Skip to main content

Bearing the Burden: A Critical Look At JFK’s Foreign Policy

ISSUE:  Spring 1978

The gloss has dulled, the image is tarnished. We even speak now about his rendezvous, not with destiny, but with two White House secretaries known as “Fiddle” and “Faddle.” The once elevated and exaggerated reputation of John F. Kennedy as the triumphant diplomatist has collided in recent years not only with the skepticism of journalists, political scientists, and historians but also with the facts, the realities themselves. Rich historical documents and oral histories housed at the John F. Kennedy Library as well as revelations in the Pentagon Papers and congressional hearings on CIA activities have joined the eulogistic memoirs of Kennedy advisers to recommend a critical retrospective view of the years of Camelot.

Getting at the well-springs of the Kennedy foreign policy means confrontations with some heady obstacles. Many of the documents produced by the Kennedy administration remain classified security and hence closed to researchers. But under mandatory declassification procedures, large lots of materials, such as those on the Cuban Missile Crisis, are being opened.

We should not expect dramatic “bombshells” from the writings based on these records, but we should be better able to fathom the roots of modern American diplomacy.”We were so eager for Kennedy to defeat the despised Nixon,” critic Richard Walton has remarked about the 1960 election, “that we just assumed that what he said was acceptable. . . . Blinded by our passion to defeat Nixon, we did not really listen to Kennedy.” There is no excuse for not listening now.

Another obstacle stems from the adulatory, best-selling memoirs penned by Kennedy’s aides. They cover his blemishes with the cosmetic cream of hero-worship, and help perpetuate a Kennedy legend. But that legend now wobbles. The books and fawning messages of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore Sorenson, for example, are being and have been subjected to searching criticism from authors Ronald Steel, Richard Barnet, Townsend Hoopes, Barton Bernstein, Stephen Ambrose, Louise FitzSimons, Richard Walton, David Halberstam, James Nathan, Anthony Hartley, and Bruce Miroff, among others.

We must also grapple with the question of rhetoric. JFK said so many grand things so elegantly. One can easily get caught up in the eloquent phrasing and noble appeals to human uplift and overlook contradictions between word and deed or the coercive components of American foreign policy. Kennedy also said so many hackneyed things so superficially, both publicly and privately. He often spoke of the “Communist offensive” or the “free world” as monoliths, ignoring complexities. Kennedy defenders like Schlesinger ask us to dismiss such statements as mere political rhetoric or as State Department “boilerplate.” That simple advice won’t do, for Kennedy seemed to say what he meant.

Ambiguity also dogs us. Kennedy’s foreign policy was a mixture of sincere idealism and traditional anti-Communist fervor. The President sent Peace Corps volunteers into hungry and appreciative villages in Latin America to grow food. But he also sent the Green Berets to destroy village life in Southeast Asia. We’re left, then, with part hawk and part dove, an administration which had serious doubts about the cliches of the Cold War but never shed them.

The assassination poses another interpretive obstacle. Admirers and servitors of JFK have asked us not to judge him by his accomplishments but rather by his intentions, for, they have argued, had he not been removed from his appointed journey so tragically in 1963, his good intentions would have reached fruition. As Richard Neustadt has pointed out, the first 12 to 18 months of any presidency constitute a learning or trial period. Put another way, Kennedy would have gained experience, been chastened by crises, and become educated to follow a more temperate and less traditional Cold War diplomacy had he lived. We can’t be sure, but we do know what he did in the thousand days of his administration to help stimulate a rash of diplomatic crises in a very short time.

Kennedy once said that one man “can make a difference.” We may quibble with such an emphasis on individuals in history. It obscures the basic continuity in American foreign policy, the traditional expansionism and interventionism spawned by a liberal ideology and by the real economic and strategic needs of a large, industrial power with global interests. Kennedy did not represent a sharp break with the past or a uniqueness in the fundamental tenets of American foreign policy. Yet the different methods he chose to use, the personal elements he applied to diplomacy, did matter in heating up the Cold War, threatening nuclear war, and implanting the United States in the Third World as never before.

What made Kennedy’s foreign policy tick? First, the historical imperatives of experience and ideology which linked Kennedy’s generation to a past of compelling lessons.Second,the conspicuous style, personality, and mood of the president and his advisers, who were determined to win the Cold War by bold action. And third, counter-revolutionary thought, best summarized by the phrases “nation-building” and “modernization,” demanding a high degree of activism in the Third World.”The difference between the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations,” Special Assistant Walt W. Rostow has written, “is not one of 180 degrees. The difference was a shift from defensive reaction to initiative. . . .”


The first explanation, the power of historical conditioning, derives from the truism that we are creatures of our pasts, that long-held assumptions, traditional behavior, and habits tug at us in the present. John F. Kennedy and his advisers were captives of an influential past. They constituted the political generation of the 1940’s. Many of them came to political maturity during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Kennedy himself served with honor during the Second World War on PT 109 and was elected to Congress in 1946, just a few months before the enunciation of the Truman or containment doctrine, the most commanding American principle of the Cold War. Kennedy and his advisers were members of what we might call the “containment generation,” which enjoyed what they considered the triumphs of aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Blockade crisis, NATO, and the Point Four Program.

They also suffered the frustration of Chiang Kai-shek’s collapse in China and the stalemate of the Korean War, Kennedy often flashed back to the 1940’s for reference points. When asked in 1963 whether he would reduce aid to South Vietnam, the President replied that he would not.”Strongly in our mind is what happened in the case of China at the end of World War II, where China was lost. . . . We don’t want that.” Indeed, in 1949 Congressman Kennedy blasted President Truman for the “loss” of China and also attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt for allegedly selling out to the Russians at the Yalta Conference of 1945.

Kennedy’s “containment generation” imbibed several lessons from the postwar years of the Soviet-American confrontation: that toughness against communism works; that a nation must negotiate from strength; that precautions must be taken to avoid compromises or sell-outs in negotiations; that communism was monolithic; that communism was a cancer feeding on poverty and economic dislocation; that it had to be contained through counter-force on a global scale; that revolutions and civil wars were usually Communist-inspired; and that a powerful United States almost alone had the duty to protect a threatened world. Many of these lessons were exaggerated, ill-defined, superficial, or downright mistaken, yet a generation of Americans committed them to memory in the 1940’s. That generation, once in positions of governmental authority in the 1960’s, would constantly look back to that earlier decade for inspiration and guidelines.

Kennedy also looked to that generation for his administration’s personnel. Indeed, the carry-over of ideas and public servants from the Truman period to the Kennedy era is striking. Secretary of State Dean Rusk had been an Assistant Secretary of State under Truman. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s bright, persuasive Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, like Kennedy a little over 40 years old, was Captain Bundy during World War II, had a hand in the Marshall Plan, and had developed close relations with Henry L. Stimson and Dean Acheson. Bundy revealed that “he had come to accept what he had learned from Dean Acheson—that, in the final analysis, the United States was the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world the caboose.”

Bundy’s 44-year-old assistant, MIT professor and grand theorist Walt W. Rostow, had participated in the war with the OSS and had worked on postwar European reconstruction as a State Department officer. His wife once perceptively told him that the Kennedy advisers were “the junior officers of the Second World War come to responsibility.” Rostow himself wrote in the early sixties that the “first charge of the Kennedy Administration in 1961—somewhat like the challenge faced by the Truman Administration in 1947—was to turn back the Communist offensive. . . .” Another White House assistant, especially concerned with Latin American affairs, was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., part of the flattered Harvard contingent which flocked to Washington to serve the new President. As the 43-year-old historian declared on CBS’s Face the Nation in 1960, the new administration “will have to come up with new initiatives and ideas comparable to the great creative conceptions of the 1940’s.” For Schlesinger, the 1940’s were active years as a member of the OSS and as a young Democratic Party liberal who also worked for the Economic Cooperation Administration.

Other members of the “containment generation” trooped to Washington to help Kennedy: Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith, Roger Hilsman, Robert McNamara, Adlai Stevenson, and Maxwell Taylor. Other more experienced hands like W. Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford, A. A. Berle, Charles Bohlen, and Robert Lovett came back. Even the ultimate in Cold Warriors, the inveterate Dean Acheson, advised Kennedy on European affairs. In 1959, when Acheson was vociferously attacking George F. Kennan for the latter’s proposals for disengagement from Central Europe, Walter Lippmann complained with insight that Acheson and his rigid types were “like old soldiers trying to relive the battles in which they won their fame and glory. . . . Their preoccupation with their own past history is preventing them from dealing with the new phase of the Cold War.” Reflecting on some of the foreign policy mistakes of the 1960’s, Clark Clifford, White House aide to Truman and Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson, admitted that “I am a product of the Cold War. . . . I think part of our problem in the early nineteen-sixties was that we were looking at Southeast Asia with the same attitudes with which we had viewed Europe in the nineteen-forties. . . . The world had changed but our thinking had not, at least not as much as it should have.”

The ideas of the generation of the 1940’s were molded not only by their immediate experience with the early Cold War but by their inherited assumptions from the 1930’s—assumptions which blended with and explained the Cold War crises. The lessons of the thirties were widely shared: that aggression cannot go unchallenged; that military force had to be used decisively; that economic depressions breed totalitarianism and war; that there was little difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia or between Hitler and Stalin; and that fanatical dictators, to maintain their power at home, must aggress and cannot be moved by reason. John F. Kennedy wrote a senior thesis at Harvard and published it in 1940 as Why England Slept. Its theme was direct: the English revealed weakness before the Nazi threat and should have employed force. For Kennedy’s generation, the Munich agreement became the Munich “syndrome” or lesson, a vivid example of the costs of softness. In his televised address to the nation on Oct.22, 1962, in the terrible throes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy tapped that historical legacy for a rationale: “The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war.”

The Kennedy team, then, came to office with considerable historical baggage. They felt, too, that the Elsenhower Administration, complacent and indifferent in the 1950’s, had let American power and prestige slip and had thereby permitted the lessons of the 1930’s and 1940’s to slump from underwork and passivity. They craved triumphs like those over Nazism and Stalinism. They charged, with remarkable exaggeration, that Eisenhower was unwilling to enter the new battleground of the Cold War, the Third World—that he was consigning it to communism without a fight.”I think it’s time America started moving again,” proclaimed John F. Kennedy.

The presidential campaign of 1960 demonstrated the ingrained nature of the Cold War’s history. Richard Nixon and Kennedy differed little in foreign policy views. Nixon, too, was part of the “containment generation,” also elected to Congress in 1946. Throughout the 1950’s, Kennedy had proven his Cold War credentials, calling for larger military appropriations than Eisenhower wanted. In 1956 Kennedy considered Vietnam the “finger in the dike” of communism. In 1960 his Cold Warriorism surfaced as he and Nixon escalated their claims to the inherited wisdom of the past. Although Eisenhower had just suffered a set of diplomatic blows with the U-2 affair, the noisy demise of the Paris summit meeting, Castro’s unintimidated rise in Cuba, accelerated war in Indo-China, an adverse balance of payments, and the forced cancellation of a trip to Japan, when pressed by Peter Lisagor on Face the Nation in April, 1960, Kennedy had to admit that he endorsed most of Eisenhower’s policies, except the apparent neglect of developing nations. As David Halberstam has concluded, the Kennedy people “were not dissenting from the assumptions of the Eisenhower years, but pledged to be more effective, more active, to cut a lot of the flab off.”

In his campaign speeches, Kennedy, who said he didn’t mind being called Truman with a Harvard accent, hammered away on the issue of Cuba and the Cold War. He urged pressure on Castro and aid to Cuban rebels to overthrow him. “I wasn’t the vice president who presided over the communization of Cuba,” he declared.”I’m not impressed with those who say they stood up to Krushchev when Castro has defied them 90 miles away.” In Alexandria, Virginia, in August, he announced that “I think there is a danger that history will make a judgment that these were the days when the tide began to run out for the United States. These were the times when the communist tide began to pour in.” A month later he embellished his rhetoric: “The enemy is lean and hungry and the United States is the only sentinel at the gate.” Or in Salt Lake City: “The enemy is the Communist system itself— implacable, unceasing in its drive for world domination. For this is not a struggle for the supremacy of arms alone—it is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: Freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.” John Foster Dulles could not have said it better.

Was all of this mere hyperbolic, campaign rhetoric? It can’t be dismissed so easily. Such utterances, heard over and over again from the lips of the Kennedyites, represent the historical imprint upon a generation of Americans. History was not so much a way of learning, as a soothing way of seemingly making simple sense out of complex events. This historical imperative helped compel them to try to move the Cold War from stalemate to American victory. History both tugged at them and pushed them.


