Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O’Connor is a semi-professional musician who performs regularly around Canberra. She’s fascinated by history and archaeology, and loves growing her own food and implementing sustainable living practices.
Margaret O'Connor
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IT IS THE the nature of history to perpetually rewrite itself. This was evident in 2003 when a joint Indonesian and Australian team of archaeologists discovered a new species of archaic hominid on the island of Flores in Indonesia. And in 2012, when a skeleton was uncovered during archaeological excavations in Leicester, England, later proven to be that of King Richard III. Understandings of the era of John F Kennedy (JFK) have similarly, in the sixty years since his assassination, been in a state of perpetual evolution about which most of us are largely unaware.

Until recently I had regarded the Warren Commission as the sole authority on the circumstances of JFK’s assassination, hardly surprising given the extent to which this has been hammered home in the mainstream media. In fact, there have been a number of official inquiries into this event and whilst the findings of some are consistent with those of the Warren Commission, those of others are most definitively not.

However, I wouldn’t be alone there. Many people would never have heard, for example, about the fascinating adventures of the Zapruder film, or how the House Select Committee on Assassinations came about and what it did, or Mary Ferrell and her work. Nor the extraordinary story of a motion picture that, although panned by the critics, drove the establishment of a massive archive of documents on JFK’s assassination legislated in an Act of Congress, which in turn upended our understandings of the 1960s. And yet these stories can be easily sourced from the ocean of information on the era readily available in the public domain: inquiries, investigations, court cases and documents; audio, film, collections of evidence and official findings; in libraries, archives, and cloud storage. And more books than you could poke a stick at.

At the sixtieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, this four-part article will, in rough historical order, explore some of these stories and their place in the historical record.

Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. Washington, DC 20 January 1961.
Credit: U. S. Army Signal Corps photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

Many narratives about JFK and his era are so well understood they verge on the cliched and tedious. Everyone appreciates the extent to which his election breathed fresh air into the institution of the Presidency, breaking new ground after the staid Eisenhower years. Everyone understands that he embodied many ‘firsts’; the first President to be born in the 20th Century, the first Catholic, the first to win a Purple Heart and the first to use the new medium of television to speak directly to the American people. He was also one of the youngest Presidents in history, and in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, he was the first President since Franklin Roosevelt who had anything to say to men and women under the age of twenty-five, perhaps the only President ever with whom youth could thoroughly identify itself.

There’s general and enduring agreement, too, about the impact of President John F Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961). In plain terms, it was a knock out, one of the best speeches in the history of the United States. What a pity that to a certain extent it’s been relegated to the history books, given that at the time, it held such power it inspired a whole generation. Truly, it wafted all around the world and back again, and a whisper of it echoed down through the years to 1980 when a teacher at my school told us in hushed, reverent tones of the President who said:

‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’

On that bitterly cold day, his steaming breath visible in the footage, JFK palpably flaunted his and his team’s comparative youth in the faces of the older generation, many of them born in the 19th century:

‘Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike” he trumpeted, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed…’

He even prophesied the great social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, heralding the way that ‘the energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour … [would] light our country and those who serve it… and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.’

However, what made the JFK administration truly distinct was the impact of the First Family’s interest in arts and culture. Almost symbolically, the commencement of his term in office was hallmarked by his request to a prominent American poet (Robert Frost) to recite one of his works at the Inaugural ceremonies. In the words of historian and reviewer Lewis Mumford, he evolved into ‘the first American President to give art, literature and music a place of dignity and honour in our national life.’

Meanwhile, his gorgeous, multilingual wife, First Lady Jaqueline Lee Kennedy, was engaged in a full scale restoration of the White House and issuing invitations left right and centre to the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Igor Stravinsky and Isaac Stern to cool funky little White House events and soirees.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (left) with Philippa Calnan (right) stand next to “House on the Marne” by Paul Cezanne, ca. 1880-1890. Green Room, White House, Washington, D.C. 28 June 1961. Credit: Robert Knudsen, White House photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless JFK was a politician, and counterbalancing his love for history, poetry and literature and a deep appreciation for the arts and even architecture was a cold-eyed preparedness to kick heads. If you are aware of this story at all, it’s probably from Marilyn Monroe’s breathy tribute to him at his birthday fundraiser gala on 19 May, 1962:

‘Thanks, Mr. President, for all the things you’ve done, the battles that you’ve won, the way you deal with U.S. Steel, and our problems by the ton…’

Marilyn Monroe, performs at a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner and birthday salute to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York. Credit: Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

During the Eisenhower years, according to White House insider Arthur Schlesinger, ‘businessman had grown accustomed…….to a President who sought their company, reverenced their opinions, and treated them like they were the most weighty group in the nation.’ But for a range of reasons, during the JFK presidency ‘they felt, in short, that they were outsiders again.’

In late 1961 JFK reinforced this perception by his active preoccupation with the potential impact of rising steel prices on inflation. He even had the temerity to write to the presidents of Big Steel (leading steel companies, including U.S. Steel) in September of that year and asked them to keep prices down to stabilise industrial costs. This was followed by his agreement (finalised on 6 April 1962) brokered between the United Steelworkers Union and Big Steel to secure the stabilisation of steel prices. However, U.S. Steel double backtracked in record time with an announcement four days later of a 3.5 percent average increase in steel prices effective the next day. Other Big Steel corporations followed suit.

The President was furious. An immediate order was given to Defence Secretary Robert MacNamara to retaliate by moving highly lucrative defence steel purchases from Big Steel to smaller steel companies. He then deployed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) via Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to ‘march into their offices the next day’ and gather evidence for an investigation on possible price fixing and violations of anti-trust laws. Steel executives arrived at their offices to find FBI agents emptying out their filing cabinets and examining their expense accounts and company records. It took them only two days to back down – but only partially – with the offer of a 50 percent rollback of the price increases.

Having none of it, JFK advised the executives via his lawyer Clark Clifford that only their complete rollback would be acceptable, thank you very much indeed, or he would use ‘the full power of the Presidency to divert contracts from US Steel and other companies’. A suite of menacing Presidential threats ensued: tax audits, antitrust investigations, and a thorough probe of market practices.

The end came very quickly. On 13 April Big Steel’s executives surrendered and rescinded in full the total price increase. There you have it – probably the only time in recorded history when the Big End of Town was schooled by someone who was an upstart and a Bostonian.

This event is covered by other major biographers of JFK; in epic and stirring prose in JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters (James Douglass) and by Robert Dallek in John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, 1917-1963 in a manner close to the style of a note taker of minutes of a body corporate meeting, which says something, I suppose, about biographers and what they get excited about.

Despite this, the Big Steel story appears in the 21st century to have vanished into the ether.


President John F. Kennedy delivers his Inaugural Address during ceremonies at the Capitol, 20 January 1961.
Credit: United States Army Signal Corps photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Read Part 2 here

Featured photo: John F. Kennedy historic speech to Congress. Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons