Yet, despite Eisenhower’s distinction and the close election, there was great relief and excitement when a man 27 years younger succeeded him. The new president had been a navy lieutenant commander, whose torpedo boat had been sunk from under him at that; his father had effectively bought his election to the Congress, where he had served without much distinction; and he had had a book ghost-written for him. On that confident noon 50 years ago, he spoke of being prepared “to bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to advance the cause of freedom. It was the abandonment of Eisenhower’s relatively low-cost “more bang for the buck” massive-retaliation approach — “brinkmanship,” as it had been called. We would now signal a preparedness to be mouse-trapped into sundry overseas engagements, without necessarily having clear exit strategies. Kennedy rushed into the harebrained Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, which General Eisenhower had avoided for reasons of both military unfeasibility and international law.
Kennedy had claimed, during the campaign against Nixon, that there was a “missile gap” in the Soviets’ favor. This was a completely false allegation, any response to which Eisenhower considered so far beneath his dignity (which was considerable in military matters) that none would be made. Kennedy made a very poor impression on Khrushchev, in their one meeting, in Vienna; the Soviet leader had always been rather intimidated by Eisenhower, who had been a comrade-in-arms of Stalin. When the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba in 1962, the CIA failed to detect that there were already 40,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, and that the nuclear warheads were already in country and could be attached in a day. It is to Kennedy’s great credit that he intuited that the invasion scenarios could not altogether be believed, as an assault on a nuclear-capable Cuba with two full Soviet divisions in it would have been a very complicated business. But the net result was non-deployment in Cuba, but withdrawal of deployed NATO missiles that Greece and Turkey wished to retain in their countries. It was not really a strategic victory, although it was certainly sold as one, and it was followed up by the Kennedy-Johnson policy of simply allowing the Soviets to catch up in deliverable military nuclear capacity. It is difficult to be sure what constitutes nuclear sufficiency at such times, but simply conceding something the Communists ardently sought, for no quid pro quo, was bad policy.
Unfortunately, the myth-making about the Cuban Missile Crisis enabled the Kennedy entourage to believe that they had developed a new and infallible method of Harvard-based, critical-path crisis management. Of course it was nonsense, and led straight to the lunacy of fighting in the morass of Vietnam without cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which poured a practically unlimited number of reinforcements and quantity of munitions and supplies, and even tanks and artillery. I think that JFK’s intuition in not invading Cuba justifies a likelihood that he would not have plunged into Vietnam as insouciantly as Lyndon Johnson did, propelled by the scruff of the neck and the small of the back by the advisers he had inherited from Kennedy.
Johnson did pass the tax-cut and civil-rights bills that Kennedy had brought forth but that had stalled. And Kennedy’s tragic death and the great and captivating dignity with which his widow and young family endured the ordeal were quickly translated into a fatuous legend of Camelot, a brief, magic time. Kennedy was not a particularly good or effective president. He tolerated an outrageous amount of lawless wiretapping and his brother, as attorney general, conducted vendettas to his heart’s content (including a tax audit on Richard Nixon’s elderly mother). Yet we are looking back fondly on something this week — on a popular president who, though not overly accomplished, was elegant and articulate, showed courage, had style, and was trying to move in desirable directions, though he was not adept at dealing with the Congress and was apt to produce unbidden results from the Soviets. The world liked him and wished him well, and he had a sense of humor and was never embarrassing or abrasive, and we didn’t fear disaster at every turn. And — unlike Eisenhower, Truman, and Reagan, of whom much the same could be said — he was cut down before being given a fair chance. Some compound of those factors, I suspect, is what we remember, wistfully, this week.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at [email protected].