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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

"The first advice I'm going to give my successor," he told Ben Bradlee, "is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn."

Far from being reckless in foreign affairs, Kennedy was a cautious president, notable for his capacity to refuse escalation. When the Bay of Pigs invasion appeared to be failing, though under pressure from the military and the CIA to send in American forces, Kennedy declined to do so--as he later declined escalation in the Berlin crisis of 1961, the missile crisis of 1962 and the Vietnam crisis of 1963.

The missile crisis was the hour of maximum danger in the Cold War. Confronted by the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs advocated a sneak air strike to be followed by an invasion. We know now that the Soviet forces on the island had tactical missiles equipped with nuclear warheads and the authority to use them in case of an American invasion. Had Kennedy taken the advice of the hawks, the result would probably have been nuclear war. Instead he pursued--and achieved--a diplomatic solution.

Last year, two books came out unveiling the secrets of the Cuban missile crisis. Alexsandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali's One Hell of a Gamble is the Soviet record, hitherto undisclosed, of the deliberations leading Nikita Khrushchev first to send and then to withdraw the nuclear missiles. The Kennedy Tapes by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow is the American record, hitherto undisclosed, of the debates in the White House following the discovery of the missiles. The nearly universal reaction has been praise for Kennedy's cool, sober and effective leadership in expelling the missiles without going to war.

There are those who claim that the Kennedys had an "obsession" with Castro and Cuba. They cite the assassination plots, though they were inherited from the Eisenhower administration, and they cite the Kennedy administration's own Operation Mongoose. But there is no direct evidence that either Eisenhower or Kennedy authorized or knew of the assassination plots. CIA officials testified that they had not even informed John McCone, the man Kennedy brought in to clean up the agency after the Bay of Pigs. If they informed Kennedy, they would have had to stipulate, "But you can't mention this to McCone."--a bureaucratic improbability.

What is far more likely is that the CIA, like intelligence agencies in other countries, believed that it knew the requirements of national security better than transient elected officials, like presidents, and invoked the excuse of "plausible deniability" to act as it deemed best without telling those to whom the agency was nominally accountable. As John Le Carre, who should know, has said, "Scrutiny of intelligence services is largely an illusory concept. If they're good, they fool the outsiders--and if they're bad they fool themselves."

As for Operation Mongoose, which Robert Kennedy kept trying to spur on--not his finest hour--this was not an assassination project but a foolish, futile and costly intelligence-gathering and sabotage effort. As Richard Helms of the CIA testified before the Senate committee investigating assassination plots in 1975, "Mongoose was not intended to apply to assassination activity."

Those who are themselves obsessed with the theory of the Kennedys' alleged anti-Castro obsession must deal with the stubborn fact that, given by the Soviet missiles the best possible excuse for invading Cuba and smashing Castro forever, an excuse that would have been accepted around the world, it was Robert Kennedy who led the fight against military action and John Kennedy who made the decision against it. A year after the missile crisis, Kennedy was exploring through Ambassador William Attwood (United States) and Ambassador Carlos Lechuga (Cuba) and through the French journalist Jean Daniel the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba. Some anti-Castro obsession!

And then came Vietnam. This was a problem Kennedy approached with well-ingrained doubts. As a young congressman in 1951, he had visited Indochina and watched a crack French army fail to subdue Vietnamese nationalists. He left with the conviction that the dispatch of non-Asian troops to decide the future of Vietnam would only rouse nationalist emotions against the intruder and would, as he said in a radio address on his return to the United States, mean "foredoomed failure."

By the time, a decade later, that Kennedy came to the White House, a commitment to save South Vietnam from communism had crystallized in the Eisenhower years. Kennedy thought it an overcommitment. But the commitment having been made, it could not be abandoned except at a price; and he was prepared to give the government in Saigon a run for its money. He offered Saigon economic assistance and increased the number of American military advisers attached to the South Vietnamese army (though at his death there were far fewer American troops in Vietnam than Soviet troops in Cuba during the missile crisis or American troops in the Dominican Republic in 1965).

But he rejected every proposal to send American combat units to Vietnam and, in effect, Americanize the war. If the United States converted the Vietnam fighting into an American war, he believed, we would lose--as the French had lost a decade before. "The last thing he wanted," Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and later Lyndon Johnson's ambassador to Vietnam, later said, "was to put in ground forces."

