By Daniel Milyavksy
This past November 23rd marked the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Most of the media coverage has focused on the assassination itself, and the various conspiracy theories behind it. Texas Governor John Connolly, who was sitting in front of JFK at the time and during the course of the shooting was hit in the chest, wrist, and thigh, questioned the single bullet theory, although he did believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Like most Americans (a majority, according to polling) I too have my doubts – why did JFK’s head go back and to the left, if Oswald was behind him? Why do so many witnesses claim to have seen a shooter in the grassy knoll? Why were the CIA and FBI so secretive about their investigations?
These are all vital questions. However, in this art I’d like to focus more on JFK’s virtues as President, and why the man who succeeded him, Lyndon Johnson, was, if not the worst president in U.S. history, at the very least an extremely strong contender for the title.
It’s true that Kennedy royally screwed up the Bay of Pigs invasion by failing to provide the Cuban refugees with any sort of military support whatsoever, while still authorizing the attempted invasion. And he was quite late to address the issue of civil rights.
However, during the most pivotal event of the entire Cold War – namely, the Cuban missile crisis – Kennedy performed the duty of Commander-in-Chief with distinction and skill. After Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba by a U2 spy plane, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged Kennedy to bombard and invade Cuba. This attack against one of the Soviet Union’s staunchest allies would have surely resulted in some sort of retaliation by the USSR. Perhaps this would have fallen short of a nuclear attack, but at the very least the Soviet Union would conquer and decimate West Berlin, and perhaps all of West Germany as well.
Despite powerful pressure from his generals, Kennedy instead insisted on a blockade of Cuba. This was an excellent middle ground which indicated that the United States was serious about removing the missiles from Cuba, without actually killing any Cubans. In the end, with the help of his brother Robert, who was the Attorney General, Kennedy secured a deal in which the United States secretly agreed to remove its ICBMs from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing from Cuba. This was a fair trade – after all, it would be unrealistic for us to expect the Soviet Union to live within striking distance of our nukes without insisting on having the same capability against us. Furthermore, the secret nature of the deal meant that if anyone lost face, it was the USSR.
JFK was also reasonably fiscally conservative. He successfully urged Congress to cut taxes, saying, “Our present tax system… exerts too heavy a drag on growth in peace time; it siphons out of the private economy too large a share of personal and business purchasing power; [and] it reduces the financial incentives for personal effort, investment, and risk-taking.
In his personal life, JFK was a flawed man. His sexual delinquency, aside from just being adulterous, bordered on abusive, according to some of the women involved. One of JFK’s mistresses, Mimi Alford, recently published a book entitled Once Upon A Secret: My Affair With President John F. Kennedy And Its Aftermath. In his wife Jacqueline’s bedroom, Kennedy took Alford’s virginity on her fourth day of work in the White House (he never kissed her, or any of his mistresses on the lips). In one passage, she describes swimming in a pool with the President, while Dave Powers, a member of Kennedy staff, was sitting on the side. Alford writes: The President swam over and whispered in my ear. “Mr. Powers looks a little tense,” he said. “Would you take care of it?” It was a dare, but I knew exactly what he meant. This was a challenge to give Dave Powers oral sex. I don’t think the President thought I’d do it, but I’m ashamed to say that I did. It was a pathetic, sordid, scene, and is very hard for me to think about today. Dave was jolly and obedient as I stood in the shallow end of the pool and performed my duties. The President silently watched. This episode of sexual humiliation speaks for itself.
On foreign policy, Kennedy was certainly a Cold Warrior, and a believer in the Domino Theory, which claimed that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and then possibly South Asia as well. Many conspiracy theorists say that Kennedy had decided to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam, but if you read an interview with his brother Robert, this is clearly not the case. It is impossible to know what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam once the war started really escalating and once American casualties started mounting.
Still, the action that Kennedy took that harmed America the most was actually taken before he even became President – that is, when he picked Lyndon Johnson, a putrid human being, to be his running mate. (Milton Friedman said that Ronald Reagan’s biggest error was picking George H. W. Bush to be his Vice-President). Aside from being a terrible person (LBJ got satisfaction from humiliating his staff members by making them listen to him as he sat on the toilet), LBJ was an excellent legislator and politician. However, in his case, since his goals were highly detrimental to American society, this was a very bad thing. LBJ’s War on Poverty greatly accelerated family breakdown and single motherhood among the poor of America. Because of income limits, welfare programs didn’t give money to married citizens, thus encouraging divorce. Among African-Americans, the out-of-wedlock birth rate before the War on Poverty was 24%. Today, it is 73%. When it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, LBJ hurt America’s health care system by taking out market incentives in price competition for health care. Today, half of all money that is spent on health care is spent by the federal government. This has encouraged doctors and hospitals to raise prices, which in turn results in higher insurance premiums and overall health care costs. Lastly, LBJ let almost 60,000 American soldiers die in a war in Vietnam that he himself thought was unwinnable. I’ve been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and it is a rather sobering and depressing experience to look on those thousands names etched in stone and realize that they all died in vain.
I write all this to emphasize what a tragedy JFK’s assassination was, since Lyndon Johnson would never have gotten elected President if Kennedy wasn’t killed. Kennedy may have been a morally flawed man, but he was also a war hero. He commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Pacific, which ended up being rammed by a Japanese vessel. JFK told his men: “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” Kennedy received a Navy and Marine Corp Medal for his actions. The award read as follows: For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Human beings are complicated, and Kennedy was certainly no exception. Rest in peace, Mr. President.
By Daniel Milyavksy