Thursday, May 22, 2008

In the footsteps of John Kennedy

Those who have grown up believing that John Kennedy's finest moment was the Cuban Missile crisis will be disappointed to learn that he may have contributed to the face off: widely considered the moment the world came closest to Central Nuclear War, by telegraphing weakness by his eagerness to "talk" to his adversaries. A NYT op-ed co-authored by Nathan Thrall and James Wilkins recounts:

Kennedy’s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one’s adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings — his Harvard thesis was titled “Appeasement at Munich” — he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.

The meeting was a disaster. Kennedy was prepared to be conciliatory. Khruschev was prepared to take the ball Kennedy wanted to hand him and run with it to the goal line.

Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year: “Is it wise to gamble so heavily? Are not these two men who should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them?”

But Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.”

If that were all, Kennedy could have chalked it up to experience. But JFK had repeated Chamberlain's key mistake at Munich. He sent a signal of abject weakness to an aggressor held back only by fear. He walked into shark-infested water bleeding and ringing the dinner bell. And although the US was overwhelmingly stronger than Khruschev's Soviet Union, the wily old Bolshevik judged it safe to hustle the "very inexperienced, even immature" Leader of the Free World. The Soviet strongman struck while the going seemed good.

A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had resigned himself to it, telling his aides in private that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The following spring, Khrushchev made plans to “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants”: nuclear missiles in Cuba. And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.

Yet the John Kennedy who faced off against Nikita Khruschev was a combat veteran of the Second World War, and presumably tougher than the veteran of combats with the Rev Jeremiah Wright. But why is it so important for the American President to have manifest the qualities of coolness, discipline and steadfastness? Why can't America simply elect a man who will greet every foreign dictator he meets with a pre-emptive apology at the door?

Because the US President is, as Winston Churchill once described Grand Fleet Commander Admiral John Jellicoe, 'the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon'. He is the one person who can manufacture a world crisis by manner alone. The question is what impression The People We've Been Waiting For will convey to America's enemies may be put to a test. And this time we may not be as lucky as Kennedy was during the Days of October.





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22 Comments:

Blogger Sam Hall said...

When Kennedy changed his mind and left men to die at the Bay of Pigs, he showed the world what he was.

5/22/2008 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Easy now. It's all too possible that someone may come forward and say, "are you talking about me? Why are you engaging in the politics of fear and innuendo. We mean well."

5/22/2008 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/22/2008 04:50:00 PM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

It may even be worse yet, Wretchard.

All the slanders the Democrats have aimed at the Bush Administration were also aimed at the United States. The United States tortures prisoners. The United States went to war for oil. The United States lied. The United States is unbalanced in its foreign policy. The Patriot Act is fascist. On and on.

So when President Obama enters into unconditional negotiations with Iran, the Iranians can bring up the Democrat's own bill of indictment of the United States -- indeed, the Democrats plea of guilty to all charges on their nation's behalf.

The Mullahs can then say: "Before we talk, your lying and deceiving nation must show your good faith by doing what you promised your long suffering people you would do. Withdraw from Iraq immediately. Abandon missile defense. Stop enriching the merchants of death! Repeal the oppressive patriot act. Give the UN a veto over your security policy. Significantly cut your own nuclear stockpile. Sign onto the Kyoto treaty. Stop destroying the planet! Tear down your own "Apartheid wall" along the border with Mexico! Stop oppressing your own Muslim People. Release those you so unjustly held in their torture cells! Become a good citizen of the world, then we can speak 'unconditionally,' as you put it."

That's if the Iranians are feeling especially nice that day. Meanwhile, they can step up EFP attacks. They will want us chased from Iraq (and the Middle East), not leaving with dignity intact. Of course, that's if they really do want to "engage" our new President.

5/22/2008 04:58:00 PM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

There is always difficulty in understanding those from other cultures.

Was it Kennedy who misunderstood Kruschev or the other way around? In the end it was a good thing that the Russians didn't really have their heart set on installing those missiles in Cuba and were willing to back down in exchange for ... something. Also, they understood that Kennedy was prepared to go to war and they didn't want that.

Attempting to test a new president is a very dicey thing. Evan an Obama will only allow himself to be pushed so far. Now Carter, that was a different story :-(

This opinion piece in today's jpost suggests that some enemies might not back down even when faced with war, or worse: Suicide, the path to national salvation

5/22/2008 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

"Russians didn't really have their heart set on installing those missiles in Cuba and were willing to back down in exchange for ... something."

I believe Kennedy pulled some of our missiles out of Turkey after a short face-saving delay.

