Americans think John F. Kennedy was one of our greatest presidents. He wasn’t.

November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy was many things, but a great president was not among them. (Associated Press)

Fifty years ago Friday, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy. The assassination was a tragedy -- and it turned the target into something of a secular political saint. There are few modern presidents about whom The Post's own George Will and E.J. Dionne can agree, but JFK appears to be one.

"It tells us a great deal about the meaning of John F. Kennedy in our history that liberals and conservatives alike are eager to pronounce him as one of their own," Dionne notes. A Gallup poll last week found that Americans rate him more highly than any of the other 11 presidents since Eisenhower. A 2011 Gallup poll found that he came in fourth when Americans were asked to name the greatest president of all time, behind Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton, but ahead of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.

Some of that reputation is hard to argue with. Kennedy was a brilliant rhetorician who inspired a generation of young Americans, and his death left a lingering scar on the American psyche. But it's important that his presidency be evaluated on its actual merits. And on the merits, John F. Kennedy was not a good president. Here are six reasons why.

1. The Cuban Missile Crisis was his fault


Soviet strategic missile sites under construction in Cuba in 1962. (National Security Agency)

Historians disagree on what exactly led to the October 1962 crisis that almost ended in a nuclear exchange. But basically every interpretation suggests that, had the Eastern Seaboard been wiped out that month, it would have been the result of Kennedy's fecklessness.

Let's take the most pro-Kennedy view — ably summarized by Max Fisher here — first. By the telling of Yale's John Lewis Gaddis (an able if very pro-Western historian of the Cold War), the placement of missiles in Cuba was motivated by a desire to avoid an American invasion of the island. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev believed that such an invasion was imminent — not an unreasonable view, given that Kennedy had tried to do just that a year earlier with the Bay of Pigs Invasion — and viewed the missiles as a necessary deterrent. Kennedy did not understand this, Gaddis argues, instead viewing the move as an attempt to improve the Soviet position relative to the United States's in case of a nuclear exchange, which led to him fumbling about until reaching a deal that included promising not to invade Cuba again.

If that was the situation, then what appears to have happened is that Kennedy misinterpreted Khrushchev's action as an act of aggression against the United States and prepared for war — including doing numerous things to potentially provoke one, like revealing the missiles' existence publicly and going on DEFCON 2 — in response to his misunderstanding, backing down only once the Soviets told him what they really wanted, and he calmed down. A+ statesmanship, right there.

Another notable Kennedy defender is Graham Allison of the Kennedy School, whose book "The Essence of Decision" is a classic treatment of the crisis. Allison refers to the Cuban missile incident as, "a guide for how to defuse conflicts, manage great-power relationships, and make sound decisions about foreign policy in general." But he willingly concedes that Kennedy took numerous actions that increased the risk of war. "NATO aircraft with Turkish pilots loaded active nuclear bombs and advanced to an alert status in which individual pilots could have chosen to take off, fly to Moscow, and drop a bomb," he notes.

Allison defends that on the view that raising the stakes improved the U.S. bargaining position. All of that would make sense if getting rid of the missiles was a major security priority. It wasn't. The Soviets already had ICBMs, as well as nukes on submarines stationed near the United States.; they could nuke the United States whenever. Putting nukes in Cuba didn't change that. As Benjamin Schwarz noted in The Atlantic recently, "The U.S. almost certainly would have had far more time to detect and respond to an imminent Soviet missile strike from Cuba than to attacks from Soviet bombers, ICBMs, or SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles]."

But the worst part of Kennedy's handling of the crisis is that he spurred the missiles' deployment in the first place. There was the Bay of Pigs debacle, of course, which confirmed to Cuba and the Soviet Union that there was a real threat of an American invasion they needed to deter.

Further, as Schwarz notes, Kennedy had deployed medium-range "Jupiter" missiles to Italy and Turkey (which, of course, bordered the USSR) earlier in his term. The missiles had no deterrent value and were basically only useful as a means of attacking the Soviet nuclear arsenal as part of a first strike. That meant they were extremely destabilizing, something that was known at the time and provoked concern from Sens. Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.). Insofar as wanting to counter U.S. nuclear capabilities was a major motivation for Khrushchev, the Cuba move mainly made sense as a counter to a way more dangerous move by Kennedy. Kennedy even conceded to aides that the Cuba and Turkey missiles were "the same."

