas, Obama’s protagonists are not waiting for the president and his team to get off the golf courses or the beaches, and are moving ahead with their nefarious plans. This is not to say that the American government is closed for business and we need to be careful not to focus too heavily on the actions of the president. His ambassador to the UN maybe AWOL, but Defence Secretary Hagel has been busy manoeuvring US assets into place should they be required, while Secretary of State Kerry has been quietly engaging in diplomacy to line up key actors should the shooting start. Alas, his second term did not begin well in terms of getting a foreign policy team in place and recent events have done little to inspire confidence.

Whatever happens next, the entire situation bears an uncanny resemblance to events surrounding Bosnia in the 1990s. Then, as now, a Democratic administration in Washington faced intense international criticism for allowing bloodshed to occur. Then, as now, the White House desired United Nations’ approval for military intervention, only to be blocked by Russian vetoes. Ultimately, the Clinton administration tuned to NATO and acted militarily, commencing the move away from the UN and towards a US embrace of NATO as its foreign policy instrument of choice; a journey that began several years before George W. Bush came to power.

A similar situation presents itself to us today. Russian and Chinese intransigence ensures that the UN Security Council will be an unlikely venue in which to resolve this situation. UK Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham believes that the Russians will be moved by the latest images to emerge from Syria, but this is to misunderstand Russia and its motivating factors. No one ever accused the Russians, or indeed Putin, of acting on sentiment. Putin has repeatedly rebuffed US advances throughout Obama’s term in office and recent events surrounding Edward Snowden have not improved matters. Russia will act to advance its national interest and so long as Assad’s Syria remains Russia’s ally in the region, his regime will not lightly be overturned, unlike Mubarak’s in Egypt. Russia, along with Iran, has much to lose with the fall of Assad and is more than capable of blocking any diplomatic solution, forcing the British and the Americans to ponder military action that neither nation seriously wishes to entertain. Iran’s statement today will only exacerbate this developing situation.

The rush to war may be occurring at a snail’s pace for those on the receiving end of Assad’s cruelty, but it certainly appears to be ramping up this weekend.

“Ich bin Ein Bland Speaker”: Barack Obama in Berlin

Today, Barack Obama became the latest American President to make the time honored mistake of travelling to Berlin with President Kennedy’s 1963 speech still ringing in his ears. Speaking almost 50 years to the day since President Kennedy spoke to a million Berliners from City Hall, Barack Obama sought to emulate the fallen hero of Camelot and came up short. Well short.

Where Kennedy delivered a short speech filled with emotion and passion, scribbled together on a flight over the Atlantic, Obama gave a cool and detached address that appeared to have been written by a committee and which was noticeably devoid of any resounding lines of its own or indeed original thought.

This was perhaps, a speech for its time, just as Kennedy’s was. Except that when Kennedy spoke it was to a divided city and a divided world and his voice gave hope and reassurance that the United States would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlin and the free world in the hour of maximum danger. That was the theme of the day, the moment and the era. In contrast, Obama delivered an aimless, meandering address that desperately lacked a center. To quote Churchill, like a poor dessert, it lacked a theme.

Obama suggested that this generation should not, indeed could not, rest on the laurels of the past generation or merely reflect on history. And yet he offered no specific sense of direction or a road map for the future, which was, of course, Kennedy’s genius. Instead, he delivered a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas and platitudes about co-existence. Climate change, nuclear disarmament, gay right, women’s rights, poverty reduction, economic rejuvenation, international trade, curing AIDS: All were covered in a speech that had no theme except its desire to be all things to all people. It was a liberal wish list of aspirations for an ideal world and totally at odds with the history of the last decade. Obama is, as he pointedly reminded the crowd, President of the United States and has been now for so long that he is into his second term. Yet his wish list of aspirations contained no sense that he felt any responsibility or capability to enact them or that he had done since January 2009.

The speech was high on expectations but low on delivery and lacking in passion. Time and again, Obama made direct or oblique reference to speeches of the past, but said nothing memorable himself. In fact, his repeated effort to quote from the past merely reinforced the vapid nature of his own remarks. Obama wisely referred to Kennedy’s other remarks from 1963, but in so doing, he failed to instill a sense of passion for the fallen icon, remorse at his passing or any of the vision that Kennedy inspired that day and in the years that followed.

