Image: JFK and Nikita Khruchchev in 1961. Public Domain.
It’s 56 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. I remember it vividly, even though I was a very small girl then.
Writing a different blog post for this day some years ago, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination. It struck me as having a special resonance today, after a week of impeachment hearings and memories of impeachment hearings past. It strikes me that while we are not as worried about nuclear war as we were back then, that we are in a war of words here in the United States. This war of words and of versions of the truth threatens the fabric of our democracy. Mrs. Kennedy’s words still stand: It is possible to be allied in pursuit of peace even when we are on different sides.
So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.
I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”
You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…
The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.
While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.
What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.
Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.
My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing. When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”
Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small
… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)