Review of Thurston Clarke's "JFK's Last Hundred Days"


Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor and Senior Lecturer in Brown University, teaches several courses about America in the 1960s.

When Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days was published on July 16, the author may well have channeled Louis XV:  Apres moi, le deluge.”  Clarke’s book is an early wavelet that presages the literary tsunami now bearing down on us as the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches.  With titles such as Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House; The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of the New York Times; We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963; and If Kennedy Lived (described as an “Alternate History”), treatments of John F. Kennedy’s thousand days in the presidency range from the nostalgic to the hypothetical to the straightforwardly historical, with, inevitably, occasional glances at conspiracy theories.

Clarke’s subtitle—The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President—suggests that his book is primarily Hypothetical History, but that is not entirely the case.   The author of a dozen books, including one on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Clarke does spend a lot of time pushing the argument that in his presidency’s final months  Kennedy was a man who had changed for the better, both personally and politically.  But JFK’s Last Hundred Days is also well grounded in evidence, as Clarke seeks to “solve the most tantalizing mystery of all: not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.” 

The book is at its best when examining “who he was.”  It is less persuasive when asserting “where he would have led us,” if only because the latter requires that the reader believe more in the agency possessed by charismatic leaders than in the limitations imposed by context.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once characterized JFK as a realist disguised as a romantic (Bobby, he said, was a romantic disguised as a realist).  JFK avoided fights he wasn’t sure he could win.  While that fundamental character trait might have helped to reinforce his reluctance to get more deeply involved in Vietnam, it also would have restrained his willingness to spend political capital on politically explosive issues such as civil rights.

The good news is that the reader needn’t fully accept Clarke’s thesis about JFK’s transformation and the future direction of his presidency to appreciate Clarke’s clear, briskly written, fine-grained rendition of Kennedy’s personal and political doings from the middle of August 1963 to the fateful day of November 22.  Nor is Clarke really saying that Kennedy waited until his last Hundred Days (will historians ever get away from the “100 Days” trope?) to turn significant corners.  Like many previous analysts, for instance, he highlights JFK’s American University Speech as a turning point.  On June 10, the President whose leadership had helped to take the world to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis emphasized the common interests of the US and the USSR:  “In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.”  Calling for (and achieving) a limited nuclear test ban treaty significantly reduced Cold War tensions, a remarkable achievement for someone who until recently had been a conventional Cold Warrior. 

The very next day, after federal intervention had been required to desegregate the University of Alabama, Kennedy went on television and declared,  “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue.  It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”  No president had ever made as strong a statement about the need for racial justice. 

Clarke goes further than the standard analysis, however, when he argues that, had he lived, Kennedy would have gotten his Civil Rights bill through Congress—that Lyndon Johnson’s fabled arm-twisting and ability to take advantage of the grief over the assassination wasn’t really essential.  (He even contends that Kennedy was actively figuring out how to get LBJ off the ticket for 1964, probably to be replaced by North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.)

Clarke also has little doubt that Kennedy would have cut back and then eliminated American military involvement in Vietnam—despite the strong opposition of many of his own advisors, civilian and military.  There is evidence to back him up, but he doesn’t always fully consider evidence to the contrary (for instance, he gives substantially more weight to Kennedy’s September 1963 interview with CBS’s Walter Cronkite, which seemed to suggest that Kennedy would not immerse the United States any further in Vietnam, than the interview a few days later with NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, which seemed to say the opposite). 

Clarke also spends a lot of time on what he sees as Kennedy’s personal transformation.  His “compulsive womanizing,” which Clarke does not shrink from recounting, had made for a wobbly marriage, but Clarke thinks that the early August death of their newborn son, Patrick, brought husband and wife much closer together.  Looking at everything from Jackie’s private comments at the time to the couple’s body language in newsreels,  Clarke paints a portrait of a marriage on the mend.  (His health was apparently on the mend, too, once he got more reliable medical care than had been provided by the publicity-seeking Dr. Janet Travell.)

There are a few factual slips:  Pennsylvania’s governor David Lawrence is “William”; Nicholas Katzenbach, the Justice Department’s brave representative at the Alabama schoolhouse door, is “Richard”; William Bradford, not John Winthrop, is credited with the phrase “City on a Hill.”  But overall, Clarke’s vigorous narrative is propelled by its vivid details.

Clarke recognizes that Kennedy “was…mourned for his promise as well as for his accomplishments.”  He admits that “’What might have been’ is speculation,” but insists that “what Kennedy intended to do is not.”   To all of which, the reader can only say, again and again, “Well, maybe.”  Would those intentions have changed?  Would his resolution have held?  Would he have faced down the hawks, who were numerous and influential, on Vietnam?  Would he have taken more political risks to support the civil rights movement if he thought it would endanger his prospects for reelection in 1964?  And if he took those risks on Vietnam and civil rights, would those moves have succeeded?  We’ll never know for sure.  JFK remains the great “what if?”  That is why his brief presidency, even half a century after its sudden end, remains the source of both fascination and frustration. 

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