A Half Century After JFK

On November 22, America remembered the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy; and like Pearl Harbor and 9-11, nearly everyone remembers where they were when the tragedy occurred.  John F. Kennedy was the first President born in the 20th century, the youngest “elected” President at 43, the first Catholic President, became a war hero in the Pacific during WWII, (Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest President at 42 following the assassination of President McKinley).  Interestingly, unlike Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, few citizens commemorated the McKinley assassination after 50 years.

With Europe and Asia gradually emerging from the carnage of WW2, the United States was prevailing in the world economy with minimal foreign competition.  The standard of living was rapidly rising across the demographic spectrum. Following both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US thought it had a monopoly on nuclear weapons for at least a decade. However, using espionage, the Soviet Union surprised the experts with the A-bomb in the late 1940’s and the H- bomb in the early 50’s.  The Cold War was now deadly serious with nearly half of US federal spending devoted to national security (versus about a quarter today).

Domestically, the construction of the Eisenhower Administration Interstate Highway System was reaching full steam. Following JFK’s State of the Union Challenge “…of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth…”, the space race was accelerating. The issues of the environment, civil rights, and “entitlements” were barely talking points with about 90 percent of JFK’s inaugural speech focused on foreign policy.

JFK’s 13-minute inaugural speech provides insight into the circumstances and priorities of the United States just 15 years after winning WW2.  Some familiar phases from a Democrat who was a fervent anti-communist:  “Let every nation know whether it wishes well or ill, that we will pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.  Nevertheless, the opportunity for the future “Détente” with the Soviets was also opened during that speech when JFK said.  “… Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate…” Social welfare programs were clearly on the back burner when JFK stated “…ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country…” JFK understood the economics of confiscatory taxes, and he was instrumental in reducing the top federal tax rate by about 25 percent.

Most historians consider the Cuban Missile Crisis the closest the world has come to a thermonuclear war.  With the combination of the open society in the US and CIA espionage (including the Eisenhower era U-2 flights and the double agent Oleg Penkovski), both parties knew that the US had the Soviets “strategically outgunned”. However, the US was focused on Eastern Europe and the recently constructed Berlin Wall and did not know the extent of the latest Soviet build-up in Cuba following the failed CIA attempts (including the Bay of Pigs) to overthrow Castro. In addition to the missiles, the Soviets had several times the US estimate in personnel including tactical nuclear weapons! The options from the Joint Chiefs included air strikes and even a military invasion. The Kennedy Administration made a series of much better decisions.

The world anxiously watched during nearly two weeks of confusing messages sprinkled with “ brinksmanship” between the Soviets and the US. President Kennedy made a special and sobering TV broadcast. Finally, the US Navy “quarantine” allowed the Soviets to both save face, turn back arriving Soviet military ships to Cuba, and then dismantle the nuclear missiles already in place.  While not an official quid pro quo at that time, the US later dismantled Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Sicily, AND the US agreed to stop all future attempts to intervene in Cuba.  That Cold War thaw also led to the Hot Line between Washington and Moscow and the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.  A chilling Cold War Compromise.

Part of our country began to die on November 22, 1963.  With the loss of blood and treasure during the ten year failure of the Vietnam War combined with the growing domestic price inflation and oil supply shocks, cynicism slowly infected several decades of American optimism…