Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Kennedy Legacy for Peace and War

I have a poster of John F. Kennedy in my office. It was given to me back in 1991 or so, when I was a member of the Campus Democrats at Fresno State. The poster's caption quotes from Kennedy's 1960 presidential nomination acceptance speech, "Its time for a new generation of leadership...For there is a new world to be won." Kennedy's photographed wearing a white button-down and a pair of khakis. He looks so young. Thinking about it, that's probably the main reason I keep the poster displayed so prominently: I like Kennedy for his embodiment of the American spirit of progress and rejuvenation. I don't, however, remember his presidency (I was just a baby during his short term in office). I have, though, studied his policies, especially his Cold War legacy in international affairs. In that realm, he's far from my favorite president.

I discuss President Kennedy this morning because I've been thinking about this week's cover story over at Time, "
John F. Kennedy: Warrior for Peace" by David Talbott. Talbott argues that Kennedy's foreign policy legacy provides a guide to the direction for the country in our current long battle against the forces of Islamic terror. There's a spin to the Talbott piece that makes me uneasy, however. The article spends time deconstructing Kennedy speeches, and makes the case that Kennedy's assertion in his Inaugural Address that the United States would "would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, oppose any foe to assure the survival and succces of liberty" was an anomaly. In later speeches, Talbott notes, President Kennedy stressed the moral leadership that only America could provide. The article also notes that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy resisted the military-industrial establishment, intent on setting his own policy in foreign affairs. The article might be considered a (not-so-veiled) primer for the current Democratic presidential field, I would argue, in that it alludes to the hard-nosed pursuit of peace under a young, enigmatic Democratic president -- a legacy perhaps the Democrats could recapture should they take back the White House in 2008.

Here's a good snippet from the piece, to provide some flavor:

Today's hawks like to claim J.F.K. as one of their heroes by pointing to his steep increase in defense spending and to defiant speeches like his June 1963 denunciation of communist tyranny in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. It is certainly true that Kennedy brought a new vigor to the global duel with the Soviet Union and its client governments. But it is also clear that Kennedy preferred to compete ideologically and economically with the communist system than engage with the enemy militarily. He was supremely confident that the advantages of the capitalist system would ultimately prevail, as long as a nuclear catastrophe could be avoided. In the final months of his Administration, J.F.K. even opened a secret peace channel to Castro, led by U.N. diplomat William Attwood. "He would have recognized Cuba," Milt Ebbins, a Hollywood crony of J.F.K.'s, says today. "He told me that if we recognize Cuba, they'll buy our refrigerators and toasters, and they'll end up kicking Castro out."

Kennedy often said he wanted his epitaph to be "He kept the peace." Even Khrushchev and Castro, Kennedy's toughest foreign adversaries, came to appreciate J.F.K.'s commitment to that goal. The roly-poly Soviet leader, clowning and growling, had thrown the young President off his game when they met at the Vienna summit in 1961. But after weathering storms like the Cuban missile crisis, the two leaders had settled into a mutually respectful quest for d├ętente. When Khrushchev got the news from Dallas in November 1963, he broke down and sobbed in the Kremlin, unable to perform his duties for days. Despite his youth, Kennedy was a "real statesman," Khrushchev later wrote in his memoir, after he was pushed from power less than a year following J.F.K.'s death. If Kennedy had lived, he wrote, the two men could have brought peace to the world.

Castro too had come to see J.F.K. as an agent of change, despite their long and bitter jousting, declaring that Kennedy had the potential to become "the greatest President" in U.S. history. Tellingly, the Cuban leader never blamed the Kennedys for the numerous assassination attempts on him. Years later, when Bobby Kennedy's widow Ethel made a trip to Havana, she assured Castro that "Jack and Bobby had nothing to do with the plots to kill you." The tall, graying leader—who had survived so long in part because of his network of informers in the U.S.—looked down at her and said, "I know."

J.F.K. was slow to define his global vision, but under withering attacks from an increasingly energized right, he finally began to do so toward the end of his first year in office. Taking to the road in the fall of 1961, he told the American people why his efforts to extricate the world from the cold war's death grip made more sense than the right's militaristic solutions. On Nov. 16, Kennedy delivered a landmark speech at the University of Washington campus in Seattle. There was nothing "soft," he declared that day, about averting nuclear war—America showed its true strength by refraining from military force until all other avenues were exhausted. And then Kennedy made a remarkable acknowledgment about the limits of U.S. power—one that seemed to reject his Inaugural commitment to "oppose any foe" in the world. "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, that we are only 6% of the world's population, that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind, that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."
President Kennedy's loss to the nation is one of the greatest tragedy's in our country's history. I don't think, however, that the Kennedy legacy in foreign policy -- with its utopianism and implied assertion of partisan moral superiority -- establishes a vigorous guide for America in the international era that lays ahead.

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