Kennedy’s Legacy and the Danger of Whatif History

Posted on November 21, 2013 by


More so than most figures in U.S. history, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination will evoke much soul-searching not just in America but around the world. Those old enough to recall his tenure will reminisce about opportunities lost, but for all to see, the spectre of youth and modernity Kennedy embodied will be revived. Amidst this harmless commemoration will nevertheless arise the whatif history of how different the world might be had he survived.

Such history is, often self-consciously, raw speculation formulated to feed innocent recreation. However, eager hobbyists that paint so rosy a picture of Kennedy’s administration should be met with scepticism. While Americans at the time would enjoy greater civil liberties and a newfound hope in the future, the international primacy that afforded such dreams never wavered. Kennedy, though opposed to all-out war, defended this primacy just as stalwartly as any who succeeded him, and by more or less as unsavoury means.

His presidency is best remembered for the Cuban Missile Crisis in which—though his agency was limited—total nuclear war was risked over events that hardly altered the strategic balance. This is, to some extent, allowed to overshadow The Bay of Pigs invasion, whereby shadily US-trained paramilitaries were landed in Cuba to overthrow Prime Minister Fidel Castro. While the invasion failed, the legacy was long-lasting in two senses: secretive operations would form the mainstay of Kennedy’s foreign policy, and thus his overt successes would consistently overshadow his covert failings.

The epitome of this policy was in Vietnam, a war often accredited to his successors for their roles in the escalation that swiftly followed Kennedy’s demise. It must be remembered, however, that it was Kennedy’s escalation that set the trap which would ensnare a further two presidencies. The irreconcilability of ‘losing’ Vietnam, and winning the next U.S. election paired in Kennedy’s mind as much as in Johnson’s and Nixon’s. It is arguable that the failure of Kennedy’s special operations made escalation—in a desperate bid to ‘win’—the only option for his successors.

On his record stands the insertion of Special Forces (tasked with destabilising North Vietnam) long before war was declared; the adoption of the Strategic Hamlet programme of forced relocation, a time-honoured strategy of imperial control; initiating the widespread defoliation of Vietnam; and standing idly by (though some say endorsing, for it was certainly in U.S. interests) while the South’s President Diem was brutally overthrown.

Kennedy opposed all-out war, as Just War theory dictates, until it was the final option and diplomacy had been exhausted. However, he presided over a campaign of heinously violent covert operations long before they were the final option and rarely conducive to accomplishing America’s erstwhile objectives. Indeed, certain parallels can be drawn here with today’s administration. When the country had grown war-weary under Nixon, a return of emphasis was made to covert operations that involved limited ‘boots on the ground,’ and risked minimal accountability. With increasing numbers of troops withdrawing from the Middle East, drone operations have greatly escalated, and like Nixon’s, their efficacy—especially when destabilising peace talks with Pakistan—can certainly be called into question.

Adherents to the Kennedy dream often paint him as a lone protagonist fighting off the advances of his hawkish advisers, but the only effect this has, in light of his record, is to diminish the perceived power of the president—hardly the harbinger of a new, peaceful world. So amidst the reminiscence and hagiography that will no doubt follow tomorrow’s anniversary, take note that America’s position in the world slipped not a notch, nor could it have been expected to. Kennedy’s ‘gentle giant’ was only as gentle as any hegemon’s, its primus inter pares status never doubted. He may have sought a brighter future, but these things are predicated on the international system he showed little concerted effort to change; America’s dominance went without saying, and the means by which it would be maintained were almost without limit.

Image CC, courtesy of manhhai, Flickr.