Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Twisted Case Against JFK

History provides perspective but can also bring distortion as a Pulitzer-Prize journalist now decides that John F. Kennedy “probably was the worst American president of the previous century.”

After studying the period, the respected Thomas E. Ricks concludes:

“In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.

“Looming over it all is the American descent into Vietnam. The assassination of Vietnam's President Diem on Kennedy's watch may have been one of the two biggest mistakes of the war there. (The other was the decision to wage a war of attrition on the unexamined assumption that Hanoi would buckle under the pain.) I don't buy the theory promulgated by Robert McNamara and others that Kennedy would have kept U.S. troops out.”

For a journalist who saw JFK up close, this reads more like a prosecutor’s indictment than a historical judgment, much like blaming Barack Obama for everything he inherited from George W. Bush.

Kennedy did approve with misgivings the Bay of Pigs which was imminent when he took office, refused to escalate with air cover as the military pressed him to do and, when the operation failed, nevertheless took full responsibility (“Defeat is an orphan”), learning lessons that served him well in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The “whiff of nuclear apocalypse” was dispelled by his deft handling of that confrontation and led to concluding a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

In Vietnam, JFK made mistakes in underestimating the unpopularity and corruption of the regime we were backing (Afghanistan, anyone?), but we had only a few thousand advisers there when he was killed. If he had lived, he undoubtedly “would have kept U.S. troops out.”

Ricks is entitled to his historical reading, and those of us who lived through that period may have our judgment warped by being exposed to Kennedy’s qualities of mind and heart.

In one of his last interviews, he told me, “Too many people want to blow up the world.” Far from “stumbling from crisis to fiasco,” he was doing everything humanly possible to avoid just that.


Kathleen said...

I agree with you, Robert. He was a flawed but courageous man with heart. I believe he and Kruschev saved us from nuclear destruction during Cuban Missle crisis. I was too young at the time to really appreciate what was going on or realize how much danger we were in.

Lance Mannion said...

Ricks' thing struck me as very weird and coming out of nowhere. I can see a case being made that JFK wasn't one of the greats or even one of the very best. But the worst? It's as if Ricks never heard of either the Cold War or the Civil Rights movement and thinks the Cuban Missile Crisis and the segregationist reaction sprung out of nowhere. Also if Kennedy's to get the blame for LBJ's esclation of the war, he should get the credit for LBJ's passing of the Civil Rights Act.