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Craig K. Comstock

Craig K. Comstock

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Tough

Posted: 05/26/11 11:30 AM ET

Does a new U.S. President need to show he is tough by threatening or committing a violent act? Some say it's dangerous not to. For example, Frederick Kempe believes President Obama "became President" by ordering the lethal raid in Abbottabad, as JFK much earlier did by risking nuclear war over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

In a chat on Charlie Rose's TV show, Kempe, CEO of the Atlantic Council, was promoting his new book, Berlin 1961. That is the year the communists built the famous wall there, cutting off a hemorrhage of refugees from the Red paradise. In Kempe's view, this event followed a series of JFK disasters, starting with the Bay of Pigs, including the Vienna Summit between the two superpower leaders, and leading to Khrushchev's decision to place nuclear missiles just a hundred miles or so from Key West.

Formerly on the Wall Street Journal, the author quotes a fellow journalist who sought special access to write a book about JFK's first year and who was allegedly asked by the President, "why would anyone write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters?" Kempe interprets this remark as if it were obviously straight, without considering the possibility that the President was indulging in ironic self-deprecation (a common practice of JFK, perhaps picked up in London) or was testing the journalist to see whether he'd quickly agree, or that JFK knew of another writer he preferred to chronicle these events.

Not that JFK was innocent of disasters, such as the Bay of Pigs. The invasion plan may have been inherited from a GOP administration (as the current economic collapse began under George W. Bush), but JFK decided to go ahead. Critics accuse him of being indecisive when the invasion was stalled and advocates proposed that he get the U.S. involved in an undeniable way, what we now call "mission creep." He decided to accept the failure rather than double down. As the President observed, alluding to the Latin writer Tacitus, "Victory has a hundred fathers; and defeat is an orphan."

Kempe argues that, in spite of a very tough State of the Union address, Khrushchev smelled weakness and, at their summit in Vienna, felt free to present Kennedy with a written ultimatum about Berlin. Kempe says Khrushchev regarded JFK as young and inexperienced and, as the President himself observed afterward to Scotty Reston, savaged the American.

We have known that JFK suffered from adrenal insufficiency and back pain, but I had not glimpsed the traveling medicine chest that Kempe details. Around the time of the summit, JFK was taking "penicillin for urinary infections and abscesses, Tuinal to help him sleep, Transentine to control diarrhea and weight loss, and assorted other remedies, including testosterone and phenobarbitol." Courtesy of a physician known as "Dr. Feelgood," he was also mainlining a concoction that included steroids and amphetamines.

I'm not a pharmacist, but combined with severe back pain, this does not seem optimal physical preparation for meeting a truculent foreign leader. Legs crippled by polio did not prevent FDR from being a great leader, but drugs that may affect mood and clarity of thought, and pain that had to be distracting, sound risky, especially at a summit meeting.

More than "long form" birth certificates, perhaps we need a requirement for independent inquiry into physical and mental health of potential Presidential candidates, and into the health of a sitting leader if, like Woodrow Wilson, he (or she) becomes unable to do the job. The question is how to achieve this in a fair and effective way, assuming it is possible.

A key disaster, in Kempe's view, was letting Khrushchev, through his unruly puppet in East Germany, erect a barrier between the East Sector and the rest of Berlin, a barrier that started out as barbed wire and ended as concrete blocks and slabs, plus a killing strip along the east side.

The wall is personal for me as, in much more intense ways, it was personal for Berliners. Shortly after the wall went up in 1961, I visited that city and, after Tempelhof airport, famous from the airlift, my first experience was the tumult of a torchlight parade "gegen Schandmauer und Stacheldraht" (against the wall of shame and barbed wire, the former a phrase of the mayor, Willy Brandt). Part of the shame, I supposed, was directed against the communists who erected the wall; and part, against the Americans who did not somehow prevent the definitive splitting of the city.

The Berlin wall bookended much of my adult life. In autumn 1961 a college roommate and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie for a day exploring the East Sector. (We handed in our passports through a slot in an otherwise blank wall, unsure we'd ever see them again.) Much later, for five years that ended with the tearing down of the wall in 1989, I worked for a foundation which had the single goal of trying to help end the Cold War.

With respect, I'm not sure Kempe gives adequate consideration to the possibility that JFK engineered (or even blundered into) a stable and not unwise deal on Berlin, an arrangement that allowed the communist rulers to solve their big problem of people fleeing, the West to ridicule a system that had to lock its people visibly in, the free part of the city to continue to thrive, and meanwhile avoided nuclear war.

However, it's possible that, as Kempe argues, Khrushchev wouldn't have dared to put nuclear missiles into Cuba the next year unless he'd believed JFK would acquiesce. In short, he miscalculated, perhaps because Western land missiles were already on his own borders.

JFK was haunted by this possibility, using the word "miscalculation" so often in the Vienna summit that Khrushchev angrily asked him never to say it again (just as Gorbachev later, in Reykjavik, said he was tired of hearing Reagan quote a Russian proverb, "trust but verify"). But JFK (and Reagan) were right. In 1961, for example, the danger of miscalculation was, as signs say of fire hazards in the California autumn, "elevated."

In the Cuban crisis the next year, JFK did not take the advice of those who sought an air attack on the Soviet missile sites in, and a naval invasion of, Cuba. Though not an obvious call, this was a fortunate decision. As I was told in Moscow in 1986, but which was unknown to Kennedy's advisers at the time, Khrushchev had given his local commander in Cuba permission to use nukes against a U.S. invading force. Where would that have ended?

JFK also rejected the idea of an appeal to the toothless U.N. Instead he imposed what he was careful to call a naval "quarantine." This caused Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles and warheads.

Is it not possible that, in the prior case of Berlin, JFK was also seeking a middle way? This possibility doesn't fit Kempe's narrative of a naive, young guy who assumed he could charm Khrushchev. JFK may have lacked direct experience of anyone tougher or nastier than Mayor Daley, but the author of Why England Slept had understood the need to stand up to Herr Hitler and he'd faced combat in the Pacific.

Kempe makes the valuable and sometimes ignored point that an authoritarian leader has to answer to critics at home and does not always have a free hand, though Khrushchev did feel free to offer a bouquet of early concessions to the Kennedy administration. Kempe takes JFK to task for ignoring these signals, and the foreword to his book asks, "Could Kennedy have more fully tested the possibilities behind Khrushchev's conciliatory gestures?"

This question comes from General Brent Scowcroft, who has served our country in several high capacities. In the administration of Bush the elder, Scowcroft was known to be quite skeptical of Gorbachev's conciliatory gestures, which, as it turned out, led to the end of the Cold War. His skepticism was appropriate: one doesn't want to be fooled by easy talk about change. But both episodes raise the question of how leaders can get through the usual static of hostility when they are moving toward an accommodation.

JFK made his strongest attempt in 1963, in a speech at American University. When I first visited Moscow a quarter century later, that speech was still recalled there for the simple compassion that JFK showed when he observed that if the U.S. had been invaded to the extent the Soviets were, the enemy would have slaughtered their way from the Atlantic coast to the outskirts of Chicago.

Kempe offers a good illustration of useful revisionist history, in the constant struggle to define toughness in a way that actually protects us rather than initiating a catastrophe. What we also need is equally careful studies of how to reach out, when it is possible, and change the entire system. Otherwise, how would we ever alter a system that an elite knows how to operate and is, in a sense, identified with?