5/22/2008 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/22/2008 06:00:00 PM  
Blogger atgnatus said...

Kennedy removed our Jupiter missiles from Italy and Turkey.

This article is a little too kind with the "facts":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PGM-19_Jupiter#Military_deployment

5/22/2008 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger atgnatus said...

Just a side note - there were only medium range missiles back then. The Jupiters in Italy and Turkey gave the US almost complete nuclear coverage of the USSR. Putting missiles in Cuba was a reaction to the Jupiters.

At least according to my dad who was an ordinance officer on the Redstone in the early 50s.

5/22/2008 06:11:00 PM  
Blogger What is "Occupation" said...

I am starting to understand the "appeasement" issue that we think that is going on is not historic "appeasement".

But rather the BHO, Carter & Company really don't think that there is much difference between the israelis and the arabs/islamists/persians/syrians.

They have a view that all we need to do is talk to them and the content of their better argument will sway the "hamases. hezbollah, whabbists and shites" into moderation and cpmpromise...

today on MSNBC Morning cup of Joe, Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked about Hamas....

to which he responded (abbrevated), "we talked to the Likud, why would we not talk to hamas?"

thus summing up his and others around him's POV...

just think of that....

we talked likud...

so why would we NOT talk to hamas....

5/22/2008 06:14:00 PM  
Blogger druu222 said...

Interestingly, I vividly remember this particular lesson from Richard Reeves bio of John Kennedy that I read years ago. But it is even worse than this.

As I remember, while Vienna may have contributed to Krushchev's Cuba decision,it ALSO caused Kennedy to believe after said meeting that, in its aftermath, he (Kennedy) HAD to redeem himself somewhere. Cuba and Berlin did not offer much opportunity to do so, but one other place did - Southeast Asia.

And thus began the elevation of US involvement in Vietnam and the region from just a few advisors to something much more serious and involved. The rest, as they say....

So not just near nuclear war, but the only war the US ever lost were direct results of these Vienna "talks". (That latter war conclusively lost in the way today's has most certainly NOT been, and after twelve times the casualties of today's conflict. Ya listening, Barry, Harry, and Nance?)

5/22/2008 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

Sam is of course correct. The Bay of Pigs was Kennedy's first mistake. He punked out on enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. The invasion plan for the Bay of Pigs should have included a couple of MEUs from Guantanamo and lots of aircraft.

The lame attempt led to the Vienna summit, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile crisis. The US ramp-up in Vietnam and Laos was an attempt to make up for the loss of face from the preceding two years of mistakes.

5/22/2008 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger Coyotl said...

Let us not forget George W. Bush's craven appeasement of Iran. Andy McCarthy over at National Review has the goods:

http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MGQ0N2RkNWQzODBhNDE2ZWQ4ZDAwYzA0OTAzZGM3NmI=

No, let’s forget all those things ever happened. Let’s just stick to Spring 2006.

To recount: We were dealing with an apocalyptic regime certain that radical Islam’s global triumph was as imminent as the long lost Mahdi’s arrival any day now. President Bush had said time and again that it was pointless to negotiate with terrorists because they are — surprise! — incorrigible. Yet, Secretary Rice convinced the president that the ball would really be advanced by [drum-roll] . . . direct U.S. negotiations with Iran.

5/22/2008 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

druu222: I agree with you about the connection with Southeast Asia, but I cannot agree with your characterization of Vietnam as a war the US lost.

We won the war, negotiated a peace treaty and withdrew our troops by 1973. The regular North Vietnamese army invaded South Vietnam in violation of its treaty obligations in 1975.

President Ford, the only unelected President in US history, was hamstrung by a Congress that wanted to kick Nixon around but couldn't, and was unable to come to South Vietnam's aid. The rest of the world saw the failure as the dishonorable cowardice it was.

The sequella were even worse. Millions of refugees from Vietnam, genocide in Cambodia, the Iranian Revolution, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

This what we will see again if the American people are so foolish as to elect Obama as the President.

5/22/2008 07:52:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

druu222: So not just near nuclear war, but the only war the US ever lost were direct results of these Vienna "talks".

Speaking of talks, here's what our "ally" in the War on Terror did. I wonder if Bush will call them appeasers like Neville Chamberlain. He won't, but he should. Chamberlain gave up land. All Obama wants to do is talk.

Pakistan, Taliban ink peace accord

ISLAMABAD: The Awami National Party-led government of the North-West Frontier Province has signed a peace accord with Taliban militants in the Swat Valley.

