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There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK

What a year of retrospectives missed about the martyred president

Cecil Stoughton/White House

Our long national retrospective on the assassination of John F. Kennedy has left us with more sentiment than clarity. The man himself seems as hard as ever to bring into focus. He was at once principled and cynical, elegant and cheesy, coolly analytical and painfully self-absorbed, purposeful and adrift. His foreign policy was the same uneasy jumble. Kennedy oversaw a massive nuclear buildup and then brought off the cold war’s first arms control treaty. He created both the Peace Corps and the elite commando unit that decades later killed Osama bin Laden. After the tolerant humanism of one speech came the rousing and pugnacious anti-communism of the next. At the Bay of Pigs, he seemed a near-incompetent; in the Cuban missile crisis, a skilled and patient statesman. Just before he died, the coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam had the look of incompetence again.

All these qualities and more have been recorded in the many books published to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s death. But the milestone brought new perspectives, too. The most interesting and ambitious interpreters, it seems, are no longer content to leave John Kennedy a puzzle. They have tried to sharpen up his features and give his story a clearer shape. Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court describes a president deeply suspicious of professionals and experts, and fighting a constant rearguard action against the conventional (and often highly militarized) wisdom offered up by his advisers. Jeffrey Sachs, in To Move the World, argues that in his last year Kennedy finally found a way around rigid generals, anxious allies, and congressional critics. His famous we-all-breathe-the-same-air speech at American University in June 1963 launched a “quest for peace,” and within weeks it produced the limited nuclear test ban. In JFK’s Last Hundred Days, Thurston Clarke tells a still more dramatic story, a redemption narrative about “the emergence of a great president.” In the months before Dallas, says Clarke, Kennedy began a concerted effort to bring an end to the cold war. With Soviet officials, he broached the idea of a fuller “détente,” to include substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe. He became more convinced that there was no significant American interest at stake in the defense of South Vietnam. Back-channel communications with Castro aimed at breaking Havana’s ties with Moscow. Even Kennedy’s personal life settled down a bit. After the death of their newborn son, Patrick, in August, he and Jackie became visibly more devoted to each other. When Marlene Dietrich visited the White House in September 1963, the president did not even have sex with her. A year earlier, Clarke reports, he did.

These are very different books, all of them serious and interesting. No matter how much you think you know about the New Frontier, there is plenty to learn from them. As for the inevitable simplifications that occur when we try to neaten up the past—well, half a century after Dallas it is time to get beyond history’s first and second drafts. Perhaps a clearer picture of Kennedy’s aims and achievements would even hold some lessons for another young president who has struggled to develop a coherent foreign policy. If so, Barack Obama could use those lessons now, not fifty years down the road.

There are good reasons, then, to try to understand John Kennedy better. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the new view of him is really an old one. It is closer to Camelot than anything we have heard in years. America’s travails in the 1960s—especially the Vietnam War—seem about to become all Lyndon Johnson’s fault again. In the new view, even some of what went wrong while Kennedy was still president is not quite as much his fault as we used to think. Was his policy, at least in his early years, sometimes too belligerent or provocative? For this, the military and the CIA now take the blame. Was the process of reaching decisions sometimes too secretive, or disorderly, or inconclusive? This, too, can be traced to the president’s lack of confidence in those around him. If the administration often lacked clear direction, it was because Kennedy was trying to neutralize his more trigger-happy advisers.

In tidying up the story, we risk losing much of the New Frontier’s genuine contradictoriness, not to mention the complexity of America’s global role at the height of the cold war. It used to be, after all, that the Kennedy White House was seen as the source of hyperactive policy, not as a check on it. (That is why, shortly after his death, The New Yorker rhapsodized that “he did not fear the weather ... but instead challenged the wind itself.”) Visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue early in the administration, Adlai Stevenson complained about what he called “the damnedest bunch of boy commandos running around.” Kennedy insiders had similar qualms. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled the “addiction of activism” as the “besetting sin of the New Frontier.” John and Robert Kennedy, he admitted, were “not planners” but “improvisers.” They were “impatient with systems.” Impulsive policymaking was the costly result. It left the president, Paul Nitze lamented, “in a perpetual state of reaction to one crisis after another rather than working toward long-term goals.”

