THE BLOG
11/24/2014 01:09 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

JFK Tried to Craft a Creative Course in Another Era of American Insecurity and Fear

Just over a half-century ago, during another time of American insecurity and fear, of things both real and imagined, John F. Kennedy used his legendary but abbreviated presidency to try to chart a course to a more assured future.

As usual, the commemorations of the 51st anniversary of his assassination over the weekend didn't capture much of this. In our culture, significance is subsumed by celebrity, which ends up devaluing both.

Jack Kennedy was not supposed to be the president in his family; that was big brother Joe, Jr., the more classic ultra-alpha male type. But he was killed in World War II. The younger brother was bookish, detached, frequently sickly (though a college swimmer), ironic. Which later on may just have given him the perspective to look at the Cold War box from the outside.

After drifting through Harvard before finally attaching some honors to his government degree, the young JFK discovered in a grad student stint at Stanford that business really did bore the hell out of him. Journalism was much to his liking, and he wrote well, but that wouldn't launch him toward the White House. (Though skills he developed there did serve him very well in the White House. Kennedy impressed with his wit in nationally televised press conferences and produced some of the best speeches of any presidency. His special counsel and chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen, whom I came to know when he was national co-chairman of Gary Hart for President, always attested to Kennedy's literary chops.)

After a stint as a naval intelligence officer,, a natural calling, which ended after he became entangled with a beautiful suspected Nazi spy, the young tyro found his martial calling with the fast patrol torpedo (PT) boats of the Pacific, where he was nearly killed himself and became a war hero in his own right.

"We choose to go to the Moon." After declaring a landing on the Moon a key goal of his presidency in early 1961, on September 12, 1962 Presidency John F. Kennedy devoted this speech at Rice University to the mission, vowing that it would happen before the end of the decade.

Elected to Congress right after the war, just 14 years later, at 43, Kennedy became the youngest man ever elected President of the United States.

And found his presidency nearly destroyed just a few months after it began, in that country so fateful for his presidency, Cuba, at a place called the Bay of Pigs.

If JFK's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, were a present-day Republican, he would either be forced out of the party for his moderation or become its godsend. One of our greatest generals, Eisenhower was also an accomplished president. But, spurred on by the Dulles brothers, who ran the State Department and the CIA, he had an unfortunate taste for covert operations and regime change moves which not infrequently backfired.

Kennedy inherited two of them, against Fidel Castro in Cuba and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo. He ordered an end to the operation against Lumumba, but he had just been killed, though not by the CIA, which merely played the lead role in overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister of the new post-colonial African nation.

Cuba wasn't quite that sort of fait accompli, but the CIA had assembled a big invasion force of Cuban exiles who would be hard to disperse. Kennedy allowed the nitwit plan to go forward, then refused to intervene with U.S. military forces when it not surprisingly went bad. (After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy encouraged a series of Hollywood films about the dangers of right-wing politics and the nuclear age.)

In retrospect, looking at the, er, plan, it seems pretty clear that CIA Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Director Richard Bissell, who were canned by Kennedy after a decent interval, had another more real plan. Which was to force the young president to invade Cuba with American forces. After all, that was the unanimous recommendation of the top Pentagon brass 18 months later when Soviet nuclear missiles were discovered in the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast. Which, as it happens, would probably have triggered a nuclear war.

From today's vantage point, the America of a half-century ago looks like it existed in a time of growing prosperity and power, an optimistic moment. And it was. But it was also a fearful time in an insecure nation.

America never really recovered the sense of equanimity and well-being it had under Franklin Roosevelt, who guided the nation out of the crushing Great Depression and and through a period of isolationism and then ultimate victory in the biggest war in world history. Then Roosevelt died and America became practically unhinged by the real but in reality nonetheless relatively limited challenge of Communism.

In 1060, Kennedy ran in large part on a supposed "missile gap" with the Soviet Union. Which he evidently believed until Eisenhower showed him the take from a new spy satellite launched that summer from the new Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast. There was a big missile gap, all right. And it was all in our favor.

But that remained a national secret.

It turned out that the Soviets, reacting to the massive U.S. advantage in long-range bombers built up under Air Force General Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay -- a key model for Sterling Hayden's character in Dr. Strangelove -- in his Strategic Air Command, briefly stole on a march on the U.S. in the early and mid-'50s in long-range missiles.

That soon changed, however, as unsung General Bernard Schriever, the father of the modern high tech and space-oriented Air Force, took the helm of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) project -- the innocuously named Western Development Division -- along Santa Monica Bay. The U.S. soon caught up not only in the big super-fast missiles, which went on to become the workhorses of the civilian space program, but also in satellites, overcoming another Soviet lead with their famed Sputnik.

