John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is one of the most iconic political figures of 20th century history. The modern, maverick president who would change the world for the better. Young, attractive and the quintessential American – he was the American Dream.
Sadly for JFK, however, he is remembered largely for the manner of his demise. His assassination in Dallas is, to this day, one of the great American tragedies and is a source of numerous conspiracy theories. Was it an inside job? The Mafia? Cubans? Or was it the work of one deranged former marine and Soviet defector?
Many reflect on JFK and ponder what could have been under his presidency. How would the world look today had he been given the chance? A modern American president to break the mould and take the United States down a new path.
Perhaps the civil rights movement had found a sympathetic figure in this president, American meddling across the globe may have been curtailed and American involvement in Vietnam may not have been the monumental disaster that it was.
These questions are often asked by those who view him fondly, however. Luckily for Kennedy, it is what we largely focus our gaze upon – not the disastrous events that occurred during his time as president.
At first glance it is hard not to admire Kennedy, his campaign was stunning. Kennedy utilised television in the same manner as modern candidates have with social media, gaining widespread support from America’s ever growing middle-class, suburban population.
He portrayed himself as a reformer in the same mould as Truman and Roosevelt before him. Federal government would stay out of American lives; after all, it is the Soviets who seek to control everyday life. From this, his support in the middle-classes sky rocketed.
Kennedy played a wild card
When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Atlanta at a civil rights protest, African American communities were rightly outraged. Despite fervent protests from his campaign staff and allies, Kennedy chose to contact King’s family and even offered assistance in securing his potential release.
This was a political master stroke. With one fell swoop Kennedy had gained the publicised support of Martin Luther King Sr and large droves of the African American community.
While one could claim this to be a glimpse at the PR genius of the man, it also highlights the opportunistic qualities of the modern politician he was. Whether he cared for this cause was irrelevant to many in the DNC, he had gained support and gained an edge Nixon from a moral perspective.
It is here that the speculation rises with JFK; perhaps he would have been a great president, one to help unify communities and emancipate?
During his presidency, JFK also intervened in the Mississippi University riot after an African American student James Meredith was admitted. His support for civil rights raises valid questions on what his legacy could have been. His impromptu speech in Washington, 1963 seen calls for equal rights on moral grounds, and he spoke out against the actions of state police forces in the southern states.
Down to the Wire
Ultimately, Kennedy was elected with one of the closest margins in US history, with a popular vote margin of just over 100,000 nationwide. Nonetheless, he was in the White House, and change could now begin.
It is obvious from his first weeks in the White House that Kennedy was intent on change. Previous presidents had long standing issues with the US military hierarchy. They often ill-advised action – as well as the use of nuclear weapons against the Soviets – and one could argue they were actually a bigger threat to US security at times than the Soviets themselves.
Kennedy had little time or faith in these men it appears, and he trusted them even less. He appears paranoid and ensured that meetings were recorded without the consent of those involved. Even whilst not in attendance, Kennedy insisted that he should know of dissent and trash talk.
He understood how the Joint Chiefs viewed him, they disliked him for what he was and held him in low regard. He was a Navy man, and far from as distinguished as they would like. Stepping into the shoes of gargantuan strong men such as Eisenhower was a tough task, but Kennedy stood his ground and denied requests for military action on several occasions.
The Bay of Pigs
The Bay of Pigs offensive – in which US-trained Cuban exiles would overthrow Fidel Castro – was by no means of Kennedy’s making. The plans had in fact been in the pipeline since Eisenhower’s time as president. However, Kennedy put these plans into action, and the outcome was a devastating loss of face.
Kennedy consistently argued for American involvement in the affair to be covert as any potential failure would show weakness on his part. Leaks to the US media were rife though and his hand was forced; US air support would not be granted. An initial bombing raid would allow the brigade of 1,500 men to land, but from there, his hands were clean.
The operation was a disaster, 115 were killed and nearly 1,200 captured. It began as a coup and ended as a political victory for Fidel Castro, strengthening his resolve and pushing him further into the arms of Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy’s mistake was to not heed the advice of his party. Much of the political leadership argued against this action, but their words fell on deaf ears. Kennedy was intent on conveying an aura of strength both to Khrushchev and to his military advisers.
This was the first major failure of his administration, and there were more to follow.
The Great Other
Kennedy’s insistence on action came from his apparent distrust of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Although there is evidence to show that their relationship was one of mutual respect – Kennedy regularly wrote Khrushchev to talk down crises – he was it seems, a rabbit in the headlights.
The men were polar opposites. Khrushchev was a hard line, old school Soviet. From a humble background, his political persona was forged in the icy devastation of the Eastern Front, his mentor – Josef Stalin. He was not leader to be crossed and his defence of Soviet sovereignty was absolute.
Kennedy was another man entirely; a background of privilege and a man made for politics. His time in the US Navy just barely gave him the legitimacy of leadership at a time when America needed both brains and brawn.
He possessed all the traits of a great statesman, but not those of a strategist and Khrushchev was always ahead of the game. The geo-political chess board during Kennedy’s administration belonged to Khrushchev, and so did the pawns, the table on which it was placed, and the very stools themselves.
