|President-elect John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline, and their daughter Caroline on Nov. 10, 1960. (File 1960/The Boston Globe)|
The recently released recordings of Jackie Kennedy hurl a bolt of thunder from her era to ours
A FEW years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev lectured at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In the Q & A, a student asked him to speculate on the difference to history it would have made if the 1963 assassination had targeted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev instead of John Kennedy. Gorbachev gravely considered the question, then answered, “I do not think Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs. Khrushchev.’’
Last week, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis surfaced in the news as something other than the mythically stoic global beauty. In recordings with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., made not long after President Kennedy’s death, she spoke frankly about the broadly inconsequential, but she also hurled a bolt of thunder from her era to ours. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she said to her husband, “Please don’t send me away to Camp David, me and the children. Please don’t send me anywhere. If anything happens, we’re all going to stay right here with you.’’
Apparently under the impression that Kennedy would be safe in a crowded White House bomb shelter from which she would be excluded, she went on, “I just want to be on the lawn when it happens. . . . I just want to be with you, and I want to die with you, and the children do, too.’’
The gossipy reports of Mrs. Kennedy’s opinions seemed not to know what to make of this doom-laden recollection, but it cries out to be taken seriously as a stand-alone reminder of nuclear dread - the “it’’ for which those of us who lived through that terrifying few weeks had no words.
My father was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and it was his report to Kennedy of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba that inaugurated the crisis. He disappeared into the war rooms of the Pentagon, along with other top brass. In stately homes on Generals’ Row at nearby Bolling Air Force Base, my mother and the other wives organized a surreptitious intelligence operation of their own, to assess how imminent was the danger of the Soviet nuclear attack. Taking turns in hourly shifts, the women posted discreet lookouts at the far corner of the Bolling flight line, where a special, secret wing of helicopters was based. Those choppers were on permanent stand-by alert, ready to fly senior Pentagon commanders away from vulnerable Washington to “The Rock,’’ the “Alternate National Military Command Center,’’ in a network of bunkers under the Catoctin Mountains on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. From there, shielded from nuclear attack, the commanders would wage World War III. (There were three other nuclear-protected bunkers - in Colorado for the air defense command, in Virginia for senior federal bureaucrats, and in West Virginia for Congress.) My mother later told me that the helicopters never left the ground, which was how she and the other wives knew that the Soviet assault was never close to coming.
Mrs. Kennedy’s recollection suggests ignorance of the most salient fact of her husband’s situation - which was that, at the first signal of Soviet intentions to attack, the presidential helicopter would have scooped him up, and away from Washington. He, too, would almost certainly have been spirited to “The Rock,’’ which is ironic, since the command bunker is near Camp David, to which Mrs. Kennedy did not want to be sent.
But the further irony is that Mrs. Kennedy’s stated wish to die, exposed on the White House lawn, even with her children, was by far more realistic than all the survival fantasies embodied in the building of bunkers and alerting of helicopters. An all-out spasm of full-bore nuclear exchange defined the only war-fighting either side envisioned, guaranteeing the obliteration of everything of value in both societies. Survivors, as was said, would envy the dead. Mrs. Kennedy’s romantic fatalism was dead on.
The rank terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis generated something good, and something bad. Only months later, the chastened Kennedy and Khrushchev jointly initiated the arms control regime which, over subsequent decades, proved to be the structure of negotiation that finally enabled the Cold War nuclear stand-off to end without violence. But those days in the abyss of nuclear dread left the American people incapable of again looking directly at what these weapons mean. Nuclear denial has prevailed ever since, which alone explains why the arsenal still exists, and why human self-extinction remains a threat.
Mrs. Kennedy’s death wish is a warning.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.