Was JFK great?

Print edition : November 06, 2009

HOW do we assess greatness? Judging by Indian uneasiness and even anger whenever a book or a film portrays the love affairs of Jawaharlal Nehru or Subhas Chandra Bose, it seems that we want our heroes to be immune to the temptations of ordinary mortals and be bereft of emotions that govern their lives. Was Gandhi any less great for the fact that, as his grandson Rajmohan Gandhi records, he fell for a married woman?

In early 1920, Gandhi, who had turned fifty the previous October, felt strongly drawn towards a gifted woman three years younger than him who wrote, spoke and sang compellingly. Related to Tagore, Sarladevi was the wife of Ram Bhuj Dutt Chaudhuri, a man of standing in Lahore. Catapulted in 1919 to national leadership and investigating the Punjab atrocities in 1920, Gandhi found and enjoyed Sarladevis company, and was attracted by her personality and promise. For a while thinking that they were meant for each other and meant together to shape India to a new design, Gandhi wondered about a spiritual marriage, without being clear about its meaning.

Fifteen years later he said to Margaret Sanger that he had nearly slipped after meeting a woman with a broad cultural education but had fortunately been freed from a trance. The reference was undoubtedly to the 1920 relationship with Sarladevi. In March 1947 Gandhi recalled an episode that perhaps involved Sarladevi, who was not named.

To Amrit Kaur he wrote: With one solitary exception I have never looked upon a woman with a lustful eye. I have touched perhaps thousands upon thousands. But my touch has never carried the meaning of lustfulness. I would like those who have felt otherwise, if there are any, truly to testify against me. Even the one solitary instance referred to by me was never with the intention of despoiling her. Nevertheless my confession stands that in that case my touch had lustfulness about it. I was carried away in spite of myself and but for Gods intervention I might have become a wreck. (The Good Boatman; Penguin, 1995; pages 180-181.)

Lloyd George was utterly unscrupulous, financially corrupt and a philanderer to boot. He provided steady leadership to Britain during the First World War. In any fair assessment, moral lapses must not be ignored, but the commitment to the national weal must not be ignored either. The truth is that heroes can have, most do have, feet of clay, flawed personalities who grapple with baser emotions while they serve the nation. It is the commitment, soundness of judgment and the vision that matter.

The wisest British Prime Minister was not Palmerston, whom our wise pundits in New Delhi so fondly and consistently misquote. It was George Canning. His speech in the House of Commons on April 30, 1823, on negotiations with Spain is a masterpiece of its kind. It is delightful to read: Among those who have made unjust and unreasonable objections to the tone of our representations at Verona, I should be grieved to include the honourable member for Bramber [Mr Wilberforce], with whose mode of thinking I am too well acquainted not to be aware that his observations are founded on other and higher motives than those of political controversy. My honourable friend, through a long and amiable life, has mixed in the business of the world without being stained by its contaminations, and he, in consequence, is apt to place I will not say too high, but higher, I am afraid, than the ways of the world will admit the standard of political morality.

I fear my honourable friend is not aware how difficult it is to apply to politics those pure, abstract principles which are indispensable to the excellence of private ethics. Had we employed in the negotiations that serious moral strain which he might have been more inclined to approve, many of the gentlemen opposed to me would, I doubt not, have complained, that we had taken a leaf from the book of the Holy Alliance itself, that we had framed in their own language a canting protest against their purposes, not in the spirit of sincere dissent, but the better to cover our connivance. My honourable friend, I admit, would not have been of the number of those who would so have accused us, but he may be assured that he would have been wholly disappointed in the practical result of our didactic reprehensions.

Michael OBrien, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, wrote a major and widely acclaimed biography of John F. Kennedy (2005) based on 11 years of research into letters, diaries, financial papers, medical records, manuscripts and oral histories. One cannot think of a single biography of any of our heroes written with such painstaking and thorough research. Court historians are provided the papers by the heirs and they produce the desired result.

