Reckoning with JFK

My post a couple days ago about the old chestnut about whether John F. Kennedy claimed to be a jelly doughnut in his famous Berlin speech prompted the full range of reactions that I expected, and illustrate why JFK remains a puzzle.  A couple of commenters objected to my using the story as a pretext for taking a sideswipe at JFK (“he still a jelly head,” said I), but that was in fact my main purpose.

A couple of others reprised what I had also noted in an another previous post, about how JFK was in many important ways far to the right of today’s Democratic Party.  He supported tax cuts!  And higher defense spending!  And he hated Commies!  And still others pointed to his “cool handling” of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Ah.  There’s a major difficulty.  JFK’s supposed “cool handling” of the missile crisis is probably the greatest enduring myth of JFK’s presidency.  Yes, it was good that we avoided World War III, but aside from that just about every common judgment about the missile crisis is wrong.  It was both a political and military defeat for the United States, but the great Kennedy spin machine managed from the first moments to convey the exact opposite impression.  And the whole matter arose precisely because the Soviet Union perceived JFK’s weakness.

This fact was not generally recognized because key concessions from Kennedy were kept secret from the American people and even from most of Kennedy’s top advisers at the time.  Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw American missiles from Greece and Turkey, something he had publicly stated he would not do when the Soviets demanded it.  (When this concession leaked out years later, it was said the missiles were “obsolete” and unimportant, though the Soviets did not share this view.)  The biggest public concession was Kennedy’s pledge that the U.S. would cease attempting to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba.

So, in exchange for removing the missiles, the Soviet Union secured the political future of Cuba, which went on to be a major threat to the interests of the United States in Latin America, and weakened the U.S. strategic position in Europe by removing our intermediate range missile forces.  This aspect of the Cuban missile crisis became very salient in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan had to exert enormous political effort to place new missile forces in Europe to counter the massive Soviet missile build up that occurred in the decade and a half after the Cuban crisis.

One wonders whether the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis was the exact outcome the Soviets had in mind by placing missiles there in the first place.  One of the oddest aspects of the whole story that few people have ever noted is that the Soviet missiles were left out in the open in Cuba, easily spotted by American reconnaissance.  The Soviets were masters of deception and camouflage when it came to their military arsenal.  It is almost as if they feared Kennedy so little that they wanted the U.S. to see their missiles, knowing they could exact concessions from this young weak president.  It is hard to imagine the Soviet moves in Berlin or Cuba during those years if they had faced a President Nixon instead.

It is not necessary to go into JFK’s reckless personal behavior—behavior that might have prevented him from completing a second term if he’d lived to have one—to make the point that even a person with decent opinions can make a poor president if they simply aren’t up to the job.  (Are you listening Herman Cain?)  Even one of his many sympathetic biographers, Richard Reeves, forthrightly concludes that “He was not prepared for it [the presidency].”

Or perhaps take in the cautionary judgment of Frederick Kempe, author of the recent fine book Berlin 1961:

I want Americans to understand how the decisions of their presidents—then and now—shape world history in ways we don’t always understand at the time of a specific event. I want readers to know that Kennedy could have prevented the Berlin Wall, if he had wished, and that in acquiescing to the border closure he not only created a more dangerous situation—but also contributed to mortgaging the future for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans. The relatively small decisions that U.S. presidents make have huge, often global, consequences.

And if you really want to understand how the Kennedy publicity machine managed to distort our entire memory of the man, please see James Piereson’s indispensible book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, which I reviewed in the Weekly Standard at the time it came out.