Thursday, September 29, 2011
John Kennedy, foreign policy idiot
I've just finished reading "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," Frederick Kempe's important new history of events that took place when I was four years old.
It is a gripping, well-written, and immaculately researched explanation of how John Kennedy wrong-footed his relationship with his Soviet counterpart from even before JFK's inauguration, and then proceeded to botch both his own efforts to appear resolute and his own efforts to promote a more peaceful coexistence with the Soviets.
In particular, the book puts the disastrous Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in June 1961 under a magnifying glass. Reading it, one realizes that John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and their "best and brightest" cadres essentially invited Khrushchev and his East German puppets to seal off West Berlin — an act that brought the superpowers to the brink of war at Checkpoint Charlie later that year. And having signaled, and then proved, that the U.S. would not react strongly so long as Khrushchev was staying within the Soviets' own "sphere of influence," they made inevitable the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, and the long further subjugation of Eastern Europe that persisted until Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush finished winning the Cold War.
The name "Barack Obama" appears nowhere in the book, and there's not the slightest of hints that this book was intended in any way as a commentary on him or his foreign policy. Nevertheless, by highlighting tendencies and characteristics of John F. Kennedy that Barack Obama surely shares, this book troubled me a great deal. In particular, the overwhelming and utterly unjustifiable arrogance that the Kennedy brothers displayed — with their personal end runs around the NSC, the State Department, the CIA, and the FBI — resonates with Obama's ridiculous confidence that he's his own best foreign policy adviser.
Most of you have read books or watched movies about the "Missiles of October," and for the last half century those have nearly uniformly depicted the Kennedy brothers as smart, calm, and shrewd actors who saved the world from disaster. Well, this book is the other half of that story — how those two brothers were culpably responsible for taking the world to the brink of that disaster, and indeed, how they took the U.S. from a position of overwhelming strength and unquestioned strategic superiority under Eisenhower to a full-scale retreat from American commitments around the globe in less than two years. You will definitely be better informed about world history, and particular about the Cold War, after you finish this book. And you'll probably wince the next time you hear anyone refer to Camelot.
Bismarck said that "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America." I hope that's true, but this book suggests that He certainly had a special providence for a hard-drinking, drug-addled, skirt-chasing young Irish-American fool who managed to become POTUS when he didn't have a clue how to perform that job responsibly. This book further convinces me that it was only by divine grace that the world survived long enough for me to see my fifth birthday.
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I'm about 2/3rd's the way through "Berlin 1961" and share your opinion of it. A marvelous work of historical scholarship.
What's particularly interesting is that Kennedy seemed to work hard studying the foreign policy implications of what was happening in Berlin, but was utterly incapable of implementing a strategy for maximizing U.S. interests. Interesting how the more detached Ike managed foreign policy more effectively. Ike's management skills were far superior to Kennedy's.
BTW, another recent work of impressive mid-20th century historical scholarship is Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands." Every bit as good as "Berlin 1961."
(2) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Oct 1, 2011 1:40:22 AM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: Come on now, don't be shy: tell us what you really think of John Kennedy...Yes, indeed. Kennedy is grossly overrated. Had Kennedy not been murdered, his rep would be as a mediocre prez, a little below William Howard Taft, a little above Benjamin Harrison. But unlike Taft or Harrison, Kennedy lived in "interesting times" and it is only through divine grace that he didn't have the same effect as another mediocre prez, James Madison, did in the War of 1812.
