November 16, 2003 - Chicago Tribune: JFK's legacy lost amid many questions

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JFK's legacy lost amid many questions

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JFK's legacy lost amid many questions

By Charles M. Madigan

Tribune senior correspondent

Published November 16, 2003

The dominant thought in the late 1950s was that nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was a distinct possibility. Moscow had taken the advantage in space with Sputnik, which panicked the Western world. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, was in no way benign. The Kremlin had the weapons and the rockets to deliver them.

That is the atmosphere in which John F. Kennedy became in 1961 the 35th president of the United States. He had spent many months defending his Catholicism, tapping his family's power, connections and fortune, running in a Democratic Party torn between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. He was narrowly elected.

But there is no way to consider Kennedy's presidency without remembering the weight of the Soviet-American conflict. The Cold War put every political agenda item, from civil rights to medical care to farm legislation, far down on the list of priorities. It was unthinkable that Soviet communism would evaporate in a few decades, taking one of history's most frightening ideological death struggles with it.

Forty years after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, the question persists: What might have happened had Kennedy lived?

The people who worked closely with him believe he would have had American forces out of Vietnam by 1965 at the latest and negotiated a political end to the war. They believe he would have been re-elected by huge margins by voters drawn to his charisma and agenda. He would have pushed hard to achieve the civil rights goals that were enacted only after his assassination. He would have worked aggressively for disarmament treaties and peace with the Soviets.

The ghostly, tragic figure that now haunts American political history was a complicated man and the product of difficult times.

His inexperience was on abundant display from the outset.

The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was a disaster. Initially, he was no match for Khrushchev. A Congress dominated by hostile Southern Democrats so intimidated him that he delayed civil rights legislation, prompting criticism about his commitment to address the legal and social needs of the black Americans. He led a tawdry, secret social life that belied the image of the loving Catholic head of household. With his brother, Bobby, as attorney general, he crafted and endorsed embarrassing and damaging alliances with thugs and despots in the bid to get rid of Cuba's Fidel Castro.

JFK's call to action

At the same time, his inaugural call to "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country" ignited a passion in young people who had never before connected with politics. He had the vision and the vigor to bond the nation to a space program that would carry a man to the moon.

Even as he was heading off to Texas, he was buoyed by the word that his civil rights legislation, long delayed, was finally headed for action on Capitol Hill.

"He was the consummate politician. He understood exactly what he was doing and could think ahead of all the geniuses around him. He made his own judgment. It was a wonderful thing to view. But he was a very critical person to work for. If he ever said, `Good,' it was like getting the Nobel Peace Prize," said Richard Donahue, a Massachusetts attorney who was one of Kennedy's key men on Capitol Hill, in a wide-ranging interview last week.

Kennedy took office in 1961 in the wake of the syrupy, seemingly calm presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, with its trips to the farm at Gettysburg, Pa., and the atmosphere it transmitted that not much was actually happening in Washington beyond golf and heart attacks. In no way could Mamie Eisenhower have been viewed as a fashion trend-setter.

Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy transformed that atmosphere almost from the start, electrifying the White House, social Washington and everything else they touched. But along the way, Kennedy seemed so drawn to disaster that an uncomfortable assessment presents itself, despite the mythology that was an extension of the charisma he brought to the office.

Masterly politician

He was a great politician, arguably the political equal to any of the presidents in the last half of the 20th Century.

He wasn't much of a president until he had had enough time in office to apply his fabled learning curve through a series of international and domestic disasters.

He remains a conflicted historical character, one of the many troubled Kennedys who carved a political path through the 20th Century. Along with his slain brother Bobby, his youngest brother Edward and his oldest brother Joe Jr., killed in World War II, he was in the vanguard of what Joe Kennedy, the multimillionaire paterfamilias intended as the foundation of an Irish-American political dynasty.

To this day the challenge about John F. Kennedy is to separate what merely glittered from what was real. Even this many years after his assassination, the sparkle obscures some of the more problematic aspects of his life.

He was a genuine war hero, for example, having saved the lives of the surviving crew members of the PT-109 after it was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific. Was it patriotism or political ambition that led a man who could easily have avoided World War II for medical reasons into a battle command in the South Pacific?

Kennedy has won acclaim for his civil rights record, but there wasn't much of a record to speak of until after his death. His primary political concern, many biographers and historians have noted, was that racial inequality handed the Soviet Union a strong propaganda tool to use against the United States. He worried that introducing civil rights law on Capitol Hill would doom his legislative program because of the role Southern Democrats played in the House and Senate. He did not want to push the issue, yet his rhetoric late in his presidency was strong, along with the actions his administration took in response to racial violence in the South.