Macaulay described it beautifully in his devastating review of the Rev. G.R. Gleigs biography of Warren Hastings: This book seems to have been manufactured in pursuance of a contract, by which the representatives of Warren Hastings, on the one part, bound themselves to furnish papers, and Mr Gleig, on the other part, bound himself to furnish praise. It is but just to say that the covenants on both sides have been most faithfully kept, and the result is before us in the form of three big bad volumes, full of undigested correspondents and undiscerning panegyric.

OBriens present work on John F. Kennedy is a concise analytical portrait of the man written with the sureness of touch that only someone who has studied the subject in depth can command. He steers clear of the varieties of revisionism. To some of our scholars, it provides an instructive model. Scholarship need not be dull, but readability must not be bought at the expense of depth. The sweep of the brush that some in India acclaim produces shoddy work masquerading as scholarship.

O Brien has a whole Chapter (14) on Woman and Sex written in impeccable taste. The object is not titillation. It is to discover why Kennedy was driven thus and the effect it had on his life and personality. As with other chapters, the documentation is thorough and the purpose is serious. Read this to appreciate the quality of OBriens insights and judgment: Kennedys personal life did indeed affect his performance as President. His retention of Hoover as director of the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], for example, can partly be explained by his womanising. Hoovers bulging file on the Presidents sexual encounters went back to Kennedys affair with Inga Arvad during World War II. Kennedy may have kept Hoovar in his post because the President feared that Hoover would make incriminating information public.

The link between Kennedys private life and his presidential performance, though, should not be exaggerated. He disconnected his personal life from his work. He was as consistently cautious in his policy-making as he was reckless in private, historian Mark White has accurately observed. Kennedy didnt send American soldiers into Cuba during the Bay of Pigs debacle, or deploy combat troops in Vietnam, and preferred the blockade option rather than the dangerous air-strike alternative during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Nonetheless Kennedys sexual liaisons were damaging, or potentially damaging, in several ways. They exposed him to blackmail from scorned women, the Mafia, the FBI, the Teamsters, the Soviets, or some hostile foreign intelligence service. Fortunately for him, none of his lovers objected to being used and discarded. None complained and found the ear of a brave reporter or editor.

Given Kennedys acute sensitivity in most aspects of his political career, his reckless philandering is almost incomprehensible. He must have convinced himself that the media and the Republican opposition would continue to be discreet. He seemed to have an aristocratic view of public leaders and their private sexual adventures, historian James Giglio correctly observes. Kennedy felt sorry for [John] Profumo, without thinking that the same thing could happen to him. He might not have survived a second term without a devastating expose.

Kennedys stand on civil rights and other issues of domestic policy, on Vietnam, Berlin, the misadventure in the Bay of Pigs, the statesmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the vision that inspired the Test Ban Treaty won him undying fame and respect.

For all the conciseness, the author does not skip the formative years. Kennedy impressed his teachers. For his senior thesis, he decided to write about Britains policy of appeasement of Hitler. He studied briefly under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE). Kennedy argued that leaders are responsible for their failures only in the governing sector and cannot be held responsible for the failure of the nation as a whole. Joseph Kennedy, his father, who was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, disagreed and asked him not to whitewash the leaders. The book was entitled Why England Slept (1940).

Kennedy used unworthy tactics during election campaigns and against people he disliked, like Adlai Stevenson. He had inherited Eisenhowers plans to overthrow Fidel Castro and carried out the Central Intelligence Agencys (CIA) schemes. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. I doubt my presidency could survive another catastrophe like this. That was in the first months of his presidency, in April 1961. Two months later, he met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. Contrary to James Restons estimate, formed immediately after Kennedy had met Khrushchev and spoken to Reston, OBrien holds that Kennedy came out of the encounter pretty well.

It is Kennedys masterly handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis on which his fame, largely but not entirely, rests. Instead of assembling the National Security Council or the Cabinet, he gathered around him those advisers and experts whose judgment he trusted, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, or Ex-Comm. It included Dean Rusk, Ted Sorensen, Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon, Maxwell Taylor, John McCone, Under Secretary of State George Ball, Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, and a few others.

The Soviet action infuriated partly because it was surreptitious and deceitful. The United States had openly installed its own missiles in Turkey. The intensity of the American reaction in October was very largely a function of the deception, McGeorge Bundy later said. No U.S. President could politically survive if he allowed the Soviet Union brazenly to enter the Western Hemisphere and establish missile bases ninety miles off Florida. It would have undermined NATOs [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] confidence in the will and determination of the United States and disturbed all the nations in North and South America.

