The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

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They seemed perfect …

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

W.J. Astore

President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come).  They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image.  Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps.  Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).

Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific.  The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written.  JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.

As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions.  He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965.  He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief.  As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.”  Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold.  They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”

Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself.  Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.

Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.”  He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist.  In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did.  When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military.  In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.

Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative.  The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964.  JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived.  (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)

In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction.  Profiles in courage these are not.

It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him.  Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents.  He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende.  But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union.  Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.

The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws.  Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.

The Vietnam War: A Tragic Mistake?

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W.J. Astore

I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment.  The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.

The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise.  I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:

  1. There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese.  And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva.  Which is exactly why that election never came.
  2. As one American admitted, the U.S. totally misread the situation in Indochina after the French defeat in 1954.  The Cold War and Falling Dominoes dominated the thoughts of Americans, obscuring the reality of a powerful and popular anti-colonial and nationalist revolt that tapped Vietnamese patriotism.
  3. When not fearing Falling Dominoes, U.S. officials were far more concerned about their own prestige (or political fortunes) than they were with the Vietnamese people.
  4. U.S. officials recognized South Vietnam was a fiction, a puppet government propped up by American money and power, and that they had “backed the wrong horse.” But they came to believe it was the only horse they had in the race against communism.
  5. U.S. presidents, stuck with a losing horse of their own creation, began to lie. As president, Kennedy said he hadn’t sent combat troops; he had.  As president, Johnson tried to obscure both the size and intent of the U.S. military’s commitment. These lies were not done to deceive the enemy — they were done to deceive the American people.
  6. After backing the wrong horse (Diem and his family), American leaders conspired to eliminate him in a coup.  When Diem was assassinated, matters only grew worse. Left with no horse in the race and a “turnstile” government in South Vietnam, the U.S. began to bomb North Vietnam and committed combat units beginning in March of 1965.
  7. More duplicity by U.S. officials: Battles such as Ap Bac and Binh Gia, which revealed the “miserable performance” of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), were reinterpreted and sold as victories by senior U.S. military leaders.
  8. Both JFK and LBJ had serious reservations about going to war in Vietnam. However, domestic political concerns, together with concerns about containing the spread of communism, always came up trumps.  For example, the series quotes Kennedy as saying he believed America couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t win the 1964 presidential election if he withdrew U.S. advisors from Vietnam. LBJ was similarly skeptical but took a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which saw his approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.

One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle.  If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.

To summarize: the series provides evidence of U.S. dishonesty and duplicity and showcases the mistakes generated by hubris when aggravated by ignorance.  Yet, the overall message is one of sadness about a “tragic mistake” committed by decent men who were overwhelmed by fears of international communism.

Final points: As we watch the series, we follow individual Americans, and hear American commentators, far more than we hear Vietnamese voices.  Also, while the series shows U.S. bombing from afar and mentions Agent Orange, the effects of this destruction haven’t yet been shown in detail.  (A telling exception: a young Vietnamese women joins the communist resistance after U.S. bombing destroys a center for senior citizens near her home.)

In short, the Burns/Novick series privileges the American experience, suggesting that U.S. troops of that era fought courageously as a new “greatest generation,” even as senior U.S. leaders spoke privately of an unwinnable war.

Is killing millions of people in a lost cause merely a tragic mistake?  Or is it something far worse?  More to come as the series continues to air on PBS.