February 23, 2009
LORD, SPARE US ANOTHER JFK:
Is Afghanistan Obama's Vietnam?: Foreign-policy advice from John F. Kennedy (JAMES G. BLIGHT, 2/27/09, The Chronicle Review)
Research in recently declassified documents and formerly secret presidential audiotapes — detailed in my book and documentary film, Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK — demonstrates that John F. Kennedy would very likely not have taken the United States to war in Vietnam. Six deep crises (two each over Cuba and Vietnam, and one each over Laos and Berlin) were his inheritance from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. His inaugural year, 1961, was in fact the presidential year from hell, as JFK would discover. By March, his advisers were requesting nuclear weapons to counter Soviet-backed rebels in Laos. He suffered humiliation over the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April and outraged his senior advisers, many of whom recommended that he send in the U.S. Marines to salvage the operation and overthrow the Castro government. Between August and October, his advisers recommended military action in Berlin, including the use of nuclear weapons if necessary, and the removal by force of the wall just then going up. And in November, he faced down all of his national-security advisers, who were recommending the Americanization of the conflict in Vietnam.
Kennedy said no to war each time. We now know, after extensive research over more than two decades, Kennedy was right to say no. We are now virtually certain that if Kennedy had chosen to escalate one or more of these crises to an American war, disaster would have followed. In each case, we now know, the adversaries of the United States and its allies were far more numerous, more heavily armed, and more committed to their causes than Kennedy's advisers believed at the time. The same is true for the epochal Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. If Kennedy had agreed to the attack and invasion of Cuba favored by most of his advisers, a nuclear catastrophe would almost certainly have followed. It is highly probable that an American invasion would have been met with devastating Soviet nuclear fire, with almost unthinkable consequences to follow.
The disaster that was JFK can best be traced to two decisions about regime change. The coup he staged in South Vietnam was a catastrophe from which neither its people nor our policy ever truly recovered. Meanwhile, his craven agreement to leave Castro in place left Cuba a gulag for forty wasted years. The lesson for President Obama is pretty simple--replace enemies, like Assad in Syria, help even imperfect allies, like Uribe in Colombia.