Monday, November 11, 2013

JFK and me

    Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!
Those were Wordsworth's lines about the start of the French Revolution, but they expressed my own feelings about the Kennedy years at the time. Youthful enthusiasm, romantic idealism.

I grew up in a solidly Republican family, but lost confidence in President Eisenhower after his dismissive reaction to the Soviet Sputnik. I felt that the United States was falling behind militarily, and in danger. Of course, I was a teenager and given to strong emotions.

I was excited about the Kennedy candidacy, both because of his policies and vitality, but also because I thought it would be good to elect a Catholic as a sign of America's political openness. I was starting Harvard at the time and considered him "one of us." [I had felt the same way about Eisenhower, since he vacationed in Denver and my grandmother had gone to high school with Mamie. My politics had a lot of localism.]

I saw Kennedy only twice: at the final campaign event at Faneuil Hall and shortly before his inauguration, when he came to Harvard for a Board of Overseers meeting. But I followed events daily in the New York Times and enjoyed watching his news conferences when I could get access a television. I took his eloquent and powerful inaugural address as my marching orders: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  I was committed from that day forward to public service.

I knew or came to know many of the people who worked in the administration, including McGeorge Bundy, my freshman adviser, who was national security adviser and thus a model for my youthful ambitions. Bundy met with some of us the week after the Bay of Pigs, looking shaken and much less self-confident than before. He asked for our advice; I don't remember any of our comments. I later interviewed Dean Rusk, Averell Harriman, several of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other officials for my dissertation on U.S. policy toward Laos. Perhaps those conversations made me more empathetic with the administration and the problems they faced and less critical of what-might-have-beens.

The Cuban missile crisis was an anxious moment for many of us. I genuinely feared a nuclear war and felt exhilarated when the agreement with Khrushchev was announced. Only much later did I -- and the rest of us -- learn that it was a good compromise rather than a Soviet capitulation. Now, on reflection, I see Kennedy's conduct during that crisis as extraordinarily wise and brave, resisting the military pressure which likely would have resulted in a nuclear exchange.

Kennedy's domestic policies were a disappointment:  he temporized too much on civil rights. On other foreign policy matters he had better rhetoric [an "Alliance for Progress"] than actual performance.

So I am not surprised that the consensus of history text authors is less glowing and more subdued about Kennedy now. My own slide to disenchantment came only a few months after the assassination, when I was part of a student group meeting with Hugh Sidey, Time's White House correspondent. Sidey spoke quite openly about Kennedy's womanizing --a fact known to the press but never reported to the public during his presidency. How could he?

A half century later, I agree that Kennedy was only a good president, not a great one. But he did handle the Cuban missile crisis masterfully and paved the way for important agreements with the Soviet Union that reduced the danger of war.  And he gave those of us who saw the promise of the New Frontier a dream to keep in our hearts.

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