Today marks the somber 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
So much has been said in the media today and this week about JFK, Jackie and the fateful event, and I don't have anything to add on the crime other than I now think that while its pretty clear Oswald was the assassin...I still wonder who else was involved in setting it up. Lots and lots of questions on that.
But instead of getting into all of those theories and speculations, I'm going to take the opportunity of the anniversary to offer some thoughts in thanks that JFK was the president in the critical years of the early 1960s. Turns out, Kennedy was exactly the right person to be President at the exactly right time.
Think about it.
First, JFK had an active, curious intellect and a calm, cool demeanor. He also knew the real costs and sacrifices of war having served in WWII as a PT boat captain. And, as a result of his fortunate upbringing, he had a lot of experience traveling and seeing different parts of the world and meeting a wide variety of people. So, in Kennedy you had a worldly, wise, educated and leavened person as leader.
Next, remember who the Republican was who ran against JFK in 1960? That's right, then vice president Richard M. Nixon. Tricky Dick. Kennedy barely, barely won the election. So, if things had gone ever so slightly different, Nixon would have won. And in Nixon, you had an insecure person motivated by an "I'll show them who is tough around here" mentality who - as we learned later - also harbored racial prejudices. He did serve in the Navy during WWII as a supply and logistics officer, but did not see any combat.
Imagine if we had President Nixon during the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and during key years of the civil rights movement. Yikes.This could have proven lethal for, potentially, millions and millions of people.
Think I'm nuts? I'll give you three big reasons why Kennedy was the right man at the right time, doing the right thing for the nation:
The Bay of Pigs. This was the covert operation to invade Cuba with an army of Cuban exiles that was backed, trained and funded by the U.S. via the CIA. It was a plan hatched under the Eisenhower administration and picked up by JFK that asserted that an anti-Castro army invading the island would spur a massive uprising by the Cuban people that would overthrow Castro. The CIA and U.S. military were 100 percent sure that the plan would work - so much so that the brand-new president took their word and gave it the go-ahead.
But, when the plan was unleashed and began to fail on the beaches, the Kennedy faced a decision point. Let the mission fail and avoid sparking off WW III or send in the U.S. military directly to ensure the success of the invasion and invite all the risks of Soviet reaction that may follow. He chose to not escalate to U.S. involvement. The invasion failed and it wasn't good for JFK's reputation domestically or internationally, but on the other hand...he did not set off a direct conflict with the Russians.
Meanwhile, I'll posit this...a President Nixon in 1961 would have been much, much more likely to double down on the invasion plan and send in the U.S. military. As a vicious anti-communist and someone eager to show he was a tough guy, he would have been quite tempted as a new president to "show everybody" what he was made of. And who knows where that would have led to. We'll never know. But what we do know is that Kennedy - despite is unfortunately naiveté in believing the reflexive anti-communist leaders of the CIA - kept a cool head and did not let things escalate. While many would like to see JFK's actions as "weak," they actually proved correct in the end.
The Cuban Missile Crisis. If the Bay of Pigs was a significant point in the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis was THE pinnacle of confrontation and danger in that conflict. And once again, JFK proved to be just the right guy at just the right time.
Once it became known that the Soviets had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff urged - demanded - that an immediate air bombing campaign to eliminate the missile sites followed by a full U.S. invasion of Cuba was the only response possible. Such action would inevitably escalate with a Soviet response, likely first the takeover of West Berlin. From there, things would very likely get out of control fast in Cuba and Europe with the likelihood of full nuclear war very real.
As has been well documented, Kennedy did not acquiesce to the military demands as he did initially with the Bay of Pigs plan. Rather, he brought in a number of trusted, smart people in and related to his administration to quickly, calmly and rationally go through the options - ultimately settling on an overt blockade of Cuba and a behind-the-scenes dialog with the Soviet premier. While not without its risks, this strategy prevailed by showing the world the U.S. would not accept missiles in Cuba, while also secretly negotiating a way out with the USSR...which we now know was a deal in which the Soviets would remove their missiles from Cuba if the US removed its missiles in Turkey. The crisis de-escalated and we're all still around. Nuclear war avoided.