As per the accord, the Army would withdraw from the region and Sharia law imposed. In return, the Taliban would accept the government’s authority and halt attacks. The government was negotiating a separate peace accord with militants headed by Beithullah Mehsud — accused of masterminding Benazir Bhutto’s assassination — in South Waziristan.

5/22/2008 08:25:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

That is the cool thing about W's speech, T, those for whom the shoe fits, can put it on.

A good case can be made that is what Musharaff did and one I am inclined to agree with. So now the question becomes what to do about it? That gives the Talitubbies a safe place to hang out, at least it does not abut Afghanistan or appear to endanger supply lines into Afghanistan.

However other ongoing negotiations you note are more problematic. I am sure, quite sure someone is telling Musharaff in very plain language he is making a mistake by giving in, just don't expect a public and explicit dressing down, it would not be "diplomatic".

5/22/2008 08:39:00 PM  
Blogger amr said...

Better late than never, I guess. But thank you for your post. I had given up hope on anyone with a bully pulpit remembering what we went though during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the causes of that event. There have been a few posts now on the JFK experience and pundits commenting on the contrasts between JFK and BHO. The NYT article may cause Mr. Obama to wish the NYT had not writen it.

President Bush, duing his address to the Israeli Knesset, made a statement that accused un-named people of naively leaning towards appeasement with terrorist supporting governments. Mr. Obama immediately assumed that the comment was directed towards him and defended his position. In Mr. Obama’s response, his campaign brought up that other presidents have negotiated with our enemies and they were not appeasers. They neglected to mention that the others had pre-conditions and/or had sufficient ground work laid to preclude object failure except one where the result was almost nuclear war. Anyone old enough, as I am, to remember what we went though during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the causes of that event can imagine similar errors from BHO due to his lack of experience, his public stance on negotations with rogue states and our present enemies lack of knowledge of our system of government; apparently much less knowledge than that of the Soviets.

As I have written in other venues over the past year:
Perceptions, unfortunately, are important and in the information age the media provides the ammunition. Mr. Obama, as was Mr. Kennedy, is a likeable, personable individual and one who inspires people but Mr. Obama hasn’t had his mantel tested politically or in a leadership position such as a CEO. America has already experienced, in President Kennedy, the dangers of having a President , even one surrounded by the “best and brightest” of the times, who inspired but was young and had limited political and international experience. President Kennedy was a war hero, unlike Mr. Obama who has never even served, yet that apparently didn’t register with the Soviets. But because of JFK’s fate we tend to forget about his failures in our highest office.

When he and America were challenged in Cuba, those who noticed, saw the cause; the Bay of Pigs disaster, the failure to challenge the building of the Berlin Wall and most likely Mr. Khrushchev’s sizing up of him during their one-on-one meeting that lacked sufficient planning. JFK was eager to engage our adversaries in negotiations but the ground work was obviously not properly laid. Those failures cumulatively persuaded the Soviets to place nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba and the result was us close to entering into a nuclear war

I would prefer not to experience that type of situation again; this time it could easily be with Iran or their surrogates, who are much less rational and reasonable adversaries and who have shown to be caught up many times in suicidal religious zealotry.

While Mr. Kennedy was considered inexperienced by many, at least he had considerably more congressional experience than Mr. Obama, his father was a diplomat so he was exposed to that part of government, and had lived In Great Britain as a young man during a time of conflict and saw the effects of war as a PT boat captain. Mr. Obama is a lightweight compared to the young and inexperienced JFK.

5/22/2008 09:08:00 PM  
Blogger some said...

Actually, the problem may well have been Kennedy's pharmaceutical load at the time.

Surprised the piece made no mention of this recent research.

5/22/2008 09:25:00 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

some said: Amen to the drug problem. This has previously been documented by Paul Johnston of Cambridge.

In SE Asia, the failure to utilize Marines in Thailand who had the Ho Chi Trail interdicted; attempting later to re-interdict by doing a coup in Laos and utilizing irreegulars,and finally overthrowing an inept but allied governmnet in Saigon are all characteristic of a chemically dependent person.

5/22/2008 10:11:00 PM  
Blogger BrianFH said...

amr: "Mr. Obama hasn’t had his mantel tested politically"; his mettle has been tested repeatedly, and he has failed miserably. Exhibit #1 is his lies about Wright and then his pseudo-repudiation of the unfortunately overt Black Liberation dogma that Wright spouted shortly thereafter.

5/22/2008 11:43:00 PM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 05/23/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

5/23/2008 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

Kennedy's weakness. Carter's weakness. Clinton's weakness. The bill for all of that dithering and indecision were paid for in blood and treasure.

5/24/2008 01:21:00 PM  

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