From Ryan to Reagan to Kennedy
The man’s name was Ryan. We were watching the tribute to former President Ronald Reagan Sunday, getting ready for the Super Bowl, and one of the speakers was a fellow I never heard of named Ryan. The name gets my attention. My great grandmother was Mary Ann Ryan, and we lost touch with her family in Worcester, Mass., around 1876. Her brother Pat owned a bar, and in those days those were the only Irishmen eating well. While listening to Ryan’s speech, which was good, I suddenly saw Robert Kennedy. The shock of hair, the quick nervous flashing smile, the rapid staccato delivery.
And thinking of Robert Kennedy, I had to think of his brother, the president. And the quarter-century link almost nobody remembers between JFK and Ronald Reagan. President Reagan, as this tribute reminded us over and over, gets credit as the man who brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War in the process. But what few people remember, because few knew it at the time, is that President Kennedy tried to do that very thing almost 25 years before. In fact, in distributing credit, President Eisenhower should be noted as well. Eisenhower realized the enormous dangers of nuclear war inherent in the mutual hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. As his second presidential term was ending, he was attempting to reach out to the Russians with a summit meeting when in 1960 the U-2 incident, in which an American spy plane was shot down over Russia, spiked the deal.
Eisenhower, in his parting speech to the American people, warned of the dangers of “the military industrial complex.” That seemed like a vague notion, and not a lot of people understood the message. Eisenhower surely did not mean it as a warning to his successor to watch his back, but that is how it turned out. We now know that by 1963, President Kennedy, having experienced the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the stress of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had determined to thaw relations with the Soviets. He distrusted his intelligence community and much of the military high command, who he sensed wanted a showdown with Russia while we still had more nukes. He actually spoke privately of dismantling the CIA. He had established his own back channels with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and like Eisenhower before him, was seeking a way to end the Cold War. He took that effort public, though few recognized its importance at the time, in his American University speech on June 10, 1963.
Recent researchers, in books such as James W. Douglass’s JFK – The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, have provided context. Kennedy at the time was greatly admired by the public, but (it still shocks some people) was hated by the intelligence community and some of the high military brass. They were furious at his failure to back up the Bay of Pigs effort, followed by his secret agreement to pull missile bases out of Turkey in return for the Russian retreat in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It looked like a great victory for the U.S. at the time, but insiders knew it was just a trade off. There was also a sense that he might pull out of Vietnam. That brave and conciliatory American University speech was one of the last straws. In wonderfully crafted words, he was asking the Russians to come to the table. It took years to be revealed, but there is evidence the Russians were listening. However, it was exactly the kind of language that powerful forces in our government did not want to hear. It helped convince them that JFK was a traitor who needed to be eliminated. A few months later he was.
The great irony is that JFK’s policies and actions were similar to what Eisenhower’s would likely have been under the same circumstances. Eisenhower, having seen war on a massive scale, was not anxious to engage the U.S. in random military adventures. He had gotten us out of Korea as fast as possible. He was wary of involvement in Vietnam. He had sought the same peace process three years before JFK.
Reagan is remembered as a hero for ending the Cold War. Kennedy was murdered for trying to do the same thing. History should salute them both.