Though much about his background and public service warrants criticism, he also deserves praise rarely given properly, this article offering some and the writer’s personal reflections on his commencement address to my June 14, 1956 graduating class, a message not heard now by US leaders erudite, incisive and timely. More on it below.
Had an assassin not taken his life, his health surely would have, some around him saying "from a medical standpoint, (he) was a mess." Indeed so, having been hospitalized more than three dozen times in his life and given last rites on three occasions.
At age 2 years, 9 months, he nearly died of scarlet fever. He contracted measles, whooping cough and chicken pox the same year, and as a child, was susceptible to upper respiratory infections and bronchitis. In 1935, he suffered jaundice, had a history of sports-related injuries because of his weak physique, and his mother remembered him as "a very, very sick little boy." In the 1930s, he began taking steroids for colitis, later developing complications, including a duodenal ulcer, back pain, digestive trouble, and underactive adrenal glands known as Addison’s disease.
He had a host of other problems as well, including a bout of malaria as a naval officer in the Pacific. At age 43, the 1960 presidential campaign exhausted him because he overdid it for a man of his health and stamina. In 1947, his Addisonism was diagnosed, at the time told he had one year to live, and was given his last rites shortly afterward. Yet as senator and president, his health problems were hidden, an observer calling it "one of the most cleverly laid smoke screens ever put down around a politician(‘s)" physical well-being.
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Much about it has been written and speculated, some of the best from James Douglas in his 2008 book titled, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, debunking mainstream myths and much more. From a wealth of information he uncovered, he showed how threatening Kennedy was to the military-industrial complex and had to go, "the CIA’s fingerprints….all over the crime and the events leading up to it."
The notion of a lone gunman is ludicrous, the evidence clearly implicating a national security state coup against one of its own deemed unreliable. Though to some degree a cold warrior, he changed, was chastened by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and refused another. He also fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, his assistant General Charles Cabell, and once said he wanted "to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds," reason enough to kill him.
Worst of all was his growing opposition to imperial wars, specifically in Southeast Asia. Though he initially sent troops and advisors, he changed, in 1961 opposing advice to send more to Laos, telling Averell Harriman, his Geneva Conference representative: "Did you understand? I want a negotiated settlement in Laos. I don’t want to put troops in."
The same year, he opposed using nuclear weapons in Berlin and Southeast Asia and once called Pentagon generals "crazy" for suggesting them, perhaps with Curtis LeMay (19061990) in mind, a zealot who wanted to nuke the Soviets while we had the edge, even at the cost of a few US cities.
Kennedy also wouldn’t attack or invade Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, saying throughout it he "never had the slightest intention of doing so."
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He swung to peace, away from war, telling an American University audience in 1963 that nuclear weapons should be abolished, the Cold War ended, followed by a "general and complete disarmament," and America no longer using its might to force Pax Americana on the world. Shortly afterward he signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, and in October 1963 (about a month before his assassination), he signed National Security Action Memorandum 263, calling for removing 1,000 US troops from Vietnam by year’s end and the remainder by December 1965.
Douglas wrote how, as president, he underwent a spiritual transformation from cold warrior to peacemaker, knowing it put him at odds with the Pentagon, CIA, most members of Congress, and nearly all of his advisors. As a result, he understood his vulnerability, perhaps by coup or assassination, a condition he nonetheless accepted and paid for with his life.
Besides turning toward peace and more, he also signed Executive Order (EO) 11110 on June 4, 1963 to:
- amend EO 10289 (dated September 17, 1951) designating and empowering the Treasury to perform certain "functions of the President without the approval, ratification, or other action of the President;" and
- perhaps bypass the Fed and empower the president to issue currency; it constitutionally empowered the federal government to create and "issue silver certificates against any silver bullion, silver, or standard silver dollars in the Treasury."
Though not verified, some believe he then ordered the Treasury Secretary to issue nearly $4.3 billion worth of United States notes, perhaps to replace Federal Reserve Notes. Whether or not he wanted to end the Federal Reserve System (and return money creation power to Congress as the Constitution mandates) is speculation, but perhaps fearing it, besides the above cited reasons and more, led to his assassination five months later.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said: "Silver has become too valuable to be used as money." In late 1963, after he became president, US notes were withdrawn from circulation, and noted Fed critic and author of The Creature from Jekyll Island, G. Edward Griffin, wrote on page 569 of his book:
"There was a third point, however, which everyone seemed to overlook. The Executive Order 11110 did not instruct the Treasury to issue Silver Certificates. It merely authorized it to do so if the occasion should arise. The occasion never arose. The last issuance of Silver Certificates was in 1957….six years before the Kennedy (EO). In 1987, (it) was rescinded by (EO) 12608 signed by Ronald Reagan."