Many of his own advisers considered the president personally responsible for this way of making policy. It was he, according to George Ball, the number-two man at the State Department, who would always interrupt a discussion of strategy by asking, “Let’s not worry about five years from now, what do we do tomorrow?” Walt Rostow, brought from MIT to be number two at the National Security Council, read Kennedy’s body language the same way. When a briefer bored him, the president “would tap his teeth and fuss with his tie.” He had said on the campaign trail that he wanted to get America “moving again” and that the Eisenhower administration had been “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep.” Apparently he meant it.

Kennedy prized vigor and decisiveness, and he wanted these qualities in those around him. Hence his special regard for Robert McNamara, who left his job as a youthful president of Ford to become the youngest-ever secretary of defense. McNamara, described by David Halberstam as “the can-do man in the can-do society in the can-do era,” had no foreign policy experience. But he had strong views about how government ought to operate. It was better, he said, to “have a wrong decision made than no decision at all.” From the president on down, the New Frontier was a bring-it-on team, champing at the bit to solve problems.

But it had another side, too. Some members of the administration considered the cult of activism far from its greatest failing. They were far more bothered by its cult of indecision. Ball thought that the president had been overly impressed by academic advisers who told him that effective leaders did not commit themselves to one course or another until they had to. (Keeping options open was, in fact, one of the first recommendations that Richard Neustadt put in his transition memo for Kennedy.) As Ball saw it, the professors had “provided too facile a rationalization for postponing unpleasant decisions on major issues where results would not be immediately apparent.”

Others had the same complaint. Despite regular invitations to the White House to share his views, Dean Acheson grumbled to Harry Truman that the meetings were “strangely depressing. Nothing seems to get decided.” The president, Kennedy’s advisers discovered, did not want a streamlined process of decision-making. This was why he had chosen to do without a chief of staff. He valued deliberation and caution as much as conviction. In a world of dangerous nuclear rivalries, he feared—as Rostow put it—“convulsive and excessively energetic American actions.” The new administration spent months debating its national security strategy, and then, failing to reach consensus, simply put the ever-expanding draft document aside. No one seemed able, or interested, to settle the arguments it had provoked. Others might have trouble deciphering American policy on important matters, but the New Frontiersmen were unfazed. As McNamara famously declared, there was “no longer any such thing as strategy”: there was just “crisis management.”

So what was the Kennedy administration’s “besetting sin”—doing too much or doing too little? And doing it too quickly or too slowly? The president seemed to want to operate in both modes. He was hyper-confident and ambitious and at the same time deeply anxious about being trapped in some too-risky enterprise. He sought a balance between these impulses in protracted and inconclusive consideration of his options. When he failed to find the right answer, he typically postponed choice or launched a secret search for compromise. His decisions were complicated by his deep distrust of his advisers, especially those in uniform. But the tensions that made finding the right course so difficult were present in his own ideas and instincts. These shaped every major foreign crisis of the Kennedy administration—those that would end successfully and those that would not.

Like many others, Dallek, Sachs, and Clarke treat the Bay of Pigs fiasco as a chastening early experience for the young president, proof of how dangerous it was to rely on the CIA and the Pentagon for advice. Kennedy did blame them—and he was right. Even so, his own haphazard decision-making greatly contributed to the outcome. What happened at the Bay of Pigs was not that hard-charging military and intelligence officers concocted a bad plan that then misfired. The president was skeptical of the plan from the outset and did not approve it. But he wanted it re-examined and refined. For weeks his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, assured him that the operation was being improved. When he was asked to give the final go-ahead, Kennedy realized that endless meetings had failed to produce a viable alternative, but even then he neither accepted it nor rejected it. Instead, he and Bundy scaled it down further, canceling American air cover for the émigré fighters who were trying to establish a Cuban beachhead. When this doomed halfway plan produced disaster, Kennedy was shocked and appalled. (Robert Kennedy had a different reaction. He wanted an activist response: the United States had to find some quick way to increase pressure on Castro. Walt Rostow wrote later that he had to suspend a meeting to take Bobby aside and calm him down.)

