Former NS editor John Freeman reacts to JFK's death: The man we trusted

29 November 1963: "The shock and the grief are universal and so great. Emotions have poured out - and they have gilded the truth."

The most grievous assassination in modern history has transformed John Kennedy from an embattled president, deadlocked with a hostile and suspicious Congress, into the brightest legend of our time. It was inevitable. The shock and the grief are universal and so great. Emotions have poured out – and they have gilded the truth. Yet that too may be misleading, for the emotions were part of the truth; and if Kennedy is remembered along with Lincoln and FDR as one of the great presidents, it will be more because he captured the imagination of a whole generation in almost every corner of the world than because he succeeded in fulfilling the purposes to which he dedicated his presidency. 
 
His great achievement, for which the world outside America chiefly honours him this week, was his leadership of the western alliance. When he took over, we walked in the shadow of nuclear war. Two years and ten months later, the dialogue between the White House and the Kremlin has proceeded so far that no one can doubt the genuineness of Khrushchev’s dismay at the young President’s death. Yet he wrought this change without any surrender of vital interest, by strength and not by weakness. He persuaded Khrushchev that negotiations were practicable, because he was himself clear about what could be negotiated – and firm about what could not. The test-ban treaty and the hotline are the visible signs of a business relation between the Soviet bloc and the West, in which each side recognises the power of the other and the suicidal folly of pressing points of difference to the brink of war. The differences still exist; the Cold War goes on; errors of judgment by less sagacious men on either side can still plunge us all to catastrophe; there is no more than an agreement to disagree – but that, after all, is the essential prelude to an eventual harmony. 
 
Kennedy’s achievement in all this was not one-sided. Nuclear war would be as deadly to Russia as to the West, and Khrushchev has played his part. But few would deny that the initiative has lain most of the time with the White House or that Kennedy’s own qualities have been decisive. The three personal gifts which lifted him into the realm of international statesmanship were intellect, steadiness of nerve and the capacity to take decisions. Indeed, this week’s inevitable anxiety about the future is based not on half-baked guesses about President Johnson’s capacity or intelligence as a politician, but on the fact that the decision-making machine – largely extra-governmental – which Kennedy created proved so uniquely well-suited to the strategic demands of the Cold War. The doubt must exist whether President Johnson, operating through more normal political channels, will be able to match the speed, logic and certainty of his predecessor. For Kennedy’s decisions were his own. The professors, the soldiers, the computers, seldom the professional politicians, were detailed to provide the data and rehearse the arguments. The President listened, reflected, balanced the equation and, fortified by all that intellect and calculation could bring to bear, finally took the decision.
 
Naturally this method of government was unpopular on Capitol Hill, and the unpopularity was reflected in Kennedy’s inability to secure the legislation he needed to implement his domestic policies. This inability amounted to something like failure. Whether it stemmed fundamentally from a lack of profound conviction about liberal causes with which he was saddled by his 1960 campaign managers, or from the intellectual’s contempt for the log-rolling of the workaday politicians, or from over-caution about the electoral consequences of controversy, or from a constitutional inadequacy of Congress to live with the speed of modern decision-making will long be argued by American historians. What we can say this week is that, despite his visible achievement in foreign affairs, the quality of Kennedy’s presidency as a whole – apart from the noble and historic decision to stake the whole prestige of the presidency on his civil rights legislation – is arguable. 
 
His quality as a man is to me beyond argument. He brought to public life not only the hard assets of leadership, but the rarest capacity to illuminate ideas by the grace of his personality and the clarity of his speech. One can only guess, for instance, at the legislative outcome of his battle with Congress and his own party over civil rights. But one can be sure that individual American opinion about the cause of justice for the Negroes has been touched, as never since Lincoln, by the words he spoke. 
 
Perhaps his greatest achievement in the end was to turn the gaze of his own people towards some of the more distant goals of political action and to infuse his pragmatic programmes with the radiant light of tolerance, idealism and purpose. If so, the glossy wrappings of the New Frontier may be remembered as a permanent landmark in the evolution of American democracy.
 
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Those words struck the keynote of his inaugural address; they form a message which evokes a response in every radical heart. However limited his social achievement, his approach to politics was fundamentally a challenge to conservatism everywhere. That is why, with all our reservations about where his ultimate convictions lay and with all our disappointment at his comparative failure to make good the promise of 1960, the left in Britain admired and, when the chips were down, trusted him. He was the golden boy of the post-war world, and we mourn him as a friend.
 
This article was first published in the NS of 29 November 1963. It appears in “The New Statesman Century”, an anthology of some of the finest writing from the first 100 years of the NS, available in selected WHSmiths and online: newstatesman.com/century.
The wax likness of former US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy stands on June 24, 2013 in front of the town hall of Berlin's Schoeneberg district, where he held his famous speech 'Ich bin ein Berliner' on June 26, 1963 to underline the support of the Unit

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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