John F. Kennedy, Great Man Of History
There were several flashpoints and potential stumbles into thermonuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, some more dangerous than others.
In 1966, during what became known as the Palomares B-52 crash, a US B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling over the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was destroyed when its fuel load ignited and the B-52G broke up.
Of the four hydrogen bombs the B-52G was carrying, three were found on land near the fishing village of Palomares in Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of nearly a square-mile area by plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a two-and-a-half-month search.
Much later, in August 1983, the Soviets shot down an off-course Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 that had strayed deep into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board. Then there was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars” as it was more popularly known) of the same year, not to mention the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
The closest the world, steered by the U.S. and the USSR, came to nuclear destruction, however, was the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962, when a relatively inexperienced US president and Soviet premier grappled with the realities of a potential thermonuclear war breaking out between the two nations.
History can sometimes be the story of great men or women shaping the world around them, or of plucky individuals finding themselves in the right time and place, making decisions that have more significance than they may have anticipated before fate intervened.
In 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union were emerging from a period of fierce competition following their repositioning after the Second World War as the world’s dominant superpowers. They found themselves super because of their nuclear and economic power, giving each a global standing and reach which divided the world between two competing political ideologies.
Behind both U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev were huge, complicated and highly technological political structures, together with the enormous influence of their opposing political elites on how to win the Cold War.
The Kennedy effect
In 1956 Khrushchev had emerged as the leader of a country that had grown in influence under Stalin, but which was learning to transition into the modern era. Not everybody with political power in the Soviet Union agreed with this transition, however, or with Khrushchev’s efforts to change the direction of the country and its political economy.
In the United States, John F. Kennedy; glamorous and elitist, was the U.S. president who had taken office after a hard-fought (if barely won) 1960 election that had divided the country. Surrounding himself with a circle of young technocrats, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had already been politically bruised by the failure of the CIA’s attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba (an operation that Kennedy was not convinced of and which damaged his administration when it failed).
As in the USSR, Kennedy was also challenged by a defence establishment that favoured a strong approach to what it saw as a threatening and expansionist Soviet foreign policy, and which questioned the ability of the Kennedy presidency to defend American interests.
Facing such challenges, Kennedy was influenced by those around him, as well as his own personal experiences and health issues.
Historian Robert Dallek, the writer of the Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life, points out how many of the president’s illnesses were kept from the public. Kennedy’s medical records, for example, reveal that Kennedy had spastic colitis as a boy and started taking steroids at Harvard to deal with this ailment (at a dose that was far too high), which in turn triggered Kennedy’s back problems throughout the rest of his life.
The president also suffered from osteoporosis of the lumbar spine, together with the pain and misery this caused, leaving him dependent on painkillers during his daily life.
In the 1950s, Kennedy was hospitalised 19 times for various conditions and treatments, including Artisans disease (malfunctioning of the adrenal gland), associated back problems and related surgery, all of which were hidden from the public until after his death.
Against this backdrop, Kennedy lived with a keen sense of mortality and a conviction that his life may be brief (he died at the age of 46 after being assassinated in Dallas, Texas). This perhaps explains why from a young age, one of his favourite poems was I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seegar, a poet killed in World War I.
I have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seegar
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
According to Michael Beschloss, historian and biographer, there was every sign that due to his health problems, Kennedy did not think he would live a normal or long life. Kennedy also once said that half of his days were spent in intense physical pain and that, as a result, he was short-term and crisis-orientated in his thinking (something which he regularly admitted to in private).
In addition, Historian Fredrik Logevall has described how Kennedy came from a loving, but dysfunctional family. Joe and Rose Kennedy, JFK’s parents, had a difficult marriage, whilst Joe, a former ambassador to the UK, nurtured a competitive atmosphere within the Kennedy household and between his nine children (five girls, four boys).
Before the Second World War, John (‘Jack’) Kennedy travelled to Europe and while in the UK, witnessed the build-up to war, which had a huge impact on the future president (he writes about this experience in an undergraduate thesis, which went on to be a bestseller).
Kennedy was considered funny and charming during this period, but the death of his brother, Joe, who was killed in 1944, had a profound impact on the future president before he moved into politics as a career.
In the Second World War, Kennedy served in the Pacific, and both the build-up to the conflict and his direct experience of it left Kennedy sceptical about warfare as a solution to political problems. He was determined to avoid war as a result, as demonstrated in his letters home whilst deployed in the Pacific, and became increasingly sceptical of senior military commanders and their decision-making in battle.
Kennedy came out of the war with the view that the military instrument could be a blunt one. He subsequently made it clear to those around him, once in the White House, that though willing to use military action, he was wary of doing so (as demonstrated in his reluctance to commit US ground forces in Vietnam).
The Cuban Missile Crisis
Come 1962, the stage was set for Kennedy and Khrushchev to face off against each other after the USSR began siting ballistic missiles in Cuba; a hugely threatening act to the U.S. government, which up until that point had not been within reliable striking distance of Soviet nuclear missiles.
What happened next was the fast formulation of an American response to the Soviet threat which relied on skilful gamesmanship on the part of the Kennedy team to drive the Soviet leadership to the negotiating table, while the Soviet leadership attempted to play the same game; the two sides using military manoeuvres to strengthen their respective positions.
Both leaders also had to finesse similar manoeuvres with their intelligence and military establishments to prevent armed conflict from breaking out on the seas around Cuba (or on the ground in Berlin during a similar standoff between the two superpowers).
That Cold War icon, “the hotline” was only put in place after the Cuban Missile Crisis and as a direct result of it. Until that point, both Kennedy and Khrushchev, as well as their inner circles, were making their best estimates of what the other side was doing, as well as why, during the potential conflict.
They were guessing and their guesses were, on the whole, accurate.
The world came close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fact that it did not tumble into global disaster is largely down to two small opposed groups who were not talking directly to each other at the time, but who were skillfully negotiating through the application of politics to military strategy.
Within these groups, it was two men; Kennedy and Khrushchev, who held the future of the world in their hands.
Is Kennedy a great man of history?
The fact that the question can even be asked is probably the answer to it.