Kennedy showed remarkable restraint. At each stage of the crisis, he chose the moderate and prudent course, as Tony Judt observed. Instead of an invasion he favoured an air strike on missile bases; instead of a blanket air strike he favoured selective strikes only; he insisted that no strikes, however selective, should happen until warning had been given. He opted for a naval blockage over immediate military action, and a partial naval quarantine over a blanket blockage on all shipping.

That episode has been recorded in many a volume. The massive tome The Kennedy Tapes, edited by the distinguished historian Ernest May and Paul Zellikow, is a record of the Ex-Comms meetings from October 13 to 29 in 1962. There is also the collaborative effort by a Russian and an American scholar, Alexander Pursenko and Timothy Naftali, entitled One Hell of a Gamble. Both were written over a decade ago. Michael Dobbs is a reporter for The Washington Post who spent most of his years as a foreign correspondent specialising in Russia and its former Warsaw Pact allies. His work provides the most complete and authentic record of the Cuban Missile Crisis that a single volume can. It is based on exhaustive new research and written in a style that is riveting.

The tapes reveal that the Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis Le May, with 3,000 nuclear weapons under his command, barked at Kennedy that his blockade of Cuba was almost as bad as the appease at Munich and suggested that the President was a coward.

General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, knew better. He had made a detailed study of the Soviet military doctrine. He was alarmed to discover that the standard Soviet plan of attack called for an army group to be equipped with 250 to 300 nuclear weapons. The general had also received reports of a military exercise in the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe in July 1961, during which Soviet troops planned to use as many as 75 tactical nuclear weapons in a surprise first strike against NATO. Taylor warned of the emotional resistance in some quarters against tactical nuclear weapons. In his view, the real issue was not whether to develop such weapons but how to make them sufficiently small and flexible to permit a separate stage in escalation short of the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Other Kennedy advisers believed that a limited nuclear war was a contradiction in terms. They recalled an exchange with Dean Acheson soon after the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Living up to his hard-line reputation, Acheson advocated an immediate air strike against the missile sites. Someone asked him how the Soviets would react to such a strike.

I know the Soviet Union very well, the former Secretary of State replied with his trademark confidence, they will knock out our missiles in Turkey.

Well, then what do we do? someone else asked.

I believe under our NATO treaty, with which I was associated, we would be required to respond by knocking out a missile base inside the Soviet Union.

Then what would they do?

By now, Acheson was becoming a little less sure of himself. Well, he said with some irritation. Thats when we hope that cooler heads will prevail, and theyll stop and talk. This is precisely how hardliners talk, possibly without thinking through the possible consequences.

Other Ex-Comm members felt a real chill descend on the room as they listened to the legendary wise man of the Truman era. Unwittingly, Acheson had laid bare a sombre Cold War truth: it was impossible to know where a limited nuclear war would end.

Acheson was appalled by the unstructured nature of the sessions, more reminiscent of a freewheeling academic seminar than a presidential council of war. He favoured targeted air strikes against the missile sites to eliminate the threat and dismissed fears that this would kill thousands of Soviet technicians as emotional dialectics. Acheson attributed the peaceful outcome of the crisis to plain dumb luck.

Three whole decades later, after the Cold War had ended, living American and Russian participants in the crisis met and learnt a shocking fact Soviet missiles with nuclear warheads had been placed on Cuban soil. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara was one of the participants. Khrushchev was careful to send a message to his man in Havana, General Issa Pliya: It is categorically confirmed that it is forbidden to use nuclear weapons from the missiles. Without approach from Moscow. Confirm receipt.

Michael Dobbs has no use either for Kennedys apologists like Arthur Schlesinger or his detractors. Kennedy did not take one straight line during the crisis. He wavered, but unlike Stevenson he wanted to use the U.S. missiles in Turkey as a bargaining chip at the end. Bobby Kennedys role was exaggerated by the court historian Schlesinger. (His counterparts flourished in the Nehru era and beyond.)

