Carl M Brauer. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Twenty years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a public opinion poll indicated that he was rated best overall of the nine presidents since Herbert Hoover. Among five positive attributes surveyed, Kennedy “most inspired confidence in the White House,” according to 40 percent of those asked, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt at 23 percent. Sixty percent considered Kennedy as having had the “most appealing personality,” followed again by Roosevelt at 11 percent. Kennedy edged Roosevelt on “best in domestic affairs” and on having “cared most about the elderly, the poor and those most in economic trouble.” Political scientists, historians, and national journalists have on the whole tended to view Kennedy less favorably than has the general public. Some “experts” hold Kennedy in high regard, but others are extremely critical of him. A significant number probably agree that his promise outstripped his performance and that he left an ambiguous legacy.
Neither popular nor expert opinion would actually be wrong about Kennedy. Indeed, they are in a sense opposite sides of the same coin, for Kennedy’s inflation to mythic proportions by the public and his demythologizing by experts both derive significantly from the manner of his death. No one knows how his reputation might have been affected had he served out his first term and the second term to which he likely would have been elected. Alone among modern presidents, Kennedy’s place in history revolves around unanswerable questions of what might have been had he lived. Yet this very fact suggests that in his relatively brief presidency—less than three years—Kennedy exerted a profound influence upon both popular and expert hopes and expectations, which endured long after his death. Had Kennedy not had this influence while he lived, the public would not have mythologized him, nor the experts demythologized him, after he was killed. Had he not had this influence, his successors in the White House would have been far less likely to have compared themselves to him, to have sought to emulate him, or to have tried to escape his myth.
John F. Kennedy was born on 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a self-made multimillionaire who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1937, Roosevelt made the elder Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain, which marked a significant social breakthrough for an Irish Catholic. (In their native Boston, the Kennedys had sometimes been snubbed by Brahmin society, and Kennedy had moved the family to New York partly as a result of it.) To Roosevelt’s dismay, his ambassador sympathized with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany. Neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy had ever really liked one another, but until this point they had successfully used one another for their own purposes. But after Kennedy took Chamberlain’s side, the two men fell out permanently, and Roosevelt refused even to make use of Kennedy’s very considerable business and managerial skills during the war.
John Kennedy, or Jack, as he was known, grew up in a home where political issues were frequently discussed and sometimes debated. His father’s strong views evidently influenced his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., more than they did him. All the Kennedy children, but particularly the four boys—Joseph, John, Robert, and Edward—were brought up with a strong sense of noblesse oblige and with little or no interest in enhancing their own very considerable financial fortunes. (Their father set up trust funds for each of them, which made them financially independent when they reached maturity.) Public service, not private gain, was the ideal instilled in all the Kennedy children. When their private fortunes or family connections could enhance their ability to perform public service, as in getting their views known or in winning elections, for example, the Kennedy boys gladly used them.
Jack Kennedy was a sickly child and adolescent. “When we were growing up together,” his younger brother Robert later recalled, “we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack Kennedy—with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die.” During his illnesses, he became an avid reader and also a fatalist. He never let his frail condition keep him from throwing himself headlong into his family’s fierce athletic competitions. At Choate, a predominantly Protestant boarding school in Connecticut, he was an average student, though one who, his teachers believed, performed at less than his potential. His peers liked him for his wit and cleverness, and he proved adept at winning friends. He was admired not for his accomplishments, a teacher later observed, but for his personality. His roommate once noted that he was the only boy who read The New York Times every day from front to back. To avoid competing further with his older brother, Joseph, who had also been at Choate, he enrolled at Princeton, instead of Harvard, where his brother was already a campus star. But he became ill once again and dropped out. He enrolled at Harvard the following year.
In college, Kennedy for the most part showed a greater dedication to enjoying himself socially than he did to developing his mind. Once again he was popular and made lasting friends. Once again he suffered from impaired health, including a back injury sustained in playing football. Although he had suffered from backaches even as a child, this injury probably marked the beginning of a chronically bad back. He did have a lively interest in political issues, though he did not have the strongly fixed views of many of his contemporaries, such as his older brother, an isolationist who became a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention and opposed Roosevelt’s nomination for a third term.
Using the access to European leaders afforded by his father’s position, and with the assistance of hired secretarial help, Kennedy wrote a senior thesis called “Appeasement at Munich.” It was awarded second highest honors. Although it sought to explain how Chamberlain had no alternative to appeasement, and in that respect reflected his father’s views, it showed Jack’s independence by regarding Winston Churchill as an accurate prophet and by emphasizing the importance of American military preparedness. With his father’s assistance and connections, the thesis was quickly transformed into a book, Why England Slept, a title inspired by Churchill’s own While England Slept. It received favorable reviews in the summer of 1940, as war clouds gathered in Europe, and it became a best-seller. By the following spring, more than eighty thousand copies had been sold.
During the war, Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific. While on patrol one night, the small boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer traveling at high speed. Two of the crewmen were killed. Kennedy demonstrated leadership, courage, and stamina in helping to save the eleven survivors. A strong swimmer, he towed a badly burned crew-man several miles to a tiny island. Two days later he towed him again to a larger island. The group was finally rescued when they found a pair of natives who took a message to an Australian coast-watcher. The rescue attracted newspaper attention not only for its own sake but because of the identity of the skipper. John Hersey, a journalist, wrote the first long account in the New Yorker, which was followed by an abridged version in Reader’s Digest and eventually by other books and a movie. Kennedy’s wartime heroism became a basis and then a staple of his political career. One of Kennedy’s charms was that though he never prevented his political supporters from exploiting his heroism, he never personally aggrandized his role either. In a characteristic remark, he explained, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
After his rescue, Kennedy commanded another boat and saw some additional action, but his war career was soon cut short by illness and his bad back. After the war, he became a celebrity correspondent for Hearst newspapers at the United Nations charter conference and during the British elections of 1945. He also observed the Potsdam summit conference. But he decided he would rather shape history than report it. His brother Joe, whose political ambitions had been more certain, had died a hero’s death in the war. His father later claimed to have been happily surprised by his second son’s interest in running for office, and he used his money and contacts to help him get started.
John Kennedy began to make speeches around Massachusetts in 1945 and the following spring ran in a primary for a vacant congressional seat in Boston, where nomination was tantamount to election. Although only twenty-nine, he had an impressive war record, his father’s financial assistance and personal connections, and excellent name recognition. His wealth and Harvard education were liabilities to be overcome in the working-class districts, but his Irish political pedigree helped. His surviving maternal grandfather, whose last name, Fitzgerald, was Kennedy’s middle name, had once been mayor of Boston and a congressman. Kennedy was in effect the first Irish Brahmin. Youthful-looking and handsome, though gaunt and often on crutches, Kennedy proved a tireless campaigner and showed a deft touch in greeting the Irish politicians and working people whose support he needed. His campaign stressed the bread-and-butter needs of his constituents and of the returning veterans. He won the primary impressively and then the general election.
