You bump into an article in The Atlantic magazine. It’s about John F. Kennedy, an American hero writ large — except that he wasn’t. It tells of how he put the world at risk for the sake of politics during the Cuban missile crisis, though finally coming to his senses, and you think about another charismatic American president, Barack Obama. Will he come to his senses, too?
As of the inauguration, it didn’t look like it, but let’s start with Kennedy. I was a teen when he was elected, and I idolized him. He was smart, witty, athletic, good-looking, articulate, idealistic, full of energy and more. What wasn’t to like? Of course, it was much later that we learned about the character failings, that a lot of that energy, for instance, owed something to amphetamines. They were one of many drugs used to address terrible health issues he never confessed to the nation.
He wasn’t bad on all policies, to be sure, but then there was his backing of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his reckless deepening of our involvement in Vietnam. The worst of his fumbling was taking us to within inches of nuclear war. It is detailed in a new book, “The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory,” by Sheldon Stern, head of the John F. Kennedy Library for more than two decades.
In a review of the work in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz points out that much of this information has been known for years, even though a far more positive version seems to prevail in the public imagination, fostered there by Kennedy colleagues and an obliging media. So know, first off, that the Soviet Union put the missiles in Cuba because we had parked missiles in its backyard, namely Turkey, and because the Kennedy administration had been trying every trick there is, including assassination attempts, to depose Fidel Castro’s communist government.