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John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Schlesinger’s other assertions with respect to domestic affairs—especially the “revolution in national economic policy” and the “concern for poverty”—raised the question of how much should be credited to Kennedy, how much to Johnson. Kennedy’s critics have said that, at the time of his death, his program was hopelessly bogged down in Congress, but that within months of taking office Johnson was able to put through a tax cut (the centerpiece of the “New Economics”), the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the War on Poverty. On the other hand, Kennedy partisans have claimed that both the civil rights and tax-cut measures were assured of passage in November 1963 and that Johnson’s War on Poverty was no more than a consolidation of Kennedy proposals under an exaggerated title. This conflict is not easily resolved, for the evidence can be interpreted either way. Moreover, the matter has one poignant aspect: Johnson succeeded in part because of the wave of grief and remorse that followed Kennedy’s death, an ineluctable factor in judging the relative contributions of the two Presidents.
Even in 1963, critics have said, Kennedy acted on civil rights only when compelled to, and still too timidly.
The obverse side of the claim that Kennedy deserves credit for the advances of the 1960s is the contention that he deserves the blame for all that has gone wrong since 1963, and in the recent period a number of historians have said that the Kennedy experience was malevolent. In Cold War and Counterrevolution, Richard J. Walton has written, “As Congressman and Senator, Kennedy was never a liberal, and as President he prosecuted the Cold War more vigorously, and thus more dangerously, than did Eisenhower and Dulles. ” Critics have traced to Kennedy not just the vicissitudes of the Johnson administration, especially the Vietnam quagmire, but the disasters of the Nixon government too. They are distressed by the linkage of the Watergate burglars to the Bay of Pigs but even more by the overblown style of the Presidency that Kennedy bequeathed to his successors. His showdown with U.S. Steel was called by Newsweek “overstaged muscle-flexing,” and he has been likened to Nixon by the historian William Carleton in his contempt for the bureaucracy and his exaltation of “the personalized and plebiscitic Presidency.”
Kennedy’s critics portray him as an implacable Cold Warrior. Of the President’s Inaugural address, the British commentator Henry Fairlie has written: “These are the words which many of those who applauded the speech at the time now find offensive; and they are offensive. By what right does the leader of any free people commit them—for it was a commitment which he was making—to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,’ when their country is not even at war, and not directly threatened?” Kennedy then went on to point out in that address that “the graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” Once in office, Fairlie observes, Kennedy appointed to key positions men like Walt Rostow, whom Fairlie labels “the Ignatius Loyola of the administration,” and the Pentagon’s Roswell Gilpatric and Paul Nitze, who “seemed like hardened missiles … called from the Cold War silos in which they had been emplaced a decade earlier.”
These Cold Warriors, as well as the President himself, are blamed for what are regarded as the administration’s disastrous policies toward Cuba. The Bay of Pigs operation has almost no defenders, but objection to Kennedy’s Cuban policy does not stop there. In some accounts of the missile crisis of 1962, it is not Kennedy but Khrushchev who emerges as the hero, and the President is condemned for recklessly endangering the lives of millions of innocents. David Riesman says that he shocks his students by pointing out that there was one thing that even President Nixon didn’t do, which was to put the country in jeopardy in the Cuban missile crisis.
Proponents applaud Kennedy for the Test Ban Treaty, a first step toward “getting the genie back in the bottle.”
A good many writers also place the blame for the American involvement in Vietnam on Kennedy. They assert that the crucial decision to expand the war came not under Johnson but under Kennedy, that a speech he delivered at a Fort Worth breakfast on the day of his death bragged that he had “increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South Viet-Nam by 600 percent. ” They note, too, that the escalation under Johnson was carried out by Kennedy legatees like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy, “the best and the brightest. ” It was Kennedy, they say, who became intoxicated with the possibilities of counterinsurgency and left Johnson the legacy that Vietnam was a domino that must not fall. Nor, they assert, was Kennedy the kind of man who would have been comfortable with withdrawal.