Since you are sharing books, may I suggest two older ones:
1. For you, THE CRISIS YEARS by Michael Beschloss. This is a history focused on Kennedy and Khrushchev. I think it better than BERLIN 1961, because it continues past that date to 1964, when Khrushchev was overthrown. It has a fine portrait of Vienna, Cuba in all phases, and the change in Kennedy and Khrushchev as their ineptitudes pounded some experience into them. I do not share your implicit judgment that there was anything the US could have done to stop the Berlin Wall. Remember: the wall was built not to keep the West out of East Germany, but to prevent the East Germans from fleeing the worker's paradise of Marxist-Leninist Eastern Europe and Russia. Had the US tried to stop the Wall, I think the Russians would have invaded Berlin, and that would have been a crisis far worse than Cuba in October 1962. It was the flight of human capital, the skilled and the intelligent, from East Germany that Khrushchev couldn't allow. It was visible proof of the failure of Communism. To prevent such a demonstration of failure, which would have undercut the Krelin's entire reason for existing, the Wall was necessary. To stop it, the US would have had to fight a ground war in Europe. Given the huge imbalance of ground forces, that would have meant using nuclear weapons. Kennedy couldn't face that---but he's not alone in that. Excluding Curtis LeMay, can you think of a single military, let alone civilian leader, who could have faced using nuclear weapons fi the Berlin Wall had become a cause for war? You need only look at Eisenhower's response to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, or Lyndon Johnson's to the Czech uprising in 1968: no action and dam few words of support for the rebels.
It's horrifying and bitter to have to acknowledge this. The Wall condemned all of Eastern Europe to twenty five odd years of a condition verging on slavery, with the various Stasis holding the populace in check through fear. Worse, it allowed the cancer known as Marxism to flourish during that time, allowing clever dam fools such as Eric Hobsbawm in the ivory tower, and The One on the political road, to think that Marxism had a lot to teach us. It does, but not what these dunderheads think.
Finally, however justifiably angry Kennedy's foolishness makes us, it is nothing compared to what by-then-well-into-middle-age Edward Kennedy's foray into foreign policy in 1983 should invoke. Reading Edward Kennedy's doltish approach to the Soviets makes me all the more determined to get The One out next year, by a big defeat at the polls, along with a Tea Party style Congress. The One has done enormous damage to this country, not least in inflicting such lice as Peter Orzsag in positions of power and influence. We must beat The One next year.
2. Getting off the soapbox, let me thank Mr. Kirkendall for suggesting BLOODLANDS. Sounds like a fine book. I offer him Alan Bullock's dual biography HITLER AND STALIN: PARALLEL LIVES, which covers much of the ground BLOODLANDS does, but more from a political and military view. The one drawback to Bullock is that the book is 1100+ pages long, so you won't read it in a weekend. But you'll be vastly better for doing so.
Paul Ryan looks better all the time---for 2020.
(3) Insufficiently Sensitive made the following comment | Oct 1, 2011 10:05:59 AM | Permalink
Thanks Mr. Dyer for the book recommendation. In return I recommend two:
"Bloodlands", Timothy Snyder. Wholly agree with Mr. Kirkendall. The best - and most comprehensive - history yet of the travails suffered by the civilian population of central Europe 1930-1945, wholly generated by the two ideological monsters driving Germany and Russia.
"Apricot Jam" and other stories - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His portraits of ordinary Russian citizens at the hands of the 'winners' of the Revolution give twinge after twinge of recognition of the parallels with a future controlled by an authoritarian Obama-style administration, were it given enough resources and scope.
Wonderful comments, thanks! And especially thanks for the further reading recommendations!
Mr. Koster, before reading Kempe's book, I agreed with your assumption that had the US tried to stop the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Russians would have invaded the rest of Berlin (i.e., West Berlin), snuffing out the bubble of freedom deep behind the Iron Curtain. Kempe, though, makes a powerful argument from Russian sources and documents to the effect that Khrushchev was letting the East German government throw the wall up, and that the Soviet forces in and around Berlin would cooperate in putting up a big bluff, but if the U.S. had vigorously contested the initial actions by enforcing explicit rights granted under the Four-Powers Agreement, he was going to throw the East Germans under the bus and back off, rather than go to war there or elsewhere.
I thought poorly of Kennedy before I read this book. This book persuaded me that Kennedy's performance was actually far worse than I'd previously believed, however: He stupidly invited the confrontation; he could have won the confrontation anyway if he'd had the guts/wisdom; and instead he gave away a favorable position that was, indeed, sapping the economic vitality out of the Soviet's important puppet state in East Germany, for which he got nothing in return but more confrontations by an increasingly confident and disdainful Khrushchev.
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