"I didn't leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me."
My thoughts on the 48th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and after watching Greg Kinnear’s pitch-perfect portrayal of him last night in the little-seen (Reelz TV, what?—Netflix has the episodes) miniseries, “The Kennedys.” Kennedy was a hero and in the consensus, post-war evaluation of our leaders, a “near great” president kept from greatness by his untimely death. I loved him and his brother Robert (“Bobby”).
After JFK, things went bad for Democrats. Republican Reagan is the best president we’ve had since; his really the only presidency after Kennedy’s that succeeded. Clinton was not a hero; he was blessed with post-Soviet Union peace and a dot.com prosperity bubble and he blew it anyway. Clinton’s last presidential act was pardoning international tax-cheat and fugitive Marc Rich.
I look back on the Kennedy era, “Camelot,” with nostalgia, but it was a very dangerous time. The Chinese under Liu Shaoqi (the internally-focused Mao pushed into the background) were competing with the Soviets to expand Communism throughout the newly-independent Third World, and making real headway in Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia. The Soviets were ahead in the space race. Castro was turning Cuba into a Communist beachhead 90 miles off our shore. Eisenhower had been inept, allowing a “missile gap” to develop and a U-2 spy plane with a pilot who wouldn’t take his own life to be shot down over the Soviet Union, leading to a major summit cancellation. Bad, bad world.
Kennedy was the president to turn this world around. An authentic war hero, son of the ambassador to our most important ally, a Pulitzer-prize winning Harvard graduate who wrote Why England Slept, Kennedy was well-prepared to lead the U.S. at the height of the Cold War to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Kennedy made mistakes, and learned from them. In 1961, he allowed the ill-conceived and executed Bay of Pigs invasion to go forward, then publicly took responsibility for its failure while more privately reorganizing and professionalizing the CIA. He was faced down by Khrushchev at Vienna that summer and allowed the Berlin Wall to go up, but had the sophistication to appreciate that Berlin was, as Khrushchev said, a “bone in my throat,” and it was best to get the bone out.
Under Robert McNamara, the Pentagon not only closed the missile gap (which turned out to be mostly fiction), but with the rapid development and deployment of the solid-fueled Minuteman ICBMs and with Polaris missiles in nuclear submarines off the icy Soviet coast, turned the strategic balance strongly in the U.S.’s favor.
In 1961, Kennedy made the bold pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And we met that pledge. What a different time.
By 1962, the Soviets were so worried about U.S. strategic superiority that they attempted to sneak Soviet medium-range missiles into Cuba and close their missile gap. Kennedy’s response was among America’s finest hours. He rejected the aggressive options recommended by the military and CIA, and instituted a blockade that avoided direct military action. He secretly offered to pull obsolete Jupiter medium-range missiles out of Turkey and Italy if the Soviets would pull back from Cuba, providing Khrushchev a face-saving way to back down. He avoided World War III.
In 1963, he negotiated a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets, the first big step back from the brink of nuclear war. In 1964, Khrushchev lost his job, in part because of his failed Cuban confrontation with Kennedy, however much the defeat had been downplayed in public.
In 1962, Kennedy recommended lower tax rates, and the reduced tax rates triggered domestic prosperity that lasted throughout the 1960s.
Vietnam undid the Cold War Democrats Kennedy so ably led. We don’t know how Kennedy would have handled Vietnam after 1963, but we do know he was far more able than Lyndon Johnson to maneuver through international crises. Moreover, his assassination deprived Kennedy of the opportunity to sue for peace in Vietnam during his 1965-69 second term, when he would have no longer faced re-election. Johnson couldn't stop believing that failure in Vietnam would cost him re-election in 1968, so would not consider a real peace agreement. (In the end, Vietnam cost Johnson re-election anyway.)
I have argued that McNamara had given up on Vietnam by 1966—wouldn’t Kennedy have too? Most casualties came after 1966. I also believe the true turning point in Southeast Asia came with the failed Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965, an event the significance of which Kennedy would have appreciated far better than Johnson did.
Kennedy, Reagan. Not Johnson, Carter, Clinton. Not Obama.