By Victor Volsky
A momentous event is upon us: the 50th anniversary of JFKís assassination. The legions of Kennedy admirers, who have industriously kept the flames of his glory going, are marking the sad jubilee with a veritable avalanche of new books, movies and TV specials, newspaper and magazine articles. Thanks to their strenuous efforts, JFK has maintained his high ratings and to this day is widely perceived as one of the greatest of U.S. Presidents (even though when asked to specifically point to his achievements, Kennedy fans usually turn pensive and after a long silence can come up with little more than "he lifted our spirits").
But did JFK deserve the accolades? Or does he owe his fame primarily to the propaganda skills of his acolytes in the Democratic Party who masterfully capitalized on the nationís understandable grief over the tragic death of the young, handsome and charismatic, but otherwise mediocre leader to create a quasi-religious cult of a martyred hero. Letís look at the record.
The 42-year-old President, who took the oath of office early in 1961, inherited a plan of invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained and armed band of anti-communist insurgents. All Kennedy had to do was follow the strategy developed by his predecessorís administration. But the new President got cold feet, dropped the ball, and what looked like a sure thing turned into a fiasco. Fifteen hundred brave insurgents were abandoned by Washington. Some of them perished, others landed in Castroís dungeons. The young President took responsibility for the disaster and the friendly press, after briefly marveling at JFKís "courage," dropped the matter. His bacon was saved, even though Dwight Eisenhower expressed consternation at Kennedyís timidity and incompetence.
But while common people can make mistakes without anyone noticing, national leaders rarely enjoy the luxury of impunity. The U.S. Presidentís faint-heartedness was duly noted around the world and that impression led inexorably to a chain of challenges. Realizing that he looked weak, Kennedy suggested a summit with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The cocky American tyro was supremely confident of his ability to charm his interlocutor - just as FDR had courted Stalin in the vain hope of bending the Soviet dictator to his will.
But the crusty Russian peasant proved to be a tougher nut to crack than Harvard co-eds. The Vienna summit held in June 1961 turned into a crushing defeat for JFK who was mercilessly bullied and humiliated by the Soviet leader. The jubilant Khrushchev departed for Moscow convinced that the American was a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn, a pushover who would swallow any humiliation and meekly put up with any provocation. And a provocation was not long in coming. In August, a wall was raised in Berlin, slamming the door shut on East Germans who would not live under the communist regime. The Kremlin masterís intuition was vindicated: Washington sat on its hands. Flush with another victory, Khrushchev rushed to exploit his success and deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. America was exposed to mortal danger that could not be ignored. The world was watching with trepidation.
What followed is too well-known to be repeated. But before touching upon the outcome of the crisis, let me ask a question that nobody has bothered to ask: Why did the crisis happen at all? The Soviets didnít dare provoke America when it was led by a wise, old WWII veteran, but took the risk when faced by a young, inexperienced commander-in-chief who had given them ample reason to believe he was a milquetoast. Nothing can be more dangerous than projecting the image of weakness in the international arena where the law of the jungle reigns supreme. As Machiavelli admonished, itís far better to be feared than loved.
Now for the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis. Once it was defused and Moscow removed its missiles from Cuba, euphoria set it. JFK was basking in adulation, he was universally praised as a savior, a great peacemaker; his ratings skyrocketed. But apparently nobody thought to stop for a moment admiring the glorious highlights of the game on the Jumbotron and take a look at the scoreboard instead. Because if they did, they would have been shocked to see the score in the match: Moscow - 3, Washington - 0.
To any unbiased observer it was clear that Khrushchev ran circles around JFK. He played a simple gambit: introduce missiles into Cuba, scare the opponent out of his wits, agree to talk, negotiate major concessions, remove the missiles and, having pocketed the winnings, triumphantly return home. The Soviet Union paid not a red cent for the restoration of status quo ante, while the United States had to blow its wad, agreeing to withdraw its missiles from Turkey and Italy and, most important, committing itself never to threaten Fidel Castroís regime, which permitted the emboldened Cubans to create havoc all over Central and South America as well as Africa with total impunity. So who won and who lost the game? The Cuban missile crisis which is widely believed to be John Kennedyís greatest achievement was in fact his greatest defeat.
Another JFKís major foreign policy venture was Vietnam. In an attempt to restore his prestige tarnished by the Bay of Pigs debacle Kennedy ignored the advice of his experienced predecessor ever deeper in the Vietnam swamp. The point of no return came when JFK decided to get rid of South Vietnamese President Ngo Din Diem. On a signal from Washington the South Vietnamese generals murdered their president. From that point on, the U.S. took on full responsibility for the destinies of South Vietnam. John Kennedy doomed his country to a protracted was which the U.S. weighed down by moral and ethical scruples had to hope of winning.
