Ross Douthat’s Ridiculous Comparison of Trump to JFKHistorians/History
tags: Trump, JKF
Sheldon M. Stern was Historian at the JFK Library for 23 years. In the early 1980s, he was the first scholar to listen to and evaluate all the still-classified Cuban missile crisis tape recordings. He is the author of Averting the ‘Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series
Last week, I critiqued Niall Ferguson’s attempt to equate JFK’s leadership in the Cuban missile crisis and Donald Trump’s handling of the ongoing nuclear crisis with North Korea. Soon after, several historians urged me to respond to an analogous comparison by Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Douthat’s article is far more wide-ranging and scathing in its indictment of Kennedy’s leadership and requires a more comprehensive response. But, I must make a personal point at the outset. Based on past experience, I expect that Douthat and those who agree with him will dismiss my arguments simply because of my years at the Kennedy Library; ipso facto, I must be a Kennedy acolyte. In fact, my 2003 and 2005 books were highly critical of JFK, especially for his administration’s role in provoking the missile crisis, and my 2012 book was influential in exposing Robert Kennedy’s self-serving lies about the missile crisis in 13 Days (which has never been out of print since its posthumous publication in 1969).
Douthat describes Kennedy and Trump as “reckless, lecherous … and out of [their] depth on foreign policy.” Kennedy’s sexual recklessness is well documented and, in my view, largely irrefutable. However, the evidence is equally irrefutable that Kennedy had been well-read and deeply interested in history and foreign policy since the early 1930s. His letters from the South Pacific during WWII are intellectually and historically thoughtful and incisive. In the spring of 1945, as a 28-year-old reporter for Hearst newspapers, he covered the San Francisco conference establishing the United Nations. He was appalled by the “inadequate preparation and lack of fundamental agreement” between the victorious Allies and predicted “the eventual discovery of a weapon so horrible that it will truthfully mean the abolishment of all the nations employing it.” As journalist Hugh Sidey observed in 1995: “If I had to single out one element in Kennedy’s life that more than anything else influenced his later leadership it would be a horror of war, a total revulsion over the terrible toll that modern war had taken on individuals, nations, and societies, and the even worse prospects in the nuclear age.” (Prelude to Leadership: The European Diary of John F. Kennedy—Summer 1945, p. xxix) To dismiss JFK’s grasp of history as a mere “patina of intellectualism,” even remotely comparable to Donald Trump’s stunning ignorance, is blatantly and ludicrously false.
Douthat never identifies the defining fact of the early 1960s: the Cold War. Any public figure who did not take a hard line against the Soviet Union would not have had a chance to get anywhere near a presidential nomination; likewise, success as president required overtly partisan commitments to maintain American military superiority. And Kennedy, as a Democrat, the party that had “lost China” in 1949, was always particularly vulnerable to charges of being “soft on communism.” Douthat reminds readers that President Kennedy approved plans for “the Bay of Pigs disaster,” for “poorly planned” plots to kill Fidel Castro, and “went ahead with a plan [actually, a 1959 agreement] to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey.” But, he fails to acknowledge that these initiatives originated during the Eisenhower administration—the products of an overwhelming, bipartisan Cold War consensus—the elephant in the room of American foreign policy after WWII.
As to Douthat’s indictment of Kennedy’s quarantine, invasion threat, and “nuclear brinksmanship,” the evidence, especially since the declassification of the missile crisis tape recordings, proves conclusively that Kennedy chose the quarantine precisely to avert an invasion or worse and repeatedly over-ruled the demands for reckless escalation from the ExComm, the Joint Chiefs and the leaders of Congress. Can anyone seriously imagine Donald Trump, during a discussion of the threat from Kim Jong-un, suggesting as JFK did when discussing Khrushchev, “It’s got to be finessed. … We have to finesse him?”
Douthat also erupts over JFK/Trump “clannishness (swap Ivanka for RFK).” To be sure, the appointment of RFK as attorney general was plainly nepotism; but he was a qualified lawyer and JFK’s closest political and substantive confidante. Ivanka promoted a clothing and high-end jewelry line from which she continues to profit from special trademarks in China while she occupies an office in the White House with no discernable responsibilities. Finally, Douthat makes the preposterous comparison of “personal secrets (tax returns for Trump, medical records for Kennedy)”—disingenuously equating qualitatively different kinds of secrets: private health, that might or might not ultimately affect a president’s ability to serve, compared to potential fiscal corruption and monetary ties to a hostile foreign power—crimes that could even approach treason.
Sometimes, it seems, JFK was overly optimistic when he referred to journalism as “the first draft of history.”
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