A year later, when Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba, the president himself remembered the earlier crisis differently. “It shows the Bay of Pigs was really right,” he said. “If we had done it right.” Whatever lessons Kennedy learned from this first failure, it did not dampen his interest in the CIA’s shadow wars. In three years as president, he authorized almost as many covert operations as Eisenhower did in eight. Nor did it keep him from using military tools to gain cold war political advantage. In the foreign policy crises that defined each year of his administration—Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962, Vietnam in 1963—the president repeatedly brought to bear the overwhelming power and influence, both overt and covert, of the United States. To this, of course, he added intricate behind-the-scenes diplomatic moves, designed to give him a way of avoiding the use of force. Yet the striking thing about Kennedy’s handling of all these problems is how the two halves of his strategy played out. His military threats were extremely successful; his nuanced diplomacy, much less so. And when his diplomacy did produce results, it was because American power gave him more leverage than he realized.

Berlin set the pattern. When Kennedy met Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, he warned him not to challenge the status quo in Germany. “We are in Berlin not because of someone’s sufferance,” he said. “We fought our way there.” A Soviet challenge to Western occupation rights, the president made clear, risked war. In what was otherwise a disastrous personal encounter between the two men, this tough American talk stood out—and it worked. Khrushchev never carried out his key threat—to sign a treaty with the East German regime and drive the United States out of West Berlin. Still, Kennedy worried that he had not gotten his message across. The Soviet leader, he told Harold Macmillan after the summit, was “much more of a barbarian” than he had expected. To reinforce his message, the president announced a host of military measures, including a quick boost to the Pentagon budget, six new army divisions, emergency improvements in airlift capability, and more. (The contrast to Eisenhower is revealing: Ike responded to Khrushchev’s threats by proposing to cut American forces in Germany.) 

For decades Khrushchev’s low opinion of—even contempt for—Kennedy was thought to have emboldened Moscow, first over Berlin and later over Cuba. This is almost certainly not correct. The Soviet leader had no trouble heeding a nuclear threat even if he did not respect the American president who made it. What changed Khrushchev’s calculus was probably what Kennedy did when tensions began to subside. The president told his advisers that he wanted to explore a deal that would keep Berlin from being a permanent source of East-West friction. He envisioned a diplomatic settlement in which the United States would give up its rights in the city as a whole in exchange for Soviet guarantees not to squeeze West Berlin. 

To the French and the Germans, this was a terrible idea. (De Gaulle thought it absurd to negotiate just because Khrushchev “had whistled.”) Hearing their objections, Kennedy decided not to keep working with them but to bargain secretly with Moscow. If agreement was reached, America’s allies would be obliged to accept it. The president wanted to be sure that other governments would not find out what was under discussion. “We must not put on paper,” Kennedy told Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “things which might shock our Allies if presented without prior consultation.” In a letter to Khrushchev, he described this arrangement as “a considerable departure from normal diplomacy.” Kennedy’s secret probes did great damage to trans-Atlantic solidarity. They surely signaled to Khrushchev that Washington was ready to leave its allies in the lurch. And they produced no diplomatic progress of any kind.

