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The Evolving Interpretations of John F. Kennedy's Image

Updated on July 18, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

The evolving interpretations of JFK’s myth demonstrated how history’s purpose was to criticise conservative interpretations of the past. Chris Bickerton’s understanding of this was applicable to J.F.K’s myth that had amassed conflicting interpretations of his presidency. The school of Camelot perceived J.F.K as a man who was to be immortalised as a remarkable individual.

Revisionists presented a conflicting view as Seymour Hersh argued J.F.K was not an individual worthy enough to be glorified in American history. Post-Revisionists such as Robert Dallek attempted to present a more balanced view between an imperfect and astute man. Contemporary historiography of J.F.K attempted to integrate a psychological dimension and explanation toward Kennedy’s myth. Ultimately, Bickerton’s perspective on history was that it was an ever-changing series of interpretations of the past.

The purpose of history is properly to understand

the past, and most often this means tackling

accepted interpretations head-on.

— CHRIS J BICKERTON (February 2006)

Who was John F. Kennedy?

John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), commonly referred to by his initials JFK, was an American politician who served as the 35th President of the United States from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.

The Camelot Myth

According to Bickerton, an extensive understanding of the past could only be achieved through revising previous interpretations of the past. This view was applicable to the myth of JFK, however, Arthur Schlesinger doesn’t portray this through challenging the past but attempted to understand the past through glorifying it. In relation to Bickerton’s quote, a single interpretation had value and a basis in which following historians could question. Hence, Schlesinger’s motivation to immortalise JFK on the behalf of Jacqueline Kennedy played a momentous part in creating the Camelot Myth.

This created a foundation of posthumous interpretations of JFK as a figure of great leadership in which revisionists could later tackle. For instance, Schlesinger’s view was exemplified through explaining that JFK displayed wisdom and ‘dazzled the world’ through his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ergo, Bickerton’s theory of understanding of the past was demonstrated through how Schlesinger utilised sympathetic views of the time to its advantage. Ergo, through understanding figures in their contemporary context historians, would have been able to achieve Bickerton’s perception of history’s purpose.

The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh

Revisionist views on Kennedy

The differing contexts of historians over time have made differing interpretations of JFK’s myth inevitable. The revisionist interpretation of JFK validated Bickerton’s argument concerning how tackling the past was used to understand it. Hersh’s text, ‘The Dark Side of Camelot’ (1997) advocated the veracity of Bickerton’s statement. For instance, Hersh claimed that his role was to in fact to, “shatter myths” and in the process help the nation reclaim its history. This statement demonstrated Hersh’s overall objective to deconstruct the Camelot myth through revealing the hidden agenda behind JFK. As Bickerton argued how historians were to ‘tackle the past’, Hersh presented a controversial, post-revisionist view of J.F.K that contradicted Camelot views.

Furthermore, Bickerton’s views were reinforced by how changing contexts consistently changes a historian’s perspective of history. For example, Hersh lived during Clinton's presidency and after the Watergate incident perpetrated weariness towards political leaders. This played a paramount role in constructing Hersh’s negative interpretation of JFK. Hence, changing contexts made differing interpretations of the past inevitable as demonstrated by Hersh’s reaction to the schools of Camelot.

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Dallek, Robert

Post-Revisionist Views on Kennedy

The differing contexts of historians over time have made differing interpretations of JFK’s myth inevitable. The post-revisionist confliction against the revisionist period was a prime example of Bickerton’s hypothesis. Since Bickerton argued that examining the past was the purpose of history, which was demonstrated by Dallek's interpretation of JKF.

With changing contexts, new materials were accessible to Dallek who had stated that the availability of new materials was sufficient reason to examine Kennedy’s personal and public life. This elevated Bickerton’s argument since Dallek had revised the past in accordance with the access gained of Kennedy’s medical records, national security archives, oval office tapes and white house tapes. Furthermore, the Dallek’s context of how it was drawing closer to September 11, and in a world conflicted with political chaos delineated Bickerton’s point.

This is due to how the political turmoil made America more nostalgic to glory days of JFK. This made Dallek's text ‘An Unfinished Life: JFK’ (2003) a traditional biography whose perspective was balanced between the school of Camelot and the Revisionist interpretation of Kennedy. Hence, in relation to Bickerton’s quote Dallek challenged past interpretations to portray Kennedy as a flawed but brilliant man. Therefore, the produced figure of JFK between flaw and brilliance by Dallek accentuated that the purpose of history was to challenge the path in order to understand it.

Jfk's "Cuban Missile Crisis" Speech

Contemporary Views on Kennedy

Contemporary interpretations of JFK have applied a psychological dimension to understanding the myth of JFK. Despite living in a world of evolving technology, Bickerton argued that the purpose of history has not altered. This consisted of continuously finding new ways to analyse the past in order to understand it. Bickerton’s hypothesis was substantiated by the psychological approach that James G. Blight had taken towards the myth of JFK. The attempt to present Kennedy in a balanced manner from post-revisionist interpretation had persisted within Blight’s methodology.

However, instead he interpreted JFK’s presidency through the examination of his context and influences such as his military role in the Vietnam War. Bickerton’s postulation of how history’s purpose was to challenge the part was clear by the online presentation of the ‘Armageddon Letters’ and addressing both traditionalist and revisionist interpretations of JFK. Hence, through confronting past interpretations Blight developed a new interpretation of JFK. Henceforth, through creating a unique understanding of the past through challenging it, Bickerman’s quote was proven accurate.

Be Kennedy HD

Contexts of historians have manipulated the differing interpretations of JFK’s myth. Traditional views of the JFK myth have been revised overtime, depicting the role of a historian to challenge the past. The Camelot Myth perpetuated by historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, highlighted the posthumous interpretations of JFK as a figure of great progression and leadership. The revisionist interpretation of JFK validated Bickerton’s argument concerning how tackling the past was used to understand it. The post-revisionist confliction against the revisionist period was a prime example of Bickerton’s hypothesis. In order to search for the truth of event historians will continually reinterpret the past. However despite of new reviews all interpretations play a vital part in what constructs JFK’s myth.


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