Their meeting in Vienna in 1961 saw the Soviet Premier push all the right buttons and thrust tensions into a dangerous area. Khrushchev declared:
“If the US wants to start a war over Germany let it be so.”
Kennedy himself is claimed to have told a New York Times journalist “He just beat the hell out of me”.
Vienna was a focal point. No real agreements were reached and if anything tensions between the two superpowers were worsened. Khrushchev sensed weakness from Kennedy, he was new to office and didn’t have a patch on Eisenhower. To Kennedy’s credit however, like the new kid at school he was easily bullied, but eager to stand back up again.
Vienna in 1961 gave rise to the Berlin Wall and the coming missile crisis. Kennedy’s naivety and failure to stand fast plunged the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon and also pushed Kennedy further into supporting South Vietnam.
The US expanded their support of South Vietnam in 1961, providing an additional 1000 military ‘advisers’. South Vietnam also increased the size of its military from 150,000 to 170,000 personnel, all funded by the US taxpayer.
Kennedy was taking the US down a disastrous path with these policies and within a few short years under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, US troops would be fully engaged in their bloodiest conflict since Korea.
‘Saving the world’
In school I recall learning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our history books portray Khrushchev as the great villain and Kennedy as the knight in shining armour. A stalwart defender of Western Democracy, facing off against the great dragon in the East.
The reality is that Kennedy’s impotence led to this. His desire to show strength led to an inability to make concessions. US missile sites in Turkey are undeniably a cause for concern for the Soviets – it makes sense for them to react accordingly. Their opportunity to achieve this was handed to them by Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs.
Cuba had long standing ties with the Soviet Union. Naturally as a socialist regime they would align themselves with a similar ideological block.
For the US, nuclear weapons placed 90 miles off the coast of Florida was an unacceptable situation, a stance mired in sheer hypocrisy.
Kennedy was at an impasse. He had publicly advised against Soviet military build-ups in Cuba, but in October of 1962 a U-2 spy plane captured images of missile sites currently being prepared. Kennedy summoned his advisers and was met with a torrent of contrasting statements.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff adamantly pressed for airstrikes on these sites, followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba – a seemingly unthinkable situation was unfolding. A full-scale conflict 90 miles away from American soil, and given the failure at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy was hesitant to green light such actions.
The contrast came in the form of his political advisers, who cautioned restraint and suggested merely stern warnings. The reaction from the military was far from restrained, America was on the brink of war and pen-pushers were suggesting strongly worded letters.
Kennedy played his hand wonderfully. On October 22nd a naval ‘quarantine’ was established. Note the term ‘quarantine’ – neutrality was key in this scenario, as a blockade would be an act of war. Kennedy was eager to play two seats at the table, utilising the military might of the US, but maintaining a degree of dialogue that would not plunge the situation into further decay.
Kennedy contacted Khrushchev directly and declared that the US would not permit offensive weapons to be placed on Cuban soil, under threat of attack. Soviet ships continued to steam toward the Caribbean, and Khrushchev demanded that threats of US invasion be rescinded and missile sites in Turkey be drawn back.
In the background, Robert Kennedy, US Attorney General was in discussions with the Soviet ambassador, and claimed that the US were already planning to remove missiles from Turkey, however for security reasons this could not be detailed publicly.
Khrushchev and Kennedy exchanged harrowing messages, begging one and the other to avoid thermonuclear war. A mind-boggling spectacle that these two leaders would threaten annihilation of the other, yet advise against it.
Ultimately Kennedy appears to emerge victorious from this affair. Cuban missile sites were dismantled, but the quarantine remained until Soviet IL-28 bombers were also removed from the island. The affair it seems reached its end in 1963, when US Jupiter missiles were removed from Turkey.
The Cuban missile crisis stands as a critical event during the Cold War and enhanced Kennedy’s image both domestically and internationally. It also helped relieve negative press in the wake of the Bay of Pigs failure.
The great irony of the crisis is that it likely would not have happened were it not for Kennedy’s previous failure and ineptitude. Despite this his apparent victory stands him out as a saviour figure in world politics. When speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis, many instantly think of Kennedy and his victory, not his previous discrepancies.
His legacy can be considered as one of mixed results; His sympathy toward the civil rights movement helped grant a degree of support among the political class in Washington – it would not be long until members of both the Republican and Democrat parties began speaking out.
His ego led to catastrophe once in Cuba, and his political mind and modern outlook led to success in another instance. He cautioned restraint, but presented unity and strength.
In the wake of the crisis, the ‘hotline’ between the White House and Kremlin was established, and led to many occasions in which tensions were relieved between the two powers. Furthermore clarity was gained on both sides and the first steps toward the Nuclear Test Treaty were made under Kennedy’s time as POTUS, it is for this he can most certainly be remembered and revered.
JFK broke the mould, the first modern statesman in a world accustomed to military figures and strong men. Since his death one cannot look at a president or presidential candidate and not envision aspects of him, the neat suit with prim and proper hair, nor can one listen to a rally and not hear the echoes of his great speeches.
His personal life plagued him, and the media plagued his family in the years following his death. For better or for worse however, his mark on 20th century history is undeniable and still ever present.