If Gaddis is right, and Kennedy viewed Khrushchev's move as an attempt to jockey for a better position in a potential nuclear exchange with the United States, then Kennedy surely would have concluded that Khrushchev only placed the missiles in Cuba because he placed them in Turkey first. Kennedy, under Gaddis's telling, escalated knowing the situation was his fault.

You should really read Schwarz's piece in its entirety, but the quote it includes from Sheldon Stern, who served as the JFK Library's resident historian for over two decades, is a good summation: "John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis."

2. The Bay of Pigs invasion was his fault


An April 1961 photo of Cuban counter-revolutionaries from Assault Brigade 2506 after being captured at the Bay of Pigs. (Miguel Vinas/AFP/Getty Images)

This is hard to break out from the missile crisis it helped trigger, but, remarkably, nearly triggering a nuclear war was not the only way in which the Bay of Pigs invasion was a massive mess. There were, of course, the hundreds of deaths and thousands injured, and the tremendous damage it did to America's reputation around the world, but perhaps the most enduring legacy of the invasion was that it firmly established Cuba as a Communist state.

As David Grann noted in his biography of William Alexander Morgan — an American member of the Cuban revolutionary forces who pushed for a democratic Cuba against a Marxist-Leninist faction led by Che Guevara — the first time Fidel Castro identified Cuba as a socialist country was when the Bay of Pigs invasion happened. When Kennedy took office, it was probably too late for Morgan's side to win; Morgan himself had been executed a month before the invasion, and Che was gaining ground with Castro, who had once had more in common ideologically with Morgan. But the invasion sent Cuba firmly into Soviet hands. "It was supposed to rid the hemisphere of a potential Soviet base, but it pushed Fidel Castro into the waiting arms of the Soviet Union," the historian Peter Kornbluh says. "It was meant to undermine his revolution but it truly helped him to consolidate it."

And despite happening very early in his term, it was Kennedy's fault. He had several meetings on the subject and received numerous memoranda, many giving him cover to nix the operation. Aides Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Goodwin, McGeorge Bundy, Thomas Mann, and Chester Bowles all expressed skepticism, as did William Fulbright, the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. The president himself seemed to be conflicted. But he went through with the plan anyway, despite having numerous opportunities to reverse course and plenty of bureaucratic support had he chosen to do so. He didn't, a bunch of people died, and Cuba is still under Communist rule today.

3. He escalated in Vietnam

South Vietnamese president Diem. (TIME)
South Vietnamese president Diệm. (TIME)

Some post-defeat revisionists, most notably Oliver Stone, have tried to argue that Kennedy would have somehow saved us from escalating in Vietnam. There's little evidence for this. For one thing, Kennedy's decision to overthrow South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm was a decisive move for greater hands-on American involvement in the conflict.

After that, the North Vietnamese escalated in an attempt to destabilize the South Vietnamese state, which in turn spurred Lyndon Johnson's 1964 escalation. That's the thing that most revisionist accounts fail to address. Kennedy's comments on the war during his lifetime obviously don't take into account the North Vietnamese escalation. It was enough to spur Johnson to escalate in turn, and we have little reason to believe Kennedy would have acted any differently.

What's more, Robert Kennedy himself said in 1964 that JFK never considered withdrawing. Some, like Robert Dallek, try to argue around that and cite comments that suggested Kennedy wanted to get U.S. advisers home, but I'm inclined to agree with Tom Ricks's interpretation of those comments: "Sure, Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam -- just like Lyndon Johnson wanted out a few years later: We'll scale down our presence after victory is secure. And much more than Johnson, Kennedy was influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, who I suspect had been looking for a 'small war' mission for the Army for several years."

4. Oh, and he backed an ill-advised coup in Iraq too

Iraqi dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim, who was deposed in a CIA-backed coup. (Unknown author / public domain)
Iraqi dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim, who was deposed in a CIA-backed coup. (Unknown author/public domain)

Ricks points out that Kennedy also authorized a 1963 coup against the pro-Soviet military leader of Iraq. The guy was hardly a saint, but you should generally avoid killing other countries' leaders when you can help it (I would argue you should avoid killing people, full stop, but that's another matter). The coup put the Iraqi Baath party in power, setting in motion the chain of events that would result in Saddam Hussein's decades-long rule over the nation.

