Was JFK A Good Or Bad President?

He’s an icon of American politics, but was John F. Kennedy more of a hazard than a hero?

Image from: The Sixties - The Assassination of JFK

Image from: The Sixties - The Assassination of JFK

ARGUMENT 1: HE WAS A BAD PRESIDENT

John F. Kennedy's glowing reputation is bound up with a bullet. Being murdered made him into a kind of political saint, and makes us forget that his years in the White House were a disaster. Why? Because he almost brought about the end of civilisation as we know it.

Contrary to our sentimental image of JFK as a progressive visionary, he was actually a committed proponent of the Cold War and a foreign police hawk. Early in his tenure, Kennedy pushed forward with a secret plan to take down Fidel Castro's new regime in the nearby island of Cuba. This plan involved training, arming and deploying 1,500 Cuban exiles to mount a covert invasion of the island, inspire a popular uprising and overthrow Castro.

JFK Assassination | The Sixties Clip

This was the now-notorious Bay of Pigs invasion, and it became one of the worst foreign engagements in the history of the United States. Castro crushed the rebel force, and Kennedy - fearful of the US being exposed as the secret backers of the invasion - virtually washed his hands of the whole thing.

In the words of Robert Dallek, author of John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, the Bay of Pigs calamity "cost the invaders more than 100 lives, gave Communists around the world a propaganda coup, and made a mockery of Kennedy's promise of a new day in relations with Latin America."

The whole mess pushed Castro further into the waiting embrace of the Soviet Union, and directly led to the Cuban Missile Crisis - a nerve-jangling confrontation which unfolded when the US realised the Soviet Union was stockpiling nuclear weapons in Cuba.

For almost a fortnight, the world was moments away from nuclear armageddon, as Kennedy pondered whether to attack Cuba - an act which would have spurred the Soviets to retaliate, and thereby trigger World War Three.

History has since given Kennedy credit for keeping a cool head and masterfully negotiating a peaceful resolution to the crisis, saving the world into the bargain. Yet, as we've just noted, it was Kennedy who'd CAUSED the crisis thanks to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and his administration's rampant campaign of deliberate hostility towards Castro. Not to mention the fact that Kennedy had previously stockpiled his own nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey - a recklessly provocative act of Cold War aggression which partly inspired the Soviets to retaliate by putting their missiles in Cuba.

As Sheldon Stern, author of Averting the Final Failure: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, puts it: "John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis."

Which is another way of saying that Kennedy bore a substantial share of the responsibility for almost destroying the world in a nuclear inferno. As a Soviet official said of Kennedy during a summit, the president was "very inexperienced, even immature", and Soviet leader Kruschchev declared him "too weak". We shouldn't let the fact that JFK was murdered distract us from the ugly truth of his failed presidency.

ARGUMENT 2: HE WAS A GOOD PRESIDENT

It's all too easy for us to sneer at Kennedy's stance as a Cold Warrior, all these decades later. But he was a man of his times, when paranoia and suspicion ruled the day. In the frightening ideological battle against the Soviets, nobody was immune to rash and half-baked ideas. In fact, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had actually been planned by President Eisenhower, not Kennedy, and simply been inherited by the Kennedy administration.

Yes, Kennedy chose to go ahead with the plan, but what president wouldn't have? Cuba was regarded as a genuine threat, a foothold for the Soviets right on America's doorstep. Kennedy HAD to do something. As Jim Rasenberger, author of The Brilliant Disaster, describes the dilemma over the Bay of Pigs plan: "[Kennedy] had a lot of doubts about it, a lot of concerns about it, but he never could figure out a way not to do it."

And as for the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy absolutely deserves credit for averting total global calamity. Barraged with conflicting opinions from military advisors - some of whom were pressing for the US to trigger war against the Soviets - Kennedy DID keep a cool head, and he DID make the right deal with the Soviets to steer the world away from a nuclear holocaust. It's sheer good luck we had him in the driving seat rather than someone who might have listened to bad advice and gone with a military response.

Picture shows: During the Vienna summit in Austria, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, United States president, meets with USSR Premier and Council head Nikita KHRUSHCHEV during the height of the Cold War, June 3, 1961. Taken from The Sixties: The World On The Brink.

Picture shows: During the Vienna summit in Austria, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, United States president, meets with USSR Premier and Council head Nikita KHRUSHCHEV during the height of the Cold War, June 3, 1961. Taken from The Sixties: The World On The Brink.

What about Kennedy's importance on the domestic front? He founded the Peace Corps, an organisation of volunteers which works to improve the lives of people across the world, and is still going strong to this day.

He also set America on the path to the Moon landing, proclaiming in 1961 that "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." This seemed like science fiction at the time, but Kennedy's vision was so strong, so convincing, that the goal was indeed achieved.

And, most importantly of all, Kennedy directly paved the way for civil rights in the United States. His speech in 1963, in which he tackled the plight of black Americans head on, was a landmark moment. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," Kennedy said to the nation. "One hundred years have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free."

The speech was praised by none other than Martin Luther King as "the most sweeping and forthright ever presented by an American president". Following Kennedy's assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson pushed forward with the sweeping Civil Rights Act, saying that "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory".

Kennedy may have been a flawed president, but - constrained by his turbulent times - he made a difference, and he made his nation better.