Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: Killing Kennedy

JFK is one of those enigmatic figures who dominate the stage of world history. With the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination approaching (which falls today, 22nd November 1963), I decided I'd like to know a bit more about his life and his death. The bookshelves of Eason Enniskillen weren't heaving with books about him, but there were several volumes published to coincide with the anniversary. I picked Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O'Reilly & Martin Dugard, partly because it's been No. 1 in the New York Times bestseller list, has sold over two million copies, and seemed to be the shortest. I managed to read it in time, and even though some of the online reviews of the book (and subsequent screenplay starring Rob Lowe) haven't been the most complimentary, I quite enjoyed it.

O'Reilly is a journalist and writes in a clear accessible style. The events of JFK's life, loves, and legacy are vividly portrayed with lots of helpful analysis. The heroism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in World War Two is described in amazing detail after his patrol boat PT-109 was destroyed and his platoon were stranded on an island close to enemy forces. The efforts he went to for rescue were incredible. Little wonder the 'lucky' (or providential) JFK went on to write 'Profiles of Courage'.

As I read, I discovered that JFK seems to stand at the centre of so much of American history in the twentieth century. Words and phrases that were known to me were, like a jigsaw, suddenly put into context so that everything fits together; such as the Bay of Pigs; the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis and so much more. Had I been pressed, I'm not sure I could have told you about the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis before reading the book. Now, they make sense, as JFK sought to oppose the establishment of Fidel Castro as communist dictator of Cuba by supporting the landing of Cuban exiles to rise against Castro; and the subsequent attempt by Russia to put nuclear weapons on Cuba, within reach of Washington. I also realised that the Berlin Wall dated from the 1960s, rather than immediately after the Second World War.

The book is expertly written, as it tells the stories of the two men who would be joined forever in common memory - JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. From the opening chapter, the clock is ticking, as JFK is sworn in as President; as the various crises occur, including the Civil Rights campaign; as events and happenings in the life of the White House are commented on; and all the while, the assassin's story also unfolds. Oswald's time in the military; his defection to the Soviet Union (Russia); his return to Texas; his attempt to move to Cuba via Mexico; and right up to the fateful day.

The eye witness testimony; the press reports; the material is presented clearly and concisely. The assassination itself is described matter-of-factly, without overly dwelling on the gruesome details. The moment that changed history and ended the American Dream of Camelot is always on the horizon.

There were some things that surprised me about the whole story. First, was the apparent infidelities of both JFK and Martin Luther King. Second, is the absence of dealing with alternative theories of JFK's death - even to refute them. Debates have raged, but they seem to be mostly ignored in this volume.

All in all, I'm glad to have read the book. It's given me an insight into American history, not just the life and legacy of JFK himself, but also to set the broader picture in context. It's clear that this moment fifty years ago was a massive shock, when the US President was killed, and the world has never been the same again.

Killing Kennedy is available at Amazon and for Kindle.

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