Kennedy’s Legacy

With the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death in Dallas coming up (let’s not get embroiled in the grassy knoll business, another day’s post), there has been a lot of talk about president Kennedy and his legacy. I mean every time I turn on the TV there seems to be another one of those made for TV “specials” about him, or a re-run of some Kennedy related film. So perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider him and his legacy.

While this may seem somewhat of a dark comment to make, but it’s probable that JFK would not be idolised in the manner we currently see, if it weren’t for the fact that he was assassinated. For the truth is that the real Kennedy was more akin to a 1960’s version of Obama. As a catholic who appeared to be sympathetic to the idea of civil rights, he infuriated the hard right KKK types (or what we’d now call the Tea party). On the other hand, his habit of placing presentation over performance, i.e. making grand promises which he often failed to deliver on, meant he frustrated many in the democratic party also.

A more accurate look at his legacy shows a president who was very different and a good deal more cynical and corrupt. For example, he largely paid lip service to the issue of civil rights but actually did very little (that role would fall to his successor LB Johnson). During the election he talked in grand terms about a “missile gap”, which subsequently turned out not to exist (in truth the US had a large numerical advantage over the Soviets in terms of ICBM’s, this is the reason why they tried to get IRBM’s into Cuba).

He and his brother also deliberately began a policy of only providing funding to certain military projects in states that would matter the next election. One could characterise his entire Apollo program, which build its hardware in the key swing states such as Texas (which wasn’t the Republican heartland it is today), Florida and Louisiana, as just a massive pork barrel effort to buy himself a second term.

Kennedy also proved (like Obama) to be a much more conservative president in office than he’d presented in the election campaign. Like Obama decades later, he had promised to reform the US healthcare system, something which he subsequently failed to do once in office.

And his womanising and philandering would make Bill Clinton look like Eric Pickles (I pick Mr Pork pies and I’m assuming he’s the member of the cabinet least likely to be involved in infidelity). Indeed had any of his affairs, notably with the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe, been made public in the run up to the 1964 election, it’s difficult to see how he would have won, indeed, its likely he’d have been forced to resign in disgrace.

While he did introduce advisers to Vietnam, his actions in other regions and his words (then again, he wasn’t exactly known for being straight with people!) suggested he had something of an isolationist streak and wasn’t keen of sending in combat troops to Vietnam.

This mirrors the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, where the military managed to dupe the young president into agreeing to an invasion of Cuba. The invasion failed, in part because of changes to the plans imposed by the White House (again more for cosmetic reasons, than military). The CIA may well of gone along with this thinking that when everything went pear shaped they could convince Kennedy to send in US fighters and Marines. But Kennedy, taking the view that the military and CIA had clearly screwed up said no and pulled back all support.

In short if there’s anything that JFK changed about the US presidency it was a tendency for future US presidents to increasingly place style over policy and be less and less ideologically committed to anything that they feared might not be very popular with voters. A trend which leads us to the present antics and street theatre otherwise known as US politics.

As Mark Lawson suggests in his book Idlewild can we really envisage the city of New York renaming the city’s main airport after a Berlusconi like character, had JFK not been assassinated?

Or when photos of JFK meeting a young Bill Clinton, one suspects that had JFK dodged those bullets in Dallas, far from helping the Clinton campaign, one can envisage a hasty press statement being issued distancing Clinton from Kennedy and his “legacy” (i.e. for being a womanising, cynical and compulsive liar…and I ain’t talking about Clinton! :)) ).

Cuba missile crisis
I would argue however that we can forgive Kennedy for all his failings (perhaps the problem is more expecting too much from politicians) for he more than made up for things by being the right person in the right place during one of the most dangerous episodes in world history – the Cuban missile crisis.

When US spy planes detected IRBM’s (intermediate Range Nuclear missiles) in Cuba, the US military, in particular SAC commander Curtis LeMay (or “bombs away” LeMay as he was known to many), urged immediate airstrikes against Cuba followed by an invasion. However Kennedy, perhaps remembering the mess he’d gotten into over Cuba a year earlier (as a consequence of listening to the warhawks), said no. The consequences of him conceding to the military’s demands, which its very probable another president (e.g. Johnson or Nixon) would have done, would have been catastrophic. The most likely outcome would have been world war III.

The US military were making the somewhat arrogant assumption that they could take Cuba without facing much resistance from the soviets (or Cubans), that there were no operational nuclear weapons available on Cuba and that the Soviets, fearful of the threat of US retaliation, won’t react to a takeover of Cuba by retaliating somewhere else in the world. However what they didn’t know as that they were wrong on all three counts.

What the US intelligence hadn’t realised was that the Soviets already had received, and made operational, nuclear tipped FROG-5 tactical missiles in Cuba. There were also soviet subs on patrol with nuclear tipped torpedoes, as well as another small force of nuclear armed MRBM carrying subs off the US east coast. While all of these weapons had very limited range, they would have almost certainly destroyed any US invasion force and potentially a number of key US ports and coastal cities.

Worse still, as the soviet leadership hadn’t anticipated getting their hand caught fumbling in the Cuban cookie jar, they hadn’t worked out exact procedures and a chain of command to establish who had the authority and under what circumstances nuclear weapons were to be used, nor what the role of the Cubans would be in such a scenario. A situation not helped by the pressure Castro, infuriated at US spy flights and an (illegal) naval blockade, was putting on local soviet commanders to do something.

Also, the Soviets were already planning what would happen if Cuba was overrun by the Americans, even before the missile crisis began. And their plan was to seize Berlin, something that would have almost certainly provoked a shooting war (initially with conventional weapons, but that could easily escalate) in Europe. So even if by some miracle things hadn’t kicked off if the US invaded Cuba, its very likely a war would have quickly broken out in Europe.

The situation was crystallised by events on the Soviet sub B-59, which came within a hairs whisker of launching its nuclear torpedo at US naval forces that had been harassing it. Indeed it was largely the actions of one man, Vasili Arkhipov, who is often credited with preventing a potential nuclear war.

So as it was, the policy that Kennedy did embark on nearly ended in disaster. However he had to resist pressure from his military several more times, notably over the course of October 27th, so called “black Saturday”. During the course of this day, Khrushchev seemed to change his mind about Cuba, demanding more concessions (notably the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey). This led to questions about who was really running things in the Soviet union.

And the same day, the shooting down of the U-2, shots fired at US low-level recon flights and an intercepted message from Castro to Khrushchev urging him to nuke the Americans if they moved against Cuba (all on the same day!) all crossed a previously agreed rubicon whereby Kennedy had agreed they would commence airstrikes. But again, he resisted the pressure (arguing quite rightly that the US had no way of knowing whether those orders came from Moscow, some trigger happy soviet commander or Castro) from within his own military.

While one must give credit also to Khrushchev, who was under equally severe pressure from his military to escalade things, the Cuba crisis would prove to be Kennedy’s finest hour. It also had a sobering effect on both sides, particularly when the US and Soviet military hardliners realise how close they’d come to an actual nuclear war. In essence the crisis in Cuba served to scare them all straight, allowing Kennedy and Khrushchev to subsequently defuse tensions the following year.

So perhaps the bit of Kennedy’s legacy we should remember is that there still is an airport in New York…and a city of New York and not a smoking irradiated ruin!


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