John F Kennedy: Myth, Murder, Mystery

Last Friday 22 November 2013 was the 50th death anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America who was killed on 22 November 1963 by an assassin’s bullet as he was being driven in an open limousine in Dallas, Texas.

The world over, there have been extensive retrospectives and coverage of that event which shook, first, the USA, and then rapidly the rest of the world on that fateful day. In a programme on CNN, the commentator rounded up with the words of the title of this article, namely ‘John Kennedy, myth, murder, mystery’ after having remarked earlier that he was the man who had ‘launched America on its flight to the moon and its blunder in Vietnam’, a man who had ‘a bright smile and an elegant stride.’

I think it would be right to say that when he became President of the United States on 20 January 1961, his charisma and youthfulness created a great impression on youth across the world. I was then in Form V at the Royal College Curepipe, which was – and until Independence in March 1968 I presume –headed by a Britisher, who was at that time Mr Herbert Bullen the Rector. A good number of the teaching staff too were from the UK, and as practically all the Mauritian teachers were also holders of degrees from the UK, there was an obvious British bias on us as we were maturing through the school years. For that matter, the library of the college had several magazines and newspapers originating from the UK, such as The Listener, The Spectator, The Illustrated London News as well as scientific publications such as Discovery and Nature, as also Scientific American.

We were gradually beginning to understand that Western Europe, and perhaps particularly the UK, was engaged along with the US in the containment of communism being spread by the Soviet Union. And so it was that major events that stirred these countries came to our notice with greater interest than what was happening elsewhere, whether or not and how they impacted our tiny island we had little idea of. But given our young, impressionable minds, it was news that had to do with the lives of prominent personalities or with the confrontations between the opposing blocs (communist v/s non-communist) that mostly retained our attention.

Thus, during JFK’s presidency, there was the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that brought the world on the brink of nuclear war, and the ongoing Vietnam war. In the UK there was the eruption into the public space of a spying scandal involving the Secretary of State in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, John Profumo and a notorious call girl Christine Keeler who was the girlfriend of a staff in the Soviet embassy in London. The reason I remember these is that we discussed them in our General Paper classes, and were assigned to write essays on them.

There were also the famous words of JFK, ‘my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ and the equally notorious ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ (‘I am a Berliner’) during a speech at the Berlin Wall in 1963. In those days of no television, the news reached us on the radio and in the magazines in the library. As far as I can recall, the power of the words was as strong as the graphic footage that is served on television and the smartphones today.

To my knowledge very few Mauritians used to go to the US for studies then, and so our knowledge of that country was limited to what we learned in our geography class or subsequently during the general discussions I have mentioned. But JFK somehow remained in our consciousness, and his assassination did indeed come as a blow to us, charged as it was with emotion and the telling pictures of his young widow and children.

I did get to listen to JFK’s speeches, and partly because of the English bias that I have mentioned above as well as my own inclination towards the English language, I must say that I appreciated them, for their content, the powerful messages in carefully chosen words and combinations of words, and the delivery in front of cheering crowds most of the time. I avidly read whatever was available about JFK, and from England somebody got me a copy of a book of the speeches of JFK.

When I went for my medical studies in 1965, I kept up my interest — at least for a while, before I got swamped by the demands of medicine – and bought books in connection with JFK and his assassination. There was one about the Warren Commission Report on the assassination, and another one written by JFK namely Profiles in Courage. It won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize, and was a ‘volume of short biographies describing acts of bravery and integrity by eight United States Senators throughout the Senate’s history. The book profiles senators who crossed party lines and/or defied the opinion of their constituents to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of their actions.’

Subsequently, after I became an orthopaedic surgeon, I came to know that JFK had suffered from chronic low back pain, and had undergone spinal operations, and as a result was immobilized for a protracted period.

The remembrances on his 50th death anniversary have revived quite a few of my memories about JFK, his presidency and that period. Reading some of the articles that have been published in various magazines, I learn that 50 years on, conspiracy theories still abound about JFK’s assassination, which has not been solved yet, and probably never will, the 26-volume Warren Commission’s and subsequent commissioned reports notwithstanding: ‘the glut of information has done little to resolve the mysteries.’

JFK remains an icon, ‘cherished for what was than for what might have been.’ For my part, I retain an adolescent admiration for the man, despite all the negative information that has come to light about him since. Perhaps it is about the dream that he represented for us then. Whatever be, requiem in pace JFK.


* Published in print edition on 29 November 2013

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