Without mentioning EO 11110, he did it by amending EO 10289, rescinding the Treasury’s right to issue silver-backed notes.
Had Kennedy lived and served a second term, imagine the possibilities. Ending the Vietnam war alone would have been a powerful legacy.
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Kennedy’s June 14, 1956 Commencement Speech
Given outdoors on a blistering hot/humid day, he began expressing "pleasure to join with my fellow alumni in this pilgrimage to the second home of (my) youth," noting the difference between academia’s purpose to advance knowledge and his own "where the emphasis is somewhat different," saying:
"Our political parties, our politicians are interested, of necessity, in winning popular support a majority; and only indirectly truth is the object of our controversy," often sacrificed for political advantage.
The "political profession needs to have its temperature lowered in the cooling waters of the scholastic pool. We need both the technical judgment and the disinterested viewpoint of the scholar, to prevent us from becoming imprisoned by our own slogans. Therefore, it’s regrettable that the gap between the intellectual and the politician seems to be growing."
No wonder, he added, that politicians are so scorned, quoting James Russell Lowell’s mid-19th century satiric attack on Caleb Cushing, a celebrated Attorney General and congressional member, calling him "true to one party, that is himself." It’s as true today than then.
Kennedy’s entire talk was full of scholarly references and quotes, including Lord Melbourne to a youthful historian Thomas Macauley about the differences between scholars and politicians. Another from philosopher Sidney Hook, saying "Many intellectuals would rather die than agree with the majority, even on the rare occasions when the majority is right."
Yet he reminded the audience that today’s politicians and intellectual climate have a common ancestry, America’s early leaders, also distinguished for their writing and intellect, including Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and John Adams among others.
"Books were their tools, not their enemies. Locke, Milton, Sydney, Montesquieu, Coke, and Bollingbroke were among those widely read in political circles and frequently quoted in political pamphlets. Our political leaders traded in the free commerce of ideas with lasting results both here and abroad."
A contemporary of Jefferson called him "A gentleman of 32, who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin." He was also a statesman and third US president.
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"Daniel Webster could throw thunderbolts at Hayne on the Senate floor and then stroll a few steps down the corridor and dominate the Supreme Court as the foremost lawyer of his time. John Quincy Adams, after being summarily dismissed from the Senate for a notable display of independence, could become Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard and then become a great Secretary of State" as well as president.
"The link between the American scholar and American politician" lasted over a century. In the 1856 campaign, Republicans had "three brilliant orators William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Those were the carefree days when the eggheads were all Republicans." One of their own became president on March 4, 1861, denied a second term by his April 1865 assassination, challenging the establishment and existing order also his undoing.
Kennedy quoted John Milton, Bismark, Goethe and others, his erudition on display for those attending, a man with an intellect who used it. He reminded the audience that politicians and intellectuals "operate within a common framework a framework we call liberty. The lock on the door of the legislature, the Parliament, or the assembly hall by order of the King, the Commissar, or the Fuehrer has historically been followed or preceded by a lock on the door of the university, the library, or the print shop."
Where freedom is endangered, he said, politicians and intellectuals "should be natural allies, working more closely together for the common cause against the common enemy." They both must decide whether to be "an anvil or a hammer….whether (they are) to give to the world in which (they were) reared and educated the broadest possible benefits of (their) learning" for society’s benefit, or do it solely for their own. "As one who is familiar with the political world, I can testify" to the challenge we face.
He opted against handing over political and public life to experts "who ignore public opinion. Nor would I adopt from the Belgian constitution of 1893 the provision giving 3 votes instead of 1 to college graduates; or give Harvard a seat in the Congress as William and Mary was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses."
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But he urged politicians and intellectuals to work together, warning that we don’t "need scholars or politicians like Lord John Russell, of whom Queen Victoria remarked, he would be a better man if he knew a third subject but he was interested in nothing but the constitution of 1688 and himself. What we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge and recognize the mutual dependence of our two worlds."
He ended quoting what an English mother once wrote the Provost of Harrow, saying "Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament."
"Well, perhaps she was right but if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live on this commencement day of 1956."
Aged 39, he scarcely had more than seven years left before America’s dark forces killed him, a lesson his successors never forgot. Neither should we knowing the rogues that followed and their agendas, worst of all post-9/11, putting the nation on a fast track toward despotism unless cooler heads can stop them.
Reprinted with permission from The People’s Voice.
September 4, 2010