Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Saviour

"I know there is a God -- and I see a storm coming;
 if He has a place for me, I believe that I am ready."
-- John F. Kennedy
He was the only one. The only one in the Administration who refused to attack the island. The only one who stood up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood up to the rest of his National Security State (which wasn't his at all), stood up to the established media chorus calling for invasion and air strikes, stood up to the strategic coup being organized behind his back by one of his future killers, Lyndon Johnson. As we now know, the Cubans and Soviets had operational battlefield nukes which, if fired, would have taken out Miami, Washington DC, and New York City. Hence, the end of the world. At every turn, he refused confrontation. When the missiles and sites were discovered. When he ordered the blockade of Cuba, and the Soviet ships approached the quarantine line, he pulled that line back -- four times. When the Soviet tanker Bucharest, almost certainly not carrying any missiles or other armament, steamed toward the blockade line, he decided to let it proceed to Havana, again against all advice. Privately, Kennedy had begun to doubt the validity of the CIA photos, ostensibly proving the existence of the Soviet missiles. (CIA had doctored photos before, during the Bay of Pigs.) When Rudolf Anderson, Navy flier, was shot down in a National Security State covert operation directed against Kennedy by sending -- against direct White House orders -- a U-2 surveillance flight over the island at the hottest moment of the crisis, he kept the shoot down quiet until the crisis was over. "He chickened out again!" bellowed Air Force General Curtis LeMay. (A further anti-Kennedy covert op also involved a U-2: one just happened to "stray" low over Soviet territory, then was "rescued" by nuclear-armed F-102s back to base.)
"There was now the feeling that the noose was tightening on all of us, on Americans and Soviets and Cubans, on mankind, and that the bridges to escape were crumbling. But again the President pulled everyone back. . ." -- Robert Kennedy
When two letters arrived from Khrushchev -- the first agreeing to all United States demands, the second belligerent and escalatory -- Kennedy decided to proceed as if the second letter never arrived. (JFK would later agree, after the crisis was settled, to all the Soviets had asked for, in the second hard-line letter.) In the most dangerous moment in human history, when all force was on his side, he refused all force. As he whispered to his brother as the Joint Chiefs started clamoring for a first-strike against Moscow: "And we call ourselves the human race. . . I think of all the children in the world who have no idea what the United States or the Soviet Union even are. . . Well, better Red than dead."

Better Red than dead. Was this heard by anyone else? James Douglass:
For at least a decade, JFK’s favorite poem had been "Rendezvous" by Alan Seeger, an American poet killed in World War One. Kennedy recited "Rendezvous" to his wife Jacqueline in 1953 on their first night home in Hyannis after their honeymoon. She memorized the poem, and recited it back to him over the years. In the fall of 1963, Jackie taught the words of the poem to their five-year-old daughter, Caroline.

On the morning of October 5, 1963, President Kennedy met with his National Security Council in the Rose Garden of the White House. Caroline suddenly appeared by her father’s side, and she said she wanted to tell him something. He tried to divert her attention while the meeting continued, but Caroline persisted. The president smiled and turned his full attention to his daughter. He told her to go ahead. While the members of the National Security Council sat and watched, Caroline looked into her father’s eyes and said:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
After Caroline said the poem’s final word, “rendezvous,” Kennedy’s national security advisers sat in stunned silence. One of them said later the bond between father and daughter was so deep “it was as if there was ‘an inner music’ he was trying to teach her.”

Henry Miller often wrote that each of us are placed here on earth in order to learn one lesson. We then move on. It is hard to appreciate John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life apart from its ending -- a manner of ending surely influenced by his actions during the Missile Crisis. Yet perhaps the miraculous singular purpose of his life was to save us all. For he did.

The Monday night, October 22nd, 1962 television address:



Many actors have played Jack Kennedy in movies and TV, on stage. None have captured the self-effacing, realistic, inner grace of the man. The decency. The isolation. The melancholy and fatalism. Here Bruce Greenwood does. Thirteen Days (2000) itself is merely in the deep end of the theatrically-released Movie of the Week genre and is nearly drowned by Kevin Costner's endless, insufferable presence. (He plays White House Chief of Staff Kenny O'Donnell who had little to do with the Crisis drama.) Greenwood makes it special. A remarkably intelligent actor who gives us the hardest of all things to capture on film: thought. And he embodies Kennedy as not only the center (despite Costner's suffocations); but also as target.



No one has appreciated John F. Kennedy more beautifully and profoundly than Catholic theologian James W. Douglass, in his masterpiece JFK and the Unspeakable and in continuing lectures. Here is Douglass at his most moving, Seattle, Washington, September 2008.



And a wonderful new documentary presented by the JFK Library showing what would have been, without President Kennedy: "Clouds Over Cuba"