Late Thoughts on Past Reading: JFK and Gilead’s Violent Takeover of the U.S. Government

In Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, the elderly leaders of the Puritanical nation of Gilead were once young bucks bombing and blowing away the elected officials of the United States Government, likely in years around the late 1970s or early 1980s.

I was listening to NPR the other day, on the anniversary of JFK’s assassination actually, and in a discussion with the late, great Walter Cronkite, something struck me in his dialog: that at the moment of the assassination, most of the executive branch cabinet were on plane near Hawaii, far over the Pacific Ocean:

“UPI teletypes around the world started ticking out the news,” Cronkite recalled. “One of them was on the communications deck of Aircraft 972, where the radio officer blinked in disbelief at what he read.”

That plane — which held two-thirds of Kennedy’s Cabinet, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk — was 900 miles west of Honolulu, en route to Japan, when the news came that the president had been shot. Tape of the ground-to-air communications between 972 and the Situation Room in Washington, D.C., sat largely unnoticed for decades at the National Archives. The tapes were recorded by the Signal Corps at Andrews Air Force Base.

If you take some time to hear his interview, you’ll notice that he watched as the cabinet worked immediately to put all high-level government officials on lockdown because they first thought that it was a coup against the American government. I wouldn’t discuss whether Atwood would or would not be inspired by the assassination of Kennedy despite living through it, as so many were, but the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” seems apt given that in this case, the moment of truth pervaded a fiction our real government had to take a moment to seriously consider: that a group of radicals were taking a swift and terrifying move to destroy a whole branch of the U.S. government at once.

What was more interesting is that if someone knew that the majority of the executive branch cabinet were on that plane, they could have legitimately pulled off a Gilead-style coup. Granted, Lee Harvey Oswald was “radical leftist” who tried to join up with Castro before he kicked his assassination plot up to top gear, but it is amazing to me just how immune people with power consider they are until they are exposed as weak, or just human.

The Commander, in The Handmaid’s Tale, is one such man, acting in some cases behind doors and others in front of them with total impunity. Were we to read into Gilead’s future, we could (given our knowledge of real history) so starkly foreshadow its downfall in each page of the book. All it would take is for the commanders and aunts to begin believing, deep down, that they were immune.