Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part VII John Kennedy

The Cold War framed John Kennedy's policies both abroad and at home. Although he knew there was no real "missile gap", author William Leuchtenburg says JFK, "ordered missiles, each 80-times more potent than the Hiroshima a bomb, at the same time that he was more than doubling the number of Polaris missile submarines and stepping up the output of nuclear armed bombers. By such actions, he was challenging the Kremlin to an arms race that overheated the Cold War. He also built up more conventional forces and prepared for paramilitary skirmishes. Deploring Eisenhowers reliance on nuclear weapons, which were useless in brushfire conflicts, Kennedy saw an army skilled in gorilla combat, and he took particular pride in the Green Berets."

Meanwhile, at home, the Cold War had considerable influence on Kennedy's attitude towards civil rights. Leuchtenburg writes, "The president and his circle [were] expressing less concern about flagrant racial discrimination then about how civil rights protests hurt America's image abroad and created disharmony at home." Indeed, historian Harvard Sitkoff has written, "The Kennedys saw the struggle against racism as a conundrum to be managed, not a cause to be championed."

No president has faced the life-or-death challenge Kennedy faced in the Cuban Missile Crisis - although one can argue [and many have] that it was crisis of Kennedy's own making. Leuchtenburg, however, believes that - in taming his more belligerent advisors - JFK most likely averted World War III.  More specifically, Leuchtenburg cites Robert Kennedy as the one who most influenced his brother's decision to negotiate rather than launch a preemptive attack against the missiles in Cuba.

Then there is the great "What if?" on Vietnam: what if JFK had lived? Would we still have experienced Vietnam as we did? Leuchtenburg is strongly in the field of historians who believe that Kennedy would have pursued the same strategy as that employed by his successors. Kennedy believed he had no choice but to pour troops into Vietnam so as not to be accused of "losing" Vietnam.  Leuchtenburg writes, "In fact, Kennedy totally misconstrued situation. The country in 1961 exhibited massive indifference to Vietnam. It was only when Kennedy and his successors greatly expanded the U.S. commitment, and casualty lists lengthened, that a large number of Americans came to care about the fate of that distant land."

While some argue that, had he lived, Kennedy would've pulled out of Vietnam, Leuchtenberg writes, "most of the evidence, though, points in a contrary direction. When [Robert] McNamara and [Maxwell] Taylor contemplated withdrawal, they did so on the assumption of eminent victory, which the National Security Council and others thought was illusory, and there is little reason to suppose that Kennedy would've been any more willing in a second term then in his first to shoulder the blame for defeat."

Kennedy's time, obviously, was short.  While high on drama, Leuchtenberg writes, "in part, because he was granted so little time, he had negligible impact on the institution of the executive office."

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