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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Camelot and the Bushies: Some Disturbing Parallels


In the mythology that many Americans still cherish, the Kennedy administration was manned by suave, smart, and sophisticated people, from the cleverly articulate and frightfully handsome young president himself, to the razor-sharp advisers such as Harvard’s McGeorge Bundy and MIT’s Walt Whitman Rostow, to the steel-trap-rational cabinet officers such as Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara, in whose hands electronic computers and “systems analysis” promised to provide answers to even the most complicated socio-economic and military questions. Not only were these men “the best and the brightest,” but many of them were young and dashing, too, relishing the company of Green Berets and others engaged in derring-do.

No one, to my knowledge, has perceived any substantial similarity between the lords of Camelot and the not-so-suave characters now ruling Washington. With his inability to utter even the simplest English sentence comfortably and correctly, George W. Bush will never be mistaken for JFK redux. Nor do Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld call to mind qualities of analytical genius — political shrewdness and Machiavellian cunning, perhaps, but hardly a trace of the cold, calculating, systems-analysis sort of intelligence for which McNamara’s “whiz kids” were renowned. Whereas Jack Kennedy rested his faith on two millennia of Catholic doctrine and ceremony, George Bush is a relative religious primitive, a Methodist and, he claims, “born again.”

Yet, notwithstanding all the apparent dissimilarities between these two ruling gangs, they display some disturbing similarities as well. These parallels hit me hard recently as I was reading Derek Leebaert’s new history of the Cold War, The Fifty-Year Wound (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002). Leebaert brings into sharp relief some hallmarks of the Kennedy administration that have tended to be suppressed or given a falsely positive gloss by the many who have adulated the martyred president and his brief regime.

The Kennedy people reeked of recklessness, not just in their personal lives, where it could be kept out of sight or excused, but in their policy making. “The youthful and vigorous men who came to power in January [1961],” writes Leebaert, “saw few limits and acted accordingly” (p. 256). Thus, they plowed ahead with the foolhardy, ill-prepared, and ultimately disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. They senselessly pushed the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe in their management of the Cuban missile crisis. President Kennedy’s — and his brother Robert’s — obsession with killing Fidel Castro, an objective that went unrealized despite countless comic-opera CIA plots to do the dirty work, so twisted their judgment that it gave rise to more than a few policy pretzels.

Reckless in his dealings with the Cubans and the Soviets, Kennedy was no more level-headed in dealing with the situation in Southeast Asia. Above all, however, the mock-virile president resolved that he must demonstrate toughness. He kept increasing the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam — from 692 when he took office to nearly 17,000 at the time of his death. By that time, too, more ominously, some one million U.S. troops had been stationed at more than two hundred foreign bases scattered around the globe.

The quintessential Cold Warrior and “a frightening risk taker” (p. 260), Kennedy suffered “no shortage of adrenaline, violence, or noble intentions” (p. 258). Not surprisingly, therefore, he failed to keep the military on a short civilian leash at a time when nut-case generals cut from the molds of Curtis LeMay, Thomas Power, and Lyman Lemnitzer were running the show. “The Pentagon was taking dangerous operational shortcuts,” Leebaert writes, “such as putting thousands of [nuclear] weapons on hair-trigger alert, and men outside the legal chain of presidential succession would have been able to decide to launch them” (p. 317). It is worthwhile to recall that the classic Cold War film, “Dr. Strangelove,” depicts conditions as they existed during the Kennedy administration (though in the film President Merkin Muffley, oddly enough, bears a close resemblance to Adlai Stevenson).

The Kennedy administration’s leaders displayed, in Leebaert’s phrase, “an astonishing militancy” (p. 256). Yet, despite their high-toned educations and their polished social graces, they generally had only the foggiest idea what they were doing — they epitomized what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realists.” Hence, “misjudgment became inescapable as emergency moved further into a dramatizable, institutionally underwritten way of life” (p. 257). From the bloody fiasco of the Bay of Pigs at the outset, to the near-doomsday disaster of the missile crisis, to the heedless plunge into the quicksand of Vietnam, these best and brightest “people whom the opportunities offered by the modern state tempt into an eternal trifling with danger and extremity” (p. 261) proceeded from one blunder to the next during “those strutting years” (p. 262).