In 1952, Kennedy captured the Senate seat held by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Kennedy received only 51.5 percent of the vote, but his win was remarkable in that it came in the face of an Eisenhower landslide in the state and against a well-respected incumbent who bore a name even more famous than his own. Kennedy owed his victory to his appealing personality and intense campaigning, to his ability both to capitalize on popular disenchantment over the economy and world affairs and to present himself as a new kind of nonpartisan leader, and to his establishment of a personal organization, independent of the Democratic party. On a similar basis, Kennedy won reelection in 1958 with 73.6 percent of the vote, defeating a relative unknown who fashioned himself the poor man’s candidate against the millionaire incumbent.
Kennedy did not make a great mark as a legislator. He had served too briefly in the House to acquire much influence there, and his quick move to the Senate reflected both his ambition and his impatience with the career of a junior member of the House. The Senate, which affords more of a forum for addressing major national and international issues, even for junior members, was more to his liking. But there, too, he was always looking beyond, with the presidency as his ultimate goal. His peers respected Kennedy for his intelligence, wit, and independence, but he never became their leader, in name or in fact. He was a critic of certain aspects of Eisenhower’s foreign and military policies, particularly the identification with neocolonialism abroad and the economical but supposedly ineffectual “New Look” defense policy.
On domestic issues, he consistently supported unsuccessful liberal efforts to expand federal responsibilities in areas such as civil rights, economic assistance to depressed regions, education, and health, though he spurned ideological labels including that of “liberal.” He became an expert and sponsored legislation in the area of labor-law reform, the impulse for which grew out of organized labor’s unhappiness with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and out of a Senate investigation of corruption and racketeering in certain unions that captured headlines and a television audience in the mid-1950s. (His brother Robert served as chief counsel to the McClellan investigating committee, of which he was a member.) The bill Kennedy sponsored was too kind to labor unions to be accepted by the fairly conservative Congress, which enacted a less sympathetic one.
In 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, a beautiful socialite twelve years his junior. After he died, books and articles eventually made the claim, never confirmed by his widow, that their marriage was not happy, that it suffered under the strains of his infidelities and her lavish spending and unease with politics. During his life, they made an extraordinarily attractive couple, with the aura of royalty about them. Rumors of marital difficulties were not widely circulated. If the public was shown less than a completely honest picture of their marriage, that was not an unusual practice in American politics. Neither was it out of the ordinary for a politician to be less than candid about health problems, which in Kennedy’s case were much more serious than was publicly acknowledged. But personal adversities, whatever they might have been, failed to impede his energetic pursuit of high office.
While convalescing from back surgery in 1955, Kennedy conceived of a book about political courage. Published in early 1956, Profiles in Courage described historical instances of senators placing the national interest above parochial or self-interest. A front-page review in the New York Times Book Review hailed the book for restoring “respect for a venerable and much abused profession,” politics. The book became a best-seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. More important, it established Kennedy as that American rarity, an intellectual politician, and identified him with political courage. Kennedy took pains to disprove a columnist’s challenge to his authorship and even won a retraction, but in 1980, Herbert Parmet, a dispassionate Kennedy biographer, concluded that Kennedy had in fact “served principally as an overseer or more charitably as a sponsor and editor.” Much of the writing and the literary craftsmanship were contributed by Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s talented young assistant. Although there was nothing unusual about a politician using a ghostwriter, Kennedy evidently regarded it as vital to his image to claim sole authorship.
The book’s success boosted Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956 after Adlai Stevenson, the presidential nominee, surprised the convention by throwing open the choice of his running mate. Kennedy had made an excellent impression at the convention through his narration of a film and through his nominating speech for Stevenson. Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism, some hoped, would help woo back Catholic Democrats who had bolted the party in 1952 because Stevenson was divorced; other Democratic activists, including some prominent Catholics, feared that his nomination would stir up intense anti-Catholic sentiment, just as had Governor Al Smith’s nomination for president in 1928.
Kennedy’s principal rival for the nomination was Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, a populist who had twice sought the presidential nomination and who had a substantial following in the party. Nevertheless, Kennedy came within a whisker of defeating him on the second ballot, thanks in part to support from southerners who regarded Kefauver as a turn-coat on civil rights. In a tumultuous scene that followed the second ballot, Kefauver’s fellow Tennessean Albert Gore withdrew in his favor, precipitating a series of switches that gave Kefauver the nomination.
“With only about four hours of work and a handful of supporters, I came within thirty-three and a half votes of winning the Vice Presidential nomination,” Kennedy told an aide, David Powers, the following November. “If I work hard for four years, I ought to be able to pick up all the marbles.” And work hard Kennedy did. He did not become a declared candidate until early 1960, but in the three and a half years before that he delivered hundreds of speeches, appeared frequently on television shows, published many articles, and was often the subject of others. He established contacts with potential Democratic delegates and nurtured them carefully. His efforts were appreciably helped by his family’s wealth.
Kennedy’s methodical pursuit of the nomination so far in advance of the convention was unprecedented. Some experts and some of his rivals thought he was starting too early, but he proved the experts wrong and stole a march on his rivals. He was, in fact, setting a precedent that has proved enduring. Kennedy’s campaign for the nomination in 1960, as described by Theodore H. White in his popular The Making of the President, 1960, became Republican Barry Goldwater’s model in 1964. All successful non-incumbent candidates for major-party nominations have followed suit, beginning years ahead of the conventions and methodically building personal followings within their parties. The days of the well-positioned favorite son, of the coy disclaimer of presidential ambition, and of the brokered convention seemed to be over.
To a greater extent than at any time since the Civil War, the leading candidates in 1960 were members of the Senate: Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Stuart Symington on the Democratic side, and the presiding officer of the Senate, Vice President Richard Nixon, a former senator, on the Republican side. In the past, governors had been more prominent in presidential races. The shift in emphasis to the Senate reflected the growing importance of the national news media, particularly television, for they focused attention on broad national and international issues, about which senators presumably had the greatest awareness and expertise.
The 1960 presidential campaign came against an ambiguous background. The country was at peace and there was general prosperity. Eisenhower remained a popular president who, even Kennedy partisans agree, could have been reelected to a third term had not the recently enacted Twenty-second Amendment prohibited it. Yet a series of events, disclosures, and reports suggested that the United States was slipping in its decade-long struggle to contain Communism. The Soviet Union, it appeared, was moving ahead of the United States in winning friends in the new, decolonized nations of the world; was making rapid strides in science and technology, as evidenced by its launching of Sputnik; and was besting America in weapons development, presumably causing a “missile gap.” At home, a popular argument went, Americans were sated with consumer goods and insufficiently committed to public needs in such areas as job development and economic growth, education, medical care, and civil rights for the nation’s black minority. Eisenhower, however popular he remained, seemed to influential opinion leaders, if not to the general public, a passive observer of America’s deterioration.
Kennedy ran on the slogans “Get America Moving Again” and “To Seek a New Frontier.” His speechwriters in 1960 were instructed to drive home the theme that we had “to summon every segment of our society … to restore America’s relative strength as a free nation … to regain our security and leadership in a fast changing world menaced by Communism.” Implicitly his campaign also repudiated Eisenhower’s style of leadership. Without ever mentioning Eisenhower by name, he rejected a “restricted concept of the Presidency,” advocating that
the President place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure … [that he] be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office—all that are specified and some that are not.
Kennedy defeated his only Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, in Wisconsin and West Virginia, which had the only contested primary elections in 1960. The latter victory was particularly important because it came in a predominantly Protestant state and eased fears that existed within the party of nominating a Catholic. Following it, Kennedy won a string of primaries, but Humphrey had withdrawn and none of Kennedy’s potential opponents, Johnson, Symington, or Stevenson, had declared their candidacies. Because of their followings and because of the presence of favorite sons, Kennedy received the required majority for the nomination only as the first alphabetical roll call reached Wyoming, the last state to be called.
Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate. Johnson had finished second in the balloting and was the overwhelming choice of the South. No Democrat had ever been elected president without carrying the South, and Eisenhower had made significant inroads in that region, so a lot of political history sustained Kennedy’s selection of Johnson. Other factors also influenced Kennedy’s thinking, including his respect for Johnson’s abilities, on the one hand, and his desire not to have Johnson as Senate majority leader should he be elected president, on the other.
The general election pitted Kennedy against Nixon, who held a narrow lead in early public opinion polls. Both men stumped the country energetically, but television played a more important role than ever before. A series of four televised debates drew an enormous audience, especially the first debate, which an estimated 70 million adults watched. Neither man was the clear victor in the debates, but Nixon in a sense was the loser, for his campaign had stressed his advantage over Kennedy in experience and through the debates Kennedy established himself as Nixon’s equal. Kennedy was relaxed, handsome, good-humored, and gracious. In a distinct Boston accent, he spoke in cool, rational tones that were well suited to the television medium. Matters of tone and personality seemed to separate the candidates in 1960 more than the issues did.
But even if Kennedy and Nixon were not far apart on substance, the differences between them were nonetheless real, as in the case of civil rights, the most politically sensitive issue they faced. In part through his selection of Johnson, Kennedy reassured white southerners that he was reasonable and moderate on civil rights and that he was not likely to rein-stitute a hated Reconstruction. Simultaneously, he promised blacks a wide range of presidential action on their behalf, demonstrated sensitivity to their concerns, and appealed to them on economic grounds. By contrast, Nixon made little effort to win black votes. Instead, he concentrated on the white South, though he did not go far enough in repudiating civil rights activism by the federal government to assure his success there. On election day, Kennedy kept the South quite solidly Democratic and captured a high percentage of black votes nationwide, which made a critical difference in several states, including two in the South.
The election was so close that any one of a variety of different groups and tactics may be said to have determined the outcome. With a popular vote of 34.2 million, Kennedy won by fewer than 120,000 votes out of nearly 70 million cast. His margin in the Electoral College, 303-219, was more comfortable, yet it rested on thin majorities in a dozen states. Had fewer than 12,000 people in five states switched their votes, Nixon would have had an electoral majority. Anti-Catholic sentiment was less overt than in 1928, but postelection analyses by political scientists revealed its continued vitality in the polling booth. In fact, religion was the single most important factor in determining the closeness of the election. Kennedy’s church membership won back many disaffected Catholic Democrats, but it lost him a substantially larger number of Protestant Democrats, who apparently were not reassured either by his record of independence from papal influence or by his unequivocal endorsement of the principle of church-state separation. Kennedy’s adherence to that principle as president—indeed, he was decidedly less prone to mix religion and government than were several recent Protestant presidents—appeared to quiet anti-Catholic fears. Because no Catholic has received a major-party nomination for president since Kennedy, it is impossible to know how much voting behavior has changed in this regard.
The congressional results likewise constituted less than a ringing endorsement of Kennedy’s plan to get the country moving again. For the first time in the twentieth century, the party winning the presidency failed to gain seats in the Congress. The Democrats lost 2 Senate and 21 House seats. This still gave them substantial paper majorities (65-35 in the Senate and 262-174 in the House), but since a conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats had effectively thwarted much liberal legislation in 1959 and 1960, when the majorities were larger, the new numbers did not bode well for legislative activism.
Kennedy publicly rejected the idea that he had failed to get a mandate. “The margin is narrow, but the responsibility is clear,” he said. “There may be difficulties with the Congress, but a margin of only one vote would still be a mandate.” Nonetheless, Kennedy conducted himself with an acute awareness of the closeness of his win and of the tenuousness of his congressional majority. In the weeks following his election, he took care to appear above partisanship, thereby to reassure the country. His first two announced appointees were incumbents whom he retained in their jobs, Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Several weeks later Kennedy chose C. Douglas Dillon, the incumbent under secretary of state, who had contributed money to the Nixon campaign, as secretary of the treasury. Kennedy made a well-publicized and unusual visit to Nixon several days after the election. In addition, he publicly thanked Eisenhower for his cooperation and assistance in the transition, which was marked by a cordiality sometimes lacking in the past, and he revealed that he had asked Eisenhower if he would be available for assignments in his administration.
Kennedy’s decision to postpone promised civil rights legislation reflected his recognition of congressional realities. He did not want to alienate southern Democrats, whose support he needed in other areas. Given the makeup of Congress, it would have been a futile gesture to seek civil rights legislation in 1961 anyway.
Within the space of a few months, Kennedy transformed himself from a president-elect without a clear mandate to a highly popular incumbent who raised public expectations of the office. The most visible moment in this transformation came with his inauguration itself, where the contrast between him and Eisenhower could not have been more striking. Eisenhower was the oldest man to occupy the presidency until that time; Kennedy, at forty-three, was the youngest person ever elected president. Eisenhower was the last president born in the nineteenth century; Kennedy was the first born in the twentieth. Eisenhower had been the great World War II commander, and Kennedy, a mere junior officer. Eisenhower had grandchildren; Kennedy had a three-year-old daughter and a son who was born between election and inauguration. Eisenhower had taken care not to endanger his personal popularity by taking on divisive causes and had practiced a kind of indirect leadership, so indirect as often to be undetectable; Kennedy advocated that the president be at the center of the action.
Kennedy’s inaugural address vividly underscored the changing of the guard, while promising to uphold America’s commitments:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
It was one of the shortest inaugural addresses of this century and the most effective and memorable since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1933. Delivered on a cold, clear day following a heavy snowstorm, it would always be remembered by those in attendance and the many millions more who watched it on television or heard it on radio. Young people were particularly stirred by its idealism and inspired by the young man who delivered it so crisply and self-confidently. In the speech’s famous climax, Kennedy declared:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from the fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Kennedy embraced a universalistic conception of the country’s international responsibilities that his successor and the Vietnam War’s critics alike cited as a major reason for America’s involvement in the war. “Let every nation know,” he asserted, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yet even in this tough-sounding speech, Kennedy declared an interest in opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union to relax tensions and reduce the chance of war. “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” he said in one of his most famous contrapuntal sentences. He also promised to help the world’s poor help them “not because the Communists may be doing it … but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” To Latin Americans, he offered a special pledge, “a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”
Just as the inauguration and the inaugural address were studies in contrast, so too was the mood Kennedy set in his first months in office. Kennedy painted a sober, even grim picture of the world as he found it. Things were worse, he said, than he had expected, America’s defenses were weaker, its position in certain international situations in greater jeopardy. Yet that sobriety was countered by his youth, vigor, self-confidence, and wit. He flooded Congress with requests, held frequent and impressive press conferences, and proposed bold new national goals, the most important of which was met—to place a man on the moon before the decade was out. “Above all, Kennedy held out such promise of hope,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the historian who served as his assistant, wrote. “Intelligence at last was being applied to public affairs. Euphoria reigned; we thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited.”
Kennedy made an important innovation upon becoming president when he allowed press conferences to be televised live. He used these conferences to communicate directly with the public, which was immediately impressed with his personality, poise, and knowledge of government. As of May 1961, three out of four adults surveyed had seen at least one of his press conferences, and 91 percent had formed a favorable impression of Kennedy from them. The live press conference became Kennedy’s communications forte. None of his successors has felt it possible to abandon the practice, though none has done as well by it. Here was a leading example of Kennedy’s permanent effect on the presidency and public expectations of it.
Another demanding legacy Kennedy bequeathed his successors lay in press relations. Kennedy, who had been a reporter briefly himself, followed the press closely, had friends among journalists, and sometimes sought the advice of certain columnists and reporters. Kennedy’s immediate successors, Johnson and Nixon, each believed that the press had been infatuated with Kennedy and had treated him with kid gloves, in contrast to the rough treatment they received. In fact, Kennedy received a normal amount of criticism in print and collided with the press on news management (which Kennedy practiced), press self-censorship (which he advocated), and other matters. Like all presidents, he was pleased when he received praise in the press and unhappy when he received criticism. But the fact that his successors forgot the clashes and criticism suggests that Kennedy was at least highly successful in creating merely the impression of good press relations, which may be almost as good as the reality.
Kennedy paid attention to the nation’s culture. He honored leading writers, artists, poets, and musicians, and invited them to the White House. The recognition of artistic excellence fit Kennedy’s expansive view of the president as the promoter of excellence in virtually all areas of the nation’s life. Sympathetic to contemporary intellectual criticisms of mass culture, he appointed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Newton Minow, who promptly told the nation’s broadcasters that if they ever watched television from morning to night, “I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.” At Kennedy’s behest, the federal government began to provide aid for educational television. Kennedy also sought to raise aesthetic standards in the design of federal buildings and promoted historic preservation. Not surprisingly, the nation’s cultural elite tended to return Kennedy’s flattery and then some. Lewis Mumford, for example, in 1964 called Kennedy “the first American President to give art, literature and music a place of dignity in the national life.” This was an exaggeration, but Kennedy did set an influential precedent for his immediate successors.
Kennedy likewise encouraged social criticism, and he generated interest in politics and public service. During his presidency, the numbers and impact of published critiques of social conditions and injustices increased appreciably. The Peace Corps, which he created by executive order on 1 March 1961, tapped the idealism of thousands of Americans, many of them young, who volunteered to go to poor countries as teachers, health-care providers, and technicians, and to fulfill other scarce needs. Under Kennedy’s direct inspiration, many young people embarked on careers in government and politics, which Kennedy gave a respectability and appeal they had usually lacked. Partly as a result of his influence, television news and public affairs broadcasting expanded dramatically.
The social questioning that Kennedy sanctioned and encouraged led some people to ideological conclusions that Kennedy rejected. His presidency saw a rise in both radical and conservative movements, but Kennedy was comfortable with neither extreme. He was not even comfortable with liberalism, though he counted many liberals as his allies and though he espoused many liberal programs. Kennedy described himself as an “idealist without illusions.” He was a pragmatist and problem solver who perceived the limitations, as well as the possibilities, of presidential power. As a politician, he worried about his reelection and about how Congress and the public received his suggestions. He believed that many problems called out for new and essentially technical solutions. The central issues of our time, Kennedy said in a speech at Yale in 1962, “relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals.” Kennedy declared, “What we need is not labels and clichés but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical issues involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.”
Liberals sometimes faulted Kennedy for being too rational and cool. They wanted a more passionate and feeling leadership than he usually projected. They hoped he would mount the “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt described it, to preach to the public and rally it behind just causes. Kennedy certainly liked to think of himself as a leader, but as a practical politician he was disinclined to lead futile crusades. The most compelling moral cause of Kennedy’s years as president was civil rights, and it is therefore worth looking at his handling of it in some detail.
In his campaign for president, Kennedy promised executive, moral, and legislative leadership to combat racial discrimination. After being elected and looking at the congressional situation, he decided to forgo legislative leadership, at least for the time being. But he did exercise executive and some moral leadership in his first year as president. He appointed an unprecedented number of blacks to office, including Thurgood Marshall, who became a federal judge. Marshall was the nation’s preeminent civil rights lawyer and had directed the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He had successfully argued the historic Brown case, among others, before the Supreme Court. Kennedy also took significant measures against racial discrimination in federal employment and among federal contractors. He was more accessible to civil rights leaders than his predecessors had been and, in contrast to Eisenhower, actually endorsed the Brown decision.
Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother, the Justice Department stepped up enforcement of existing voting rights laws, and the administration encouraged the establishment of the Voter Education Project, which in time registered hundreds of thousands of blacks to vote in the South. Robert Kennedy himself went into the heart of the South to endorse school desegregation. Behind the scenes, the Justice Department endeavored to bring about voluntary and peaceful compliance with court-ordered desegregation.
The administration’s symbolic and substantive expressions of support for progress in race relations encouraged the expansion of a preexisting civil rights movement. For the first time, many blacks felt they had real allies in the White House and the Justice Department. Yet participants in the movement, particularly those on the front lines in the South, were sometimes disappointed at certain restraints in the administration’s assistance, such as its inability or lack of interest in providing them with federal protection from violence at the hands of local officials and vigilantes.
The Kennedys, for their part, were several times frustrated in their efforts to get state and local officials to carry out their legal responsibilities to obey court orders mandating desegregation of colleges or bus terminals. In May 1961 the administration sent federal marshals to Montgomery, Alabama, to protect Martin Luther King, Jr., the charismatic civil rights leader, from white mob violence during the “freedom rides,” which were aimed at desegregating interstate bus transportation.
In September 1962 a long behind-the-scenes negotiation failed to secure Governor Ross Barnett’s cooperation in ensuring the safety of James Meredith when he became the first black person to matriculate at the University of Mississippi. Kennedy hoped to avoid sending federal troops, which would stir hated memories of Reconstruction and cause a political backlash among white southerners. Again, federal marshals were sent instead. They performed bravely and with restraint in the face of an angry white mob but, in the end, had to be reinforced by federal troops. Afterward, President Kennedy privately regretted trusting Barnett and was sorry he had not sent in troops earlier, which might have prevented the two deaths that occurred. According to Sorensen, Kennedy also “wondered whether all that he had been taught and all that he had believed about the evils of Reconstruction were true.”
In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr., led massive demonstrations in the spring of 1963 against that city’s segregated public accommodations and against employment discrimination. For a while, the demonstrators were decorously arrested and jailed, a tactic that had broken the back of a comparable campaign in Albany, Georgia, the previous year. But when children began to march in Birmingham, T. Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, the police commissioner, changed his tactic to physical repulsion of the demonstrators. Dramatic news photographs and films of defenseless demonstrators being attacked by southern policemen, using vicious dogs, clubs, and fire hoses, appeared around the world. Kennedy sent representatives to the city to mediate the dispute, and he and members of his administration persuaded business executives whose companies had subsidiaries in Birmingham to bring pressure on their local executives to help achieve settlement. These efforts bore some fruit, but were repeatedly endangered by Ku Klux Klan activities, including the terrorist bombings of black homes and businesses, which in turn led to rioting by enraged blacks.
Meanwhile, another crisis brewed in the state, this one over the court-ordered desegregation of the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace, who had won election as an adamant segregationist, threatened to cause a repetition of the University of Mississippi crisis. Behind the scenes, the Kennedys tried to reason with Wallace and organized business pressure against his causing a violent confrontation. Wallace had sworn to stand in the schoolhouse door to prevent desegregation, and as the day of decision neared, it was not completely clear what would happen if he did. Consequently, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. The confrontation came on 11 June 1963. With cameras recording the moment, Wallace stood in the doorway but then stepped aside and let two black students enter the building to register. Wallace kept his defiance symbolic and fulfilled his responsibility to prevent violence as state and local police maintained security; the federal presence was quickly removed.
The events of 11 June gave President Kennedy an excellent moment to address the nation on civil rights. In a period of uncertainty, it seemed a rare instance of unambiguous federal success. The campaign to moderate Wallace’s behavior had clearly worked. Although Kennedy had been speaking about civil rights in the previous weeks, he had not made a speech to the nation as a whole. He had already decided to seek broad new civil rights legislation, and, though its details were not complete, Kennedy decided to seize the moment and go on television that evening to address the nation. Sorensen did not even have time to complete writing the speech before Kennedy went on the air, and Kennedy had to extemporize the conclusion.
This time Kennedy unambiguously mounted the bully pulpit and talked about race relations more bluntly and movingly than any president before him. He said:
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
Kennedy gave the threat of violence as a principal reason for taking immediate steps to secure black people their rights. Events in Birmingham and elsewhere had increased cries for equality and could not be prudently ignored. National legislation must be enacted, he said, “if we are to move this problem from the streets to the courts.” In a sense, Kennedy’s argument could be construed as conservative, for it sought to preserve the social fabric through the provision of a legal outlet. But many conservatives at the time preferred to leave the racial problem in the hands of local officials, even if that meant, as it often did, repression and resistance. Kennedy, on the other hand, believed that America faced a “moral crisis,” which could not be “met by repressive police action.” He wanted Congress, state and local governments, as well as private citizens, to resolve the crisis by removing its causes. Kennedy manifested a liberal’s faith that government had the duty and the ability to correct social injustices.
As he had in the past, Kennedy marshaled economic justifications for eliminating racial discrimination, and he emphasized that the problem was national, not sectional, in scope (which was not only true but politically wise). Kennedy had long emphasized how racial injustices made this country look bad in the eyes of the world. But he argued that the intrinsic moral issue was more important than what the world thought of America:
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?
For Kennedy, this speech marked a turning point. Most of his advisers had cautioned against it, largely on political grounds. It would cost him the South and the 1964 election, some warned, or it would deadlock Congress. But Robert Kennedy, his most trusted adviser, had argued strongly in favor of a change. Until Birmingham, the administration had managed to stay abreast of, or slightly ahead of, the evolving pressures for the protection of civil rights. But with Birmingham, street demonstrations became a popular, dramatic, and successful tactic, and there were bound to be many more of them. An atmosphere was developing in which Kennedy could only weakly respond to events rather than shape and direct them. Kennedy did not want to find himself in a weak and defensive position when his personality and view of the presidency called for decisive leadership and a measure of control over events. “The situation was rapidly reaching a boil,” Sorensen recalled, “which the President felt the federal government should not permit if it was to lead and not be swamped.”
The speech also marked a turning point for the country, the beginning of the drive for passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most far-reaching legal instrumentality in the nation’s Second Reconstruction. In the ensuing months, the White House became the focal point of efforts to pass this legislation, which in effect meant that Kennedy did succeed in gaining leadership on civil rights. Kennedy held an important and unprecedented series of meetings with groups of lawyers, religious leaders, businessmen, and labor leaders to enlist them as lobbyists for the legislation and to seek voluntary progress against discrimination. Kennedy never expected Congress to fall in line immediately and it did not.
A vital part of Kennedy’s legislative strategy was to incorporate suggestions from Republicans so as to win their support for the legislation as a whole. By the time of Kennedy’s death in November, this strategy had paid off in the House, resulting in a stronger bill than Kennedy originally submitted and excellent chances of passage. In the Senate, where a filibuster loomed, final passage was more remote, but Everett Dirksen, the Senate Republican leader, had privately promised that the legislation would be brought to a vote. In other words, the filibuster would not be allowed to kill the legislation.
What might have happened to the bill if Kennedy had not been assassinated is one of those things it is impossible to know. Some key participants in the legislative struggle later reflected that essentially the same goal would have been reached. It is possible that Kennedy’s death improved the legislation’s chances and strengthened it besides. Lyndon Johnson, his successor, immediately made the bill’s enactment a memorial to Kennedy. His commitment to the legislation vividly demonstrated that Johnson, a Texan, had a national, not southern, perspective. The civil rights movement had come so far under Kennedy that it would have been politically dangerous for Johnson to have given up the fight, even if he had wanted to. The legislation as finally enacted covered public accommodations, employment, education, voting rights, and the administration of justice.
Other Domestic Policies
In other, less morally compelling areas of domestic life, such as tax reform, social welfare programs, and economic development, Kennedy was less inclined to mount the bully pulpit and more apt to live with the possible. Specifically, this translated into a legislative record that was never as bad as certain critics asserted or as good as administration spokesmen claimed. Legislative initiatives were achieved in manpower training, welfare reform, area redevelopment, and urban renewal and housing. Kennedy also broke some new ground by establishing certain pilot programs through executive authority. Some initiatives were either dramatically watered down by Congress or, in the case of federal aid to education and medical insurance for the aged, blocked by it. With Congress frustrating him, Kennedy looked forward to the 1964 election, when, he hoped, he would receive a stronger popular and legislative mandate. In the off-year elections of 1962, the Democrats had gained four Senate seats and lost two House seats, which was a better record than usual for an incumbent president but not good enough to make much difference legislatively.
In the area of fiscal policy, Kennedy presided over a significant change. At the start of his administration, there was an internal dispute over the budget. Treasury Secretary Dillon and certain other advisers resisted deficits because they were worried about inflation and the weakness of the dollar. On the other side were leading academic economists, such as Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Council of Economic Advisers, chaired by Walter Heller, all of whom had been influenced by John Maynard Keynes, the great English economist. They focused on achieving economic growth through the use of fiscal stimulants and were unafraid of deficits. In 1961, Kennedy came down on the side of the budget balancers, for he accepted conventional thinking, recognized the power of fiscal conservatives in Congress, and could not reconcile tax cuts, proposed by the economists, with his public theme of sacrifice.
In his first year as president, a cyclical recovery from recession encouraged Kennedy in the hope that he could adhere to fiscal orthodoxy and enjoy economic expansion too. But there were some worrisome limitations to the recovery. Business confidence in the administration was shaken in the spring of 1962 when Kennedy became embroiled in a bitter controversy with the head of the United States Steel Corporation. The company had unexpectedly and in-cautiously increased prices just after the administration’s success in getting the steel-workers to restrain their wage demands. By the summer of 1962, the Council of Economic Advisers had convinced both Dillon and Kennedy that a tax cut was needed to bolster the economy. After the fall elections, Kennedy gave a speech to a business group in New York in which he called for making the kind of tax cuts that would stimulate private investments and “reduce the burden on private incomes and the deterrents to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system.” John Kenneth Galbraith, a liberal Kennedy adviser who dissented from the advice his fellow economists usually offered Kennedy, called it the “most Republican speech since McKinley.”
Kennedy’s shift on taxes reflected the growing influence of the professional economists who manned the Council of Economic Advisers. It also reflected Kennedy’s pragmatism, political interests, and dedication to economic growth. All of these factors were again at play in the spring and summer of 1963 when Kennedy abandoned most of his proposed tax reforms and settled for a program of $11.1 billion in tax cuts for both individuals and corporations. Although certain influential business interests, not surprisingly, got behind the cuts, the projected federal deficit of nearly $12 billion still encountered resistance in Congress, though not enough to prevent enactment early in 1964, an election year.
The tax cut’s evident success in bolstering the economic expansion that had begun under Kennedy redounded to the credit of professional economists and neo-Keynesian economics in the United States. The rest of the 1960s saw the economics profession at a high watermark of its influence. Even so, economists proved less persuasive when they recommended tax hikes during the early Vietnam buildup under Johnson than they had when they had proposed tax cuts, which suggests that it was not just the intellectual merits of their case that was compelling but the politics of it. Retrospectively, the Kennedy-initiated tax cuts have been viewed variously as triumphs of modern economic analysis and rational, technically based public policy or as the beginning of the end of fiscal responsibility and the start of an inflationary spiral.
Kennedy’s record in foreign affairs has also been subjected to conflicting interpretations. His aides, several of whom are highly skilled writers, have defended him for piloting the United States safely through international crises not of his own making and for beginning the process of détente with the Soviet Union. They have praised him for having a less rigidly ideological view of the world than his immediate predecessor and for accepting a world of diversity, improving America’s standing in the Third World. Kennedy’s critics, many of whom are on the political left, have charged him with being as much of a cold warrior as Eisenhower and, if anything, less prudent about the application of American power and more provocative and adventuristic. The universalistic language of his inaugural address was applied, they insist, and the world was a more dangerous place as a result.
In the absence of full access to diplomatic records in this country and abroad, it is not yet possible to resolve this debate on Kennedy fully, but certain studies by dispassionate analysts, such as Graham Allison’s study of the Cuban missile crisis, lend support to the more friendly view of Kennedy. The president certainly made mistakes in foreign policy, and he raised more hopes than he fulfilled. But he demonstrated a relatively cosmopolitan and sophisticated view of the world, grew in office, and had a feel for diplomacy, which has sometimes been lacking in American presidents.
In contrast to several presidents, Kennedy came to office with a preference for foreign affairs. Issues of war and peace had interested him since his youth, and the awesome responsibility of being president in the nuclear age only reinforced that interest. “Domestic policy,” Kennedy often said, “can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.” He believed, with considerable historical justification, that miscalculation had been the route to war several times in the twentieth century. In Kennedy’s view, it was essential to prevent such miscalculation in the future, for there could be no winners in a nuclear war. His military strategy, called flexible response and managed by his highly reputed secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, was designed to reduce the chances of war by miscalculation. By building up conventional forces and tightening up command and control procedures, Kennedy and McNamara hoped to provide time for diplomacy in the event of miscalculated Soviet military aggression.
Like several other modern presidents, Kennedy tried to be his own secretary of state, though it is not clear that he originally intended to be. Rather, he hoped to avoid being overly dependent on one person for foreign policy advice; he perceived Truman to have been dependent on Dean Acheson and Eisenhower on John Foster Dulles. Dean Rusk, who became Kennedy’s secretary of state through a process of elimination, was hardworking, articulate, and loyal but apparently not highly influential with Kennedy, who, according to his brother Robert, came to depend more on the national security assistant, Mc-George Bundy, and his small staff than he did on Rusk and the State Department.
Kennedy became president at a time when Communism seemed to be gaining ground. The Soviet Union had taken the lead in space exploration, had developed missiles that made the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack, and was using more belligerent rhetoric. Communism and revolution were also on the rise in the world’s former colonies, including Cuba, which lay ninety miles from American shores. Just prior to Kennedy’s inauguration, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech promising to support wars of national liberation, and such wars were under way in Southeast Asia. As a candidate for president, Kennedy had stressed the growing Communist menace abroad, and as president, he aimed at thwarting it and meeting new challenges that arose during his time in office. This meant that much of his foreign policy was reactive, though in his last year he showed some initiative in trying to reduce Cold War tensions and improve American-Soviet relations.
Kennedy was sometimes trapped in anti-Communist logic partly of his own making, as in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that occurred soon after he became president. This was a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by thirteen hundred Cubans who had become disaffected with the revolution led by Fidel Castro. Kennedy had reservations about proceeding with the plan; he was worried about its chances of success and about how it might affect his image and the country’s to be involved in a foreign, antirevolutionary invasion. For the latter reasons, he refused to authorize overt American involvement in the fighting. But he failed to cancel the operation because it would have been politically embarrassing to call off an anti-Castro effort that had been hatched in the Eisenhower administration, especially when Allen Dulles heartily endorsed it. Kennedy foolishly allowed himself to believe that the United States would be able plausibly to deny involvement in such a large-scale and well-publicized operation. He also allowed himself to be swept along by sheer bureaucratic momentum, and he failed to demand an adequate military review of the invasion plans.
When the invasion came on 17 April 1961, Murphy’s Law prevailed: If anything can go wrong, it will. Most of the invaders were captured, later to be ransomed to the United States; over a hundred were killed; and some were rescued at sea by the United States Navy. Kennedy was stunned and wondered how he could have been so stupid. The invasion plan had turned out to have been based on false, unrealistic assumptions. Some of the invaders and their supporters later grumbled that Kennedy had fatally undermined the plan by denying United States air cover, but retrospectively it appears far more likely that air cover would only have prolonged the inevitable. Castro’s military forces were too strong and his regime too popular for a counterrevolution to prevail. The American denial, far from being plausible, became instantly and totally implausible. Kennedy had worried about appearances, but he now appeared naive, weak, or aggressive, depending on where one stood.
About the best that can be said for Kennedy in this instance is that he did a good job of picking up the pieces. He publicly accepted total responsibility for the failure, and he consulted with both Eisenhower and Nixon. These steps helped minimize political fallout. He took care to avoid recriminations within the government, appointing a panel of inquiry that included Allen Dulles and the chief of naval operations, who were in effect investigating themselves; Kennedy thus signaled the military and the CIA that he was not looking for scapegoats. After an appropriate interval, Kennedy did make high-level personnel changes in both the CIA and the military, and he strengthened oversight and coordinating functions. In time, he came to regard the Bay of Pigs as an object lesson in the need for a president to have firm operational control during international crises and not to place too much faith in the experts. This lesson served him well during the Cuban missile crisis.
On the other hand, the Bay of Pigs did not teach Kennedy to stay out of the internal affairs of foreign countries, only to keep down the “noise level.” Prodded by Robert Kennedy and Maxwell Taylor, the president’s military adviser, the CIA continued to seek Castro’s removal, which the CIA interpreted to mean assassination. Although the assassination efforts failed, their discovery by Castro, it has sometimes been speculated, triggered retaliation in the form of President Kennedy’s assassination. Although the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy the need to control the CIA, later investigations made it clear that he was much less than completely successful in achieving it.
The Bay of Pigs also reinforced Kennedy’s belief in the need for a better nonconventional or counterinsurgency capability in order to prevent future Castros from obtaining power in the first place. Thus, American advisers taught Latin American governments, including ones far to the right, techniques for crushing leftist opposition. To South Vietnam, where the United States already had a substantial commitment to the anti-Communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem when Kennedy took office, he increased American aid and eventually sent sixteen thousand military advisers, some of whom saw combat, to train Diem’s troops in counterinsurgency warfare against the threatening guerrilla forces that had begun to operate there. When Diem, a Catholic, repressed Buddhist monks, who were part of the country’s religious majority, he became an embarrassment to the United States. Kennedy’s subordinates, if not Kennedy himself, gave a green light to a coup by South Vietnamese generals in the fall of 1963, which resulted in Diem’s assassination. Kennedy was shocked and disturbed by Diem’s death, though not by the coup, which in effect only further tied American prestige to the success of anti-Communist forces in South Vietnam. That was Kennedy’s legacy to Lyndon Johnson, and there is, of course, no way of knowing whether Kennedy would have handled Vietnam any differently than his successor did.
Although he supported counterinsurgency warfare, Kennedy recognized in Vietnam and elsewhere the supremacy of politics over force, and he was skeptical of solutions that required direct American military involvement. Laos, which probably took more of Kennedy’s time than any other issue in his first several months in office, had the potential to become another Bay of Pigs. It was in utter crisis in 1961, an obscure and murky battleground of political factions, personalities, feudalism, tribal culture, and social revolution set against the background of the Cold War. Eisenhower had backed a conservative group, but Kennedy, according to Schlesinger, believed that “the effort to transform it into a pro-Western redoubt had been ridiculous and that neutralization was the correct policy.” Kennedy nevertheless came close to sending American troops there, and he gave the impression that he would send them; but in the end he managed to arrange a cease-fire and eased the way toward neutralization.
Kennedy often tried to pressure allies endangered by revolution to institute reforms in order to enhance their domestic popularity and the viability of their governments. Yet because these endangered governments often had a lot to lose from the reforms themselves and because they knew that stopping Communism was the higher American priority, they could ignore Kennedy’s pressure with impunity. Thus, the Alliance for Progress, the highly touted aid program for Latin America that Kennedy proposed in March 1961, achieved far less social and economic reform than the president had hoped, but the ideals that surrounded the Alliance gave him an unusual degree of personal popularity in Latin America. Similarly, his expressed ideals, youth, and opposition to colonialism enhanced his personal prestige and America’s image in the new nations of Africa.
Toward the Soviet Union itself, Kennedy’s policies differed little at the start of his administration from those of Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy held a summit conference with Khrushchev, though in contrast to the hopeful spirit that accompanied Eisenhower’s summits but evaporated soon afterward, a grim mood emerged from Kennedy’s meeting with the Soviet premier in June 1961. The meeting was intended to allow the two men simply to get to know each other, but when Khrushchev challenged him verbally, Kennedy had little choice but to respond in kind.
Repeatedly, during Kennedy’s first two years as president, the Soviets made threatening noises about West Berlin and, in August 1961, even built a wall around it to keep East Germans from emigrating. Kennedy responded through words and deeds, including at one point calling up American military reserves. He upheld America’s longstanding commitment to defend that city and its access to the West. Finally, in 1963, Soviet pressure receded. When Kennedy traveled to West Berlin on 26 June 1963, he received the most overwhelming public reception of his life. A sea of faces chanted his name and a vast audience roared its approval when he said, “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ “
Given Soviet provocations over Berlin in particular, it is not surprising that Kennedy called for a significant buildup in America’s conventional forces and that he accelerated an expansion of America’s missile program that had begun under Eisenhower. Retrospectively, some of Kennedy’s own national security advisers regarded the missile buildup as a mistake, an example of the ratcheting effect in the arms race, whereby America built up its forces on the basis of Soviet capabilities, which America interpreted as intentions, and the Soviets then matched the American buildup. It does seem clear that Kennedy accelerated missile deployments more on the momentum of his election campaign charges of a missile gap than he did on the basis of hard intelligence. Information gathered from satellite reconnaissance and from a Soviet spy showed irrefutably that there had been an intelligence gap rather than a missile gap. Kennedy had McNamara acknowledge the missile gap’s demise off the record, but Kennedy neither reversed the American buildup nor educated the public on the true nature of the gap.
It has sometimes been argued that the Soviets decided to install missiles in Cuba in 1962 because they were worried about the American buildup. It has also variously been argued that they were seeking a quick and inexpensive strategic advantage, that it was a tactical move which they thought they could get away with because Kennedy was weak, that they were merely trying to protect their client in Cuba from American invasion or subterfuge, or that they did it for some combination of these and other reasons. There can be little question that it was a provocative act and that any American who might have been president when it occurred was bound to respond to it.
Ever since Castro’s Communist sympathies had become clear, Cuba had been a sore point in American politics, for Americans were uncomfortable with a Communist government so close at hand. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion had made Kennedy and his party vulnerable to charges from the political right. When Soviet military personnel and equipment began to arrive in Cuba in the summer of 1962, the Republican campaign committee announced that Cuba would be “the dominant issue of the 1962 campaign.” Several Republicans specifically charged that missile sites were being constructed, and Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution initiated by the Republican leadership expressing American determination “by whatever means may be necessary, including the use of arms, … to prevent in Cuba the creation or use of an externally supported military capability endangering the security of the United States.” Kennedy reassured the public that offensive weapons would not be permitted in Cuba and that Soviet representatives had repeatedly assured him that they were not installing such weapons in Cuba.
When, in mid-October, Kennedy received incontrovertible photographic evidence that the Soviets were building launching sites for intermediate-range missiles, he simply had to stop them. Some people, both at the time and since, have discounted the strategic significance of the missiles on the grounds that it did not matter whether a missile was launched from the Soviet Union or from Cuba. Others emphasized the increased accuracy that the Soviets would have gained from having missiles in Cuba and the possibility that they were seeking a first-strike capability.
More important to Kennedy than technical military considerations were political ones, both international and domestic. Kennedy had to worry about how the Soviets might interpret a capitulation by him on this issue. If they had miscalculated this badly on missiles in Cuba, would they next miscalculate on Berlin, for example, where he would not back down, with the result a nuclear war? If Kennedy did nothing about the missiles, moreover, his political position in the United States would be compromised or destroyed. He would be impeached, Robert Kennedy said. At the very least, the Republicans would mercilessly exploit his weakness in the upcoming congressional elections.
Kennedy wondered about not whether to seek the missiles’ removal, but how to achieve that end. For two weeks, an ad hoc group of high government officials deliberated in secrecy about that question. They were divided between those who favored a quick air strike to achieve a fait accompli and those who favored a naval blockade to pressure the Soviets into removing the missiles themselves. Kennedy rejected the air strike because it placed the United States in the position of launching a sneak attack when the onus of world opinion deserved to be on the Soviets and because it might trigger military retaliation. Neither some of the top military commanders nor Democratic congressional leaders were pleased with Kennedy’s choice, but on 21 October he proceeded to announce the imposition of a naval blockade, which he called a quarantine, in a crisp and carefully worded television speech.
The crisis was joined, and the world held its breath to see what the Soviets would do. During the tense days that followed, Kennedy personally kept a close watch on the blockade. He decided to let certain tankers and a passenger ship through, but he ordered a Soviet-chartered ship boarded and inspected as a sign of his determination. At the United Nations, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson publicly grilled his Soviet counterpart. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Khrushchev communicated privately by cable and through emissaries. In these communications, Kennedy demonstrated considerable skill and forbearance, ignoring a tough message from Khrushchev and responding to a more conciliatory one. Kennedy carefully avoided humiliating Khrushchev. He gave written assurances against an invasion of Cuba, and his brother Robert told the Soviet ambassador that within a short time after the crisis was over, the United States would remove from Turkey certain missiles that the Soviets wanted removed and that had no bearing on American security. On 28 October, Khrushchev relented and began removal of the missiles. The crisis passed.
In later years, some people downgraded the severity of the crisis by saying that the outcome was a foregone conclusion because the United States enjoyed a huge military advantage over the Soviet Union in the Caribbean. That is, of course, easy to say in hindsight. The United States and the Soviet Union had never gone “eyeball to eyeball” like this before, so everyone was justified in feeling tense waiting for Khrushchev to blink. Everything was at stake, and the world breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviets backed down.
The crisis impelled Kennedy to take new initiatives in seeking an end to the Cold War. At American University on 10 June 1963, he gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency; it marked the beginning of a spirit of détente. Kennedy called for a reexamination of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union and said that both sides in the Cold War had “a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race.” He declared:
In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal … We must deal with the world as it is, and not as it might have been had the history of the last eighteen years been different.
He proposed complete disarmament, to be achieved through stages, the first of which would be a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests. As a demonstration of good faith, he promised that the United States would not conduct any further atmospheric tests as long as other countries refrained from doing so.
Khrushchev told Averell Harriman, Kennedy’s representative at the test ban talks, that he thought Kennedy had made the “greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt.” The negotiations proved successful, at least in banning atmospheric, though not underground, tests. In August, Kennedy sent the treaty to the Senate; it was the first arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow. The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave it only grudging approval, and certain military spokesmen vociferously opposed ratification. The public, though, was solidly behind it, and the treaty was ratified on 24 September by a comfortable margin above the required two-thirds. It was only a small step toward disarmament and an end to the Cold War, but Kennedy liked to say that great journeys began with small steps. No other accomplishment gave him greater satisfaction.
On 22 November 1963 the world was stunned to learn that Kennedy had been shot to death as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Within hours of Kennedy’s shooting, the Dallas police arrested his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a mysterious, twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine who had lived in the Soviet Union, brought home a Russian wife, and sympathized with Castro. He was unfortunately never brought to trial because two days after his arrest, in full view of a national television audience, he was shot and killed in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who reportedly was grief-stricken over Kennedy’s assassination. Less than a year later, a presidential commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy, that Oswald had not been part of a conspiracy. But from the time of the assassination itself, a significant part of the public was incredulous at the thought of a lone assassin, and the Warren Commission’s findings and methods were subjected to endless second-guessing. In 1979 a special congressional investigation concluded that it was probable that more than one person was involved in Kennedy’s assassination, though it was unable to identify anyone besides Oswald or to determine the nature and extent of the conspiracy. Articles and books about the crime number in the thousands and range from careful and thoughtful investigation and analysis to unsupported speculation and maudlin fantasy. On one level, the fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy’s death, a mass wish somehow to make it explicable or, in a sense, to undo it.
The depth of the public reaction to Kennedy’s assassination can be explained in several ways. Although there had been attempts on the lives of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, no American president had been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. Television brought the Kennedy tragedy into people’s lives with an intimacy that had never been known before. Many thousands had stood by the tracks as Lincoln’s funeral train passed by, but now the entire country mourned at a presidential funeral. But it is probably safe to say that even if Kennedy had died suddenly of natural causes or through an accident, the public grief would have been great. Kennedy had become identified with many of mankind’s hopes and aspirations—peace, racial justice, economic development, public service, social reform, a striving for excellence, and a seeking after New Frontiers on earth and in space. Toward these goals, he brought vitality, grace, and reason. Then, unexpectedly, irrationally, at the age of forty-six, he was dead, and the world was left wondering what might have been. His death at an early age called up the unfairness and tragedy of life.