In fact, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, America under JFK had a better than 10 to 1 advantage over Moscow in strategic nuclear forces. As Neil Sheehan pointed out in the excellent 2009 book "A Fiery Peace In A Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon," the Soviets had only 20 ICBMs, 58 Bison jet bombers, and 76 Tu-95 turboprop bombers, the latter easy prey for U.S. fighter jets. The U.S. had 160 ICBMs, 48 Polaris missiles on submarines, and 1741 jet bombers (B-52s, B-58s, and B-47s).

The sneak Soviet move of medium range nuclear missiles into Cuba was an attempt to trump that massive U.S. strategic advantage.

Kennedy announced the existence of the Soviet offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba in an address to the nation on October 22, 1962. Russians have always been masters of maskirovka.

Once the move was confirmed, 13 days of desperate maneuver and decision ensued. First, the Pentagon brass pushed Kennedy to launch air strikes on Cuba. Later, they urged a full-scale American invasion of the island. When JFK said no, General LeMay, who in 1968 ran for vice president on Alabama Governor George Wallace's right-wing racist third party ticket, accused the president of out and out appeasement of the Communists, declaring Cuba the new "Munich." Kennedy reportedly laughed at the longtime strategic bomber, who then head of the U.S. Air Force.

What LeMay and the rest did not know is that the Soviet commander in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons and the authority to use them without approval from Moscow. These weapons could easily have obliterated any U.S. invasion force before it ever made it ashore, making all-out nuclear war all the more likely.

Kennedy, largely advised by his brother Robert, had no intention of allowing Soviet nukes in Cuba. He instituted a U.S. Navy blockade to prevent additional forces en route from reaching the island nation and demanded that the missiles already there be removed. On threat of nuclear war.

He added a secret sweetener, that 16 medium-range nuclear missiles next to the USSR in Turkey be removed. This deployment, previously ordered by Eisenhower when Washington was panicking about the illusory Soviet edge in long-range missiles, had already become superfluous with the advent of America's enormous advantage in ICBMs which could rain nuclear fire from across the world in half an hour or less, with only the most minimal of warnings.

JFK also pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. These two things allowed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to to retreat with a modicum of face-saving, costing Kennedy nothing in strategic advantage.

It was a close call for us all, and again reminded that our intelligence establishment had no real idea what was going on in a country it had tried to take over just the year before.

After demonstrating his toughness in facing down warhawks in Moscow and Washington, Kennedy began moving to bring Cold War tensions into a more rational framework. With the economy expanding under his stimulus policies and and with a massive Civil Rights Act coming together under his stewardship, Kennedy told Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield in a spring 1963 private meeting that he intended to wind down the still very limited U.S. military advisory mission in South Vietnam in his second term.

Shortly after that, in a very noteworthy June 1963 commencement address at American University, he sketched out the beginnings of a peace initiative with the Soviet Union, of which his Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was an early step.

Ever wary of the Soviets, who were not simply Russian nationalists intent on avoiding yet another invasion, and of the antithetical system of Communism, Kennedy sought to routinize the rivalry to avoid the risk of another disastrously irrational miscalculation such as Khrushchev's on Cuba. (And sadly, Lyndon Johnson's in Vietnam.)

Less than a year after the nuclear clock reached one minute to midnight during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke of a new peace initiative in this commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963.

The Kennedys, probably to placate a stunningly powerful Cuban emigre faction, did apparently sanction a variety of CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro. But reviewing them today makes me think that, as obviously preposterous as the plots were, they were something of a joke.

With the ICBM advantage under Kennedy giving America an awesome strategic edge over Moscow, which could not hope to launch a successful first strike or see any of its empire survive an all-out war, Kennedy, while maintaining the containment policy, could see the competition between liberal democracy and authoritarian Communism begin to play out in more peaceful realms such as sport and technology.

Hence JFK's determination to surge past an early Soviet lead in space exploration with his drive to land American astronauts on the Moon by the end of his presidency.

That this played into his overarching theme of the "New Frontier" with space, "the new ocean," as perhaps the ultimate frontier in an administration dedicated to advance in science and technology was all the better.

As fate would have it, of course, Jack Kennedy was not around to see these things come to fruition.

Would he have succeeded in his apparent course of staying tough on Communism while avoiding irrational disasters and harnessing critical elements of the "military-industrial complex" in the cause of space exploration?

I believe he might well have succeeded. But we can never know for sure.

Barack Obama, of course, has faced some not dissimilar challenges in another era of deep insecurity about "American Exceptionalism" and fear about another, albeit less threatening, ideological system and its adherents.

How has Obama responded to this challenge? What might he yet do in the time remaining him as president? And what might Obama's successor do?

These are questions for the next two years.

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