The Crumbling of Camelot

Peter Riddell

  • Kennedy v. Khrushchev: The Crisis Years 1960-63 by Michael Beschloss
    Faber, 816 pp, £18.50, August 1991, ISBN 0 571 16548 6
  • A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by Thomas Reeves
    Bloomsbury, 510 pp, £19.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1029 6

In his memoirs Roy Jenkins describes John Kennedy as the best President of the USA in the past four decades. It is a curious, not to say unfashionable verdict. The demolishers of the Kennedy legend have been carrying all before them in the past few years. So battered is the Kennedy reputation that it is almost time for a new school of revisionist historians to rehabilitate the myth of Camelot on the Potomac. Almost, but not yet. Michael Beschloss’s absorbing and authoritative study of US-Soviet relations from January 1961 until Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 adds significantly to the case amassed by the demolition squad.

Like many US authors, Beschloss assumes that his readers have a week of free time to read a book, which must account for the large numbers of partially read volumes on American shelves. But while the book is very long, over seven hundred pages before the notes start, the subject merits exhaustive treatment and Beschloss offers a lively narrative as well as some telling pen-portraits. Beschloss has benefited from the accumulation of memoirs, and of US and, more recently, Soviet archive material, over the intervening years. He has also gained from the release of translator’s notes of the Vienna summit in 1961, from White House conversations taped by Kennedy (years before Nixon), and from the records of conferences on the Cuban missile crisis held in the late Eighties, which included key participants like Rusk, Bundy, McNamara, Gromyko and Dobrynin. He is therefore able to offer insights into the thinking of both sides.

His thesis is that, while Kennedy showed considerable skill in handling the main foreign crises of his Presidency, he was responsible for creating many of them by consistently misjudging Khrushchev. These were the years, Beschloss argues, ‘in which humankind came closer than at any other time to nuclear incineration, and in which the United States and the Soviet Union began the greatest arms race in human history. Both leaders ended their two nuclear crises without war and took steps to control nuclear weapons.’ But he compares the inexperienced Kennedy unfavourably with the wise and calm Eisenhower, with reference to their handling of the volatile Khrushchev. The result of Kennedy’s mishandling of Khrushchev was to create a sense of alarm and crisis which led to a substantial military build-up, as well as to the climate of mutual suspicion which has only just ended. Neither might have developed in the way they did if Kennedy had shown a surer touch at the start.

Kennedy’s reputation has moved in the opposite direction to that of other post-war Presidents, or British prime ministers for that matter. The standing of other former leaders has tended to suffer after they left office, as their policies have been reversed or modified by successors, and ex-colleagues have written score-settling memoirs. In some cases, it has taken at least a decade or even two for more favourable reassessments to emerge. By contrast, Kennedy’s standing was never higher than in the years immediately after his death. He was the hero cut off tragically in his prime and the myth was developed and embellished in the books of former lieutenants like Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen. It has only really been in the past decade that the revisionists have gained the upper hand and Kennedy’s record has been compared unfavourably with those of his two predecessors, Truman and Eisenhower. Even his two successors, Johnson and Nixon, have recently been enjoying more favourable reappraisals.

Kennedy had further to fall, of course, in view of the hopes he raised for a whole generation, not just in the USA but around the world. Much of the Camelot myth was so misleading in its portrayal of an apparently cool and rational superman that disillusion was bound to be created when revelations appeared about his squalid personal life and when questions about his record in office were posed by the disclosure of previously classified evidence. The stories about his compulsive womanising cannot be dismissed merely as prurient gossip. This dynastic trait, shared by his father and by his brothers and nephews, is just one aspect of the flawed personality explored in vivid detail in Thomas Reeves’s book. He was in many respects more devious and ruthless – and certainly more hypocritical – than either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.

Both Reeves and Beschloss show the risks Kennedy took in his liaisons, which exposed him to blackmail, not least by his own FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover. During the Second World War Kennedy became involved with someone with Nazi sympathies, while as President he knowingly shared a mistress with a Mafia boss, who was being used by the CIA in an attempt to murder Fidel Castro. Only months before his death Kennedy was very nearly implicated in an exact copy of the Profumo scandal then under way in England, when he shared a former Communist German woman with a Soviet diplomat in Washington. She was quickly rushed out of the country, but it was a narrow squeak.

