Shortened Term Limited JFK's Accomplishments, But Not His Contributions

Fresh Air's Dave Davies discusses John F. Kennedy's abbreviated term in office with presidential historian Robert Dallek, who finds that while you can make an argument that Kennedy accomplished little, he represents something special in the American experience. Dallek's latest book is Camelot's Court: Inside The Kennedy White House.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today Americans are remembering that Friday 50 years ago when we were stunned to hear of the gunfire in Dallas that killed President John F. Kennedy as he rode in a motorcade. It was an unspeakable tragedy that shocked the nation and spawned endless conspiracy theories, but it also marked the end of a presidency that was unique in American history, as the country was governed and inspired by the rich young charismatic Bostonian with a glamorous first lady.

A little later in the show, we'll hear part of my interview with investigative reporter Philip Shenon, whose new book explores the flawed investigation of the assassination by the Warren Commission. And our TV critic David Bianculli will tell us why the coverage of the assassination was a television event like no other before or since, and he'll explain why he was literally locked in his room watching it.

But first we'll talk about Jack Kennedy's abbreviated term in office with presidential historian Robert Dallek, who finds that while you can make an argument that Kennedy accomplished little in his 1,000 days in office, he represents something special in the American experience.

Ten years ago, Dallek published a biography of Kennedy called "An Unfinished Life." He's returned to the subject with his latest book, "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." I spoke to Dallek last week, and we began by listening to a portion of Kennedy's inaugural address.

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PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit a slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Dallek, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT DALLEK: Thank you, nice to be with you.

DAVIES: You know, that speech is less than 14 minutes, but it's among the most remembered in history. Why?

DALLEK: Yes, I agree. Dave, it's one of the four great inaugural speeches in American presidential history, and Kennedy worked feverishly hard on that speech, and he would practice it sitting in the bathtub in order to get the rhythm correct, to get the whole thrust of it in a way that would strike resonant chords with people not only across the United States but around the world and that it would be heard in the communist camp as well.

He was very mindful of its importance and also of the fact that here he was, the youngest man ever elected to the White House, and he wanted to set down a marker, I am a serious person, I am not some youthful upstart, and also of course the first Catholic elected to the White House. He wanted to demonstrate his broad vision and his world outlook.

And so the speech was very carefully crafted, and what you notice in the speech is there is no mention of domestic affairs. There's one brief, passing mention of the issue of race, which of course was a great, great issue at the time. But it was all about foreign policy.

DAVIES: He comes into office in 1961. There's active planning underway by the CIA for an invasion of Cuba. You know, the communist regime of Fidel Castro was a thorn and embarrassment for the United States. And the plan, of course, was to have these Cuban exiles, armed and aided by Americans, invade and somehow dislodge Castro. These plans were well underway. Kennedy could've stopped it. How did he address this issue?

DALLEK: Kennedy was very reluctant to go forward with the Bay of Pigs operation, but what he understood was that if he shut it down, these Cuban exiles were going to, because they had been trained in Guatemala by the CIA, and they were all revved up to go and do this, they were going to go around saying Kennedy didn't have the guts to go forward with this operation, we would've succeeded, we would've toppled Castro, and Kennedy, it makes him look weak.

And so Kennedy felt politically he could not take the risk of shutting this down. Would it succeed? The CIA and the military was telling him yes, there would be an uprising against Castro, and if the invaders faltered, they could escape into the Escambray Mountains. What they didn't tell him was that the mountains were 80 miles distant from where the invaders would land and that they'd have to make their way through swamps.

And also what they didn't tell him was that there was a CIA memo saying that for this invasion to succeed, American military forces will ultimately have to intervene. And Kennedy made a condition of the invasion that American forces didn't intervene, and he told the exiles that, and they said they wanted to go ahead with it anyway.

And Kennedy said later, you see, these generals and the exiles thought that if they were stumbling, I would not be able to resist sending in American forces to rescue them. But they didn't understand that I was determined not to do this.

DAVIES: Now, of course anybody who knew what was really going on in Cuba would've been aware that there would be no uprising because the fact is that Fidel Castro was an enormously popular figure in his country. So these exiles land at this obscure beach, the Bay of Pigs. What happens, and then how does Kennedy deal with it?

DALLEK: Well, first I would say you're absolutely right. A friend of mine who was a journalist in Cuba at the time, an American journalist, said later, you know, any high school student in Havana could have told Kennedy there's going to be no uprising. Castro is quite popular.

Well, when they land, what they run into, of course, is the fact that Castro brings some 20,000 troops up to the beaches. And before the operation took place, Kennedy had a meeting with Dean Acheson, former secretary of state under Harry Truman, and Acheson said to him, how many exiles will be landing on the beaches, and Kennedy said, oh, 14, 15 hundred. Acheson said, how many troops can Castro bring up to the beaches, and Kennedy said, well, maybe 20, 25 thousand.