Kennedy was reinforced in this view by a talk with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who told him it would be foolish to fight in Southeast Asia; the future of Vietnam should be decided at the diplomatic table. Thereafter, when the Pentagon called for the commitment of American ground forces, Kennedy would say, "Well, now, you gentlemen, you go back and convince General MacArthur, then I'll be convinced." In 1962, he directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for the withdrawal of the American military advisers in 1965. The plan was approved in May 1963, with the first 1,000 men to return at the end of the year.

No one knows what a dead president might do about problems that become acute after his death. It is hard enough to know what living presidents will do about anything. But it is difficult to suppose that Kennedy would ever have reversed himself and sent ground forces into Vietnam. Both Robert McNamara, his secretary of defense, and McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, have latterly said that in their judgment Kennedy would never have Americanized the war--though, ironically, they advised Johnson to do exactly that, and he, with misgivings, followed that advice, thinking that that was what Kennedy would have done.

Kennedy believed in military strength. But he valued military strength as a means not to war but to peace. "Let us never negotiate out of fear," he had said in his inaugural address. "But let us never fear to negotiate." He had a realistic sense of the limitations of American power. "We must face the fact," he said in 1962, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient--that we are only six percent of the world's population--that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind--that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity--and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."

Kennedy believed that in the end America's influence in the world depended less on American arms than on American ideals. Undertakings such as the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress were closest to his heart. The Peace Corps, still going strong 35 years later, sent young Americans to the far corners of the earth to work with local people in improving education, public health and agricultural productivity. The Alliance for Progress was designed to promote economic growth and democratic institutions in Latin America.

Most important of all was the effort to stop the nuclear arms race. During the tense days of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev had looked down the nuclear abyss together. Both came away consumed with a passion to rescue the planet from the overhanging horror of nuclear holocaust.

Determined to banish the clichés and rigidities of the Cold War, Kennedy, in a notable speech at American University in June 1963, called for a change in American, as well as Soviet, attitudes. "No government or social system," he said, "is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue....We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons."

The first step in slowing up the arms race, a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, was consummated in September 1963. Contrasting the two American presidents he had known, Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs, "The comparison would not be in favor of Eisenhower....It quickly became clear [Kennedy] understood better than Eisenhower that an improvement in relations was the only rational course."

In the fall of 1963, Kennedy told Robert that his greatest disappointment was that he had not accomplished more on nuclear disarmament. The second disappointment, he said, was that he had had to spend so much time on foreign policy; "each day was a new crisis." In his second term, he planned to concentrate on domestic affairs, especially on combating poverty, spreading economic opportunity and promoting racial justice.

Racism is historically the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of American ideals and the still crippling disease of American society. Kennedy was an OK civil rights man when elected president. But it was rather an abstract problem for him, as it was then for most white Americans: someone should do something about it some time, but not just now.

Black Americans were not prepared to wait any longer. They had already begun to demand constitutional rights with righteous determination and unflinching courage. Kennedy for a while underestimated the moral urgency behind the crusade for racial justice. But he was educated by bitter events. Angry resistance by Southern officials to federal court orders at the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama and growling police dogs unleashed in Southern cities against peaceful demonstrators shocked the country and at last made congressional action feasible. In June 1963, Kennedy went on national television. His eloquent words bear repetition--and still carry meaning--today.

In that speech, 35 years ago, Kennedy called on every American to examine his conscience. "If an American, because his skin is dark... cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want," he asked, "then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

"We are confronted," he continued, "primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution....It is a time to act in the Congress, in our states and local legislative bodies and, above all, in all of our daily lives." And he set forth a program for the integration of black Americans into the national community.

Critics call Kennedy dilatory and opportunistic on civil rights and wonder at his abiding popularity among black Americans. But, as Prof. Thomas Brown comments, "Though one may legitimately ask whether Kennedy did enough to justify such wide support among blacks, one somehow suspects that they were better judges" than the critics.