Obama quoted Madison, Kant, Kennedy and King, yet in a speech that was staged on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, with his back to West Berlin, meters away from where Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall that divided the city and the world, Obama failed to mention the importance of the Gipper’s remarks, in what was a poor move that revealed the sad state of partisan American politics.

Obama’s delivery was faltering and it was notable that he was speaking to the crowd through 6 inches of armored glass from a text and not from a teleprompter. Maybe the sunlight prevented the auto-cue from working, but again, it was noticeable how dependent he is on the technology to deliver on the big occasions and how off his game he is when it fails.

“A world of Peace with Justice” emerged as a theme towards the end of the address, but this seemed forced. The loudest cheer came with the call to close Gitmo, but again, Obama has been president for 5 years, a time that has seen the magic luster compared to his last visit in 2008. There was a clear effort to address anger in regard to the NSA eavesdropping in the final section, but this received scant attention or response from the crowd.

It was, all in all, a remarkably unremarkable address.

Memory and Memorial: Obama and Vietnam 50 Years on?

This week the President of the United States quite correctly marked Memorial Day with a series of visits to military sites and memorials. His keynote address was at the Vietnam Memorial on Washington’s National Mall, a memorial that has itself been the subject of great controversy over the years.  During the address President Obama announced that the United States will be holding a 13-year period of observation, commencing May 28, 2012 and ending on November 11, 2025 to mark the dates of the Vietnam War.

This is fascinating for many reasons. I have often asked my students, most of whom are American, to pinpoint the start of the Vietnam War. It is, of course, a trick question, deliberately designed to get them to think and to question preconceived ideas. For a start, which Vietnam War am I asking them to consider? There have been many. Secondly, if they narrow it down to the one involving the United States, which particularly phase am I asking them to consider?  Dates are eventually thrown about like confetti; everything from the mid 1950s through to 1968. May 1962 never gets a mention.

There is no doubt that, as the President observed, the treatment that Vietnam veterans received was little short of a national disgrace in many, though not all, cases. But there is something odd about this 13-year nation observation, its timing and the identification of a ‘start date’ for the war.

A Little History

The American experience in Vietnam began earlier than many realise. In 1941, President Roosevelt believed that a possible occupation of Vietnam would give Japan a base in South East Asia, which would threaten rubber supplies, required by the US defence industry. This led to the freezing of Japanese assets in the U.S that helped provoke the attack on Pearl Harbour. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh, whom the US had backed,  proclaimed the Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Having established rulers in Cambodia and Laos, the French reinstated Bao Dai as Head of State in Vietnam in an attempt to re‑assert colonial rule. By the end of 1953, the United States was spending $1 billion a year to keep the French forces in Vietnam.

On May 7, 1954 massive attacks finally overwhelmed the French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Before their beleaguered retreat, the French had pleaded with the United States for direct military assistance. The Joint Chiefs proposed an air strike, the Vice‑President Richard Nixon suggested, “putting our boys in.” When the Congress expressed reservations, President Eisenhower sought British support. Prime Minister Churchill refused. Failing to achieve foreign support, Eisenhower retreated from unilateral intervention in Vietnam. He soon wrote Vietnamese Prime Minister Diem promising American support “in developing a viable state, capable of resisting subversion through military means.”[i] In return Eisenhower expected reform in Vietnam. Reform would mean improvement for the nation and therefore the people. If the people could see that their lives were improved due to American aid, why would the country want to become communist? President Eisenhower justified American involvement in Vietnam by invoking ‘The Domino Theory’. This premise was based on the notion that if Vietnam were to become communist, the whole of South East Asia would follow. This was accepted even though China had fallen five years previously and had failed to produce such a chain reaction.

