Through History's Lens

by Myra Saturen
November 21, 2013

The day before the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, NorthamptonPresident John F. Kennedy Community College faculty, staff and students reflected upon the event's significance for history at a showing of Oliver Stone's documentary film,  "JFK: To the Brink," an episode in the filmmaker's series Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States.   Professor of English Dr. James Von Schilling introduced the film with some observations and invited audience comments afterward.  

Von Schilling began by showing national polls demonstrating JFK's rise in historians' and the public's estimation since his death.  Years ago the president with the seventh shortest term in American history -  1,036 days - stood at number 11, wedged between presidents James Polk and John Adams, a remarkable place considering his short term in office. Steadily climbing the barometer of opinion, Kennedy arrived at #1 in a public survey in 2011.  Von Schilling attributes this top standing to the large presence of Boomers-whose youths dovetailed with JFK's presidency-- in today's population. 

The video traces Kennedy's evolution from a non-critic of "red-scare" Senator Joe McCarthy to the president who resisted proddings by advisors to intervene with military force in Southeast Asia.  The film particularly emphasizes Cuban-Soviet-American relations in the early 1960s.  The title "From the Brink" relates to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war.  Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Kruschev, no less than Kennedy, held the prospect in horror, and both acted to prevent its occurrence-Kruschev by removing missile sites from Cuba and Kennedy by secretly pledging to dismantle American sites in Turkey.  Stone believes that the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion steeled a skeptical Kennedy's resolve to make decisions independent of hawkish advisors such as CIA director Allen Dulles.  This determination influenced the president's actions in Southeast Asia. 

Evidence from film's clips of Kennedy's speeches, especially a commencement address he gave at American University, bolsters his legacy as a president intent on peace.  It records Kennedy urging graduates to think of Soviet citizens in human terms and expressing his vision of ending the Cold War.  The president's endorsement of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty furthered the cause of world peace. 

On Southeast Asia, Kennedy faced critics who decried him as "soft on communism."  Rebuffing the joint chiefs, who pressured him to send forces to Laos, he refrained from committing ground troops to Southeast Asia, prompting the Pentagon's ire. How, Kennedy asked, could the United States support French colonial rule while having opposed Soviet moves into Hungary and Poland?  And yet, despite his doubts about a land war, and his knowledge of France's defeat in "Indochina," Kennedy embraced Eisenhower's concept of the "domino" theory, in which Vietnam held its finger in the dike of communist domination of the region.  His administration resettled villages at gunpoint and chemically defoliated areas controlled by North Vietnamese guerillas.  The administration expanded the American military presence in Vietnam, increasing the number of advisors from 800 to 16,000. 

After the assassination, United States foreign policy changed dramatically, with the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 

"That afternoon in Dallas, it was as if a giant Medusa unearthed the hideous face and oracle of things to come," Stone said.  Within six years, the War in Vietnam had escalated, and Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had been murdered.   

The video also touched upon other related facets of the era, including the Berlin Wall, fallout shelters and bungled attempts to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro. 

The film ends on a poignant note: how might history have taken a different course if Kennedy had not been assassinated? 

Schilling added a point that was not covered by the Stone film-that it was Kennedy who established the Peace Corps.    

The film screening and discussion were sponsored by NCC's Peace, Justice and Conflict Resolution Club. 

Von Schilling was recently awarded the Kopecek Chair, a three-year appointment that enables a faculty member to pursue an innovative project different from his or her usual teaching and course development.   He will focus on the mid-1960s, which he says was "a period when many things were being set in motion-political movements and cultural change that have informed us ever since."  

On Friday, November 22, Von Schilling will show live news footage from the JFK assassination, timed to coincide with the hour of the actual event, at 1:00 p.m., in Laub Lounge. 


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