Once we understand how Kennedy handled Berlin, it is obvious that his management of the Cuban crisis a year later was not a case of unprecedented and improvised nuclear diplomacy, but a by-the-book repetition of the earlier confrontation. It was the Cuban missile crisis that gave us the terms “hawks” and “doves,” and for the first part of it John Kennedy was an unquestioned hawk. He believed that all Soviet missiles had to be withdrawn, that military force would probably be necessary to achieve this result, and that the primary goal of American policy was to make the Soviets worry that their actions might lead to war. In a week of secret deliberations before he announced a naval blockade of Cuba, no American official was more firmly opposed than Kennedy to doing anything that would enable Khrushchev to stall his retreat. He repeatedly overruled advisers who suggested compromise. McNamara felt that demanding the removal of all the Soviet missiles increased the likelihood that the United States would have to invade Cuba. Rusk suggested that Khrushchev might find it easier to freeze construction of the missile bases than to remove them outright. Kennedy ignored both ideas. And when he discovered that Theodore Sorensen had slipped a suggestion for an emergency Soviet-American summit into the draft of his nationwide speech, the president personally took it out.

Any hint that the United States wanted to negotiate an end to the crisis, Kennedy felt, would convey “panic.” American policy had to be unrelenting. He was also indifferent to the idea that Washington should mobilize international opinion as a source of pressure on Moscow. The Organization of American States (OAS) would not be of much help. “I don’t think we ought to do the OAS,” he said. “I think that’s a waste of time. I don’t think we ought to do NATO.” Sure, it would be nice to have other governments endorse American actions—but if they refused to do so, the president told senators, he would ignore them and proceed “illegally.” He would not let multilateral consultations keep the United States from striking Cuba if necessary. “We’re going to do it anyway.”

Travis Schwab

In the Cuban missile crisis Kennedy followed his own Berlin model, making chest-thumping threats, putting military muscle behind them—and then repeating the search for a hidden deal to resolve the standoff. As the crisis approached a climax, Khrushchev tried to extract an additional concession from Washington, demanding the removal of American missiles from Turkey. Most of the president’s advisers told him he should not agree. The United States had already offered Khrushchev the face-saving assurance he had asked for just the day before: a pledge not to invade Cuba. That should be enough, they said. The New Frontiersmen gave their approach a hifalutin label: the “Trollope ploy,” so named because it echoed one of the British novelist’s plot twists. Though the future of the world was hanging in the balance, the president’s team wanted to be firm. They would take Khrushchev up on his earlier offer, ignore the later one, and hang tough. Even Robert Kennedy told his brother this was the way to go.

The president didn’t buy it. He was “certain” Khrushchev would also hang tough. For this reason, he said, the real American choice was between military action and making more concessions. So he proposed to do the latter. Any open compromise at the expense of a NATO ally would have triggered a rebellion among his advisers. (Paul Nitze said it would be “appeasement.”) But perhaps a hidden deal might work? On this basis Kennedy authorized secret assurances to Khrushchev that the Turkish missiles would soon be removed. The Soviet archives long ago confirmed what the president’s advisers believed: that this last bit of bargaining was not needed to resolve the crisis. Even before Kennedy’s message reached Moscow, Khrushchev had told the politburo that the jig was up. The danger of war was too great. The missiles had to come out.

Kennedy’s adversary had folded under pressure, but Kennedy failed to see what was happening. It was the much-maligned Dean Rusk who explained clearly why Khrushchev would back down: “We don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours.” 

The president had been sure that the only way to get the Soviets to back down was by military force or by significant concessions. When muscular diplomacy began to do the job instead, he was unable—unwilling, even—to recognize how much American power had achieved. Being sure that a good outcome carried a very high price, Kennedy was determined to pay it even though others told him he was wrong.

Only thirteen months separated the Cuban missile crisis from the assassination in Dallas. In this brief interval, the president and his advisers redoubled their efforts to wind down the cold war. Sachs, Dallek, and Clarke are right to see Kennedy as full of new purpose in 1963. He was more confident of re-election and surer of his standing with Congress. When he said, in his American University speech, that his goal was “not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time,” he clearly had a specific to-do list in mind.