Meanwhile, assuming a President Nixon hadn't already got us all killed as a result of pursing a U.S. invasion of Cuba and Soviet reaction to the Bay of Pigs incident the year before, his personality would have put us all at risk again. With his drive to show how strong he was and how anti-communist he could be, and how he would not be out-toughed by the Soviet Premier, Nixon could very well have taken the military's lead and ordered the air strikes to take out the Russian missiles in Cuba. If tensions were high in the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis was much more intense...with an almost assured response from the Soviets to be expected following bombings. And that would have at minimum meant some sort of clash with the Soviets up to and including nuclear war.
Civil Rights Movement. While all that business with the Soviets was going on, back home the Civil Rights movement was hitting a boiling point too. Sit-ins, marches, support from Freedom riders, non-violent protests and more had and continued to show the country just how racist and un-free many states (especially Southern states) were towards African Americans and other racial minorities. And many southern whites were all to pleased to add to the conflict by conducting church bombings, lynchings, cross burnings and so forth. These activities ratcheted up pressure on the Federal government to act - in the form of a Civil Rights Act to guarantee the rights of minorities and to protect those same minorities from harm. And, it presented the opportunity to not act in order to preserve racist culture.
Before becoming president and even in the initial part of his administration, Kennedy took a "go slow" approach to solving civil rights issues. However, largely spurred by his brother and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and pressure from Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK did move and decisively so at key times - moving the country critically forward on the issue of civil rights.
Perhaps the most famous incident was the conflict over the desegregation of the University of Alabama in the summer of 1963. Alabama governor George Wallace took a hard stand on not integrating the university and denying black students from enrolling - famously making his point by standing in the doorway of the administration building in a symbolic gesture to deliver on words from his own inauguration speech a few months earlier of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever." These actions and other related activities brought the issue to a head and provided the nation with a showcase for civil rights.
Ultimately, Kennedy decided to act. He called in the National Guard to ensure that black students could enroll. That was a HUGE move with a lot of risk for violence, social unrest and who knows what else. But JFK and RFK knew it was the right thing to do. And, on that same day...Kennedy went on TV to deliver an important speech on what he had done and why it was in the best interest of the nation. These two actions - calling in the National Guard and the speech - are largely credited with putting the Civil Rights Act on the fast track to adoption. And indeed, despite the murder of John Kennedy, that act was passed into law in 1964.
Now, compare that to a potential President Nixon in 1963. We know from audio tapes made by Nixon himself that he harbored racist feelings towards blacks, Jews and immigrant populations like Irish and Italians. For example, he said that blacks would "only strengthen the country 500 years form now, and only if the smart ones - frankly - inbred." He also is caught on tape calling African Americans "Negro bastards" and suggesting that "they want to live like dogs."
It is true that in his time as President, Nixon did do some things to further integration and set up certain affirmative action plans. However, these actions were well after the critical period where the direction was set on the issue. By the 1970s, he was basically just going with the flow with actions at least halfway motivated by electoral politics.
No, I believe that if presented with the hotbed of issues and critical decisions of the early 1960s, a President Nixon would not have acted. He would have declined to take the same actions as Kennedy did. I think he would instead of towed the "state's rights" and "go slow" mentality. This would have, at minimum, set back integration of schools in the south several years and at maximum touched of widespread violence and protest across the south or perhaps the nation.
So, once again...John F. Kennedy was the right man at the right time doing the right thing for the nation.
To finalize, on this somber anniversary, I think these three major events in the history of our country present a clear case that President Kennedy was exactly who we needed as leader in a three year period PACKED with danger and opportunity. His personality, skill, experience and leadership style were precisely what helped us through those times without thousands if not millions of people losing their lives. Sadly, it may be because of these decisive actions that some hated Kennedy to the degree of wanting him dead.
On this day, I'll celebrate what JFK did - that he acted - and what that has meant long-term for our country.
Thank you President Kennedy.