Actually, despite each day's new international crisis (and despite the revisionist critique), Kennedy compiled a pretty good record in domestic policy, as Prof. Irving Bernstein of UCLA shows in his book, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier (1991). During the Kennedy years, overall economic growth averaged 5.6 percent, unemployment fell from 7 to 5.7 percent and inflation was held at 1.2 percent. In his thousand days, JFK laid the groundwork for federal aid to education and the arts, Medicare, increases in the minimum wage, the redevelopment of Appalachia and other rural areas, the war on poverty and the Keynesian tax cut of 1964--indeed, for most of President Johnson's Great Society.

Johnson was better than Kennedy in cajoling and bullying Congress. And the 1964 election, by giving LBJ an extra 37 Democrats in the House, nearly all liberals from the north, made him the only Democratic president since FDR's first term to have a working Democratic majority in both houses. It was this political arithmetic more than Johnson's parliamentary wizardry that made possible the impressive array of social programs enacted in 1964 and 1965.

Kennedy made his share of mistakes. In addition to the excesses of private life and the fatuity of the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose, there was his 1961 decision, before the "missile gap" was disproved, to call for a build-up of the American nuclear missile force. This ended any hope of freezing the rival forces at lower levels, and set off the nuclear arms race. There was the reappointment of J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. There was the crazy 1961 call for fallout shelters to protect against nuclear attack. There was the 1962 enthusiasm for counterinsurgency in the Third World. There was the deepening of the inherited U.S. commitment to Vietnam. And there was throughout an excessive New Frontier faith in activism, a conviction that, if there was a problem, there must be a solution, and let's do it tomorrow. But Kennedy never lost the capacity to learn from his mistakes. Each year he became a better president.

Perhaps most important of all was the impact Kennedy had on a new generation of Americans. He liked to quote the Scottish author John Buchan: "Politics is still the greatest and most honorable adventure." At Kennedy's behest, bright, idealistic and capable young men and women, asking not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country, flocked to Washington. They brought new ideas, hopes, vision, generosity and vitality to the national life. There had been nothing like it since the early days of FDR's New Deal.

JFK touched and remolded lives and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history. Inspired by his words, they dedicated themselves thereafter to public service, whether in government, in civil rights and human rights movements, in nonprofit sectors, in community organization, in their own hearts and souls. His irreverence toward conventional ideas and institutions provoked a discharge of critical energy throughout American society. He gave the country back to its own best self and taught the world that the process of rediscovering America was not over.

One is bound to speculate how America and the world would have been different if Kennedy had lived. For individuals do indeed make a difference to history. In December 1931, a British politician crossing Fifth Avenue in New York City was struck by an automobile and nearly killed. In February 1933, an American politician sitting in an open car in Miami was fired upon by an assassin; the mayor of Chicago, sitting beside him, was killed. Would the history of the twentieth century have been the same if the New York automobile had killed Winston Churchill and the Miami assassin had killed Franklin Roosevelt?

Had John F. Kennedy lived, his New Frontier program would have been enacted, he would have pressed the attack on poverty and racism in America, would have pursued détente in Europe, would most probably have withdrawn from Vietnam,and would have urged on the global crusade against nuclear proliferation. The republic would have been spared much of the trauma, disorder and violence that disfigured the raging 1960s.

And there remain memories of the private man. He was not, as some claim, a bearer of grudges--the "don't get mad, get even" idea. He made Lyndon Johnson his vice president after Johnson had said unforgivable things about his father. He took most of the Stevenson-for-President crowd--George Ball, Willard Wirtz, Thomas K. Finletter, William Blair, Newton Minow, J. Edward Day, William Attwood, Clayton Fritchey--into his administration though the Stevenson campaign had seemed for a moment to imperil his nomination.

Nor was he, as claimed, a spoiled rich man who used and discarded people and treated his associates as if they were indentured servants. He was one of the most unfailingly courteous and considerate men I have ever known. I did my share of creating trouble for his administration; and a couple of times, after one scrape or another made headlines, I told him that maybe the time had come for me to resign. He would laugh and dismiss the idea: "Better that you're the target than me."

He was easy, accessible, witty, candid, enjoying the clash of ideas and the ripples of gossip, never more relaxed than when sitting in his rocking chair and puffing away on a fine Havana cigar. He was, in his self-description, an "idealist without illusions." He was the best of my generation. It is good for the country that he remains so vivid a presence in our minds and hearts.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is a writer, historian and former special assistant to President Kennedy.


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