Thursday, May 25, 2017

JFK at 100


What would John F. Kennedy have done? As the United States seemingly lurches from one polarizing domestic or foreign crisis to another, it’s curiously tempting to look at the historical example of our 35th president, whose centennial we celebrate on May 29th, 2017. 

Kennedy was first and foremost a pragmatist, a point he underscored when, on being asked about his ambitions in high office, he answered simply: “I hope to be effective.” The Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter once informed “young Jack”, as he called him, that as the nation’s chief executive his job was to “direct funds, goods, and people to concerns that relate to the human welfare.” Kennedy’s desk diary of his time in office often reveals a preoccupation with rather more narrowly defined tasks. He was supremely good at seeing the “big picture” of a particular issue, and often showed a refreshing (and distinctly non-partisan) breadth of thought not always conspicuous in his modern successors. In January 1962, at the height of a potentially cataclysmic showdown with the Soviet Union over access rights to Berlin, Kennedy summoned the city’s military governor General Lucius Clay to discuss the crisis. Years later, Clay recalled that the president had made one or two “eminently sensible” suggestions about the issue at hand, before going on to seek his advice on another matter. 
        
“Kennedy was seeking to impose price and wage restraints on the US steel industry at that time,” Clay recalled. “He knew that I had been the head of a firm that was a large user of steel, and I remember he asked me whom he could get in touch with in the area, off the record, and talk quietly to” - another example of what the hard-headed general admiringly called the president’s “intuitive skill in finding problem-solving resources that others might have overlooked.”
            
The irony, perhaps, is that while Kennedy remains a potent symbol of modernity and progressivism, both in terms of his political philosophy and his notably laissez-fair personal morals, he was in some ways a traditional figure who embraced many of the institutions that had served to unite a disparate people for 200 years. To enumerate them would make today’s more sensitive liberal soul wince, so here goes: the Church; the flag; the rule of law; the US military; and perhaps above all the exercise of self-discipline in our fundamental social contract with one another – “the right to enjoy life to the full up to the moment when it detracts from your neighbor’s right to do so”, as he once put it to his British friend, and fellow centrist politician, Hugh Fraser.
            
Of course, one can take the view that Kennedy’s natural or acquired gift for compromise, particularly when it came to foreign affairs, displayed a far-sighted grasp of statesmanship; or that it was all a cynical piece of political pandering designed to make him attractive to both sides in a debate. In either case, it seems fair to say that Kennedy’s realism effectively checked and balanced his belief that it was important for the United States to constantly assert itself in the struggle to stem the tide of world communism. On the campaign trail, he was a consistently reasonable and benign commander-in-chief who assured his audiences that he would never commit young Americans to battle without the most compelling need to do so. In the War Room, he remained open to the counsel of his military chiefs that bombing the likes of Cuba back to the Stone Age was an eminently viable option.
Kennedy with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
           
“Any other course of action will be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” the bluff, cigar-chewing air force chief Curtis LeMay told the president at a White House meeting to discuss the growing Cuban missile crisis on October 19, 1962. “I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as a pretty weak response to this,” he added. When LeMay when on to inform the president that “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time”, Kennedy responded merely: “Well, you’re in there with me.”
            
It may not be insignificant that John Kennedy spent several of his most impressionable student years in and around London, just as the British political establishment argued over the correct response to take to Nazi Germany’s growing territorial ambitions. He was even present in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons to witness the climactic declaration of war on September 3, 1939. It might be a stretch to say that Kennedy’s whole later attitude to dictatorial figures such as Nikita Khrushchev followed on from his experience of the Europe of the 1930s. But there’s no doubt that he took with him into office a fundamental set of principles that he summarized this way in his 1940 undergraduate thesis-tuned-bestseller Why England Slept:

“Democracy may be a great system of government to live under, but its weaknesses are great … We must realize that democracy is a luxury. We may be able to afford it due to our particular position, but we must be continually aware of the lesson we have learned from our study of England and Germany’s armament history from 1937-1939. We have seen that a democracy cannot successfully compete with a dictatorship on even terms. Our foreign policy therefore, should be directed to taking advantage of certain economic and strategic advantages that we now possess, and making sure that we never reach a position of having to compete with a dictator on their home grounds—that is both starting on an even basis—or the dictatorship will win.”


Christopher Sandford is the author of Union Jack: JFK's Special Relationship with Great Britain

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