Acheson shook his head and said, you know, it doesn't take Price Waterhouse to figure out that 1,500 aren't as good as 20, 25 thousand, you see. So already, you know, they knew that they were going to be in a tough spot.

DAVIES: So the invasion force(ph) lands. They're quickly surrounded. Most of them are captured. It was an embarrassment for the United States, and it was clear they had backed this thing. What lessons did Kennedy draw from this disaster?

DALLEK: Not to listen to the so-called quote-unquote experts, without great skepticism or questioning their judgment. You know, after the Bay of Pigs, that was in April, at the end of May he went to Europe, and he met with de Gaulle in France. And de Gaulle told him you should get the smartest people around you you can, get the best advice you can, but at the end of the day, you have to make up your own mind.

DAVIES: Now, I think it was also in that first year that he met with the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in Vienna, right?

DALLEK: It was indeed, in June.

DAVIES: Yeah, so what were his goals? How did that go?

DALLEK: Well, it went badly. He went from France to Vienna. He meets Khrushchev. They have all these photographs taken on the steps of - I think it was, they initially met at the Soviet Embassy, and the reporters are shouting one more shot, one more shot. And Kennedy, who's smiling and delighted because here he is a head taller than Khrushchev, decades younger, looking so much more vibrant and appealing, and Khrushchev grudgingly agrees to additional photographs, you see.

But the minute they get inside the room and they start having a conversation, Kennedy makes the mistake of getting engaged in a debate with Khrushchev about the virtues of capitalism versus communism, you see. And he was told by the some of the Soviet experts, including Llewellyn Thompson, the American ambassador to Moscow, not to get into this sort of debate with Khrushchev. You weren't going to win anything; you aren't going to gain anything.

But he allowed it to happen, and Khrushchev beat up on him unmercifully, and Khrushchev came to the meeting with the feeling that this was a young, inexperienced man who had faltered in this operation at the Bay of Pigs. What was wrong with him? Why didn't he send in American forces to assure the victory? What an embarrassment for him.

So Khrushchev felt he had the upper hand, and Kennedy sensed that too, and he came away from that meeting with Khrushchev really frustrated. And at the end of the conversations, the last day, the last minutes, they talked a lot about Berlin. And Khrushchev was threatening, of course, to turn East Berlin over to the East Germans, and Kennedy said that you try and do that, it's going to be a very cold winter.

And when came back to the United States, he mobilized some of the National Guard forces as a signal that the United States was prepared to meet any kind of assault on Berlin with force.

DAVIES: So Kennedy didn't feel like he did well with Khrushchev. Was there a public perception that he had failed?

DALLEK: There was. There was the sense in the June of 1961 that Kennedy was off to a very weak start. And as an antidote to that, he had made a speech in May of '61 in which it was a kind of second State of the Union Address. And it was in that speech that he proposed to the country that they land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Khrushchev, remember, came to the U.N., banged his shoe on the table, said we're grinding out missiles like sausages, we will bury you, you see, and of course they had Sputnik. They had stolen a march on us in space technology. and so Kennedy's reach was for the idea that you raise hopes in the United States, you inspire people to feel we're not behind, we're going to achieve great things in this space race, and we're going to eclipse the Soviet Union in this Cold War.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Dallek. His new book is called "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: We're speaking with presidential historian Robert Dallek. His new book is called "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." Kennedy had a second chance at a Cuban crisis. In 1962 he gets word that Soviet ships are unloading intercontinental ballistic missiles to be installed in Cuba. I mean this represents a terrible threat. I mean these were missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the United States.

What kind of advice does he get on how to deal with this?

DALLEK: Well, he gets very mixed advice. The military, the joint chiefs, tell him that he cannot allow this to stand, that Khrushchev may call these defensive weapons in order to defend against another American invasion, sponsored invasion of Cuba, but in fact they are offensive weapons because they are medium and intermediate-range missiles.

They could reach far into the United States. They can reach Washington, D.C., and it gives the Soviets now a new parity with the United States in nuclear defensive material. So Kennedy, of course, goes on television, announces that the Soviets are trying to place these missiles in Cuba, that this is impermissible, and he resists the advice of the chiefs.

He does not want to risk getting into a nuclear war. So when he has advice from Robert McNamara and Adlai Stevenson that instead of going forward with some kind of military action, that what they should do is put an ultimatum before the Soviets, tell them that they're setting up a quarantine of the island, Cuba, in fact it's a blockade, but he doesn't use that term because a blockade is an act of war, but he calls it a quarantine to bar them from shipping additional war materiel to Cuba.

And this works because Khrushchev understands that he's risking a nuclear conflict with the United States and that the United States has a great advantage over the Soviets in these nuclear missiles. We have submarine missiles that can reach any part of the Soviet Union. And Khrushchev is frightened. He backs down. And Kennedy tells advisors don't gloat, don't make it appear that we have embarrassed and humiliated him, you see.