Moreover, Kennedy was physically unfit to be President. He was far more unhealthy than either Eisenhower with his heart problems or Roosevelt with his polio (at least until the latter last year). A series of back injuries and Addison’s disease left Kennedy in constant pain, as a result of which he took a cocktail of various medicines. He became reliant on amphetamine injections from a doctor called Max Jacobson, who looked like ‘a mad scientist’ and who would have been described as a medicine man in earlier New Frontier days. Kennedy took prescriptions from Jacobson and other doctors during his travels. Beschloss notes that during his European trip in 1961, including the near-disastrous Vienna summit meeting with Khrushchev, ‘no one was in overall charge to anticipate or deal with the danger that an injection of cortisone, procaine, amphetamines, or whatever else Jacobson had in his syringe, could cause the President to behave at Vienna in a way that could have had dire consequences. Even in small doses, amphetamines cause side-effects such as nervousness, garrulousness, impaired judgment, over-confidence, and when the drug wears off, depression.’

As a Washington-based reporter who covered the Bush Presidency until this August, I am constantly surprised by how supine the US press was in those days. Leaving aside the cover-up of his sexual activities, the Kennedy White House got away with issuing, virtually unchallenged, grossly misleading statements about his medical condition in a way which would be unimaginable now. Since President Bush’s irregular heart beat earlier this year, every last detail of his thyroid condition has been pored over and detailed medical bulletins have been issued. Mr Bush will have to assure the American public that the problem is under control if he is to seek re-election next year. Beschloss convincingly sets Kennedy’s live-for-today approach to life and preoccupation with possible death as the background against which he operated publicly, rather than divorcing the two as an earlier generation of diplomatic historians might have done.

For all the Camelot myth, Kennedy was ill-prepared to handle the difficult foreign affairs problems of the early Sixties. His political views developed out of the crude anti-Communism of his early days in Congress. He lacked Eisenhower’s experience. Beschloss notes the parallel efforts of the two foreign ministers, Dean Rusk and Andrei Gromyko, ‘to keep a theatrical, inexperienced, sometimes erratic boss on track’.

Not only was Kennedy wrong to claim in his 1960 Presidential campaign that there was a missile gap between the USA and the Soviet Union, but he had been told he was wrong by senior Administration officials. That started him off on the wrong foot with Khrushchev. Eisenhower had allowed Khrushchev a good deal of latitude, refraining in public from challenging the latter’s claims about Soviet nuclear strength. This had the effect of holding down both US and Soviet defence spending and of allowing Khrushchev to try and achieve his aim of improving the position of the Soviet consumer. Kennedy upset this tacit understanding. He over-reacted to a standard Khrushchev speech about wars of national liberation. He ignored the wise advice of Llewellyn (‘Tommy’) Thompson, the US Ambassador in Moscow, and launched a counter-attack which publicly raised fears of a possible US nuclear first strike. That put Khrushchev in a vulnerable position in relation both to the Soviet military, which was always keen to expand, and to critics within the Communist bloc, notably China, who accused him of faltering in the fight against Western imperialism. At the same time, Kennedy himself was made to appear weak by his bungling of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and by his ineffective response to Khrushchev’s belligerence at the Vienna summit of 1961.

These episodes set the stage for the two key crises of the Kennedy Presidency: over Berlin in the second half of 1961 and over the Cuban missiles in October-November 1962. Khrushchev sought to reassert his position by threatening to sign a peace treaty with East Germany in order to force the question of the future of Berlin. The building of the Berlin Wall to stem the flood of East Germans fleeing to the West provided a practical solution to the crisis, in spite of US/Soviet confrontations across Checkpoint Charlie.

Beschloss suggests that not only was the building of the Wall a welcome solution to the crisis for Kennedy, but that he had in effect telegraphed beforehand to Khrushchev, via the comments of two leading Senate Democrats, that the West would not oppose such an action. Kennedy quickly saw the building of the Wall as Khrushchev’s way out of his predicament without going to war. As the President told his aides, ‘a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.’ Beschloss notes that, ‘in those years in which Americans were less inclined than later to scrutinise or question their President’s actions in foreign affairs, Kennedy’s complicity in the building of the Wall tended to escape public attention. Critics focused instead on his failure to use force against it once it was built.’ Kennedy then kept virtually silent on the subject until his much-remembered visit to the city in 1963 – an evasion which Beschloss regards as ‘hardly in the tradition of great leadership’.

Kennedy can also be held partly responsible for triggering the Cuban missile crisis, both by stressing US nuclear superiority and inaugurating a big military build-up which forced Khrushchev to make an aggressive response and by not making clear what the USA was and was not willing to accept in Cuba. Beschloss argues that ‘there is no evidence that Kennedy or his advisers paid sufficient heed to the danger that Khrushchev and Castro might interpret the American military preparations and diplomatic, economic and covert actions against Cuba as the forerunner of a full-scale invasion.’ Kennedy further increased Soviet alarm by talking about taking ‘the initiative’ in relation to the Soviet Union. Beschloss believes that Kennedy had ‘almost no understanding of the extent to which his allusions to American nuclear superiority and a possible first strike had made Khrushchev feel trapped and deeply insecure’.

