Conrad Black: JFK: 50 Years Later





[Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.]

Almost everyone who was of conscient age at the time remembers the buzz when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States 50 years ago today. President Eisenhower was almost universally respected and had succeeded in the great political achievement of presenting himself simultaneously as the smiling, golfing, avuncular man who inspired the vast national consensus expressed in the words “I Like Ike,” and as the five-star general who, as theater commander at the head of 100 divisions, had conducted the greatest military operation in the history of the world and received the unconditional surrender in the West of our Nazi enemies. National security was surely safe with such a man. He was responsible for having Buchenwald, Belsen, Dachau, and other infamous sites filmed so that the world could not disbelieve that the culture of Beethoven and Goethe had committed such unspeakable crimes. He was a magnanimous military governor of Germany, a well-regarded if briefly serving chief of staff of the army and president of Columbia University, and the founding commander of NATO, in which office he again showed his genius as a soldier-diplomat, as he had in North Africa with the life-enactment of the cynicism of the film Casablanca with the swirling factions of the time, and in coordinating such difficult figures as George Patton, Bernard L. Montgomery, and Charles de Gaulle....

Yet, despite Eisenhower’s distinction and the close election, there was great relief and excitement when a man 27 years younger succeeded him. The new president had been a navy lieutenant commander, whose torpedo boat had been sunk from under him at that; his father had effectively bought his election to the Congress, where he had served without much distinction; and he had had a book ghost-written for him. On that confident noon 50 years ago, he spoke of being prepared “to bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to advance the cause of freedom. It was the abandonment of Eisenhower’s relatively low-cost “more bang for the buck” massive-retaliation approach — “brinkmanship,” as it had been called. We would now signal a preparedness to be mouse-trapped into sundry overseas engagements, without necessarily having clear exit strategies. Kennedy rushed into the harebrained Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, which General Eisenhower had avoided for reasons of both military unfeasibility and international law....

Unfortunately, the myth-making about the Cuban Missile Crisis enabled the Kennedy entourage to believe that they had developed a new and infallible method of Harvard-based, critical-path crisis management. Of course it was nonsense, and led straight to the lunacy of fighting in the morass of Vietnam without cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which poured a practically unlimited number of reinforcements and quantity of munitions and supplies, and even tanks and artillery. I think that JFK’s intuition in not invading Cuba justifies a likelihood that he would not have plunged into Vietnam as insouciantly as Lyndon Johnson did, propelled by the scruff of the neck and the small of the back by the advisers he had inherited from Kennedy....


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