But he really has a great victory here, and it really boosts his standing as an effective, forceful foreign policy leader.

DAVIES: Did this lead to a different relationship with Khrushchev and progress on the nuclear issue?

DALLEK: Without question. What it led to was the nuclear test ban agreement. See, both men had been so frightened by the prospect of getting into this nuclear conflict, and especially Khrushchev, that he then invited Kennedy to send a delegation, a high-ranking delegation to Moscow to negotiate a test ban.

Kennedy sends Averell Harriman, very seasoned diplomat, of course, who is in his administration but also had a term of service in Moscow as ambassador. And very quickly, after all these years of struggling over this issue, almost within a matter of 10 days they reach an agreement, and this is a triumph of Kennedy's diplomacy.

But, you see, also for Kennedy, at the end of missile crisis, he meets with his joint chiefs, who he had held at arms' length. They had been pressing him for military action. And they said to him, Mr. President, you've been had. Khrushchev is hiding those missiles in caves. They want to make plans to, again, invade, strike at Cuba. And Kennedy says, OK, make plans.

Part of their plan is to drop a nuclear bomb on Cuba, and they talk about how the collateral damage could be controlled. Well, of course it would turned the island into a pile of rubble and not to mention what it would've done to the south coast of Florida. Well, Kennedy and the joint chiefs, they were so at each other's throats, so to speak, and they thought Kennedy was weak, and he thought they were far too militant.

You have to understand, these generals came out of World War II. They had bombed the Japanese and the Germans, so to speak, back to the Stone Age, and their attitude was that if the Soviets have an advantage on us, they'll take advantage of it, they'll use nuclear weapons. Why should we be so restrained?

Thomas Power, the chairman of the U.S. Air Forces, said what's all this concern about nuclear weapons. If we fight a war with them, and there are three Americans left at the end of the conflict and two Russians, we've won, you see. But Kennedy simply did not have that outlook.

And I think his greatest achievement was in reining in these considerations about potential use of nuclear weapons.

DAVIES: Let's talk about Vietnam. I mean Kennedy escalated the American presence there because it was clear that the South Vietnamese regime, which the United States was supporting, was corrupt, unpopular and likely to fall without a lot of help. We don't know whether, you know, the American involvement would've escalated as it did under Lyndon Johnson. What's your take on how he handled Vietnam?

DALLEK: He was very conflicted about Vietnam. You're quite right, he increased the number of advisors from roughly 600 to over 16,000. But he was under pressure from some of his advisors, including particularly Walt Rostow, who became Lyndon Johnson's national security advisor, to possibly bomb Hanoi and Haiphong and to send in ground forces.

Now, we'll never know what he would've done. I don't think he quite knew what he would've done. But he didn't want to lose Vietnam, but by the same token he simply did not want to get deeply enmeshed, involved, and turn that into what he called the white man's war, an American conflict. And so I don't think he ever would have put in 545,000 troops the way Lyndon Johnson did.

And to me, the most telling evidence of this is that as the missile crisis was ending, and plans had to be made because of the pressure from the joint chiefs for a possible invasion, Bob McNamara, secretary of defense, put an invasion plan before Kennedy. And Kennedy wrote a note to McNamara and said, Bob, I read the invasion plan. We have to remember what happened to the British in the Boer War, what happened to the Russians in the Winter War of 1940 in Finland, and what happened to us in Korea.

We could get bogged down. Now, he's talking about Cuba. If he's worried about being bogged down in Cuba, imagine how he would've felt about getting involved in those jungles of Vietnam.

DAVIES: So where does John Kennedy stand among American presidents in your view?

DALLEK: Well, I don't think you can consider him a great president in league with Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, but I would certainly call him a significant president because of being the first Catholic to have achieved the office and opened up the nominating process and the possibility that so many other people from other backgrounds could now become president other than white Protestant males.

And I think that he taught us that nuclear weapons are unusable weapons. This was in many ways the message of the Cuban missile crisis and the way in which he dealt with the joint chief of staff. And he came late but nevertheless forcefully to the issue of civil rights in 1963. So I think he was a significant president and, most of all, one might say, his post-assassination Camelot image is very important to the country because he continues to provide a kind of hope.

The greatest story, and Richard Hofstadter once said, America is the only country in history that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement. And Kennedy, I think, still gives people that sense of optimism. They remember the words. Kennedy spoke of a new frontier, promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and that happened.

He set up the Peace Corps. Youth optimism, a kind of belief in a better future for the country, and parents for their children. This is not to be discounted. It's an important achievement, in a sense.

DAVIES: Robert Dallek, thanks so much.

DALLEK: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Robert Dallek is a presidential historian. His latest book is "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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