The Kennedy people concealed their colossal foreign-policy mismanagement behind a parapet of prevarication — lies about responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, lies about what had happened in connection with the occurrence and the resolution of the missile crisis, lies about what the U.S. “advisers” and the CIA operatives were actually doing in Southeast Asia. Little did the American people imagine just how massively and how routinely their government was misleading them about its malodorous doings abroad. Thus, ordinary Americans failed to suspect that “good people” such as themselves might now be involved in political murders and related transgressions around the world on a daily basis — all part of the Kennedy administration’s emphasis on “counter-insurgency,” a global program in which “the endless demand for tactical responses provided government with years of temptations to deceive, or worse” (p. 301). Not content with merely responding to the communists and their real or imagined surrogates, however, President Kennedy urged his lieutenants to consider taking the first shot. Thus, he “encouraged the CIA and other government arms to explore preventive action, including plans to Ôtake out’ China''s nuclear program” (p. 311).

Against this template, the current Bush administration has come to provide a distressingly close fit. Increasingly, this government has displayed a militancy, an aggressiveness, a global ambition to fight any and all perceived enemies (except, perhaps, those that can fight back, such as North Korea), and a reliance on military force, including preventive attacks, that must have Jack Kennedy smiling somewhere in the nether world. Even the ridiculous physical strutting that has become the characteristic presidential gait since the September 11 attacks calls to mind “those strutting years” that Leebaert associates with Kennedy’s time in power.

To read the Bush administration’s “National Security Strategy“ is to appreciate just how much the current government reexpresses the presumptuousness and the hubris of the Kennedy administration. Now, however, we find the earlier interest in preventive attacks raised to a pillar of policy, explicitly encapsulated in the motto “the best defense is a good offense.” Hence, “as a matter of common sense and self-defense,” the president declares in his introduction to the document, “America will act against . . . emerging threats before they are fully formed.” Just as Kennedy’s whiz kids had supreme confidence in their ability to apply cost/benefit analysis to every defense-policy problem, so the Bush men have supreme confidence in their capacity to identify mortal threats even before they have blossomed.

Just as Jack Kennedy had “no shortage of adrenaline, violence, or noble intentions,” so George W. Bush proclaims that “the only path to peace and security is the path of action.” Just as Kennedy declared that under his heroic leadership we Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe,” so Bush foresees “a global enterprise of uncertain duration” and proposes to lead us courageously and full of Christian faith on “this great mission.” His subordinates have been telling every talk-show host who would entertain them, however, that the upshot of their global crusade will be not a field of thorns but a magnificent flowering of democracies as far as the eye can see, even in backward and strife-torn regions where no successful democracy has ever existed and where the political culture is wholly antithetical to such a system of government. The proffered basis for this course of action makes the Kennedy people’s ignorance of Southeast Asia look almost like full information. Once again, crackpot realism sits firmly in the saddle.

If the Kennedy administration proceeded recklessly, the Bush administration seems intent on equaling or exceeding that classic recklessness. Thus, Bush and company have chosen to disregard and insult important long-time allies and to proceed unilaterally in a world the administration defines as consisting exclusively of those who are with us and those who are against us. (So much for the principle of neutrality, for which the United States went to war in 1917.) Thumbing its nose at the necessity of a U.N. sanction for its war against Iraq, the Bush government has the audacity to justify its aggression by pointing to Saddam Hussein’s failure to comply with U.N. resolutions.

Finally, we come to the two administrations’ matching mendacity. If Kennedy and company could stand up and lie with a straight face about nearly every action they were taking or had taken overseas, the Bush people likewise feel no evident shame in torturing the truth. Even the government’s intelligence officers have complained that the political operatives keep making them rework their analyses until their conclusions accord with the ideological predispositions of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the neoconservative fanatics leading the charge for imperialism. When veteran foreign-service officer John Brady Kiesling resigned recently, he wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell that “we have not seen such systematic distortion of intelligence, such systematic manipulation of American opinion, since the war in Vietnam.” But Secretary Powell himself had already capitulated to the pressure and shamelessly spouted lies in his attempts to win support for U.S. aggression at the United Nations. Blithely ignoring the lack of evidence, Bush himself has continued to assert that Saddam Hussein’s government has a “link” with al-Qaida, that it is developing nuclear weapons, that it poses a grave threat to the United States. Lies pile upon lies, and questions are answered only with impatient bluster or a menacing smirk.

In sum, upon inspection, we can see many disturbing parallels between the energetic, world-smacking Kennedy administration and the present, hyper-aggressive Bush administration. May heaven help us to survive these all-too-vigorous men of action.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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