Yet the picture of a president about to take flight as a peacemaker is incomplete, and not just because it focuses so much on what might have been. Kennedy was indeed more attentive to nuclear risks in his last year, and he did seem eager to pull back from exposed positions. But there were other changes in this period, too, and they pointed in the opposite direction—toward greater dominance by the United States and less deference to others. In the entire history of the cold war there were few moments when America’s advantages were as pronounced as they were in 1963. Having the high ground in the global balance of power shaped every element of Kennedy’s policy.

Consider the one-sided proto-“détente” that he pursued with Khrushchev. In Cuba, the Soviet leader had been on the losing end of the most dramatic military showdown of the cold war. He was politically on the defensive at home. Within the Soviet bloc, he had been denounced and ridiculed by Mao Zedong. The United States retained a six-to-one edge in the size of its nuclear arsenal. Nothing makes the strength of Kennedy’s hand clearer than comparing it with the far weaker one that Nixon and Kissinger held at the end of the 1960s, as they pursued their own détente with Khrushchev’s successors. By 1969, it was American policy that was foundering (in Vietnam); it was Moscow that had given Beijing a bloody nose in military clashes on their border; it was Soviet strategic nuclear programs that were booming. In 1963, by contrast, when American negotiators began hammering out the details of the nuclear test ban, they felt their advantages immediately. Khrushchev, they concluded, would agree to “almost anything.”

Kennedy’s approach to the Western alliance reflected the same sort of confidence. The president, one senior American diplomat told colleagues, “believed the United States could push its allies harder following the Cuban crisis.” Shoving would have been a better description. On issue after issue, Kennedy demanded deference to Washington. He wanted the French to sign the test ban treaty even though they complained that it undermined their security. He wanted the Germans to accept that national reunification was a long-term goal, if it was a goal at all. He wanted both of them to accept Britain into Western Europe’s Common Market. And he wanted all three allies to accept the primacy of the United States when it came to nuclear doctrine and decision-making.

On all these matters, years of trans-Atlantic squabbling, especially with De Gaulle, were ahead. But American policymakers had stopped listening to European leaders, friendly or not. Rusk considered the French leader “a devil with horns and a tail.” It made no sense, the secretary of state grumbled to senators, to negotiate “with our Allies looking over our shoulders.” Ball—as devoted an enthusiast of Europe as anyone who has ever held a senior position at the State Department—also dismissed the allies. For him, they simply lacked “adequate vision.” Kennedy and his advisers believed that successful management of foreign policy could not really be shared. From the New Frontier on, no American president allowed his European colleagues to play more than an ornamental role in East-West relations.

Kennedy’s handling of smaller allies reflected even greater impatience and exasperation. In the last hundred days of his life, no foreign policy problem consumed more of the president’s time than South Vietnam. Fed up with the weak but autocratic rule of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family, the administration looked for ways to distance itself from them. It wanted the Saigon leadership to modernize itself—to build support among the peasantry, to reach out to the non-communist opposition, to present themselves more agreeably to Western journalists. But in the course of 1963, Kennedy and most of his advisers concluded that Diem was a near-hopeless barrier to American success. Bundy claimed it was “the first time the world had been faced with collective madness in a ruling family since the days of the czars.”

Just as they had a year earlier during the Cuban crisis, the president and his team met incessantly on Vietnam, sometimes more than once a day. And they dramatically turned the heat up on Diem. Kennedy himself went on television to warn the Saigon government that it was “out of touch with the people.” He suspended aid programs that accounted for more than 60 percent of South Vietnam’s imports. The American embassy was instructed to increase contacts with the opposition to Diem. The White House even announced a target date of 1965 for withdrawal of American advisers (then totaling 16,000 troops). This was an astoundingly open and unfriendly confrontation with an American client.