The image that remains is of a man who projected "vigah" (that New England vigor was one of his favorite words) in immense quantities, but, historians have shown, he was in such poor health that he required a pharmacy of painkillers, steroids, amphetamines, diets and an array of medical procedures just to keep him on his feet as he struggled with medical ailments that had plagued him since his childhood.

He projected a family man's image to the nation, but lived an aggressive private life that is said to have included many mistresses and girlfriends, some of them delivered to the White House by the same collection of family friends and hangers-on who cleaned up his personal messes and kept them from becoming public. The movie star Marilyn Monroe, mobster girlfriend Judith Campbell Exner, stripper Blaze Starr and painter Mary Pinchot Meyer were all said at one point or another to have shared intimacies with Kennedy.

While Jacqueline Kennedy became the model of style, class and sensitivity as first lady, she hated the job, hated politics and wanted only to protect her children from the inherent meddling and aggressiveness that defined all Kennedy family relationships. In "An Unfinished Life," historian Robert Dallek's intense and deeply detailed study of the Kennedy years, the author notes that Kennedy was stunned by the amount of money the first lady was spending on clothing and social events.

Despite those many hidden realities, Kennedy left an undeniably strong public record.

Even though he viewed everything in political terms, he was so visionary that he committed his nation to putting a man on the moon, founded a Peace Corps that sent compassion and American expertise to the most troubled corners of the world and invited all Americans to find what was best in their nature, to embrace service and government as advocate, not as enemy.

There is no better measure of his development as president, his biographers and historians have frequently noted, than his management over three short years of America's role in the Cold War.

Early blunder

His immaturity and lack of confidence were on full display in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

Kennedy yielded to the advice of everyone from the Central Intelligence Agency, which predicted incorrectly that the invasion would spark an overthrow of Fidel Castro as opposition forces rallied to the attack, to the Defense Department, ignoring his own reluctance to commit the U.S. to anything that could lead to war with the Soviets.

He complicated that problem by letting the Soviets push him around during a summit meeting in Vienna two months later. Khrushchev viewed Kennedy after that meeting as a charming man who could be punched about almost with impunity, particularly if the words "nuclear war" were attached to the conversation.

But it was a changed Kennedy who was informed in October 1962 that U.S. spy planes had spotted evidence the Soviets were building offensive nuclear missile sites in Cuba.

The Cuban missile crisis lasted two weeks and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war over a regional dispute. He took personal responsibility for decision-making and, in what amounted to a one-on-one confrontation, won Khrushchev's order to close down the missile sites by promising that the U.S. would never invade Cuba and by quietly agreeing to dismantle some obsolete Jupiter missiles that Moscow found troubling in Turkey.

Savvy to the Soviets

Kennedy had become astute enough at that point to realize that the Soviets wanted their missiles in Cuba because they didn't trust the ballistic missiles that were supposed to be the backbone of their own nuclear force. In the wake of the missile crisis, improving relations with the Russians and disarmament agreements became priorities.

He had been equally astute in dealing with Moscow in another explosive part of the world, Berlin.

With 15,000 allied troops in West Berlin surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Soviet army regulars in East Germany, Kennedy recognized that a nuclear response would be the only way the West could answer a Soviet military move. The Warsaw Pact nations, meanwhile, were losing up to 3,000 well-educated people a day escaping to the West through the divided city. The fear was Moscow would take West Berlin just to stop the intellectual bleeding, sparking a nuclear war.

Kennedy signaled what the West wanted: Access to Berlin across East Germany on the autobahn and checkpoint access for military officers into East Berlin. The wall, odious from a human-rights perspective but effective from a politician's pragmatic view, went up in response, and the fears that Berlin would become a nuclear flash point dissipated.

Two years later, Kennedy stood in front of City Hall in West Berlin and pronounced, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

He had learned over time that the Soviets had no real interest in nuclear war, knew they were at a disadvantage in comparison to the American arsenal, and were, in fact, playing Kennedy's game, which was more political than military.

Debates about Kennedy's behavior and his role in the world, and in the history of the presidency, began just after he was killed and continue. Even the details of his assassination remain open to the wildest speculation and suspicion.

For some, Kennedy will forever be the president who brought Jackie to the stage, had a warm, compelling relationship with his family and used his wit and disarming sense of humor better than any president in history.

For others, he will always be the symbol of opportunity lost and the chief executive whose inexperience set the stage for the Vietnam War.

At the Kennedy Library in Boston, two of the most important characters in the entourage of brilliant Cabinet members and aides, Theodore Sorensen and Robert McNamara, recently participated in a "Recollecting JFK" Forum. Even these partisans, who were so loyal and protective of their president, continue the thoughtful debate about who he was, what he intended and how it might have been had he lived.

