In Arthur Schlesinger's court history, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, which might without unfairness be called the founding breviary of the cult of JFK, there appears the following vignette. Schlesinger had been asked to carpenter a 'White Paper' justifying Washington's destabilisation of Cuba, in which the high-flown rhetoric of the New Frontier might form a sort of scab over the fouler business of empire. This task he readily performed, scampering back to the Oval Office for a chat with the divine one:
As we finished, I said: 'What do you think about this damned invasion?' He said wryly: 'I think about it as little as possible.' But it was clear, as we talked, that he had of course been thinking about it a good deal. In his judgment, the critical point - the weak part of the case for going ahead - lay in the theory that the landings would touch off a mass insurrection against the regime. How unpopular was Castro anyway? I mentioned a series written by Joseph Newman, who had just visited Cuba for the New York Herald Tribune, citing a piece which reported the strength of sentiment behind Castro. Kennedy said quickly: 'That must have been the fourth piece - I missed it. Could you get it for me?' I sent it over that evening. In a short while he called back to ask that I talk to Newman and obtain, as hypothetically as possible, his estimate about Cuban response to an invasion.
Allowing for Schlesinger's retrospective, self-serving grace-notes (one has to love the placing of the word 'wryly'), a conversation something like this one must have taken place in March 1961, just a few weeks after the bombastic, menacing 'Ask not . . .' inaugural address, and very shortly before the invasion itself. And, even though Schlesinger was busily putting the arm on the press on Kennedy's behalf - persuading the New Republic, for example, to kill an accurate story about the training of Cuban mercenaries in Miami - he does want us to understand that he was always, privately, opposed to the folly of the Bay of Pigs. Let us suppose, then, that JFK had been hit by a bullet the day after he asked to read the Newman despatches. Let us further suppose that Lyndon Johnson, finding the plans already in place, had authorised the invasion of Cuba. There would now be a herd of revisionist historians and propagandists, all assuring us that if he had lived, 'Jack' would never have allowed the CIA and the Joint Chiefs to do anything so barbarous and stupid. Why, just the night before he fell to an assassin, he was 'wryly' reconsidering . . .
LRB 19 February 1998 | PDF Download