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Nov 30, 2011

Douthat & Dallek on JFK


The New York Times featured an interesting exchange on presidential history between columnist Ross Douthat and historian Robert Dallek. The debate provides a good example of why a columnist might want to avoid taking on a historian of Dallek’s caliber.

Douthat’s Sunday column identified what he deemed three false pretenses about JFK: (1) thatKennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one if he’d lived”; (2) that “Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam”; and (3) that “Kennedy was a martyr to right-wing unreason.”

The third pretense is clearly false, though its prevalence is dubious (Douthat cites a recent Frank Rich column) and it’s also clear that Kennedy’s presidency featured a surge of “right-wing unreason,” especially in the South and Southwest. Dallek’s response ignores it, and focuses instead on the first two claims.

Douthat’s contention that as “the war’s architects were all Kennedy people,” it “was the Whiz Kids’ mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald’s fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina” is true but an incomplete analysis. As Dallek counters, “neither [Kennedy] nor anyone else knew what he would have done [regarding Vietnam], though he was highly skeptical about sending large numbers of ground troops to fight there. As both Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy told me, President Kennedy would have acted differently from L.B.J.”

The transition from Kennedy to Johnson was undoubtedly significant, in that Johnson used his national security advisors much differently than Kennedy had; LBJ tended to rely on a smaller circle of figures, and was considerably more deferential to their viewpoints than Kennedy had been. Both patterns made Johnson more likely to have escalated than Kennedy might have been. But Douthat’s argument is at least plausible that a second-term President Kennedy would have botched Vietnam.

The columnist is on much less solid ground in his discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he portrays as a negative for Kennedy—viewed by some, he notes, as “a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward.” This viewpoint, to put it mildly, isn’t the consensus interpretation of JFK’s foreign policy, but it does find some currency in left-leaning or hard-line revisionist scholarship that Douthat doesn’t seem to embrace in any other context. As Dallek responds, Kennedy handled that missile crisis “more than effectively,” and “was particularly wise in restraining his reckless military chiefs then and throughout his thousand days.” The recordings of the Cuban Missile Crisis debates badly weaken Douthat’s argument, but he doesn’t mention them.

The most significant problem with Douthat’s column, however, comes in its tendency toward unsupported overstatement. He comments, for instance, on Kennedy’s “medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency.” Dallek observes that Kennedy undeniably had medical problems that he hid from the public, but strongly denies the allegation that these difficulties made the Presdient unfit for service.

Most problematic, however, is Douthat’s framing of how “serious historians” evaluate JFK: “the kindest interpretation of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as ‘incomplete.’ The harsher view would deem him a near disaster.”

Yet for an example of the “harsher view,” Douthat cites not a historian but essayist Christopher Hitchens. And Douthat’s assertion that the “kindest view of Kennedy’s presidency is that he was a mediocrity” was starkly contradicted by the C-SPAN survey of presidential leadership. The 2009 survey, which included dozens of presidential scholars, ranked Kennedy sixth, behind Lincoln, Washington, the two Roosevelts, and Truman. In the 2000 survey, JFK’s ranking was eighth.

Perhaps Douthat believes that any President ranked below the top five is a mediocrity. In that case, I’ll be looking forward to his column on the mediocrity of Ronald Reagan (10th in 2009, 11th in 2000).

I’m not a particular fan of Kennedy’s presidency, and if I had participated in the 2009 poll, I would have ranked him lower than 6th. But it’s unfortunate to see the historical consensus misrepresented in the Times.

hat tip--B.G.


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