In January 1961, the responsibilities of Vietnam passed to President John F. Kennedy. As a Congressman, Kennedy had visited Vietnam in 1951, reporting that America was “allied to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of Empire. Without the support of the natives there is no hope of success in South East Asia.”[ii] As President, Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s policy of sending military advisers to South Vietnam, increasing the aid during 1961 and 1962. After the Bay of Pigs disaster of March 1961, Kennedy remarked “We have a problem making our power credible, the place to do so is Vietnam.”[iii] Despite assuring the world that “America would pay any price to ensure the survival and the success of liberty,”[iv] the President steadfastly refused to commit combat units to Vietnam, despite the over‑whelming pressure to do so from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The troops will march in, crowds will cheer, and four days later everyone will have forgotten.” Kennedy quipped. “Then we’ll be told we have to send in more troops.”[v]

The President realised that if the war became a white mans’ affair, America would lose as surely as the French had. Kennedy was aware that America had drawn a line in Vietnam, and that he could not abandon it lightly. The President was in the position of being apparently unable to withdraw from the conflict, whilst refusing to adopt a policy of total war. Having convinced the Soviets of American credibility in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Kennedy began to reassess the American position in Asia. Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported back from Vietnam that One thousand troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1963, and that the United States would be able to withdraw all military personnel by the end of 1965.”[vi]

This plan was outlined in the Top Secret national Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, 1963. This was the order to start the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. “It’s their war,” President Kennedy stated “they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.”[vii] This stance was a serious deviation from the cold war policies of the past, and many speculated that it would be indicative of Kennedy’s second term. The President realised that he would be labelled as being “soft on communism”.[viii] He described his policy thus;  “If the American people do not want to use troops in Cuba how can I ask them to remove a Communist regime 9,000 miles away?”[ix] His sentiment was strengthened by the murder of Diem on November 1,1963. “A high level meeting in Honolulu on November 20, 1963 apparently adopted an ‘accelerated plan’ for reducing troop commitments.”[x]

This new policy was to be short lived. Within weeks President Kennedy was assassinated and the American responsibility in Vietnam fell to Lyndon Johnson. John F. Kennedy had never been an advocate of fighting a land war in Asia, Agreeing with general Douglas McArthur that to do so would be futile.”[xi] Lyndon Johnson however saw the situation in a different light. As Vice President he had visited Vietnam and had given Diem his word that America would fight to defend his country, referring to the corrupt leader as “the Winston S. Churchill of South East Asia.”[xii] This was contrary to American policy at the time, but Johnson saw that he had given his word, and he intended to keep it. To Kennedy, Vietnam had been a distant war, and one to be avoided. To Lyndon Johnson, it was almost personal.

One of Johnson’s first acts as President was to sign National Security Action Memorandum 273, reversing Kennedy’s withdrawal policy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, so long in favour of strong military intervention in Vietnam, finally had a President who would fight in Asia. Having been elected in his own right in 1964, President Johnson began the build up of troops in Vietnam with military landings at Danang in March 1965. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted President Johnson the capacity to wage undeclared war in Vietnam though few in Congress could have predicted Johnson’s escalation. Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air strikes against the north, went on daily from March 1965 until November 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs. The war would cost Johnson the Presidency, it had cost many more their lives. But the war did not end there. President Nixon dragged the war on for another five years, costing another 19,000 American lives. Ultimately, “The real domino to fall was American public opinion.”[xiii]

The American sense of mission, a paranoid fear of communism and McCarthy Red Scares prompted American action in Vietnam, which escalated to fill the void left by the French withdrawal. The assassination of President Kennedy prevented a 1965 American withdrawal, and President Johnson, having gambled his presidency upon military victory could not be seen to accept a negotiated settlement. Fear of being the first U.S. President to lose a war prevented Lyndon Johnson from accepting the 1968 verdict of his Cabinet that the war was now un­-winnable. The same dread permeated the soul of President Nixon, who spread the fighting into the state of Cambodia. Political fear cost the lives of thousands of young American troops, and countless more Vietnamese.

Obama and Vietnam

Nowhere in this historical record does the date of May 28, 1962 loom large. The decision of the Obama Administration to identify this date is seemingly without merit, except for current political considerations. The administration appears determined to promote the role of Commander-in-Chief to bolster the president in his campaign for re-election. This was evident in the recent ‘One Chance’ commercial that received such criticism for Obama’s inability to share the success of bid Laden’s demise with those who actually carried out the attack. It is also evident in his utilisation of the Memorial Day ceremonies to address Vietnam in a whole artificial manner. From the details previously referenced, it is clear that many dates loom large as potential ‘start dates’ for the American war in Vietnam, but May 28 1962 is not one of them. The United States had military advisers in Vietnam under Eisenhower. Kennedy refused to end in ground troops, choosing instead to continue with Ike’s use of advisers. Only after the 1964 election did the Marines land at Danang, heralding the start of the American land war.

