by Ivan Eland
In the wake of the death of the man responsible for most of President John F. Kennedy’s soaring public phrases, a reassessment is needed of the Kennedy administration, which has been consistently overrated by the media and public. Theodore C. Sorensen was a brilliant writer—who put Kennedy on the political map and invented the image of the future president as an idealist by ghostwriting Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage in 1956 and coming up with the catchy phrases “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and the somewhat Orwellian “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Yet Sorensen said that his most satisfying writing assignment was a carefully written letter from Kennedy to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev pressing for a peaceful solution to the most dangerous crisis in American and world history—the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
And the media has largely accepted Sorensen’s view of the crisis: Although the Soviets and the American military were blustering and thirsting for war, Kennedy successfully searched for a way to avoid the end of humanity via nuclear holocaust. Sorensen reflected, “The hawks were rising. Kennedy could keep control of his own government, but one never knew whether the advocates of bombing and invasion might somehow get the upper hand.” As if JFK didn’t have the last word on an invasion of Cuba to remove Soviet-installed nuclear missiles.
Moreover, a U.S.-sponsored invasion caused the Soviets to begin deploying the missiles 90 miles from the U.S. coast in the first place. The Kennedy administration’s reckless behavior toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba culminated in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed Cuban exiles—an attempt to overthrow a dictator that the CIA had originally assisted in coming to power. To prevent another U.S.-initiated invasion of the island—unbelievably, even after the first fiasco, the administration was planning to use U.S. forces and the Soviets became aware of such plans—and to answer the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles near the Soviet Union in Turkey, Japan, and Italy and the buildup of American nuclear weapons much above Soviet levels, Khrushchev began to deploy similar missiles in Cuba.
U.S. intelligence had picked up Soviet activity in Cuba but was unsure if nuclear missiles were being installed. But Kennedy was under pressure to act tough on communism before the 1962 congressional elections because of the Bay of Pigs debacle and his moderate responses to the Berlin Crisis, the coalition government formed with the communists in Laos, and Khrushchev’s blustering at the Vienna summit. JFK, coming from a competitive family that expected its men to display machismo, then made a reckless speech saying that the “gravest issues would arise” if such a Soviet missile deployment by Cuba was made and that the United States would do whatever was necessary to protect its security.
Yet the Soviets adding a few nuclear-tipped missiles located in Cuba did not alter the vast U.S. nuclear superiority over the Soviets (especially with U.S nuclear missiles in Italy, Japan, and Turkey). And because no reliable large-scale missile defense system existed (and still doesn’t), even before the installation of missiles in Cuba, Soviet missiles fired from the USSR could incinerate the United States. With the missile deployment off U.S. shores, the only thing that changed was that a few Soviet missiles would reach the United States slightly sooner to begin the unstoppable Armageddon.
Kennedy and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara both privately acknowledged that the Soviet missiles in Cuba didn’t significantly alter the nuclear balance between the superpowers. McNamara regarded the entire affair as a “domestic political problem” caused by JFK’s tough rhetoric rather than a strategic threat to U.S. security. John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s ambassador to India, later said that JFK’s political needs motivated him to take almost any risk to get the missiles out of Cuba.
Even Kennedy himself admitted to Gen. Maxwell Taylor:
“We weren’t going to [allow the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba]. Last month I should have said that we don’t care. But when we said we’re not going to [allow the missile deployment] and then they go ahead and do it, and then we do nothing, then I would think that our risks increase. . . . What difference does it make? They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway.”
What JFK really meant was that his administration’s political risks increased, not American security risks. In short, JFK unnecessarily risked thermonuclear Armageddon to save face and to look stronger for the upcoming congressional elections.
Furthermore, to get the Soviets to withdraw the missiles and end the crisis, JFK pledged not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. Because the latter JFK pledge was kept secret, the world perceived the Soviets to have backed down. But Khrushchev could have rightly claimed that he had gotten the best of Kennedy. Nonetheless, Soviet humiliation over the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a rapid buildup of their nuclear forces to rough parity with the United States by the early 1970s. This all-out nuclear arms race made the planet much less safe.
Thus, JFK, with the help of Sorensen, did eventually defuse the greatest security crisis in American and world history—but one that Kennedy largely created himself. Many historians and other scholars consider JFK the most overrated person in U.S. history; that is probably being kind. Because he almost incinerated the world for no good reason (as if ever there could be one for taking such a risk), I rank him as one of the country’s worst presidents in my book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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