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Friday, April 12, 2019


David Zimmerman asks what I have in mind in calling Kennedy more dangerous than Nixon.  Let me explain.  Kennedy brought us terrifying close to a nuclear war with Russia in the so-called Cuban Missile crisis by his reckless machismo confrontation with Khruschev.  Nixon never did anything remotely that dangerous.  We got lucky, thanks in no small measure to Khrushchev.  In the end, Nixon did more harm than Kennedy, but Kennedy was more dangerous.

Would Kennedy have pulled us out of Viet Nam, having gotten us in?  We will never know.  But I think we do know that Johnson did not want to get deeper into that region militarily and was persuaded to do so by the "best and the brghtest" who had been advisors to Kennedy and whom Johnson inherited when Kennedy was killed.

I freely acknowledge that the Cuban Missile Crisis scarred me for life, and my judgment may be skewed by that fact.


Jerry Fresia said...

My reading of history presents a different characterization of JFK's actions during the Cuban missile crisis - and I am fully aware that it is unfashionable for leftists to give JFK credit for much of anything. JFK resisted virtually his entire national security circle which had urged him, increasingly as the days went along, to take aggressive action against Cuba. In his communications with Khrushchev, JFK betrayed his national security term by admitting to Khrushchev (as Khrushchev also admitted to him), that he was up against hardliners who were urging an attack and that a peaceful resolution was of the upmost urgency . It was his skillful and sober leadership - i.e., resisting the intense pressure of JCS, the CIA, and others - that moved Khrushchev to write later: "He didn't let himself become frightened, nor did he become reckless. He showed real wisdom and statesmanship when he turned his back on right-wing force in the US who were trying to goad him into taking military action in Cuba.

Nixon, on the other hand, was an acolyte of Allen Dulles, worked closely with him to effect his policies, and I don't think there is evidence that Nixon opposed hawks such as Dulles and LeMay on anything, particularly with regard to war making and the USSR.

Would it be possible for you to explain what JFK did during the Cuban missile crisis that could be called "reckless machismo?"

Jerry Fresia said...

I should have added...perhaps this trope of "reckless machismo" stems from Kennedy's philandering with which I would not disagree.

Anonymous said...

Who was responsible for the missile installation in Turkey?

s. wallerstein said...

Wouldn't that be a ploy of a skillful negotiator, in this case, JFK, to "admit" to the opposing party that he is under pressure from hardliners and that although he (JFK) is operating in good faith, in order to reach an agreement maybe the opposing party (Khrushchev) will have to yield a bit more? That is, I am a nice guy, but I'm not free to be as nice as I would like to be because of the pressures from the hardliners and so you're going to have to give in a little more. That seems like more or less what all good salesmen tell you: I'd love to give you a better deal on that car, but my boss is a mean SOB, etc...

Chris said...

If anyone seriously thinks Kennedy would have gotten us out of Vietnam, after he 1) expanded US intervention in Vietnam and 2) publicly promised to keep expanding intervention in his second term, then they should seriously read Chomsky's 'Rethinking Camelot':

Kennedy's whole secretarial staff were ready for more war.

LFC said...

The Cuban Missile Crisis is, by now, one of the most exhaustively studied episodes of the Cold War. Though I can't claim to have read most of the material (primary and secondary sources) that are out there, my impressions based on what I have read are basically in accord with what Jerry has said, above.

One book on my shelf that I haven't done more than glance at, unfortunately, is Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Vintage Books paperback, 2009), an hour-by-hour reconstruction of the crisis by a good journalist and researcher.

In his afterword, Dobbs writes: "Knowing what we now know, it is hard to quarrel with JFK's decision to go with a blockade of Cuba rather than an air strike [as some of his advisers were urging] leading to a possible invasion. ... We can only be grateful for his restraint." (p.352) Dobbs writes that it was lucky that leaders "as sane and level-headed" as Kennnedy and Khrushchev were in the White House and Kremlin in Oct. 1962.(p.353) I think sanity and level-headedness in this context should be viewed as relative traits -- i.e., compared to whom? -- and thus Dobbs's implication is that things might have turned out differently had others been in charge. (Unfortunately, as Dobbs also remarks, the outcome of the missile crisis gave some of JFK's advisers a false confidence that the reliance on sending "signals" that had seemed to work vis-a-vis the Soviets would work against the North Vietnamese.)

Anyway, we have been through this particular topic at this blog before, and it's clear that no one's position is going to change, certainly not Prof. Wolff's.

s. wallerstein said...


I guess the question goes deeper than one of JFK's relative prudence or restraint once the crisis was under way.

What right did JFK have to bring the world close to nuclear war because Cuba, a sovereign state, had invited the Soviets, another sovereign state, to put missiles in their territory, after, of course, the U.S. sponsored failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961?

Anonymous II said...

Aren’t we veering too much in the direction of a ‘great man’ notion of history? By that I mean, can the milieu which elevated Kenndy, and later Nixon, to the Presidency be accorded only secondary status? (And of course, one should think the same way about Khrushchev’s elevation—by the way, to follow one book recommendation with another, I found William Taubman’s “Khrushchev: The man and his era” to be a good read; his book on Gorbachev less so.)

Or to try to put it another way, while I wouldn’t dispute that Kennedy, Nixon, etc. etc. all surely contributed something to shaping the American domestic-cum-imperial regime, surely there’s a larger story to be told, a lot of it not very pretty? Don’t all Presidents operate within systemic limits which require them, e.g., to treat an independent Cuba (or Venezuela, or . . .) as places to be curbed in ways that will discourage others from daring to act contrary to US requirements? One might add that people are unlikely to become Presidents—or even main stream media influentials (as Chomsky once told one of them)—if they didn’t already think in system-friendly ways.

LFC said...

The best course might have been to accept the missiles' presence as a fait accompli and try to keep it a secret from the public. I doubt the political realities would have allowed that, even in the unlikely event that JFK had been inclined to do it.

s. wallerstein said...


The best course might have been, as you say, to accept the missiles' presence as a fait accompli.

Let's say that that doesn't work because Republicans within the Pentagon reveal their presence.

Is Kennedy, as a supposed man of peace, then obliged to engage in a nuclear show-down with the Soviets?

Didn't Kennedy write a book or have a book ghost-written called "Profiles in Courage" about
people who courageously risked their political future in the name of high ideals? That's even easier if you have Kennedy's millions of course. So here was Kennedy's big chance to show his courageous profile.

If Kennedy was being pressured by the Pentagon, couldn't he have gone on nationwide TV to honestly explain that he wanted peace, that he understood that the Cubans, freaked out by the Bay of Pigs invasion, sought security with Soviet missiles and that he was willing to start anew and negotiate with the Cubans?

Maybe forces within the Democratic Party would have denied the nomination in 1964 and maybe Republicans in Congress would have sought to impeach him (I don't recall who controlled Congress in 1962), but surely, history would remember him as a courageous man and a world hero of peace.