Kennedy: Home Movies

Kennedy: Home Movies


Leonard Zwelling

For my parents’ generation, they all know where they were when they first heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For my kids, it’s where they were on 9/11. But for us, the Boomers, it’s where we were on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The last part of an 8-part series about JFK’s life called Kennedy has just dropped on the History Channel. It has been a series of “I remember where I was when that happened.” It’s like a home movie of my life from age 12 to 15. It is both exhilarating because it reminds me what it was like to be alive when he was President and depressing because of all the might-have- beens that followed his death.

The series is particularly clear-eyed about his faults. He was a well-known womanizer, but it was not known by most of the country even if the press corps and the Secret Service knew. Back then, they didn’t talk. Now, they write books or worse, go on TikTok. He had a tendency in his early presidency to trust the generals and the intelligence community. That’s how he got into the mistake of the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he reverted to his more natural habit of ruminating over decisions, knowing whose opinion he could trust, and particularly depending more and more on his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. This series is sparse on the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For that see the book Thirteen Days by Robert Kennedy or the movie made from it.

There are two particular parts of the story that stand out.

First, JFK was a man in constant physical pain from a series of ailments and injuries. He had long periods of convalescence in his life and he used one of these after his back surgery in New York to write Profiles in Courage.

Second, he was a true war hero who saw unbelievable hardship in the Pacific when his PT boat was destroyed by a Japanese cruiser. He managed to lead his men to safety, swim to get help, and get them all back save the two killed in the initial collision. The book PT-109 by Robert Donovan was a great read. It was mandatory for all of us in 1961.

He knew personal adversity and was sympathetic to the plight of others despite his very wealthy up-bringing. He became a champion of the people, even as he was slow to join the civil rights movement. He was always careful after the Bay of Pigs, but when confronted with the segregationists in Alabama and Mississippi he stood up for justice.

He knew war and was very slow to respond to provocation from the Soviet ploy to put nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida. The generals wanted to bomb the island. Kennedy was afraid that would start World War III, a nuclear confrontation. It was his drive for a better solution that gave birth to the blockade (quarantine) of the island that eventually led the country from the brink of war. That brilliant idea might be dusted off now off the coast of Iran.

But the biggest difference this film makes clear is that Kennedy and Nixon, the two presidential candidates in 1960, really differed very little in their policies. Contrast that with our political environment now.

Even after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was backed by 83% of the American people. We were one nation, up against the communist threat and reaching for the stars.

As I finished watching I wondered, what the hell happened? I’ve been wondering that for 60 years.

There is no doubt that the Kennedy assassination was the single most traumatic news event of my lifetime for me. It was not just the loss of an American hero. It was the loss of the future we thought he embodied. We did land on the moon before 1970 as he had planned. Would he have extricated us from Vietnam? Who knows? I think Bobby would have, but there again, a tragic loss.

I highly recommend this eight-part series, but really do so for those of you over 70. It will bring back some amazing memories—not all good, but all real. You remember, when was fab.

2 thoughts on “Kennedy: Home Movies”

  1. Thanks for this recommendation. I will take a look. Also, have you seen the recent documentary, “JFK: what the doctors saw” ? I knew several of the doctors in the documentary and had heard their story years ago when I was a surgical resident in Texas.
    Finally, I agree that we have lost so much of the national unity and hope that we experienced in our youth. Social media has tended to fracture the spirit and trust of Americans . Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that those who value integrity, democracy and justice will eventually lead us forward.

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