This is the grave of John F. Kennedy.
Oh, where to start here. He wasn’t a terrible president. He also wasn’t a particularly good president. He was certainly a massively overrated president, put on a pedestal by a generation of Baby Boomers who wanted their innocent Camelot back before it was ruined by hippies or Vietnam or political assassinations or the Grateful Dead or whatever. I’m not going to talk about his early life or his World War II service. I don’t think I have much useful to say and I don’t really care much. Obviously, his raising was a mess in terms of his egomanical father, the expectations placed on his older brother that was then passed on to him, and the overly-masculine upbringing that would affect his choices later. And of course his wartime injury made him very physically ill, also important for his life and our understanding of him.
I’m more interested in Kennedy after he ran for a safe House seat in 1946. From the beginning, he was a strong Cold Warrior. He supported the Truman Doctrine and was staunchly anti-communist. He supported the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that required communists to register with the government. He, and the rest of his family, also snuggled up with Joe McCarthy, who actually hired Bobby Kennedy and attended Eunice’s marriage to Sergeant Shriver. When McCarthy flamed out in 1954, JFK was so outraged that when Edward R. Murrow presented Kennedy and other rising stars a Chamber of Commerce Award in 1955, Kennedy walked out became he blamed Murrow. Yikes.
Kennedy then “wrote” Profiles in Courage in the sense that he put his name on something Ted Sorensen wrote while Kennedy was chasing tail. He won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant “writing.” A rising star, he nearly became the VP nominee for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, but Estes Kefauver won it to keep the South happy (better than John Sparkman in 1952 at least!). He edged out Hubert Humphrey for the 1960 nomination and then beat Richard Nixon in 1960 in part by being a good looking dude (and Nixon of course being an actual troll).
Kennedy’s domestic agenda was pretty bleh. There’s just not much there in his nearly 3 years as president. Some will defend Kennedy in regards to LBJ, arguing that Kennedy was moving in a more liberal direction would have accomplished much of Johnson’s agenda. Maybe that’s true. I do think a meaningful civil rights bill was coming, now that Kennedy somewhat cared about the issue. But you never really know either. We can’t credit Kennedy for what he didn’t do. Maybe if he had lived another year, we would evaluate his legacy very differently. But we can’t do that. As a senator he did not take a stand for the Civil Rights of Act of 1957, casting a procedural vote instead of an affirmative vote. He consistently blew off the civil rights movement, refused to intervene in the Freedom Rides attacks until very late, and appealed to movement leaders to stop their protests lest they embarrass the U.S. internationally and provide the Soviets ammunition in the battle over control of newly independent nations in Africa and Asia. There’s also just not very much evidence that Kennedy would have cared as much about a War on Poverty as Johnson did. In any case, The Great Society, for all its flaws, was far more meaningful than the New Frontier, a forgettable slogan for a forgettable set of policies.
One area where I think Kennedy and Johnson might have differed little is on Vietnam. The Truman Doctrine followed by the communist victory in China really shrunk the outer limits of acceptable
foreign policy. No Democrat wanted to be eviscerated like Truman after 1949 (perhaps the first of the post-war absurd charges made against Democrats that stuck and defined the debate; as if Truman could have done anything useful to keep the corrupt Chiang Kai-Shek in power). Kennedy absolutely increased American presence in Vietnam and laid the groundwork for Johnson’s massive expansion of the war and then Nixon’s continuation of it (once he had committed treason to blow up the 1968 peace talks to get himself elected). I suppose if LBJ can own the civil rights bills he also has to own Vietnam, but if we think JFK would have been just as good on civil rights by 1964, we also have to assume that he wouldn’t have done much different on Vietnam. Maybe he would have lied to the public about American progress less than his successor, but again, we cannot know. Both have responsibility for Robert McNamara, which nothing can ever overcome.
Even outside of Vietnam, there is much to question or despise about Kennedy’s foreign policy. Remember that Kennedy won in part by attacking Nixon on foreign policy from the right. Eisenhower and Nixon had let the missile gap grow and so we needed a strong leader like Kennedy to stick it to the Soviets. That was unlikely to end well. To his credit, he did not blow up the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis; less to his credit, he considered it. He also set the whole thing up by going through with the Bay of Pigs, a grotesque failure that should have been obviously stupid from the beginning. Discovering the details of his policy in Bolivia really told me much about the on the ground details of US Cold War foreign policy, which was basically repression of any values Americans themselves hold dear in other countries. The Peace Corps, Alliance for Progress, and USAID all sound good and could be good, but in implementation during the Kennedy years, served naked American power that really hurt people on the ground. USAID training militias to fight leftist social movements does not exactly lead to good outcomes. Certainly the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 was a very good step toward sanity.
Today, people, including Kennedy’s own daughter, just use his image to promote whatever idea they want.
I could write much more here, but I need to get back to real work. I’m sure you all will fill the gaps.
John F. Kennedy is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, now Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.