Sunday, 30 September 2012

John F. Kennedy's "soft power"

Last night the Ilkley Literature Festival hosted a talk by Sir Roger Carrick about his recently published memoirs, Diplomatic Anecdotage: Around the World in 40 Years (Elliott & Thompson, 2012). Sir Roger's first diplomatic posting was in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1962. He then spent time in Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, Singapore and Jakarta, before retiring as Her Majesty's High Commissioner to Australia.

Sir Roger talks in his fascinating book about the reaction in Bulgaria to President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963:

'The queue to sign the American legation's book of condolences was huge, perhaps a kilometre long and three or four deep. ... the terrible tragedy had so gripped the Bulgarians as they had heard the news on the radio, that they had flocked to express real grief and sympathy ... Now, the Bulgarians, of all repressed and depressed people, spontaneously, and in impressively large numbers, had made a singular and singularly important gesture and demonstration of genuine feeling' (p.15).

Nick Cull's masterful and definitive study of The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (CUP, 2008) also references global reaction to the news of Kennedy's death: 'USIA surverys of editorial opinion around the world revealed a surge of sympathy for the United States at the time of Kennedy's death' (p.229).

Listening to Sir Roger read from his book made me question the significance of President Kennedy as a symbol of America's values, principles and hopes at the start of the 1960s - what we may today call 'soft power'. Sir Roger provides a hint of an explanation in his book: 'We were of the generation,' he says, 'that, despite incipient, even growing cynicism, saw Jack Kennedy as a hope for the succeeding generations, the young people of the world, and not just the then Free World.'

I can't explain it, and I invite comments from readers who might have more insight into the reason for this swell of grief behind the Iron Curtain. We are all familiar with the Kennedy myth - youth, charm, Camelot, a sense of renewal and optimism, the New Frontier - but is this a narrative constructed with the benefit of hindsight and because of the way Kennedy was killed at such a young age? How widespread was this narrative accepted in those parts of the world that were ideologically opposed to the US and everything it stood for? My library on Cold War history is surprisingly quiet on this subject, though I did find the following passage in Michael R. Beschloss's Kennedy v. Khrushchev (Faber & Faber 1991): 'Peking schoolchildren applauded when told of the assassination. A Chinese editorial cartoon showed the President lying on his face, his necktie stamped with dollar signs: KENNEDY BITING THE DUST' (p.676). Beschloss tells us that it was a 'personal tragedy' for Khrushchev; Moscovites praised Kennedy and grieved that such a good man had been murdered; Russian poets penned their own eulogies; and Tatyana and Yegenya Scherbakov of Bryansk wrote, 'Let the thought that the grief is shared by one hundred million Russian women help Mrs Kennedy to survive her grief' (Beschloss, p.677-680).

Both Beschloss and Cull describe the aftermath of the assassination: The former recounts the need for the Johnson administration not only to continue Kennedy's style of managing US-Soviet relations, but also to capitalise in a strategic way on the shared grief in Moscow; Cull reveals how the United States Information Agency managed American public diplomacy to help create the Kennedy legend and present the Johnson administration as a credible successor.

So it seems that a considerable amount of American soft power was invested in Kennedy, and a huge quantity of resources was devoted to American public diplomacy in the immediate aftermath of his death. But what made this soft power so successful? His relations with the Soviet Union were stormy to say the least; he was responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco; and he was the reason the United States became involved in Vietnam. So is the explanation simply that he was Jack Kennedy - that it is all about the man and the fact the he generated a wave of hope and optimism among supporters and critics alike? Is it, as I have long suspected, because this youngest ever President was only 46 when he was murdered during his first term in office? I look forward to reading your views.

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend
(The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)          

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