I was glad to see Ted Sorensen once again set the record straight on JFK in the current Vanity Fair (yes, the one in which Republican star Bruce Willis says, “They still haven’t caught the guy that killed Kennedy … I’ll get killed for saying this, but I’m pretty sure those guys are still in power, in some form.”) Sorensen was understandably disturbed by an idiotic caption that ran with a photo of him and other aging New Frontiersmen in the magazine’s May issue. “Kennedy was a hawk whose presidency reeled from calamity to predicament, including the Cuban missile crisis,” read the magazine’s clueless caption. In a letter to the magazine, the JFK speechwriter succinctly remarked, “I have never read a more inaccurate summary of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.”
It’s not only slick celebrity magazines that get Kennedy history wrong. Academia is also filled with misconceptions of JFK’s presidency. The San Francisco Chronicle asked a retired San Jose State professor named Dan Cornford to review my book. A puzzling choice, since his specialty seems to be California labor history. But Cornford, who gave the book a mixed review, has clearly absorbed the conventional wisdom of the mainstream Kennedy scholars. “Talbot’s account of JFK’s Cuba policies largely ignores good historical evidence portraying Kennedy as a die-hard adversary of Communism,” Cornford mused. This has become the standard line about JFK among scholars and pundits of all political stripes. But these observers have no grasp of Kennedy’s complexity or his times.
It’s true that Kennedy ran as a hawk on Cuba, urging that the island be “liberated” from Castro’s tyranny. But after the Bay of Pigs, he never went beyond the empty theatrics of Operation Mongoose. This was a showy but futile sabotage operation aimed at destabilizing the Castro government — and, perhaps more important, at deflecting political heat from the right, which was demanding Fidel’s head. JFK felt he had to appease the blood lust on the right with saber-rattling rhetoric. But he was more interested in defusing Cuba as a political issue than in invading the island. And, in his final months, he was even pursuing a secret peace track with Castro.
Yes, Kennedy was a shrewd political operator and cagey diplomat who knew that he could not completely reject the assumptions and rhetoric of the Cold War. To do so in those years would have invited his foes at home and abroad to crush him. Nonetheless, he was intent on creating a new framework for world peace. And to simply brand him a “die-hard adversary of Communism” — lumping him with the Nixons and Goldwaters of the day — is blunt and wrongheaded.