5. He went way too slowly on civil rights


Kennedy takes a group photo with leaders of the March on Washington. From left: Whitney Young, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Dr. Eugene P. Donnaly, A. Philip Randolph, Kennedy, Walter Reuther, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, rear, and Roy Wilkins. (AP)

Kennedy is to be commended for sending federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders and troops to defend students at the state universities of Mississippi and Alabama, and for calling for a ban on racial discrimination in public accommodations in 1963. But let's not mistake the man for a friend of civil rights. When the Freedom Rides started, Kennedy was enraged, demanding of his adviser Harris Wofford, "Can't you get your Goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them."

He took a decisive turn in 1963 by calling for a real Civil Rights Act, but that came after two years of pressure from civil-rights protestors, and he still wasn't ready to go all out. As Jackie Robinson — who backed Nixon in 1960 — put it, he "needed prodding" on the issue. Nick Bryant, who wrote the sole history of Kennedy's civil-rights record (appropriately titled "The Bystander"), concludes that Kennedy probably would have passed the Civil Rights Act had he lived, but, "At the time of his death, however, Kennedy had only a small record of accomplishment in civil rights." He adds that his administration "adhered to a distinctly southern timetable in the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education."

It's hard to say if Nixon would have been better on civil rights — though it's worth remembering that he was friends with Martin Luther King Jr., was an NAACP member, and expressed to King his frustration with the tepid pace at which civil rights was moving — but Hubert Humphrey, who made his name in politics with a 1948 stand for civil rights at the Democratic convention, certainly would have been. In any case, Kennedy's record is nothing to write home about.

6. He passed no domestic legislation of any consequence.

Dr. Edward Annis rebuts President Kennedy's Medicare push at Madison Square Garden, where the president had spoken two nights earlier. (YouTube via John Dickerson)
Dr. Edward Annis rebuts President Kennedy's Medicare push at Madison Square Garden, where the president had spoken two nights earlier.
(YouTube via John Dickerson)

So let's recap the legislation Kennedy signed into law:

• He signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a good step toward ending wage discrimination based on gender but one which was extremely incomplete. It's hard to disaggregate its effect from that of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which, surprisingly to many, ended up including an amendment extending its protections to victims of sex discrimination as well as race discrimination. The CRA was a stronger law, which makes isolating the Equal Pay Act's effects tough. That said, we know that the Equal Pay Act imposes an onerous standard on women trying to prove discrimination, and some scholars have argued that it is basically useless for women in white collar professions or other jobs with less standardized wages. A good first step? Sure. But hardly transformative.

• He created the Peace Corps, famously. While that organization played a valuable role in improving foreign attitudes toward the United States during the Cold War, it's far too small to be a significant development agency, and the work it does is not especially conducive to that goal either. As Gal Beckerman put it in a good profile of the agency in the Boston Globe recently, "The agency has never been structured to do development effectively. In fact, if you were trying to design an organization to avoid having a lasting impact, it might look a lot like the Peace Corps: inexperienced volunteers sent to work in near-total isolation from one another, with time limits guaranteed to make their impact only short term." And as Robert Strauss has pointed out, its placements are rarely based on where volunteers would provide the most help. The corps was probably a net good, but was much too small and inefficient to justify the extent to which it's burnished Kennedy's reputation.

• He signed legislation into law giving the president the authority to negotiate sweeping tariff reductions, power that would be used to great effect…by Johnson.

• He signed a modest increase in Social Security benefits, boosting the minimum monthly benefit from $33 to $40 ($257.76 to $312.44 in 2013 dollars) and enabling early retirement at age 62.

• He also signed modest changes to Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), the main welfare program at the time, renaming it Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and changing the federal matching program.

What of his executive actions domestically? Well, he allowed collective bargaining among federal employees, your view of which will depend on whether you think the public sector is a proper place for labor organizing or if, like Franklin Roosevelt, you think that an inappropriate expansion of the practice. The Apollo Program was first conceived under the Eisenhower administration but Kennedy provided strong public support for it. If you think space exploration's important, that's a big step, but the Johnson administration did the heavy lifting in actually completing a manned moon landing. Whether Kennedy would have done the same is, of course, impossible to know.

Similarly, whether Kennedy would have passed much of the legislation enacted under Johnson is hard to say. The 20 percent across-the-board tax cut Johnson signed in 1964, for example, was a Kennedy initiative; depending on how you feel about tax legislation that predominantly benefited high earners, that might be a credit to Kennedy. But we do know that Medicare, Johnson's leading domestic accomplishment, would not have been passed under Kennedy. JFK had tried to pass the legislation in 1962 and the effort went disastrously, as Kennedy antagonized Democrats in Congress whose support he needed. The bill died in the Senate in July 1962, not to be considered again until Johnson took office.

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