One of the reasons that pinpointing the start of the war is so difficult is that no one wants to admit responsibility for it. Admirers of Eisenhower point to JFK’s build up of advisers. JFK advocates highlight his inheritance of advisers in Vietnam and his refusal to commit ground troops as well as his plans to withdraw during 1964. LBJ’s admirers highlight his inheritance of Kennedy’s advisers, the terrible circumstances surrounding his ascension to the presidency and suggest it was all Kennedy’s doing.

The irony here is incredible for anyone wishing to seek it: No one did more to enhance Obama’s standing in the 2008 primaries than the Kennedy family. Their decision to back Obama over Hillary was a huge event. Now, to thank them, Obama is officially blaming JFK for starting the Vietnam War. This is a truly horrendous mistake that makes a mockery of Kennedy’s repeated efforts to avoid the conflict and defy the military leaders calling for the insertion of ground troops.

One wonders what the reaction would have been to this speech had it been made by George W. Bush. One can picture historians rushing to TV studios lamenting his poor understanding of history, his attempt to whitewash the past and his obvious attempt to besmirch the memory of a Democratic Administration.

There were a series of dates that the President and his Administration could have chosen as a potential start date for he Vietnam War, either before or after 1962. I am indebted to Dr. Erik Villard for his insights into this issue. The administration chose a date after consultation with four military service historical offices, but this does not beam that this was a correct decision. Simply picking a date because of some vague relevance to a single helicopter raid in January 1962 or to the formation of MACV in February 1962 is not enough of a reason to make a really important declaration to signify the commencement of operations and therefore of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

An earlier draft of this work was denounced as “an attempt to use Vietnam as a political tool to serve right-wing conservative ideological ends.” This could not be further from the truth. Ii is instead an appeal for accuracy in an assessment of history and a recognition of the importance of the president’s remarks. In this announcement, President Obama has done a great disservice to the Kennedy family who did so much to ensure that he reached the White House. It can only be hoped that this announcement is soon lost to history and that Obama’s efforts to whitewash history are quickly ended.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London


[i] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,18

[ii] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,15

[iii] Stanley Karnow, “Vietnam: A History,” London: Random House, 1991, 265

[iv] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 274

[v] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 725

[vi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 614

[vii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 587

[viii] Kim McQuaid, “The Anxious Years,” New York: Basic Books, 1989, 22

[ix] Jim Marrs, “Crossfire, “ New York, Carroll & Graf, 1989, 307

[x] Horowitz, Carroll & Lee, ”On The Edge,” St. Paul MN: West Books, 1990, 440

[xi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 110

[xii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 119

[xiii] George Tindall, & David Shi, “America: A Narrative History,” Third Edition, New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992,24

Obama Caught Dancing in the End Zone: The Commander in Chief on His Victory Lap

Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.

It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.

The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.

In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.

There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.

In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.

Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.

Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.

Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.

However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.

This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.

The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.

With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.

A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.

I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments:

JDB at the TSA

I am delighted to announce that I will be addressing the Transatlantic Studies Association’s annual conference in Dundee next week.

I will be joining a panel to discuss  Transatlantic Relations, Diplomacy, Statecraft and Culture in the Second World War.

My discussion will focus on the problematic relationship between Winston S. Churchill and Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the future American president. It will consider concepts of personality, geopolitics and the foreign policy implications of the ‘not so’ special relationship between the two men. It will also consider the vital role of isolationism in US foreign policy at this time.

This will be the first in a series of papers to be produced that will form the basis for my new research project on the development of the relationship between the Kennedy family and the Churchills from 1938-1968.  The project will address the Ambassador’s posting to London, his dealings with Chamberlain, his mis-reading of Churchill and his fall from grace. It will also consider the influence that his time in London had on the young John F. Kennedy and the degree to which his career was influenced by Churchill, leading to his decision as president, to appoint the former PM with honorary American citizenship.

The conference itinerary can be found at:

http://www.transatlanticstudies.com/TSA%202011%20Conference%20Programme.pdf