Politics & Policy

JFK: 50 Years Later

Putting President Kennedy in context.


Almost everyone who was of conscient age at the time remembers the buzz when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States 50 years ago today. President Eisenhower was almost universally respected and had succeeded in the great political achievement of presenting himself simultaneously as the smiling, golfing, avuncular man who inspired the vast national consensus expressed in the words “I Like Ike,” and as the five-star general who, as theater commander at the head of 100 divisions, had conducted the greatest military operation in the history of the world and received the unconditional surrender in the West of our Nazi enemies. National security was surely safe with such a man. He was responsible for having Buchenwald, Belsen, Dachau, and other infamous sites filmed so that the world could not disbelieve that the culture of Beethoven and Goethe had committed such unspeakable crimes. He was a magnanimous military governor of Germany, a well-regarded if briefly serving chief of staff of the army and president of Columbia University, and the founding commander of NATO, in which office he again showed his genius as a soldier-diplomat, as he had in North Africa with the life-enactment of the cynicism of the film Casablanca with the swirling factions of the time, and in coordinating such difficult figures as George Patton, Bernard L. Montgomery, and Charles de Gaulle.

#ad#In North Africa, the Sicilian and early Italian landings, in France and in Germany, he had never really been defeated. The Battle of the Ardennes was forced on him in part by the British preoccupation with the Dutch and German coast, with the Market Garden operation, and he had had the judgment to pull fuel supplies well back from the front lines, in case there was a German offensive, lest it overrun his supplies. He was right about the southern French landings in August 1944, which the British had opposed; was right about the double envelopment of the Ruhr; and he conquered Germany as quickly as Germany had conquered France, five years before (albeit with the immense Red Army on Germany’s eastern border).

As president, he was elected easily twice, ended the Korean War promptly on satisfactory terms (by threatening nuclear attack on Communist China), stayed out of Indochina, debunked the insane Anglo-French caper at Suez, though with less than the usual regard for the sensibilities of allies, and probably misjudged Nasser and the possibilities of collaboration with the Arab powers. But he always knew to take his stand on insuperably strong ground, as in Quemoy and Matsu in 1955, where much of the Chinese air force was shot down, and Lebanon in 1958 — in both of which instances he took no casualties at all; and, though authorized to use nuclear weapons in defense of the national interest as he alone defined it, he refused frequent joint chiefs’ requests for nuclear action and provided adult supervision for the military. He cut the defense budget but lengthened the American lead in technological sophistication and throw-weight of what was called “massive retaliation.” When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told him in 1959 that the Soviets could crush U.S. and Allied conventional forces in and around West Berlin, Eisenhower replied, “If you attack us in Germany, there will be nothing conventional about our response.” His Open Skies proposal at the Geneva Summit Conference of 1955 (the first such conference in ten years) began the thaw in the Cold War, and, though rejected by the Russians, was imaginative and began a tentative process toward more relaxed relations between the superpowers.

In domestic matters, Eisenhower built the immense interstate highway system and, with the Canadians, the St. Lawrence Seaway. He ended the Red Scare: With allies (especially Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson), he jettisoned McCarthy and McCarthyism, and succeeded in moving the Republicans out of the Flat Earth age of isolationism and of fuming at Roosevelt and Truman as Communists. He slightly reduced taxes, added Alaska and Hawaii as states, and gave the country peace and prosperity, after the 20 previous years of depression, war, and the Communist threat (though his predecessors had navigated those times with great skill). Ike was a bit tired at the end, looking sleepy when the Russians launched the first space satellite and the U.S. rocket blew up on the launch pad a short time later, and when the U-2 espionage plane was shot down by the Russians, but he was popular and respected to and beyond the end of his presidency.

The 1960 election itself, if the votes are attributed fairly in Alabama — where there were competing Democrats — yielded a plurality for Nixon, and the voting irregularities in Illinois (a 9,000-vote margin in 5,000,000 votes cast, from ballot boxes that have never been found) and several other states, make it impossible to judge who really won the election. Eisenhower offered the resources of “my friends” — “by which,” Richard Nixon once told me, “he meant my rich friends” — “to organize a challenge of the election.” Nixon declined, as he thought it would be “irresponsible to leave the country without a government.” Nixon has received very little credit for his forbearance.


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.

#ad#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 cbletters@gmail.com.

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