JFK Was a Legend in His Own Time


Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Studies Program, Tel Aviv University, Israel. He received his doctoral degree in Modern History from Oxford University.

Official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy. Aaron Shikler, 1970

It is said that John F. Kennedy became a legend because of the way he died. Actually, he became a legend because of the way he lived. He turned into a myth due to his tragic death; by then, he had already been a legend for quite a while. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy's greatest triumph -- his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- it's important to keep that in mind.

Kennedy was the youngest ever person to be elected president of the United States. He was the first Roman Catholic to assume the highest political post in a country steeped in a Protestant ethos. He was a war hero. He was handsome. When he first entered the White House, after being sworn in, he was accompanied by a beautiful, Hollywood-like wife and two little children. When was the last time the people of the United States have witnessed such a scene? JFK represented a generational change, no less than a political one. Not only was he the youngest person ever to be elected president, but his entourage of advisers was striking for its youth.

Kennedy's election ignited a sense of hope reminiscent, in part, to what took place following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama, too, is young and handsome, with two little children and a young wife. Moreover, he's the first African American to be elected president, no less of a feat than having a Roman Catholic elected back in 1960. Both studied at Harvard. Both chose as vice presidential candidates two senior and experienced senators. The similarities, though, stop there. Kennedy came from a very wealthy family; Obama does not. Kennedy came from a socially privileged background; Obama does not. Kennedy was a war hero; Obama is not. However, it should be stressed that being a war hero back then, with World War II still fresh in the minds of most people in the U.S., was an asset; not being a war hero in 2008 or 2012 is certainly not an obstacle.

John Kennedy's father, Joseph, was a pivotal figure in his life. Ambitious and resourceful, Joseph had high hopes for his children. He wanted them to reach the highest echelons of American politics. The elder Kennedy, despite his Irish Catholicism, served as ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940, displaying a sympathetic attitude towards Nazi Germany. His anti-Semitism was notorious. What's striking is that his children did not follow in his footsteps. Indeed, they were all known for their positive disposition to Jews, going far beyond mere political expediency. Further, John himself was ever cognizant of the perils of appeasement, taking Britain's and France's policy towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s as a warning sign. Joseph had been a supporter of that policy and had expressed his concern that the Jews in the U.S. had pushed FDR to war with Germany.

In shaping foreign policy, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy tried to learn from history. Interestingly, and perhaps in contrast to many other people of his generation, he attempted to learn not only from appeasement but also from the European crisis that led to the outbreak of World War I (he was reportedly a great fan of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August). From the crisis of the '30s, he learned that totalitarian states bent on aggression should be stopped and not appeased. From the events preceding the First World War he learned that if a crisis is not handled with care, events can quickly spiral out of control.

In the realm of foreign policy, Kennedy's youth became an obstacle when domestically it had been an asset. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, seemed to have thought that Kennedy was inexperienced and could be easily challenged and beaten. This, along with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, was one of the catalysts which led Khrushchev to decide to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, igniting the worst crisis of the Cold War.

Although widely seen as an American victory, the end of the crisis was never portrayed by Kennedy and his advisers as such. Indeed, the president urged his advisers not to gloat about it; an important lesson for any leader who wishes to prevent the seeds of resentment being sown at the moment of victory. Where a small, monolithic group of advisers held sway in shaping policy before the Bay of Pig invasion, a more diverse and heterogeneous group advised the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis; where dissenting voices were either too timid to express their views or felt intimidated openly to question basic assumptions prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion decision, the president actively encouraged his advisers to convey their opinions and willingly urged them to challenge received wisdom during the Cuban Missile Crisis; where different options and their possible consequences were not examined by Kennedy and his advisers previous to the Bay of Pig invasion decision, six main options and their possible repercussions were studied thoroughly during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Notwithstanding the quality of the decision-making process, it was no other than McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security advisor, who said in the aftermath of the crisis that luck played an important role in averting war. Perhaps, but luck is blind and thus sometimes needs to be led in the right direction.

The Cuban Missile Crisis gave birth to the concepts of "hawks" and "doves," which are terms used to this day. Those who favored a military strike or urged a more resolute stance were referred to as hawks; those espousing a more restrained policy were known as doves. In fact, though, opinions changed during the crisis as discussions among the president and his advisers evolved. Kennedy himself was in favor of an air strike against the missile bases in Cuba to begin with, only to decide subsequently to institute a maritime blockade around the island, referred to as a "quarantine" to make it sound better and legally more acceptable.

Looking back at his presidency, there can be little doubt that Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was his major achievement.

His tragic death on November 22, 1963 has produced a variety of "what if?" questions, principal among them: "What would Kennedy have done about Vietnam?"

What is not widely known is that Johnson himself spent many a sleepless night before deciding to send combat troops to Vietnam. He shared his excruciating doubts with Bundy, whom he retained as his national security advisor. A facile image of Johnson resolving to intervene massively in Vietnam in a cavalier, off-the-cuff manner has been on occasion depicted by critics of the war. Historical evidence paints a more complex picture in this respect.

So, what would Kennedy have done? One can't know for sure, of course, but Kennedy was a Democrat hawk, in the tradition of Truman. In contrast to Truman, though, he lived through a crisis with the Soviet Union which came close to deteriorating into a full-scale war. Kennedy learned from the Bay of Pigs what not to do; from the Cuban Missile Crisis he learned what to do. The shadow of nuclear war prompted him -- and the Soviets (when Khrushchev was ousted from in 1964, one of the rationales was his reckless Cuban policy) -- to behave with utmost caution.

In Vietnam, however, he might have felt that nuclear war might have been much less of a danger as a consequence of U.S. military action. A Communist takeover of South Vietnam would have been anathema to him. To claim that Kennedy would have been opposed, ipso facto, to military intervention, even if this entailed the demise of South Vietnam as a non-Communist state, is not particularly persuasive.

President Johnson and most of his advisers then thought that military intervention was the most feasible way to try to prevent the defeat of an ally, as it had been in Korea more than a decade previously. The perception prevailing then might have been wrong, but it was earnestly entertained. Why would Kennedy have thought otherwise?

Scholars and laypersons alike will continue to ponder what would have happened if Kennedy had not been killed. The tragedy of his death has clouded somewhat the objectivity of historical inquiry. Many see the myth surrounding the person; a few stress the defects at the expense of the virtues. Indeed, there seems to be a trend to belittle anything Kennedy did as though there were a need to balance the effects of his myth.

Kennedy was an exceptional person, but was he also an exceptional president? His most enduring legacy is to have taught future leaders the importance of having the emotional courage and intellectual honesty to learn from their own mistakes. He did that following the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion.  For that, the world owes him a special debt of gratitude.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network