Today the nation marks the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy, our 35th President. But was JFK a great President? Surveys reveal that most Americans, including scholars, consider him to be among our very best, ranking him higher than any President in the last half century according to the latest CSPAN ranking. In 2009, CSPAN pegged him at number 6.
But is any of this accurate?
As a historian, I see little sense in ranking a President who served just over one thousand days in office, rather than a full term or even two. It’s very difficult to judge his more limited accomplishments and what effect they had on the nation and even the world.
JFK’s policies were a mixed bag – some conservative, some liberal; some successful, some not. In terms of domestic policy, Kennedy inherited a seemingly calm nation, though major problems lay just under the surface ready to explode if not handled carefully.
A major one was civil rights. Much to the chagrin of black leaders, the new President moved very slowly on that volatile issue, and understandably so. Kennedy most likely feared that to move swiftly would cause an upheaval, perhaps even a violent one, which is exactly what happened under Lyndon Johnson, so he favored a more cautious approach.
Without a doubt, though, his biggest fear was upsetting and alienating the Democratic South, which he needed to win in 1960 and would need even more in 1964. So there’s no question he put politics ahead of the plight of black Americans, who never did loom large on his radar screen.
The economy was also on the skids, having suffered several recurring recessions under Eisenhower. To stimulate it, Kennedy pushed hard, not for a spending bill, but for an across-the-board tax cut in 1962, cloaked in language similar to that used later by Ronald Reagan.
He announced publicly that he intended to cut taxes “both for your family budget and the national budget” that would create “more jobs and income and eventually more revenue. … Every dollar released from taxation that is spent or invested will help create a new job and a new salary. And these new jobs and new salaries can create other jobs and other salaries and more customers and more growth for an expanding American economy.” That kind of talk would get him excommunicated from the Democratic Party today.
On the foreign policy front, President Kennedy is given great praise, especially from leftwing Democrats, on his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a serious conflict with the Soviet Union that nearly ended in a nuclear exchange that would have killed millions. Did cooler heads prevail? Yes, and thank God for it. Was one of them Jack Kennedy’s? Without question.
But that’s not the whole story, for Kennedy’s bungling in the previous two years brought about the crisis. His approval of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, in April 1961, and his subsequent refusal to provide American air cover for the insurgents, showed Moscow that he lacked backbone. His performance at a joint summit with Khrushchev in Vienna a few months later, when the aged Soviet Premier lectured and bullied the young President, and threatened to take West Berlin by force, further revealed his weaknesses, or at least a perceived weakness.
To counter the Khrushchev threat, Kennedy placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the Soviet border. That move, along with the United States’ obvious interest in overthrowing the Castro regime, gave Khrushchev all he believed he needed to put nuclear missiles in Cuba.
JFK shouldn’t have been so surprised to discover one morning that there were nuclear warheads 90 miles from Florida. A stronger, more forceful President, like Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, or Reagan, might have given the Soviets pause before acting so boldly.
In Vietnam, Kennedy can be given kudos for beginning a withdrawal, ordering 1,000 troops out of the 16,000 then in country home by the end of 1963. Some scholars contend that there is no evidence JFK would have cut and run from Vietnam completely. But his order is strong evidence that he was prepared to begin a slow drawdown of US troops.
Kennedy told his closest aide and friend Kenny O’Donnell (who wrote about it in his memoirs) that he wanted out of Vietnam by the end of 1965 and expressed to George Ball at the State Department that he would never put hundreds of thousands of US combat troops in Vietnam.
Not that we would have left Vietnam entirely, for he stated many times that he was prepared to assist the South Vietnamese in “their war.” But as someone who has traveled to Vietnam five times, and studied the war in detail, I do not believe the massive escalation that took place under LBJ would have happened under Kennedy.
Personally, I have always admired President Kennedy but would rank him somewhere in the middle. He was a right-of-center President and an ardent anti-Communist who believed in a strong national defense (50% of the federal budget was defense spending at the time), tax cuts, economy in government, and law and order. And he did put us on a path to the moon. But he did stray to the left on occasion, seeking greater roles for the federal government in combating poverty and other social programs like housing and health care. So we can only speculate what a second term would have brought.
He was certainly the best Democratic President of the 20th century, and undoubtedly the most conservative, though I know that threshold is awfully low, which is what makes him look as appealing as he does. His assassination was tragic and, in the end, caused much more damage to this nation than his murder was designed to prevent. May we never see a day like November 22, 1963 again.