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Sir John the Inflated


If and when John F. Kennedy ever comes up in any of my classes I usually end up telling them that the hushed reverent tones with which he is referenced will become more skeptical and realistic as those Baby Boomers die out. I realize we all view our heroes through rose-colored glasses, but besides the current pretender in office, I can’t think of a President who has benefited more from outright propaganda (thank you Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) and hero worship than JFK. Sir Thomas Malory couldn’t have written better legends of Camelot than Arthur Schlesinger and Kennedy’s motley crew of sycophants.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often seen, even by JFK skeptics, as a shining example of Kennedy’s courage and steadfastness (or the main exception to an out of his depth President) — the time when JFK stared down the Russian bear and its Cuban sidekick and the bear blinked. That story has been crumbling for awhile now and the truth is starting to bubble up to the surface a bit more. This piece by The Atlantic Monthly’s editor Benjamin Schwarz helps take the bloom off of Schlesinger’s rose. I don’t know if I agree necessarily with his general conclusions about the nature of deterrence, but the piece is an interesting read.

On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers—a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13?day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management—thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world”—the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.

Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory—as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.

Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern—who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes—is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.

Reached through sober analysis, Stern’s conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba—an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested—and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated—the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage. At the time of the missile crisis, the Soviets had 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 138 long-range bombers with 392 nuclear warheads, and 72 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warheads (SLBMs). These forces were arrayed against a vastly more powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal of 203 ICBMs, 1,306 long-range bombers with 3,104 nuclear warheads, and 144 SLBMs—all told, about nine times as many nuclear weapons as the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev was acutely aware of America’s huge advantage not just in the number of weapons but in their quality and deployment as well.

Moreover, despite America’s overwhelming nuclear preponderance, JFK, in keeping with his avowed aim to pursue a foreign policy characterized by “vigor,” had ordered the largest peacetime expansion of America’s military power, and specifically the colossal growth of its strategic nuclear forces. This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey—adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).

Go read the whole thing.

h/t: Arts & Letters Daily

21 comments to Sir John the Inflated

  • -fritz-

    Indeed, JFK was the type of whom legends are made. He was in a lot of ways, a pretty good POTUS, and a damn sight better than what we have now. That said, he had a propensity for the ladies, and was, after all, a democrat. As a democrat, he was a lot more fiscally conservative than the breed of spendthrifts we have now, but still a democrat. The reason for the legends, is, of course because he was assassinated while in office. Had he lived and gone on to a second term, he may have simply gone into the history books as another POTUS who got us from point A to point B!

  • Texacalirose

    My father loathed him, even cancelling his subscriptions to Look and Life because he couldn’t stand the inundation of “John and Jackie” covers and stories. He would have thought FDR to be the anti-Christ if not for his being a religious agnostic. Sometimes I wonder if my political beliefs come from my own intellect and father’s influence, or whether from just good ole fashioned genetics! ;)

  • I’m not expert on the matter, but from what I’ve read there’s good reason to suspect a connection (not a second gunman, mind you; I don’t buy that personally) between the Cubans and the Communist American who shot JFK. But that also doesn’t fit the canonical narrative.

    • Rufus

      Lars, I agree with your suspicions.

      First, if you’re hoping for some answers in the new O’Reilly/Dugard book, “Killing Kennedy” don’t bother.

      B: I have never had any doubt Oswald was involved and shot the deadly bullet that tragically killed President Kennedy. His actions before, and after the event are well documented and offer much evidence of his involvement. Also, no one who knew him was surprised he would attempt such a thing. Unfortunately, the assassination was consistent with his personality and behavior.

      III) However, the Kennedy’s made a lot of enemies. Joe was a ruthless power broker and stepped on A Lot of toes in his life, and in his no-holds barred attempt to get one of his progeny in the White House. There are legitimate reasons to suspect the Mafia, Castro, the Soviets, the FBI, the CIA, the North Vietnamese… even LBJ.

      Fourthly, there is all sorts of weird stuff surrounding the assassination and the days leading up to it. Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald is so convenient it’s hard to believe it wasn’t scripted. Then, the number of people involved who met odd and untimely deaths in the year or two after. Really hard to understand. There is such a preponderance of weirdness along with the number of people who probably wanted Jack Kennedy out of the White House that I side with your opinion. Oswald did it but I think there was more going on.

      Finally, Stone’s movie, “JFK” is a complete abomination. However, without it the parlor game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” would not be possible.

    • -fritz-

      I’d always heard rumors that Sam Giancona had a hand in it because of JFKs dalliance with Marilyn Monroe.

  • goozer

    4 out of 5 Presidents recommend Dallas for your next vacation stop!*

    Like -fritz-, I’ve always said the hagiography around JFK sprang from the rounds that Oswald sent downrange.

    *The 5th was unavailable for comment.

