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The Independent Institute
Commentary

On the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination, Let’s Examine His True Legacy


As the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination grows near, the media, always suckers for celebrity, will likely provide saturation coverage of the tragic killing and the emotion-invoking funeral. The American public, also suckers for presidential charisma, consistently rate magnetic presidents, such as Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, much higher than the historians who study them in depth.

The political parties assist in peddling this hype because perpetuating myths of historic “giants” helps to win today’s elections. Republicans regularly try to compare themselves to an idealized notion of Reagan that didn’t even come close to existing. The same is true of Democrats with JFK. But since the anniversary of Kennedy’s death is the one that is upon us, let’s concentrate on why he did not exemplify the best characteristics of a liberal and was actually a very bad president.

Liberals sometimes idealize JFK for his transformational activities in civil rights, the Peace Corps, and committing the country to sending humans to the moon within the decade. Yet JFK wanted to compete aggressively with the Soviet Union and saw all of the above issues largely as they related to the Cold War. He believed that bad publicity surrounding segregation and race-related violence in the United States was helping to lose the propaganda war against the Soviet Union in the developing world. He believed the Peace Corps program would win back some of that lost public-relations ground in those parts of the globe. Kennedy didn’t care about space exploration, but instead viewed the moon program through the lens U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War.

Of all Cold War presidents, JFK and Reagan were the most hawkish and caused unnecessary crises with the USSR that almost resulted in nuclear war. Kennedy has been praised for his restrained resolve during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus preventing a nuclear war between the superpowers. Yet JFK’s dangerous policy toward Cuba caused the crisis in the first place, and his rash actions once Soviet missiles in Cuba were suspected almost resulted in nuclear Armageddon.

In 1961, obsessed with eliminating the communist government in Cuba, JFK approved an idiotic CIA plan to not so secretly train and launch an invasion force of Cuban exiles that was intended to result in Fidel Castro’s overthrow. After the invasion’s ignominious failure and exposure and Soviet detection of unbelievable further attempts by the Kennedy administration to assassinate Castro, the Soviets decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter another U.S. invasion. Also, the Soviets wanted to give the United States “a taste of its own medicine,“ since U.S. nuclear missiles had been installed near the Soviet Union in Turkey and Italy.

Before JFK was even sure that Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba, he said publicly in mid-September 1962 that “if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out offensive actions against the United States...the United States would act.” Kennedy and his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, later admitted that Soviet missiles in Cuba would not have altered the strategic nuclear balance, and JFK confessed that if he had not made the prior public promise, he would not have had to do anything in response to the Soviet missiles in Cuba. He could have ignored the entire matter—after all, the Soviet missiles in Cuba did not alter the substantial U.S. nuclear advantage—or he could have handled the matter through private diplomatic channels, avoiding the provocative naval blockade of Cuba (considered by international norms as an act of war) and public nuclear showdown between the superpowers.

One could even argue that after all the facts were uncovered, Khrushchev had gotten the better of Kennedy in the crisis. Publicly, JFK had traded the elimination of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in return for a pledge by the United States not to invade Cuba. So as not to embarrass Turkey, Kennedy only secretly agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from that country. Yet public humiliation of the moderate Khrushchev was a major factor in his later ouster and replacement by Soviet hardliners, who, to avoid future humiliation at the hands of America, conducted a massive military build up and arms race with the United States that eventually did end U.S. nuclear superiority.

Unnerved by the crisis, JFK did sign a partial nuclear test ban, which permitted only the future underground testing of nuclear weapons; but this limited treaty paled in comparison to the reckless Kennedy’s almost stumbling into a nuclear World War III for no valid reason. The potential needless destruction of much of human civilization should alone qualify JFK as being one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

Kennedy acolytes argue that he had decided Vietnam was a quagmire and, before his death, had ordered that 1,000 U.S. soldiers be withdrawn. However, he previously had drastically ballooned the number of U.S. advisors from 900 during the Eisenhower administration to 16,000, thus significantly deepening U.S. involvement in the conflict. Also, JFK lost the war before his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, ever escalated it—by tacitly approving the ouster of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, which left a political leadership vacuum that is critical in counterinsurgency war and for which U.S. combat forces could provide only an inadequate substitute.

Domestically, unlike his successor, JFK had no skills to get his stalled legislative program through Congress, including his reluctantly put forth Civil Rights Act. Kennedy, always fearful of losing support from the conservative southern wing of his party, constantly tried to rein in, not promote, the civil rights movement’s agenda, including attempting to discourage Martin Luther King from his now-famous March on Washington and “I have a dream” speech in August 1963. The less charismatic LBJ, Kennedy’s vice president and successor, should really be the hero of the civil rights movement, not JFK—advising Kennedy to make civil rights a moral cause and then using JFK’s martyrdom and his own legislative skills to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at a major cost to his party in southern white support.

In short, JFK hardly represented the best aspects of liberalism, unnecessarily endangered not only the American people but the entire world with nuclear war, and was a very bad president.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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