We were in our late teenage years when the youngest US president ever to have held the office entered the White House in 1961. President John F Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy fired our imagination regarding a new era in world politics at the height of the Cold War in the early sixties.
Before Kennedy was sworn in as US president, all the leaders of the leading powers of the day had been over 50. Kennedy symbolised a new dawn for my generation, and not only for the US, but also for all humanity, particularly in the Third World and Egypt included.
Kennedy wanted to transform the US and make it a leader on the world stage at a time of radical change after World War II. The Third World, called the Global South nowadays, was in the throes of revolutionary emancipation from the yoke of Western imperialism and exploitation.
Egypt had already become one of the leading voices of progress and revolution in Africa and Asia. In the Arab world, it became the voice of change and emancipation from imperialism and economic exploitation led by its young leader, president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who, like Kennedy, had served in the army as a young officer during World War II.
Kennedy had served in the South Pacific, where he had been the Captain of the famous PT109 patrol boat that was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He saved his crew from perishing in the Pacific Ocean. Nasser had been besieged by Jewish militias when fighting as a young officer in the 1948 Palestine War. Both leaders had experienced war and seen its horrors. Their experiences led them to want to avoid military escalation and wars if at all possible.
The two leaders were on a quest to put US-Egyptian relations on a path of growing rapprochement and thus avoid the kind of misunderstandings that could lead to worsening relations between a superpower that had strategic interests in the Middle East and an Arab revolutionary power that was a magnet for revolutions across the Third World and a leading power in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
They had exchanged letters that stand as testimony to how the two young leaders had done their best to reach common understandings on the ends of their respective policies in the Middle East and in the treacherous politics of the Cold War.
There were two challenges where the Kennedy administration and the Egyptian Revolution stood at opposing ends of the spectrum but had done their best to explain to each other the whys and wherefores of their policies. From a US perspective, it was Egyptian relations with the former USSR and the impression in Washington that Egypt was a vehicle for the spread of Communism in the Arab world and beyond that raised the most concern. From the standpoint of revolutionary Egypt, the growing US support for Israel was a major preoccupation.
On 2 January 1962, Kennedy sent a letter to Nasser in which he informed him that he had entrusted US ambassador Chester Bowles with a mission to Egypt and expressed the hope that the Egyptian leader would meet him. Kennedy asked his Egyptian counterpart to discuss with his envoy all the questions that related to US-Egyptian relations and the Middle East.
President Nasser met Bowles on 14 February, and Bowles cabled Kennedy seven days later on the outcome of his mission to Cairo. He said that he had had two meetings with Nasser and that his impression was that the government of the United Arab Republic, as Egypt was then called, wanted to improve its relations with the US. He added that regardless of “our criticism” of Nasser and his “associates,” the fact of the matter is that they are sincere in their wish to improve the lives of the Egyptian people.
However, the most important conclusion Bowles drew from his meetings with Nasser, and he was right to do so, was that Egypt looked at Israel in the same way that the US looked at the Soviet Union. He concluded that based on his trip to Cairo he was of the opinion that the US position towards Nasser’s Egypt had been overly simple and that because of its lack of understanding of Egyptian policies, the US Administration underestimated the importance of Egypt and Nasser in determining the future of the Middle East.
In his talks with Kennedy’s envoy, Nasser made it clear that Israel was a real danger to Egypt but that Cairo had no intention of waging war. However, Israel had expressed its determination to go to war against Egypt.
As far as the Middle East and the course of Egyptian-Israeli relations are concerned, the Kennedy years, the era of “Camelot” as they were known at the time, carried the promise of active and balanced US involvement in pursuing peace in the Middle East. This would not be the peace that the region witnessed later on, which was a partial peace, or the “lost peace,” as former Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel called it, because it sidestepped the question of Palestine.
This promise evaporated on 22 November 1963 when three bullets assassinated not only Kennedy as president of the United States, but also the ideals he had incarnated in an era of hope and high expectations. It was rightly said that with his assassination the US “lost its innocence”.
Six decades have gone by since then, but the greatness of president John F Kennedy lives on.
The Captain of the Japanese destroyer that sunk PT109 in the South Pacific in 1943, Kohei Hanami, quoted in the Washington Post last week, said on hearing the sad news of Kennedy’s assassination that “the world has lost an irreplaceable man.”
The Japanese Captain was right. In the same way that Kennedy fired our imaginations in the sixties, his memory still resonates today 60 years after his tragic and untimely death. Had he been US president in 1967, the Six Day War of June 1967 would not have taken place and Israel would have never in all probability possessed a nuclear bomb.
In Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage, I still remember reading this quotation: “The courage of life is a less spectacular moment than the courage of the final moment, but it is no less magnificent. A man does what he must in spite of dangers and obstacles and pressures. And that’s the basis of all human morality.”
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly