JFK Still Hot Topic for Historians

Had John F. Kennedy lost the cliffhanger election in 1960, he certainly wouldn’t have generated any large, lasting historical interest or the reverential following he now has. There would have been some interest in his having risen to nomination for national office at age 42 after only 14 years in Congress (although these same credentials have not helped Dan Quayle to maintain political clout). Although he was a war hero and prize-winning author, Kennedy was an essentially non-ideological figure who was widely distrusted by the liberals who were on their way to the dominance they now have in his Democratic Party. Unlike Adlai Stevenson or Barry Goldwater, he would not have had an impact on the philosophical direction of his party. Had the electoral votes in Illinois and Texas gone the other way in 1960, JFK might well have faded into obscurity.

That didn’t happen. Kennedy became the 35th President and, after the sixth-shortest stint in the White House in American history, was killed by an assassin’s bullet in events that are debated today. The first President of the television era was assassinated in front of the cameras and because there is so much to ponder about how America would have been different had he lived, Kennedy became, as historian Douglas Brinkley put it, "the President who refuses to fade away." Biographies and movies about his life and presidency keep "Camelot" alive. Politicians from Bill Clinton to Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) invoke his style and joie de vie. Tributes to the magnetic man from Massachusetts are staples at quadrennial Democratic conventions.

Despite concessions from admirers that much of his promise was not fulfilled and damaging revelations of drug use and extra-marital affairs, polls consistently show that most Americans rate JFK with Lincoln and Washington as one of the great or near-great Presidents.

The latest in the line of JFK profiles is Robert Dallek’s JFK: An Unfinished Life. Most of the material is familiar, but the author’s fast-paced writing style and attentiveness to detail breathes new life into the Kennedy saga. Readers will find it fascinating that the man so lionized by the left today was more conservative than liberal Democrat as a House member (1946-52) and senator (1952-60):

He broke with the Truman Administration to support the McCarran Act (requiring loyalty oaths for government employees); was the lone Democratic senator not to vote for the censure of family friend Joe McCarthy (R.-Wis.) and never uttered a harsh public word about McCarthy for the rest of his life; Kennedy denounced Truman’s State Department for the loss of China in 1949, ("What our young men had saved, our diplomats and our President have frittered away"). He sponsored legislation to base U.S. aid to France 1954 on reforms they made in their colonial satrapy in Indochina. He vigorously backed U.S. action to stop communism in Greece and other European countries-impressive, since father Joseph Kennedy, ever the isolationist and self-centered, didn’t care if Greece or any foreign country went Communist because it would just mean less U.S. dollars being sent abroad. When Rep. Kennedy returned from a trip overseas in 1951, he gave a nationwide radio address on "Issues in the Defense of Western Europe; Joseph Kennedy then took to the airwaves himself, calling on the United States. to shun additional alliances and warning sarcastically "our next effort will be to ally to ourselves the Eskimos of the North Pole and the Penguins of the Atlantic."

Because he wasn’t a committed liberal and there was such widespread dislike for his wealthy and controversial father in the liberal establishment, Kennedy’s bid for the Democratic presidential nod in 1960 was vigorously opposed by such icons of the left as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Adlai Stevenson. It was only after he became the nominee that all three swallowed their doubts to campaign for him because, in Stevenson’s words, "The alternative is Nixon!"

Dallek offers an interesting glimpse of Kennedy’s relationship with Stevenson. In January of 1960, he reveals, J.F.K. offered the two-time Democratic nominee the position of secretary of state in return for his support, an offer that was almost certainly a crime. Stevenson refused, and held out for a third nomination. Asked after the election if he would still put Stevenson at State, Kennedy a practiced foulmouth, replied "F– him!", and only reluctantly made him ambassador to the UN. Kennedy privately considered Stevenson a "swisher" (bisexual).

An admiring Dallek cites Kennedy’s accomplishments in his brief White House tenure. He created the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, which would help to eventually bring nearly all of Latin America into the community of democratic nations. He slowly but eventually and vigorously supported the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the budding civil rights movement. He crafted a tax cut-opposed by conservatives in Congress who felt taxes shouldn’t be cut when there was a deficit. He guided the country through the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when the world came closest to nuclear war.

Critics argue that had Kennedy not grounded the 16 B-26 planes promised for the exiles in the attempted coup against Castro a year before, the Bay of Pigs assault might have ended triumphantly for the rebels. With Castro gone, there would have been no Soviet missiles in Cuba and no crisis. But Dallek is one of the few historians to make the case that the failure of the Bay of Pigs "resulted less from any decision about air attacks than from the flawed conception of the plan-illusions about an internal uprising and 1,400-plus invaders defeating Castro’s much larger force."). He suggests that a re-elected President Kennedy might have tried to reach detente with Castro-a strange course for an administration in which, as Dallek notes, there were "eight schemes to kill Castro hatched between 1960 and ’65 [and] Kennedy himself discussed assassinating Castro."

Kennedy did have his "botches," the author admits, that includes making a weak impression on Khrushchev at their first summit, the crisis over control of Berlin that ended with the infamous wall going up, the collapse of arms control talks and resumption of nuclear testing, as well as the settlement in Laos that ended with new strength for Communists in Southeast Asia.

In dealing with Kennedy’s increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Dallek offers fresh evidence for the argument advanced earlier by JFK’s appointments secretary Ken O’Donnell, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D.-Mont.), and National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal. All claimed Kennedy had concluded that U.S. troops in Vietnam were pointless, that once re-elected, he would have begun a pull-out of the 16,000 troops there in 1965, and thus spared America 50,000 casualties and its worst foreign policy nightmare. Possibly. Such a policy, while contradicting nearly every administration statement about Vietnam up to JFK’s death, would also have been craven because Americans would have been killed for a policy that the administration planned to scrap once re-elected. Dallek concludes, "[I]t is hard to credit his willingness to let boys die in Vietnam for the sake of his re-election." One wonders would the bloodshed that transformed Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand into a Communist gulag following the fall of Saigon a decade later occurred in 1965? Removed little more than a decade from the anger at Democrats over China going Communist, would the fall of Southeast Asia brought cries of "Who Lost Vietnam?" and major political gains for the Republicans in a second Kennedy term?

We will never know what would have happened had John Kennedy lived because, as historian Herbert Parmet once told me, "there are just too many variables." Hence, the interest in JFK and his unfinished life goes on and others are sure to answer the question posed by Dallek in his introduction: "Why another Kennedy book?"