Where were you on November 22, 1963? We’re presenting a MercatorNet special — profiles of the three men who died that day: US President John F. Kennedy, the literary critic, novelist, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis and the author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley.
President John F. Kennedy on his trip to the Berlin Wall, June 1963.
At the 50th anniversary of his assassination it is appropriate to take stock of John F. Kennedy’s achievements and legacy as media around the world are doing today. Perhaps the idealization of the John and Jackie Kennedy White House as a Camelot of nobility has faded, but you’ve got to wonder whether his political contribution has been exaggerated, whether history has given JFK too favourable a ride.
Would the 35th president of the United States have become a political and cultural icon if he had not been cut down in his prime?
As with James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and other 60s icons who died too soon, we mourn promise unfulfilled. But, was his a promise unfulfilled, or one that Kennedy himself had broken? It is time for a reassessment of JFK’s presidency.
Let’s start with his foreign policy achievements. Kennedy had come to the presidency at the peak of the Cold War. But 1961 also was perhaps the best time to achieve détente in Soviet-US relations. Stalin had died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev, who was widely perceived as a reformer, had consolidated his power by 1955.
Khrushchev was keen to achieve two things in relations with the West – a peace treaty that would recognize East Germany and a détente that could pull the world back from its mindless and economically crippling arms race. In the lead-up to the 1960 election Khrushchev believed Kennedy would be easier to negotiate with than the hardline Republican candidate, Vice-President Richard Nixon.
Soon after coming to office, however, Kennedy squandered the opportunity. Following the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a CIA-led attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, in the first four months of his presidency, Kennedy hardened toward Communism and to the Soviet Union.
When Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said East Germany had every right to close its borders, Kennedy said nothing. This gave Khrushchev the impression America would stand by as the USSR fortified the border between East and West Germany, including building a wall between East and West Berlin, deep inside East Germany.
Frustrated by the West’s unwillingness to negotiate a resolution of the German problem and Kennedy’s dithering, Khrushchev moved and blockaded Berlin.
To be sure, Kennedy had stood up to Soviet aggression and his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech was a masterpiece of oratory in defence of freedom and democracy. But leadership is about more than flowery speeches, and Kennedy had arguably created the vacuum that had brought about the Berlin crisis. His intransigent approach undermined the Vienna Summit discussions with Khrushchev, pushed Castro closer to the USSR and ultimately brought about the Cuban Missile Crisis that carried the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Kennedy’s hard line on communism also deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam. He increased the number of military advisers and committed special forces to the defence of South Vietnam. Suggestions that Kennedy would have extracted America from that quagmire in his second term are fanciful. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest he would have pursued a Vietnam policy other than that followed by Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Similarly, domestic policy developed haphazardly, precariously. For example, the Kennedys (John and his brother and Attorney General Robert) too quickly took a position against US steel corporations, indicting them for collusion over a price increase, despite advice from their own Bureau of Budget that the price rise would have a net benefit for the economy. The indictment caused the New York stock market to fall 10 per cent.
The Kennedys, schooled in the adversarial politics of the Democratic Party, demonstrated little understanding of economics.
And while Kennedy is credited with much of the success of the civil rights movement during his presidency, he kept it at arms length in the early part of his administration so as not to alienate the powerful southern Democratic block in the US Congress, whose support he needed for his foreign and military policies.
Indeed, Robert Kennedy admitted that a key priority in the early years of the administration was to “keep the president out of this civil rights mess”. It was only after the situation intensified, pushed forward by the civil rights movement itself, and due to the increasing violence against integrationists in the South, that JFK concerned himself with the issue. The best civil rights achievements actually came during the Johnson Administration rather than during Kennedy’s hundred days.
His most baneful legacy, however, was Kennedy’s Catholicism and the impact his approach had on Christian values in American politics.
In the run-up to the 1960 election Kennedy needed to assuage the concerns a largely Protestant America had about electing a Catholic as commander-in-chief. To do so he spoke of the Catholic Church’s support for democracy in America and the separation of Church and State in the American polity. But he went further.
He told the American people that if the office of President would “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election”.
But, as a number of Catholic scholars have argued Kennedy did precisely this. In order to win the election he secularized his views and consequently neutralised all religious views in American political debate. In essence, John F. Kennedy had “atheised” the American presidency, which was certainly not the intention of America’s Founding Fathers who had framed the Constitution placing God at centre stage.
Kennedy’s approach of separating his “personal views” from the requirements of political office has taken Western society down a slippery slope. His approach has been used by many Catholic and Christian politicians the world over to turn a blind eye to many of the excesses of our age. It has enabled abortion and it will usher in gay marriage and euthanasia in many Western nations during this decade.
Catholic and other Christian politicians disavow their beliefs and their churches every day to win office. John F. Kennedy showed them how.
Kennedy’s presidency failed because he lacked a vision. Beyond a desire to be president, he had but a wafer-thin plan for America and for the world. Happily ever after in Camelot? Not really. A second Kennedy term would have exposed his public and possibly his private shortcomings.
It was not Lee Harvey Oswald that shattered the dream of Camelot; it was JFK’s readiness to trade principles for political power.
Alistair Nicholas is a public affairs professional who works with Australia’s federal and state governments.