By: Aaron Good
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was one of the most consequential single acts in human history. Its impacts are still felt around the world today. In the Four Died Trying series and in future posts here, we will go into further detail about all of this. What follows below is a summary of the major world historic consequences of the November 22, 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The most obviously disastrous outcomes were felt by the people of Southeast Asia. On the day after JFK’s funeral, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) signed an executive order, NSAM 273, which escalated US military involvement in Vietnam. LBJ’s order authorized US naval support for South Vietnamese raids into North Vietnam. This lead directly to the dubious Gulf of Tonkin incident which was used as the pretext for full US entry into the war.
The Vietnam War would kill three or four million Vietnamese people. It expanded into Laos where the US “secret war” killed or displaced 500,000 to a million people. The US, the CIA specifically, went on to turn Laos and the SE Asian “golden triangle” into the world’s top producer of heroin, fueling addiction among US soldiers and around the world. The US also invaded and bombed Cambodia, setting in motion famine and political violence which killed around two million people.
Photo taken by United States Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968 in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre showing mostly women and children dead on a road.
An underlying motive for the war in Vietnam was the immense resource wealth of Indonesia. US corporate titans knew that the Indonesian territory in West Papua held enormous untapped deposits of gold and high-grade petroleum. Kennedy had tried to work with the nationalist Indonesian leader Sukarno. In 1965, less than two years after JFK was killed, the CIA unleashed what was perhaps its most vicious regime change operation of all time. Critical historians like Peter Dale Scott and Greg Poulgrain have been able to piece together the broad outlines of what happened. Essentially, A dubious coup of sorts was orchestrated and set up to fail so that a counter-coup could follow. The counter coup was led by a US asset named Suharto. After killing a number of officers loyal to Sukarno, Suharto oversaw the brutal massacre of 500,000 to three million Indonesian peasants. These peasants were nominally communists, but were loyal to Sukarno and to Indonesian democracy. Suharto would rule Indonesia for three decades, making vast fortunes for himself and for US oil and gold mining interests.
Photo of the Grasberg mine by Alfindra Primaldhi. Located in Central Papua, Indonesia, the Grasberg is the richest gold mine in human history.
Speaking of gold, the war in SE Asia destroyed Kennedy’s painstaking efforts to control the outflow of US gold. Under the Bretton Woods system, the US was obligated to redeem the dollar holdings of foreign countries at a rate of one ounce for thirty-five dollars. The US spent so much on the Vietnam War that it was essentially forced to default on this system, setting off years of economic instability and eventually giving rise to a new, more predatory dollar system.
In Latin America, things got much worse after Kennedy. Johnson ended JFK’s back-channel talks with Castro about détente and normalization. In Brazil, Johnson authorized the 1964 overthrow of democratically elected president Joao Goulart. Brazil went on to ruled by a brutal US-backed military dictatorship for decades. Johnson also reversed Kennedy’s support for ousted Dominican president Juan Bosch. Instead LBJ sent US marines to the country to shore up the junta; he even had the newly installed Brazilian junta contribute some military forces to the Dominican operation. Kennedy’s progressive Alliance for Progress in Latin America was abandoned as the US under LBJ returned to backing anti-democratic regimes favored by US business interests.
Police repression at a 1968 Rio protest against the US-installed dictatorship. Photo by Evandro Teixeira.
For the people of the Middle East, the JFK assassination was a terrible tragedy. Egyptian president Gamel Nasser recognized it as such. After Kennedy's murder, Nasser went into a deep depression and had Kennedy’s funeral replayed repeatedly on Egyptian state television. Kennedy was the only US president who had been honestly supportive of Arab nationalism and of the Muslim people’s aspirations for development and modernization. Kennedy supported and worked with Egypt's Nasser as much as he could. He also supported nationalist democratic leaders in the region. In Iran, for example, he tasked state department officials with looking into whether democratically inclined supporters of Mossedegh might replace the Shah. In so doing, Kennedy was looking to essentially reverse the 1953 CIA overthrow of Mossedegh—the event that led to the Shah being installed as a brutal US puppet dictator.
In the holy land, JFK was the only president to truly stand up to Israel. He firmly pushed for a resolution to the Palestinian crisis. He was also resolute when it came to Israel’s nuclear program. He demanded that the US be able inspect Israeli nuclear sites to ensure that they weren’t building the bomb. The Israeli prime minster David Ben Gurion apparently resigned rather than receive a letter from President Kennedy containing a virtual ultimatum on the issue. No US president after Kennedy has been able to move Israel on the Palestinian issue or regarding its nuclear arsenal.
Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion and JFK. Source: JFK Library.
Kennedy was beloved in Africa for his support of African decolonization and nationalism. As president, Kennedy worked with the UN’s Dag Hammarskjöld to resolve the Congo Crisis which had resulted from the US-backed assassination of Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Under Johnson, the US would install Lumumba’s killer, Joseph Mobutu, as a kleptocratic puppet dictator who ruled the country for three decades. In Ghana, the US under Johnson deposed the nationalist firebrand Kwame Nkrumah—the first African leader to throw off colonial rule and establish an independent state after World War II. Among other things, Nkrumah had angered Washington by writing a book called Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. The book argued that decolonization was a farce---that the white West was still maintaining imperial dominance but through covert operations and subversion rather than formal colonial rule. For his temerity, the US overthrew him in 1965.
Kwame Nkrumah's Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965)
After JFK was killed in Dallas, Robert and Jackie Kennedy sent a messenger to the Soviets to tell them that the Kennedys knew that the Soviets were not behind the guns in Dallas. The murder was a domestic right-wing conspiracy. Unfortunately, the peaceful JFK-era initiatives could only resume when Robert Kennedy got to the White House. Tragically, Senator Robert Kennedy himself got assassinated during his 1968 presidential campaign. The quests for peace and for nuclear disarmament were abandoned.
John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father at JFK's funeral. Photo by Stan Sterns.
Domestically, the Vietnam War and the failure to achieve racial justice led to the GOP's "Southern Strategy," marking a hard right shift in US politics. The dust would not be settled until the 1980’s—after the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr./Robert Kennedy assassinations, after Watergate, after the oil shocks, and after the Volcker shock. By then, the New Deal reformist politics of President Kennedy no longer represented a viable political current in the US. With the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, the US entered a dark new period from which it has not emerged.
Aaron Good (PhD) is the author of American Exception: Empire and the Deep State, the host of the American Exception podcast on Patreon, and the co-host of Devil's Chess Club with David Talbot and Bryce Greene.