It is a nuanced, objective account, which makes this book a work of integrity and scholarship. The focus on the test of wills between Kennedy and Khrushchev at the expense of the chaotic vagaries of history was unfortunate. The missile crisis came to be viewed as an exemplary example of international crisis management. According to Bartlett and Alsop, the peaceful outcome of the Cuban crisis inspired an inner sense of confidence among the handful of men with the next-to-ultimate responsibility. The Presidents men began to believe their own version of history. Confidence turned into hubris. JFK had ignored the advice of his own military experts but had nevertheless won a great victory by sending carefully calibrated signals to the leader of the rival superpower. It did not occur to anybody that many of these messages were misinterpreted in Moscow, or that Khrushchev responded to imaginary signals, such as the mistaken belief that Kennedy would shortly go on television to announce an attack on Cuba. The success of the strategy was justification enough.

Wrong lessons were drawn in Vietnam and in Iraq. Dobbs does not withhold praise when it is justly due. The crisis demonstrated that nuclear wars are unwinnable and restraint is a dire imperative. The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the sometimes pivotal role of personality in politics. Character counts. Had someone else been President in October 1962, the outcome could have been very different. Bobby Kennedy would later note that the dozen senior advisers who took part in the Ex-Comm debates were all bright and energetic amongst the most able people in the country. Nevertheless in RFKs view, if any of half a dozen of them were President, the world would have been very likely plunged in a catastrophic war. He based that conclusion on the knowledge that nearly half the Ex-Comm had favoured bombing the missile sites in Cuba, a step that probably would have led to an American invasion of the island.

Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev with President John F. Kennedy after their meeting at the American Ambassadors residence in Vienna in June 1961. This was the first time the two leaders met, months after the Bay of Pigs invasion in April.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to know what would have happened had JFK followed the advice of the hawks. It is conceivable that Khrushchev would have swallowed the humiliation. It is possible that he would have lashed out in Berlin or elsewhere. It is also conceivable that Soviet Commanders on Cuba would have used tactical nuclear weapons to defend themselves, whatever their instructions from Moscow. A breakdown in military communications would have effectively devolved control over such weapons to the captains and majors who commanded each individual battery. We have seen how it would have taken just a few minutes to fire a nuclear-tipped cruise missile into the Guantanamo Naval Base. Had such an attack occurred, Kennedy would have been under enormous pressure to order a nuclear response. It would have been difficult to confine a nuclear war to Cuba.

The CIA estimated that there were 6,000 to 8,000 Soviet advisers on the island. There were in fact more than 40,000 Soviet soldiers in Cuba, including at least 10,000 highly trained combat troops. They were not sent there for a picnic.

Dobbs refers, in a striking phrase, to the corrosive effects of conventional wisdom. The greater the pervasiveness of the wisdom, the deeper the corrosion. In conformist India with card-carrying professional hawks, the danger is great. An American diplomat suggested to this writer during the Kargil crisis that the Missile Crisis merited study. It was during Operation Brasstack (1986-87) and Operation Parakram (2001-02) that the ignorance of the truths of international life became glaringly evident. In both cases, the climbdown was inevitable and pathetic.

Knowing what we now know, it is hard to quarrel with JFKs decision to go with a blockage of Cuba rather than an air strike leading to a possible invasion. He was surely justified in not taking the risk of provoking the Soviets into what McNamara called a spasm response. We can only be grateful for his restraint. For all his personal flaws and political mistakes, perhaps in part because of them, Jack Kennedy cuts a very human figure. At a time when politicians were routinely demonising the other side, he reminded Americans what they had in common with Russians.

Kennedy was a highly educable person. Months before his assassination he spoke at the American University in Washington, on June 10, 1963: No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.

He asked Americans to appreciate the horrific price the Soviet people had paid during the Second World War. No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nations territory, including nearly two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland.

He warned let us not be blind to our difference but stressed that common interests should not be neglected either. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our childrens future. And we are all mortal. That reflected greatness the ability and the will to reach out to the adversary.

On his assassination, James Reston made the perfect comment: What was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise. It was the promise of greatness. All over the world people mourned deeply because, for all his flaws, the world was much the poorer without John F. Kennedy.

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