Tuesday, November 26, 2013

American Experience's 2013 "JFK" documentary

PBS' American Experience had a new two-part, four-hour documentary on John Kennedy this year. Both parts are available to view at JFK American Experience; accessed 11/22/2013

JFK, Part 1:

JFK, Part 2:

There are two especially notable things about this two-part documentary. One is that it doesn't indulge in tabloid sensationalism. It discusses Kennedy's drug consumption, which was related to controlling his Addison's Disease and his chronic and serious back pain, as important biographically and focuses on its potential policy implications. In his initial meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, he was heavily medicated. That may have impaired his ability to make the impression he wanted on Khrushchev. But the documentary also makes clear that Khrushchev was pursuing a confrontational strategy, so it's likely any such effects were no more than marginal.

The documentary also sensibly mentions his chronic womanizing as a biographical fact. But it doesn't dwell on it or treat us to a parade of real or alleged romantic partners.

The other especially notable feature is the way the documentary does a good job of showing how various major experiences shaped his nuanced view of foreign policy. As a college student, he had spent time travelling in Europe and doing research, which culminated in a thesis which was published as his first book, Why England Slept (1940). The JFK Presidential Library has an online version of the manuscript for the book. He understood clearly that Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy had failed - though his father the Ambassador to Great Britain was very much in the isolationist camp prior to Pearl Harbor.

And the film makes clear that Kennedy was an enthusiastic Cold Warrior, as a Congressman and Senator, as a Presidential candidate and as President. It's a reminder of how broad a bipartisan consensus there was around often uncritical-minded Cold War assumptions prior to the mass disillusionment with the Vietnam War.

But this doesn't mean there weren't disputes that went beyond accusing the other party of insufficiently militant policies against the Soviet Union. Part 1 of JFK discusses perhaps the most interesting policy stand that Kennedy took as a Senator, his support of Algerian independence and criticism of French and British colonialism.

The two-part documentary is actually framed around the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it shows how Kennedy's negotiating sense and his thoughtfully critical attitude toward military advice made the successful resolution of the crisis possible. JFK's personal experiences as a sailor in the Second World War and especially the genuinely bad advice hie got from his glorious generals over the Bay of Pigs invasion saved him from any sense of idolatry toward advice from generals and admirals. The JFK film refreshingly treats the Missile Crisis as a difficult balancing of military confrontation and sensible diplomacy. It's too often seen as a victory for testosterone posturing.

The website has links to several additional resources on Kennedy's life and Presidency.

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