And once again, the propaganda machinery of the left saved JFKís bacon. If he had lived and been reelected for the second term, he would have definitely withdrawn from Vietnam, trumpet the Kennedy cult acolytes. The man who had plunged the U.S. into the Vietnamese quagmire was miraculously transformed into one who would have extricated it from the disastrous war had fate not intervened. Are we to understand that Kennedy got the U.S. involved in the war for the express purpose of getting out of it? The avatar supplanted the real man; the war monger was transfigured into a peace-maker. Thanks to agitprop, the reckless move, that would bring down his successor, Lyndon Johnson, has not marred JFKís reputation.
His domestic agenda was far punier, marked primarily by lofty speeches. Washington wits joked that ďTo the sound of trumpets President Kennedy would mount the rostrum and call on the nation to wash their hands before meals.Ē But it was not entirely inconsequential. None other than Kennedy granted civil servants the right of collective bargaining - an idea that even FDR had found appalling. Thereby JFK planted the seeds of the financial ruin currently experienced by many states faced with the exorbitant demands of their civil servantsí unions. But letís give credit where credit is due. JFK called for a tax cut to boost the economy and committed the nation to the task of landing man on the Moon and bringing him safely back by the end of the 60ís. Some people dispute the utility of the space exploration program as an extremely expensive propaganda exercise. But I believe that the country needed a lofty, inspiring challenge, a national idea, which was particularly urgent in those years when America was still reeling from the successes of the Soviet space effort. Kennedy is also credited with signing a nuclear test limitation accord with the USSR, but it should be remembered that Moscow has never agreed to a deal unless it believed it was to its advantage.
And that just about exhausts the skimpy record of JFKís achievements. Small wonder considering how little time he had to devote to his direct duties. For his true interests lay elsewhere. Much of the Presidentís time and energy was spent on libertine pursuits. JFK turned the White House into a veritable whorehouse. One orgy followed another; Kennedyís brother in law, Hollywood actor Peter Lawford, supplied an endless stream of movie stars and starlets. Camelot indeed! More like Caligulaís court.
Besides, JFK was a very sick man. The beautiful tan so admired by Kennedyís fans did not bespeak an avid outdoorsman; it was a symptom of Addisonís disease. He also experienced severe back pains, so that the White House physicians regularly injected him with pain-killing drugs that clouded his thinking. So it was only sporadically that JFK could function normally.
Some journalists, even of a conservative bend, portray Kennedy as a moderate who would have no chance of being nominated the standard-bearer of todayís Democratic Party. Itís wishful thinking. In his time, when the Democratic Party had not yet been taken over by the radical left, JFK tacked into the prevailing wind. Any attempt to pursue a progressive agenda would have doomed his career. He came from a family of opportunists, who did not mix personal convictions, if any, with what was expedient.
His brother Robert once was a fervent conservative, a gofer for Roy Cohn, Sen. McCarthyís chief counsel. But by 1968, when he ran for president, RFK had turned into an ardent leftist. And we all know that another scion of that archconservative family, Ted, ended up as the ďLiberal Lion of the Senate.Ē So had JFK lived, there can be little doubt that in later years he would have vied with his kid brother for the title of leader of the progressive left.
Ironically, death by an assassinís bullet certainly was John Kennedyís best career move. The shallow, flippant rake was instantly transmogrified into a national hero and a martyr. By an incredible feat of propaganda equilibristics the Democratic Party and its allies in the media somehow managed the seemingly impossible feat of shifting the blame for JFKís death from the communist Lee Harvey Oswald, officially recognized as the assassin, to the ďdark forces of reaction.Ē The American people were sold the theory that the far right created an impossibly reactionary atmosphere which inevitably cost the Democratic President his life.
In the climate of national hysteria assiduously blown up by the media, the American public sharply swerved to the left. The 1964 elections became a memorial to the fallen president and a rebuke to his alleged conservative enemies. The Democrats who came to the polls waving the bloody shirt of their sainted leader triumphed across the board. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson crushed conservative Republican Barry Goldwater with more than 60 percent of the vote, winning 44 of 50 states. Democrats won two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of Congress: 68 mandates in the Senate and 295 in the House.
With such commanding advantage, the ruling party could do just about anything it pleased. Carried by the wave of euphoria, the Democrats proceeded to radically transform America following the progressive template. Hoisting the false flag of a War on Poverty, President Johnson set about turning the minorities into slavish allies of the left by buying them off with handouts. The tragic results of the Great Society campaign launched in those years are all too evident these days.
In fact, they are the true, if largely unwitting, legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Neither by his personal qualities nor by his meager accomplishments does he deserve the lofty reputation created by his widow and his former courtiers, whose material and social interests are rooted in the Kennedy cult, with the avid connivance of the media. Largely a creature of propaganda, the 35th President of the United States was certainly no giant. If truth be told, he was rather a sort of a shining thing.