JFK’s Signal Accomplishment: (Almost Blowing up the World, then) ‘Saving’ the World

(Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)

(Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call via Getty Images)

Morton Kondracke displays some funny logic. My commentary is in italics.

I didn’t read or watch every observation of the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (who could?)  but the ones I did gave short shrift to his signal accomplishment — saving the world from a nuclear holocaust.

Could it be because JFK played a provocative role in the nuclear confrontation in the first place? And other observers are more informed and realistic about this? The fact that JFK managed to back out of a nuclear crisis that he helped start is a “Signal Accomplishment”? Just a thought, Morton. Credit is due, Kennedy did act honorably, and skillfully, this is true. History records that. It’s been explored by scholars ever since. But let’s not pretend Kennedy swept in and saved the world.

The other view is that Kennedy brought the USA to the brink of a global nuclear war, then successfully avoided it. That might be the reason others haven’t touted it as a signal accomplishment. 

His cool restraint during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis — resisting many advisers who were calling for bombing Soviet missile sites in Cuba — ought to earn him the top-of-the-heap public approval ratings he enjoys (90 percent in a CNN poll).

I doubt the ratings are based on that, though. His celebrated grace, glamour, wit, eloquence, inspiration of a generation to public service, his (belated) support for civil rights, the Camelot myth created by his widow — and, above all, his martyrdom — most likely are the major factors.

Grace, glamour, wit, eloquence…morbidly brazen womanizing, medical dependence on steroids and regular injections of powerful amphetamines to mask grave health problems….and recklessly bringing the USA to the brink of nuclear war. Okay, got it. Glamorous. 

Historians rate him lower than the public does. If you look at the excellent Wikipedia site, Historical Rankings of Presidents of the United States, he rates in the middle-upper tier in a dozen surveys of historians — 14th in a 2002 Sienna College survey.

Among the commentaries leading up to last week’s commemorations, some were withering. The Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus noted that a 1988 survey of historians rated Kennedy the most overrated figure in American history. McManus quoted his biographer, Robert Dalek, as saying “most historians think of him as an average or even below-average president. He never got any of his legislative initiatives passed. He was the architect of a failed policy in Cuba. It’s possible to look at his record and see real misery.”

In The Washington Post, ace columnist Robert Samuelson declared, “He was not a great president. He was somewhere between middling and mediocre.” Samuelson wrongly blames Kennedy’s tax cuts, enacted after his death, for launching the Great Inflation of the late 1960s and 1970s. Actually, that was Lyndon Johnson’s doing.

Kennedy did get the war in Vietnam started, and historians at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who conduct extensive oral histories of presidencies have told me that the balance of the evidence strongly suggests he would have escalated the war, not withdrawn, as his admirers aver.

It appears Morton is taking into account the gap between public admiration, and scholarly evaluation. And aware of Kennedy’s health problems and drug use. And his escalation policy in Viet Nam. Yes, the downside:

Also on the downside, of course: his compulsive womanizing, his concealment of his Addison’s disease and the dangerous cocktail of drugs he used to treat it, and his efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

But, against all this, we have the 13 days of October 1962, when the Soviets were discovered installing nuclear missiles in Cuba that could hit most of the United States. When called on it, they speeded up the installation process. They shot down an American U2 spy plane. Kennedy created the so-called ExComm to consider what to do.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to bomb and invade Cuba, which well could have triggered World War III. Most of the civilian members of the ExComm — CIA Director John McCone, Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson and, especially, Vice President Johnson — favored military action, too.

True, and keep in mind, Cuba has been imprisoned under a cloud of communist darkness ever since, with Castro enduring long after his opponents. It’s not clear that the failure to prevail over Cuba’s dictatorship is something to brag about. 

When congressional leaders were called in, Johnson, according to biographer Robert Caro, stayed silent as one leader after another insisted on war, including future Vietnam dove Sen. William Fulbright, D-Ark., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, however, kept cool. Kennedy instituted a naval “quarantine” instead of an attack, communicated with Nikita Khrushchev, repeatedly gave him time and opportunities to stand down, and ultimately reached a secret deal to remove obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for full withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Yes, the Kennedy brothers succeeded in resisting the advice of the military establishment, and artfully backed out of a confrontation that neither side wanted. Due in part to making secret concessions. This may be an admirable display of political skill, but it’s not exactly heroic. 

The United States and Soviet Union at several points came within minutes of nuclear confrontation and Kennedy bided for time while Johnson, in particular, was saying “showing weakness to a mad dog is always wrong.”

But if your good judgment saves the world from nuclear war, I say, you deserve high marks.

Most historians don’t share Morton’s view. And think that at best, Kennedy broke even. But Morton makes a legitimate case. Whatever high marks JFK gains for avoiding nuclear war are offset by the low marks he got for provocations and policy missteps that led to the unwanted nuclear confrontation in the first place. Breaking even is not a bad thing. Even if the price was Castro’s regime enduring for the next half century. 

Beltway Insiders

One Comment on “JFK’s Signal Accomplishment: (Almost Blowing up the World, then) ‘Saving’ the World”

  1. […] The Butcher Morton Kondracke displays some funny logic. My commentary is in italics. I didn’t read or […]

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