"I think this was one of the, I'll call it weaknesses of the Kennedy administration. He came slowly and late, I think, to the understanding that prompt and forceful federal action dealing with racial inequities should have been a very, very high priority," said McNamara, who was Kennedy's secretary of defense, the role he held into Lyndon Johnson's presidency and the Vietnam War.

A nation nearly on fire

"Many of you don't understand today [that] we came very close to burning this nation. Washington burned. Detroit burned. Newark burned. This was several years after he died, but the problem was building up during the Kennedy administration," McNamara said. "There were reasons he hadn't acted early. But I don't think he or any of us really understood how volatile the situation was."

The thought was that Kennedy could have accomplished a lot that would have defused some of the frustration that exploded into racial violence later. For example, he had the authority to use his signature to end discrimination in federally funded housing and had used the argument on the campaign trail that with "one stroke of the pen" that kind of discrimination could be ended.

But when he got into the White House, he was so worried about offending Southern Democrats, who had their fingers in just about everything on Capitol Hill, that he avoided the issue.

McNamara views the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's first debacle, as a classic foreign policy failure fueled by ignorance.

No one knew anything about the Eisenhower administration plan, the place or the issues, "but he had to decide."

"He brought together all of the civilian and military officials that should be associated with such a discussion. . . . Then he went around the table. There wasn't a single member of the executive branch that recommended against [the invasion]. I don't think Dean Rusk [secretary of state] and I were enthusiastic, but we didn't say, `Don't do it,' or `Defer the decision until we know more about it.' The only person in the room that recommended against it was not a member of the executive branch; it was [Sen.] Bill Fulbright," he said.

"It was a total debacle."

Rising to the moment

Kennedy, who could have blamed his advisers, took responsibility himself, one of those flashes of character that welded his supporters not only to his presidency, but also to the maintenance of his reputation after his death.

"It astonished the country because nobody in Washington ever took responsibility for a failure before," said Sorensen, who was Kennedy's chief speech writer and a key adviser. "As a result, his poll ratings went up."

McNamara and Sorensen also said that had Kennedy lived, he would have pulled American troops out of Vietnam. A few weeks before Kennedy died, his National Security Council decided that the 17,000 U.S. advisers in Vietnam should be removed by the end of 1965.

"Now, that doesn't indicate what he might have done after [Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem was killed a few weeks later, and after there was a merry-go-round of governments in Vietnam. But I am a strong believer that we would never have had 500,000 men in Vietnam had Kennedy lived," McNamara said.

Diem was assassinated in a general's coup that could have been blocked by the White House, but wasn't. Chaos followed and South Vietnam ended up as a virtual protectorate of the United States.

Sorensen said Kennedy would have "looked for and persisted until he found a way to negotiate our way out."

As the decades have passed and the great, defining conflict of midcentury softened and then disappeared with the collapse of Soviet communism, assessments about Kennedy have frequently shifted..

Harris Wofford, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who was Kennedy's first and strongest adviser on civil rights, recalls that the president had perhaps the steepest learning curve of anyone in White House history and, just before his assassination, was preparing to move aggressively on the issue he had avoided for his first years in office.

"There was always a tension between civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. forcing the agenda on the one hand, and foreign policy concerns on the other," Wofford said. "But the learning curve and the response was remarkable and by the time Kennedy was killed, he had . . . become all those things I wanted a president to be.

"He hadn't achieved them, but his last trip to Texas was full of high, brilliant spirits because he had learned that just that morning, the Senate Rules Committee blockade on the civil rights bill had been broken. Then Kennedy went to Texas, and he didn't come back," he said.

Bitterness of Vietnam

Donahue, who was Kennedy's key lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said Kennedy's most important contribution may have been lost in the bitterness of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration and the growth of cynicism in politics that followed his death.

"The first change he introduced was applied in public service," Donahue said. "This is something that we have lost. People aren't aspiring to be politicians anymore, and they aren't proud of service that they have given. That is my jaundiced view. John Kennedy did it with style and grace and an unbelievable sense of humor."

"The sense of humor has gone from politics. What exists now is an unbelievably mean, slashing kind of thing. Everyone who was around him was motivated to get involved in politics. That isn't happening now. The horrible thing is that young people don't vote and don't participate. Those are the things for which he really worked to see if that could develop. At the time of his death, that's the direction the country was running in. We don't see that now. I don't know why," Donahue said.

What would have happened had Kennedy returned from Dallas, if it had just been another political trip?

"His last year would have been an absolute celebration of democracy," said Donahue. "He would have been an even more potent and perceptive leader than he was."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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