Does PBS's "JFK" Whitewash Kennedy's Flaws?
Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000, Dr. Stern was the first non-member of the ExComm and the first professional historian to hear all of the then-classified ExComm tape recordings. He is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012) in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.
During a broadcast of the four-hour PBS documentary, “The Kennedys” in the 1990s, historian and scriptwriter Geoffrey C. Ward acknowledged the special responsibility of writing history for television because, regrettably, far more people watch television than read books. Ward also explained that the real challenge of scriptwriting, which demands telling the story of a complex life and public career in a few hours, is the need to achieve a balance between brevity and accuracy. At the time, I criticized “The Kennedys” for emphasizing the family’s personal failings but virtually ignoring -- in JFK’s case -- achievements such as the Peace Corps, the space program, national support for the arts, and the remarkable impact, analogous to that of FDR’s “Fireside Chats,” of the president’s live press conferences. “Student viewers,” I concluded, “may come away from this video without a clue to the inspirational quality of JFK’s leadership and any understanding of why he was and still is so popular with the American people”(as opposed to professional historians).
The new PBS documentary “JFK,” likewise four hours, inevitably had to deal with the same conundrum, and, on the whole, is more nuanced in its conclusions about Kennedy’s leadership and record. Nonetheless, the script sometimes chooses brevity over accuracy. Here are a few examples:
1) The script mentions the role of Joseph P. Kennedy in getting JFK’s Harvard senior thesis, “Appeasement at Munich,” published. However, the story is far more intriguing and revealing. Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Krock of the New York Times, a close friend of Ambassador Kennedy, substantially revised the manuscript and even coined the title Why England Slept. Harvey Klemmer, an aide to the ambassador in London, also provided significant revisions and Time magazine’s Henry Luce wrote the introduction -- at the request of the JFK’s prominent father. The final version barely resembled the original paper, which was described by one of JFK’s professors as: “Fundamental premise never analyzed. Much too long, wordy, repetitious.” The published product should hardly be described as JFK’s original work.
2) “JFK” refers to Joseph P. Kennedy’s isolationism and support for appeasement. However, those views were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg in understanding the ambassador's views. He was deeply impressed by Hitler’s new order, openly endorsed Charles Lindbergh’s defeatism (and supplied the aviator’s exaggerated assessments of German military strength to Prime Minister Chamberlain), supported the Nazis’ racial and anti-Semitic policies as unfortunate but necessary, and was convinced that democracy was finished in Europe and likely in the U.S. as well. Even after the Munich agreement, when Chamberlain’s illusion of peace in our time was shattered within a year by Germany’s invasion of Poland, Ambassador Kennedy continued to urge FDR to look after American vital interests, which “lie in the Western Hemisphere,” to accept the fact that Britain was done for, and to make a deal with Hitler while there was still time to keep the U.S. out of the war. Not surprisingly, the elder Kennedy’s political career was destroyed and his views cast a long shadow over the ambitions of his son John as well. Some two decades later, when JFK announced his candidacy for president, the last Democrat to hold that office, Harry Truman, opposed his nomination. Asked to explain his position, which some thought was based on Kennedy’s Catholicism, Truman quipped, “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of, it’s the pop.”
3) John F. Kennedy’s reckless and compulsive womanizing is frequently cited, but the film fails entirely to examine the dangers it posed to his presidency at the most critical time in the Cold War. His relationship during World War II with the Danish beauty Inga Arvad, who was also on friendly terms with Hitler, is not mentioned in the film. Their affair ended because it was monitored carefully by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and reported to Ambassador Kennedy. This early relationship, however, typified the dangerously rash behavior that continued even when Kennedy was in the White House (for example, with Judith Campbell Exner -- the mistress of a Mafia boss, Mary Meyer -- the ex-wife of a prominent CIA operative, and Marilyn Monroe, among others). If Kennedy’s personal life had been exposed, particularly during the heat of the 1964 presidential campaign, his presidency could have ended in a sordid scandal instead of a senseless tragedy.
4) The script declares that Profiles in Courage was written by Kennedy with some help from his Senate staff, especially Theodore Sorensen. It does not mention that Ambassador Kennedy worked diligently behind the scenes to secure the Pulitzer Prize for his son; but, far more importantly, the conclusion about the authorship is essentially inaccurate. As demonstrated conclusively by historian Herbert Parmet (Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, Dial Press, 1980) Sorensen was clearly the principal author who heavily edited, revised, if not completely rewrote, anything submitted by JFK. At the very least, the book should have been published as the work of co-authors.
5) And finally, there is the scriptwriter’s rather odd handling of the Cuban missile crisis. The film is notable for what it did not do; fortunately, it did not fall into the well-worn trap of repeating the myths and contrived fabrications in Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days (as in the 2000 film of the same name) -- that is, making RFK the dovish hero of the crisis who comes up with the brilliant idea of ignoring Khrushchev’s October 27 offer to trade the missiles in Cuba for the U.S. missiles in Turkey and instead accepting the terms of his earlier (October 26) offer to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. But, on the other hand, the script fails to even mention the October 26 letter! And, except for quoting RFK’s suggestion to create an incident to justify invading Cuba (“sink the Maine again”) the film fails entirely to demonstrate the most important revelation on the ExComm tapes -- that Robert Kennedy was a determined hawk from day one to day thirteen. Likewise, the script includes the oft-repeated but false claim that JFK approved the use of depth-charges against Soviet submarines in Cuban waters. In fact, the president specifically rejected the use of depth-charges, but eventually agreed to deploy so-called “practice” depth charges only after he was assured (inaccurately, as it turned out) that they would not damage the submarines.
“JFK” often fails to rise above “the same old, same old” imagery crafted so effectively by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore Sorensen in the 1960s and would have benefited from more historical substance and fewer truisms from talking heads. It is, in that sense, a missed opportunity that can be described, admittedly with some exaggeration, as hagiography-lite. Of course, it would have been unrealistic to expect anything else since the program was prepared to mark the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s tragic assassination. Perhaps in 2063, when all the people who remember that dreadful day in Dallas are gone, it may be possible to finally evaluate JFK without tears.