An unshakable tenet of those who still carry a torch for John F. Kennedy, elected 65 years ago today, is not what he did while in office, but what he would have done had Lee Harvey Oswald missed. According to those of the Grassy Knoll school of thought, chiefly but not exclusive to Oliver Stone, Kennedy would have ended the Cold War in his second term, and thus spared the country the civil war between the “Greatest Generation” and the “Baby Boomers” over Vietnam. But one doesn’t have to be of the paranoid school to embrace such extrapolated certainties. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of the chief spear-carriers of the Kennedy-as-dove school confidently asserted that Kennedy would indeed have withdrawn the advisers from Vietnam in his second term.
But as Ira Stoll has effectively shown in his book, JFK: Conservative, Kennedy was hardly a dove. Rather than come to some peaceful arrangement with Castro in his last months, Kennedy was, in actuality, increasing efforts to overthrow, even murder the dictator. Two weeks before he died he authorized a sabotage operation against the regime. In December, on the pretext of Kruschev violating the agreements reached during the Cuban Missile Crisis by once again placing offensive nuclear weapons on the island, Kennedy greenlit an invasion into the island.
LBJ has been castigated by the Camelot merchants for supposedly reversing Kennedy’s “secret” steps to get America out of Vietnam by increasing the number of advisers, and then eventually putting ground troops into the conflict. But it was Kennedy who ensured that henceforth America was responsible for the stability of the South by authorizing a coup that removed the leader of the South Ngo Diehm from power. As a result of this chaos, the Southern government would never again be stable,as ruler after ruler was unable to stay in power.
Whatever steps LBJ took in escalating Vietnam, the President was more of a dove on other Cold War matters. Horrified at discovering that the “Kennedy brothers were running a Goddamn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean,” Johnson turned off the assassination plots against Castro.
But taking a leaf from the Camelot school of wistful projections, one should consider a more suitable figure who could have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam. Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, maligned by the Kennedy camp then and now as not moving the country forward, better fit the image of Kennedy. His first move upon being elected in 1952 was to end the stalemate in Korea, not by appeasing the Northern side but by threatening them with nuclear weapons if they refused to come to the negotiating table. When the French colonial control of North Vietnam expired at Diem Ben Phu, Eisenhower refused their entreaties to aid them with American troops. He sensed early on that such American participation would place soldiers in a quagmire (a consideration that JFK never entertained). While Kennedy vacillated on Civil Rights (telling Martin Luther King, whose opinion of Kennedy was that he lacked a moral commitment to the cause, that his hands were tied owing to Congressional segregationists whose anger would have jeopardized the passage of his programs). Eisenhower, who expressed some racism in private, nevetheless sent in the famed 101st Airbone into Arkansas to ensure the safe entrance of African-American students into the Central High School of Little Rock; he did not fear his hands being tied by the opposition of jeering crowds led by the frankly racist Governor Faubus who promised to defy the federal government.
A trusted military man, Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned Americans about the rise of the “military-industrial complex”–an entity that the Camelot school asserted was opposed by Kennedy. Placing Eisenhower into a third term might have at the very least averted the humiliating circumstances of the Bay of Pigs. Eisenhower, based on his criticism of Kennedy for not ordering air strikes to protect those on the beach, might at the very least made it less a fiasco by establishing a beach head for the invaders.
It is apparent that Eisenhower never trusted Kennedy. Alone among the ex-Presidents Kennedy informed about the Cuban Missile Crisis resolution, Eisenhower, despite being assured by Kennedy that the US faced down the Soviets, suspected–rightly it turns out–that it was Kruschev who got the better deal. Not only did Kennedy promise the Soviet premiere that he would not attempt another invasion of the Cuba, he also horse-traded away the Jupiter Missiles protecting Turkey from any Soviet invasion, thus abandoning a Cold War ally.
Extrapolation is frowned upon by what passes for objective history in today’s politically correct academia. Nevertheless if one is to base it on what the leaders actually did while in office, Eisenhower is better qualified for averting the turbulent sixties. Kennedy, by turns, heated up the Cold War by increasing the number of advisers in Vietnam (even introducing Agent Orange into the conflict), partnered with the Mafia to knock off Castro, vacillated on Civil Rights, and nourished the military-industrial complex.
All of this is traceable to machismo. The Kennedy brothers placed great emphasis on manliness in public; Eisenhower, a general who witnessed carnage, had no need to.