In the months before November 1, when South Vietnamese generals finally overthrew Diem, murdering him and his brother, Washington policymakers moved steadily closer—inch by inch—to outright support for his removal. Although many senior officials were strong supporters of a coup (skeptics tended to say only that they were unsure it would “succeed”), Kennedy and his advisers never reached a full consensus on the question. When Diem was overthrown, many in the White House were taken by surprise. 

The administration’s actions had signaled unmistakably to the South Vietnamese generals that Washington wanted a change. Even so, Washington thought that because it was, in its usual anxious way, still deliberating, the world was on hold. The president’s horror on hearing that Diem and his brother had been killed showed how little he and his advisers understood the impact of their own actions. “Kennedy,” recalled General Maxwell Taylor, “leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before.” 

For most American officials, the coup was an unalloyed success. John Kenneth Galbraith dashed off a note to Averell Harriman praising the outcome as “another great feather in your cap.” Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador in Saigon, thought that Diem’s overthrow might be a model for the future. It showed that inflexible, retrograde Third World clients need not hamper American policy. Kennedy himself quickly overcame his discomfort. Recording his reflections on the coup three days later, he claimed Washington had actually “suggested” it.

Why is John Kennedy still so hard for us to understand? One reason, which has not figured in most of the anniversary discussion, is that he and his advisers did not understand their achievements—or their failures. And they understood their own power even less. In 1961, Kennedy safely navigated the Berlin crisis because his warnings to Khrushchev were more credible than he realized. By contrast, the secret talks in which he invested so much hope yielded nothing at all. The Cuban crisis of 1962 was a still more dazzling success, but the crucial factor was the atmosphere of extreme danger that Kennedy created, not the hidden concession that he offered up. And when their own intense pressure caused an important American client to be murdered in 1963, Kennedy and his advisers did not at first see how much they had done to bring him down. Hadn’t they said they wanted to keep their options open?

It was a commonplace of this year’s anniversary observances to lament the fact that fifty years after Kennedy’s death historians have not yet arrived at a clear view of him. Lots of good books have been written about him, it was said, but none that reconcile his seeming contradictions. The frustration is understandable, but it may be a sign that something is wrong with the entire enterprise. We are looking for answers in the wrong places. 

When it comes to foreign policy, the contradictions that we find in Kennedy and his policies are not first and foremost matters of personality. They are not necessarily about him at all. Kennedy and the people around him were responding to the challenge of being the dominant global power. They had sought, and been given, a mandate to do better than Eisenhower had done. In implementing it, they faced enormous opportunities and enormous risks. They revised almost all the previous administration’s policies, military and diplomatic. They used more confrontational rhetoric—and more conciliatory rhetoric, too. They were more ideological—and more pragmatic. They wanted to win the cold war outright—and to end it in a tie. They were more ambitious—and more anxious about their ambition. They wanted to increase American power—and to discipline it as strictly as possible.

John Kennedy had visionary but contradictory ideas about how to conduct American foreign policy. Like many activist presidents, he believed (in Schlesinger’s words) that “the world was plastic, and the future unlimited.” He was committed to boldness, but hyper-conscious of the need to keep boldness in check. As inspiring as his legacy was, it was also confusing and dangerous, and its lessons, as his successor soon learned, were far from easy to apply.

An American president who wanted to apply these lessons today would have to begin by understanding them better than did Kennedy himself. Barack Obama would be right to recall our thirty-fifth president’s firm hold on the global imagination, his strong belief in diplomatic problem-solving, and his conviction that the United States can work most productively with those who are proponents of political reform in their own societies. Yet these elements of the Kennedy legacy are hard to separate from the enormous edge that America then enjoyed in all the ingredients of global power. That power was so great that Kennedy took it almost for granted. It involved high cost and great risk, and made possible achievements and innovations that we admire to this day. It also made possible a great deal of foolishness. In our time, a president with similar aims as a peacemaker cannot afford to take American power for granted or to understand its results so poorly. He has to reckon with both halves of John Kennedy’s legacy. 

Stephen Sestanovich is a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, will be published by Knopf in February.