JFK As Hero
Chris Matthews’ new book about President John F. Kennedy, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero presents some fresh insights, often told in the words of others, on aspects of the late president’s life that are not generally appreciated.
For instance, at the time he ran to become the youngest president in history, opponents criticized him for lack of experience. Yet he was running against a man, Richard Nixon, who had entered Congress at the same time he did. And while Nixon had been vice president under President Eisenhower, Kennedy had been in the Senate, as least as valuable a training ground. More important, he had been around the world from his teenage years, had direct contact as a young man with some of the more important figures of his time, been a hero in a shooting war, seen death of friends, and was well read on history. Most important, he may have been the most intelligent and thoughtful president of the 20th century. He was too thoughtful for his own good; perhaps that’s what got him killed.
Observing these things almost 50 years after his death is the value of Matthews’ book. It is particularly timely in view of the quality of people now aspiring to become our next president. It is laughable to contrast a man who saw Winston Churchill at work and read his books with enthusiasm, to people who don’t know what state in which the American Revolution began; will sign a pledge not to raise taxes when they have no concept of the consequences of such a vow; and argue to do away with federal agencies they can’t even remember, and seem to have no idea why they want them eliminated in the first place.
Of the Republicans running, only Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich seem to have knowledge of history and world affairs remotely comparable to JFK. Gingrich knows history, at least Civil War history. He wrote a book in which the South wins the battle of Gettysburg, but it wins it not at Gettysburg, but closer to Emmitsburg, 10 miles south. It was achieved by doing what Gen. James Longstreet had urged on Robert E. Lee – going around the Union right flank and cutting off the enemy supply line, forcing the Union to launch a disastrous attack. That is the kind of book JFK would have read. Sarah Palin could not find Pennsylvania on a map. Michele Bachmann doesn’t know Massachusetts from New Hampshire. Although they do look a bit alike.
Back to the more recent past. Matthews is particularly good at presenting insights from JFK’s letters, diaries, conversations and speeches early in his career which reveal his vision of the future and the challenges which he later faced as president.
Shortly after World War II, having been wounded and lost friends and family members, he wrote to a friend: “The war makes less sense to me now than it ever made and that was little enough – and I would really like – as my life’s goal – in some way at home or at some time to do something to help prevent another.”
In London, working as a journalist before the atomic bomb was used, he wrote in a diary about war: “The clash may be finally and indefinitely postponed by the eventual discovery of a weapon so horrible that it will truthfully mean the abolishment of all the nations that employ it. Thus science, which has contributed to much of the horror of war, will still be the means of bringing it to an end."
After visiting the Far East in 1951 he made a speech: “You can never defeat the Communist movement in Indochina until you get the support of the natives, and you won’t get the support of the natives as long as they feel that the French are fighting the Communists in order to hold their power there.”
JFK tried to understand the other side. As the Cold War heated up, he even had sympathy for Russia, noting its terrible history of invasions by European powers. He wrote a piece that ended: “the heritage of 25 years of distrust between Russia and the rest of the world that cannot be overcome completely for a good many years.”
This is pretty remarkable stuff for a man who many remember for his fondness for women, none of who ever accused him of sexual harassment. But Matthews puts it all together in describing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when, against the advice of almost all advisers, he refused to invade Cuba. He thought that could set off the horror of a nuclear war. Instead he blockaded Cuba from Soviet ships and quietly, through established back channels, made a deal with the Russians not to invade Cuba and to take missiles out of Turkey which threatened Russia, just as the Cuban missiles did the United States.
He may have saved the world, but many in our government did not think so at the time. They wanted a confrontation with Russia, nuclear or not, and hated JFK for avoiding it. They thought him a coward and traitor. Shortly thereafter he paid the price.