Khrushchev pursued a cheap and straightforward solution to his overall strategic problem by putting missiles into Cuba –correcting at a stroke the Soviet Union’s inferiority in relation to the USA. Kennedy took little notice of a warning from Walt Rostow that Khrushchev must be looking for a ‘quick success’ that would enhance his power and prestige in Moscow and in the international Communist movement.

The veteran Dean Acheson, who was then a semi-official adviser to Kennedy, wrote to his old boss Truman: ‘I have a curious and apprehensive feeling as I watch JFK that he is a sort of Indian snake-charmer. He toots away on his pipe and our problems sway back and forth around him in a trancelike manner, never approaching but never withdrawing; all are in a state of suspended life, including the pipe player, who lives only in his dream. Some day one of those snakes will wake up, and no one will be able even to run.’

In the face of increasing concern about what was happening in Cuba, Kennedy belatedly issued a public warning that if the USA ever found offensive ground-to-ground missiles in Cuba ‘the gravest issues would arise.’ Bundy, then Kennedy’s national security adviser, later explained that the warning was because of domestic political pressures, not because ‘we seriously believed that the Soviets would do anything as crazy from our standpoint as placement of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba.’ But that is exactly what they were already doing. Beschloss concludes that ‘Kennedy therefore issued a warning that was too late to stop Khrushchev’s Cuba operation and so precise that it caused him to forfeit the option of responding to the discovery of missiles in Cuba with anything less than a full-fledged confrontation with the Soviet Union. Had the President issued such a warning five months earlier or not painted himself into a corner now, history might have been different.’

Nor was Kennedy’s handling of the crisis initially as sure-footed and commanding as the self-serving and misleading account by his brother Robert suggests. Kennedy’s dramatic televised announcement of the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba was ‘designed to divert attention from his private belief (and that of Defence Secretary Robert McNamara) that the missiles did not seriously increase the Soviet military danger and the fact that he had not warned Khrushchev against them until it was too late.’

Nevertheless, Kennedy skilfully used the six days between being told of the missiles and his public warning to debate a wide range of options with his advisers. Some of the earlier discussion was rambling, but Beschloss believes Kennedy had learned from the Berlin crisis. Another President, he suggests, ‘might have moved more hastily ...’ Had Kennedy ‘been compelled to make a decision within hours, he would probably have opted for an air strike’.

Beschloss convincingly argues, however, that ‘Kennedy’s six days of quiet deliberation were a gift that no American President in a similar quandary will probably ever enjoy again. Were the missile crisis to occur in the political and journalistic culture of three decades later, an American television network with access to private satellite might well have discovered the missiles and announced them to the world only hours after the President had learned about them.’

The crisis was defused thanks to Kennedy’s calm handling and Khrushchev’s willingness to compromise – reinforced by a long-secret, though quite explicit, understanding that the US would withdraw its nuclear missiles, aimed at the Soviet Union, from Turkey if Moscow agreed to dismantle its weapons in Cuba and ship them back home. Even Lyndon Johnson paid his boss a grudging compliment: ‘He plays a damn good hand of poker. I’ll say that for him.’

In the last year of his life, Kennedy showed he had benefited from these bruising experiences. In June 1963 he urged a re-examination of American attitudes towards the Soviet Union and the Cold War, and this was linked to the negotiation of a treaty placing a limited ban on nuclear tests: the treaty was ratified by the Senate two months before his assassination in Dallas. He died at a time when US-Soviet relations had improved considerably from the low point of 1961-62, and he may be said to have made his contribution to this. Yet his earlier actions had helped to perpetuate the Cold War and ensure that Fidel Castro has remained in power to this day as one of the few relics of Marxist-Leninism Beschloss concludes that

throughout his years, Kennedy showed a fine sensitivity to the dangers of misperception and accident and a talent for intense crisis management. He pushed for a test ban more persistently that almost anyone else who might have been President. But throughout his term, Kennedy rarely showed the magnanimity that should have been expected of a superior power. Instead, he aroused the Western world to an hour of imminent danger that did not exist, provoked the adversary by exposing Soviet nuclear weakness to the world, and unwittingly caused the Soviets to fear that he was on the verge of exploiting American nuclear strength to settle the Cold War on American terms, perhaps even in a pre-emptive strike.