Why We Should Miss John F. Kennedy 50 Years On

It's a complex and fascinating set of situations, one which would undoubtedly engage Kennedy greatly. It's too bad he's not around to counsel Obama.
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Coming as they do just before Thanksgiving week, anniversaries of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy invariably arrive and depart with both a bittersweet tinge and a sense of too little time in the spotlight.

Such was the case even with the just past 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Truth be told, even though a mini-industry grew up around it, it all seemed rather pro forma. Which is
unfortunate because JFK and his all too brief presidency have lessons of relevance to today's events, some of them playing out right now on the global stage, as, among other things, Vice President Joe Biden visits Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul as China-centered crisis emerges in the Pacific.

Then U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy declared victory in the 1960 presidential election the day after his razor-thin besting of then Vice President Richard Nixon. This appearance at the Hyannis Armory not far from the Kennedys' Massachusetts compound points up how much more human scale and accessible American politics used to be prior to Kennedy's 1963 assassination.

Aside from a book from a spotlight-loving Republican consultant on how Kennedy was supposedly the victim of his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, I didn't see anything eye-catching in the new round of books and programming.

Looking forward, we have a big new X-Men movie for May 2014 with new viral marketing teasing that Magneto altered the course of the magic bullet. Which takes us entirely into the realm of not just fiction, but science fiction.

Though we learned anew what we already knew -- that JFK is the most popular president of modern times and one of the highest rated in history -- there just wasn't much new in the way of substantive takes on JFK or his assassination.

Worse still, the whole thing seemed a bit pro forma.

Which is probably not a surprise, since the Kennedys have not, let us say, suffered for a lack of media coverage. Most topics related to their fame, achievement and dysfunction and just plain walks in the park, have been hashed and rehashed.

For the Kennedys have long since become commoditized as celebrities. A supposedly American version of royalty, but celebrities nonetheless. No surprise, since the celebrity industry has overtaken actual royal families. One need look no further than the Diana-fication of Britain's royals.

But most of it misses the point, that the Kennedy legend exists because John F. Kennedy possessed an unusual blend of intelligence, toughness, reflectiveness, elegance, charisma, and one tough son of a gun for a brother in his ramrodding manager, Robert F. Kennedy. That, together with the great wealth and connections afforded them by paterfamilias Joe Kennedy, Sr. enabled a group of young junior officer and enlisted veterans of World War II to jump the queue in national politics and seize the White House for a tyro 43-year old senator from a middling state.

It was never supposed to be Jack Kennedy, of course, not in the family line-up of things. Which may be why the younger brother was free to develop his own sense of the world at an early age, free from the weight of heavy expectation always placed on Joe, Jr. But a flash of light on a summer's day over England in 1944 marked the end of that hope. Lieutenant Kennedy had perished in the sudden detonation of a flight test of what might be considered an early forerunner of a drone strike aircraft, which in this case required a pilot to get it off the ground and headed toward its target. Operation Aphrodite (sounds like a Kennedy project, doesn't it?) was designed to get at Nazi sub pens and missile launchers, a joint project between the Navy and the Office of Strategic Services, FDR's then personal spy service and forerunner of the CIA.

All that was left for Papa Joe was a posthumous Navy Cross, a folded flag, a sense of what might have been, and plans to convince his more diffident and stand-offish second son, Jack, to go after the prize.

By then, Jack Kennedy had already won his own big medal, and was also a Navy lieutenant. (He might more naturally have ended up in the Office of Strategic Services himself, but after starting off in naval intelligence an affair with a reported Nazi spy created a problem in that regard and he transferred.) Out in the Pacific, JFK commanded a PT boat, as you may have heard, which famously got itself good and sunk when a Japanese destroyer rammed it and smashed its plywood hull to smithereens. (How Jack Kennedy managed to be the only PT boat skipper in history to lose his boat by having it rammed by a much larger and nominally slower ship is another question, but let's not think the worst.) Kennedy proved his heroism by saving his crew and contriving their rescue and continued his combat service commanding another PT boat. That his surviving crew vouched for his leadership and turned out in force in every one of his campaigns, and that endless stories were done about the dramatic happenings, did wonders for Kennedy's political image to be.

Politics wasn't the life he'd intended. A capable journalist and writer with an intellectual bent, not to mention a playboy, Jack Kennedy had followed his graduation from Harvard with a brief stint at Stanford's grad school in business -- the subject matter to please his father, the locale to please himself -- but he didn't find business engaging.

Kennedy was a frequently ironic figure, possessed of an engaged detachment that frequently read as cool -- and not just in the pop culture sense of the term -- an eye to the absurdities of life developed during his World War II experience and wide reading. As such, he was more intellectually supple than his older brother, whose big man on campus background may have made him too rigid for presidential campaigning or too prone to listen to the experts.