  • Rufus

    The whole Kennedy lore is baffling to me. Joseph, the patriarch, was an awful man. I don’t know what he truly thought of his wife, Rose, but it was more than a coincidence that her father was the mayor of Boston and very well connected politically. He obviously treated her abysmally throughout their marriage, parading paramours around her. The guy even hit on his sons’ dates!

    His fingerprints are all over the market crash in ’29. Although not, technically illegal, he profited mightily from insider trading and was almost definitely involved with many illegal money making schemes. Joe was a climber and would do anything for money and success. He hired mobsters. Bought votes. Cheated business associates. A real greedy, selfish, S.O.B.

    And what was one of the key things Joe Kennedy did with his wealth? Buy a Hollywood studio. He understood the narrative was more important than reality. To his credit, he somehow managed to turn his motley brood into “American Royalty” despite much evidence to the contrary. Jack and Edward shared his penchant for misogyny and adultery, and Bobby probably did too. And on, and on, and on… The family is a mess; a disaster.

    However, Joseph understood that Americans will forgive and ignore anything in the shadows of power and wealth. Like Floyd, I hope that time and distance result in a more accurate recording of the Kennedy lust for power and wealth and its true impact on the 20th century.

    • David Marcoe

      “He understood the narrative was more important than reality.”

      *Clears throat*

      Narrative is part of the means by which the human mind understands reality and touches the “Actual,” the prime and essential essence of the real. Yes, one may deceive through narrative, as one can obscure with words, but it is still an essential pathway in reaching the truth. Abuse does not abolish the use.

      In JFK’s credit column, the man was a bona fide was hero, and the men who served on the PT Boat he commanded owe him their lives. They are likely people alive in this world today as a consequence of his actions. In Barack Obama’s credit column, he’s a better husband and father than JFK ever was. Good and evil are co-mingled in every human heart. It would be a better world if we were quicker to prayer than judgement. Granted, it doesn’t raise my estimation of the White House’s current resident in his elected capacity, but maybe I’ll be a little slower to throw stones.

    • Scott M.

      JPK was a man in full,Rufus.Name me one crime he committed.

  • kbiel

    Actually, the press, academics, and the sycophants have been honest with us all along. Oh, not on the details, but they have called it Camelot since I can remember. And like Camelot and King Arthur, much of what we “know” about JFK (and RFK) is legendary at best and most likely mythical.

  • Rufus

    It seems a lot of folks bemoan the terrible times we are currently living in. Glenn Beck may be the most vocal of this group (or simply have the loudest megaphone), but I feel relatively secure. I remember having sincere worries (and nightmares) about nuclear annihilation when I was a kid and I’ll never forget coming home to my young wife watching bombs falling on Baghdad on CNN at the start of the Gulf War. I’ve already written plenty here about my prospects on the future of the U.S. Constitution (not too good), and I do think we’re in for another decade of economic malaise (to piggyback on the two we just had), but in the whole scheme of apocalyptic thinking the thermostat doesn’t feel like it’s set on 1,000 degrees to me.

    What do you all think?

    For the folks here who were old enough in the ’60s, that seems to me like it must have been a much scarier time! All the assassinations and riots and marches. The Viet Nam war. The Cold War. The hippie movement and spread of drugs and fight against authority. I always imagine the changing of the guard from Eisenhower to Kennedy as the start of a really, really scary decade. Was it not so?

    • What terrifies me is the perception, based on the last election, that America has turned a corner. The majority no longer believes in freedom and opportunity, but in entitlement. A majority of us now gets welfare of some kind, and will always vote for the party that offers the best goodies. Thus, in my view, the essential spine of the national character has been broken (or just dissolved). I don’t see us coming back from that. The upside is that I’m generally wrong.

      • Rufus

        Lars, if you read my postelection post it is obvious I agree with you. However, I don’t think we turned the corner with the last election, We turned some point in the past. The last election only made it obvious and irrefutable. But I still think it had to be a lot scarier from 1963 to 1973.

        • goozer

          Right about March 4, 1913, by my reckoning.

        • m

          His assassination was really unsettling to most people. The rest of the decade wasn’t scary. There was more resentment of the anti-war bunch (chicago ’68) and discomfort over the course of the country. The nuclear threat was in the background. Don’t think anyone really thought that would happen. The reds were more interested in incremental conquest thru proxy wars of “revolution/liberation”.

        • -fritz-

          In that vein, Rufus, I was not the world’s happiest camper when Nixon “opened” China for diplomacy and later “their version” of capitalism!

  • firecapt

    The thing about the Cuban Missile Crisis that seems to escape notice is the “mysterious” withdrawal of the Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles from Turkey, right on the border of the USSR. This occurred right after the “Crisis”. The Soviets were after this result. The Bear didn’t blink, it was a deal.
    The PT 109 story has been embellished so much it’s hard to say what occurred. However, being t-boned by a Japanese destroyer that sneaked up on you in open ocean is a bit much to swallow if the watch was awake.

  • Texacalirose

    On topic, if you like fun and fascinating reading:

    Dr. Mary’s Monkey

    Available via Amazonia.

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