On today’s date in 1963 at 1 pm, the United States would lose it’s last free president, the last politician with a dream for the future. With President Kennedy’s death, our country’s path towards an era of peace and optimism was diverted off course and lead into a time of war and corruption.
This month, there have been plenty of people who have willfully chosen to mangle Kennedy’s time in office to portray any picture they pleased of him - whether it be one of a war hawk, an ineffective leader, or any other chosen narrative that they have in their head. But Kennedy was none of those, rather, he acted as a temporary stopgap to all of the standard Cold War chicanery up until his election and which proceeded after his death.
The standard lines against Kennedy are that his inexperience led him to fumble the Bay of Pigs invasion, but that’s usually about as deep as it goes. Of course history is never that simple. Kennedy was fighting a daily battle with the powers at be when it came to Cuba. The scheme was originally concocted by the Eisenhower administration (who seemed to have a warm spot in their heart for planted revolutions), and gifted to Kennedy upon his arrival. Kennedy had to fight tooth and nail against the war torn hotheads in the CIA and and his Joint Chiefs of Staff who ideally wanted to shift Cuba from a banana republic to a glass landscape by dropping nukes, all while they poured sugar into Kennedy’s ear about how the invading force was assured a victory. But Kennedy’s hands were tied, he was hamstrung by the fact that if he did not enact the invasion, he would be painted as the President who wouldn’t follow Eisenhower’s plan to liberate Cuba.
You see, opposite the popular opinion that Kennedy was a “Cold Warrior,” in reality he was an avid peace seeker. The fear he had of over-extending military might in Cuba also guided his hand with the rest of his foreign policy. Take for example Vietnam (another Eisenhower gift). Kennedy is often painted as being the most anti-Communist President in history and intended to continue escalation in Vietnam when, to the contrary, he signed National Security Action Memorandum 263 which ordered the beginning of U.S. forces withdrawal from South Vietnam. The same can be seen in Laos, where Kennedy went against the advice of the Eisenhower Administration to pursue military involvement and instead opted to negotiate for neutrality with Russia. Even when it came to the baddest boy of the red threat – The USSR - Kennedy was pursuing back door peace negotiations with Khrushchev behind the backs of the warhawks in Washington.
Some would label me as a Kennedy apologist or a romantic for inferring these ideas. And if that’s so, then so be it. Kennedy saw what we were told was the enemy for what they really were: humans.
As President Kennedy said at American University, “We all breathe the same air.” The country witnessed what happened after Kennedy’s death, when greed and narcissism were allowed to replace a hopeful outlook. The Vietnam War, military actions in Cambodia, and a Cold War that would last over 30 more years to engulf the world in a constant fear of annihilation. As such senseless mindsets took hold again, the Kennedy world of peace and prosperity was pounded into one of turmoil and war. To honor Kennedy, we traded in philanthropy for pure force. But at our most cynical and darkest hours we can look to Kennedy for comfort that it is possible, even if for a stitch in time, to elect a leader with a promise of a better tomorrow.