Once convinced by the family to take on the mantle of destiny, at least as defined by his mega-rich father, Jack Kennedy ascended the ladder of American politics with astonishing alacrity, winning the first of three terms in the House of Representatives in 1946 at 29, a first term in the U.S. Senate in 1952 followed by a near-miss as Adlai Stevenson's vice presidential running mate in 1956, a resounding Senate re-election in '58, and then the charge to the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 followed by his eyelash-edge victory over Richard Nixon that fall.

In office, Kennedy was something of a centrist iconoclast, quite capable of ripping big business, and of ripping labor, of ordering interventionist action and of shying away from it, of taking events with the Soviet Union to the brink of all-out conflict and of looking for future ways to avoid the abyss.

Having run against Nixon and the Republicans on a non-existent missile gap, he proved instead to be the pioneering champion of the very special forces we rely on so heavily today.

But he made mistakes, the largest of which was approving the CIA's long in the works plan to invade Castro's Cuba with an exile force.

The Bay of Pigs came to be an ultimate symbol for boneheaded interventionism.

Kennedy, worried about America's exposure in what was going to be presented to the world as an indigenous rebellion spurred and led by Cuban exiles, actually made the benighted plan worse on his own, by changing the landing site in furtherance of a night landing to further disguise the U.S. role. But that put the beachhead further away from the mountains where the brigade members would have to operate from if the hoped for national uprising did not occur.

No matter how it was sliced, the invasion was a bad idea. Castro was much more popular than the CIA and the exiles wanted to admit. And their plans were not entirely secret in Havana.

In reaction, Kennedy canned the greatly esteemed Allen Dulles and the other top CIA leadership.

Kennedy had come off too boyish in an early confrontation with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev at a summit meeting in Vienna, Austria less than two months after the Bay of Pigs debacle. It's been speculated that Krushchev, sensing weakness in Kennedy, decided to take more aggressive steps, not the least of which was moving Soviet missiles onto a certain Caribbean island 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

First, though, came the Soviet-backed erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, walling off Communist East Berlin from West Berlin in a bid to stop East German emigration to the West. In an epic confrontation which raised the prospect of nuclear war and resulted in major troop mobilizations on both sides, Kennedy made certain that West Germany retained access to West Berlin by running a large American convoy through East Germany to the dramatically divided traditional capital.

In October 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis after it was revealed that the Soviets had secretly moved nuclear missiles into Cuba. After 13 days of drama, during which many Americans contemplated what a nuclear war would mean for them, a U.S. Navy blockade proved to be the only military force necessary. Meanwhile, most of the top military commanders had been urging war, in the form of preemptive U.S. air and missile strikes and a US invasion of Cuba.

Kennedy, contemplating the abyss, through a complex series of signals and brandishing of military forces, forced the Soviets to back down, publicly dismantling launch sites in Cuba and
returning the nuclear missiles to the Soviet Union.

In turn, Kennedy secretly agreed to remove a number of old Jupiter missiles in Turkey that the military had moved there earlier and essentially agreed not to invade Cuba. But that didn't save an embarrassed Krushchev from his removal by the Politburo two years later.

In a sense, the Soviets achieved a key goal: Cuba protected from invasion. But a US invasion of Cuba would have been idiotic, as Kennedy undoubtedly knew from the Bay of Pigs experience.

And the propaganda defeat for the Soviets -- being caught red-handed and forced to withdraw -- was devastating.

In the aftermath, Kennedy and Krushchev agreed to talk more. A regular emergency communications channel was established. Moves were made to make relations more normal, including a nuclear test ban treaty.

Kennedy also, in the opinion of then Defense Secretary Robert Montgomery and others around him, was preparing to draw down US forces in Vietnam before they ever seriously ramped up, adopting as a covering measure the acceptance of rosy Pentagon reports on how swimmingly the U.S. advisory effort was going and how well the South Vietnamese forces were doing.

In short, Kennedy's tenure contains many lesson about how to navigate through murky, politically-charged geopolitical waters containing multi-dimensional challenges.

The Obama Administration is in the midst of such now, having wound down the Iraq War and now drawing down from an ill-conceived Afghan War, working its way through a near new war in Syria, struggling with revelations of an overly massive global surveillance apparat and too expansive drone strike program, marshaling an international agreement on Iran that doesn't provide a final solution for the nuclear conundrum there but may succeed in pushing the likelihood of an Iranian bomb, not to mention the likelihood of war to prevent just that, ever on into the future.

And of course the challenges of moving on to the Asia-Pacific, where China increasingly crowds allies in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and may well have been seeking to take advantage of our fateful Middle Eastern fixations to essentially push the American Pacific presence out to the next archipelagos of islands.

It's a complex and fascinating set of situations, one which would undoubtedly engage Kennedy greatly. It's too bad he's not around to counsel Obama.

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