A Purgatorial Message from JFK to Joe Biden

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tags: foreign policy, Russia, Ukraine, John F. Kennedy, Joe Biden

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

Dear Mr. President:

I send greetings from the other side — and no, I don’t mean the other side of the aisle. I refer to the place where old politicians go to make amends for their sins.

Apart from our shared Catholicism and affinity for sunglasses, I suspect you and I don’t have a lot in common. Actually, that may not quite be true. After all, your family and mine have both experienced more than our share of tragedy and you and I both did make it to the top rung of American politics.

Forgive me for being blunt, Joe — may I call you Joe? — but after more than a year in office your administration clearly needs help. Having had ample time to reflect on my own abbreviated stay in the White House, I thought I might share some things I learned, especially regarding foreign policy. Sadly, you seem intent on repeating some of my own worst mistakes. A course change is still possible, but there’s no time to waste. So please listen up.

I’m guessing that you may be familiar with this timeless text: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I no longer have any idea what prompted my aide and speechwriter Ted Sorensen to pen those immortal words or how exactly they found their way into my inaugural address. No matter, though. People then thought it expressed some profound truth — a Zen-like aphorism with an Ivy League pedigree.

Its implicit subtext, though, totally escaped attention: If negotiations don’t yield the desired results, it’s time to get tough. And that turned out to be problematic.

Fearing Fear Itself?

Candor obliges me to admit that, politically speaking, my administration made good use of fear itself. If my run for the White House had an overarching theme, it was to scare the bejesus out of the American people. And once in office, fearmongering formed an essential part of my presidency. The famous Jack Kennedy wit and charisma was no more than a side dish meant to make the panic-inducing main course more palatable.

Here’s me at the National Press Club early in the 1960 campaign, sounding the alarm about “increasingly dangerous, unsolved, long postponed problems” that would “inevitably explode” during the next president’s watch. KABOOM! Chief among those problems, I warned, was “the growing missile gap, the rise of Communist China, the despair of the underdeveloped nations, the explosive situations in Berlin and in the Formosa [i.e., Taiwan] Strait, [and] the deterioration of NATO.”

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