The style, personality, and mood of the Kennedy team joined the historical imperatives to compel a vigorous, even belligerent foreign policy.”All at once you had something exciting,” recalled Don Ferguson, a student campaigner for Kennedy in Nebraska.”You had a young guy who had kids, and who liked to play football on his front lawn. He was a real human being. He was talking about pumping some new life into the country . . .just giving the whole country a real shakedown and a new image. . . . Everything they did showed that America was alive and active. Family ski trips , .., Jackie with her new hair styles. . . . To run a country,” Ferguson concluded, “it takes more than just mechanics. It takes a psychology.” Call it psychology, charisma, charm, image, mystique, or cult, Kennedy had it. He moved Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians out of the White House and brought Mozart in. Photogenic and quick-witted, he became a media star. Observers marvelled at his speed-reading abilities. Decrying softness in the American people, he challenged their egos by launching a physical fitness program.

Handsome, articulate, witty, ingratiating, dynamic, energetic, competitive, athletic, cultured, bright, self-confident, cool, analytical, mathematical, zealous—these were the traits universally ascribed to the young president. People often listened not to what he said, but how he said it, and he usually said it with verve and conviction. He simply overwhelmed. Dean Rusk remembered him as an “incandescent man. He was on fire, and he set people around him on fire.” For Schlesinger, JFK had “enormous confidence in his own luck,” and “everyone around him thought he had the Midas touch and could not lose.”

Style and personality are important to how diplomacy is conducted; how we behave obviously affects how others read us and respond to us, and our personal characteristics and needs generate measurable behavior. Many of his friends have commented that John F. Kennedy was driven by a desire for power, because power ensured winning. Furthermore, he personalized issues, converting them into tests of will. Politics became a matter of crises and races, His father, Joe Kennedy, demanded excellence. As James Barber has pointed out in his book, The Presidential Character, old Joe “pressed his children hard to compete, never to be satisfied with anything but first place. The point was not just to try; the point was to win.” John developed a “fighting spirit,” a thirst for victory, a self-image as the vigorous man. Aroused in the campaign of 1960 by the stings of anti-Catholic bias, by misplaced right-wing charges that he was “soft on communism,” and by his narrow victory over Nixon, Kennedy seemed eager to prove his toughness once in office.

Kennedy took up challenges with zest. Soon Americans watched for box scores on the missile race, the arms race, and the space race. There was also the race for influence in the Third World, Even the noblest of his programs, the Peace Corps, was part of the game. When JFK learned in 1961 that both Ghana and Guinea had requested Peace Corps volunteers, he told Rusk: “If we can successfully crack Ghana and Guinea, Mali may even turn to the West. If so, these would be the first Communist-oriented countries to turn from Moscow to us.”

Kennedy and his advisers, it seems, thought Khrushchev and the Russians were testing them as men. In early 1961, when they discussed the possibility of a summit meeting with Khrushchev, Kennedy asserted that “I have to show him that we can be as tough as he is. . . . I’ll have to sit down with him, and let him see who he’s dealing with.” And a White House aide explained the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961: “Nobody in the White House wanted to be soft, . . . Everybody wanted to show they were just as daring and bold as everybody else.” During those tense hours when the news about the disaster at the Bay of Pigs penetrated the White House, Bobby Kennedy exploded, saying Moscow would think the Kennedy Administration weak unless the mission succeeded. Something had to be done. Walt Rostow soothed him with this counsel: “We would have ample opportunity to prove we were not paper tigers in Berlin, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.” John F. Kennedy and his aides, as somebody has put it, feared to be thought fearful.

With these psychic needs and with their high intellectual talents, the Kennedy officers swept into Washington, “swash-buckling” and suffering from “auto-intoxication,” commented one observer. Cocky, thinking themselves the “right” people, they were, complained a skeptical Chester Bowles, “sort of looking for a chance to prove their muscle.” They were “full of belligerence.” Schlesinger captured the moment this way: “Euphoria reigned; we thought for a moment that the world was plastic and the future unlimited.” In early 1961 Schlesinger advised the President on Latin American policy and declared that “the atmosphere is set for miracles.” Bustle, zeal, energy, and optimism became the bywords.

The Kennedy people considered themselves “can-do” types, who with rationality and careful calculation could revive an ailing nation and world. Theodore H. White has tagged them “the Action Intellectuals.” They believed that they could manage affairs.”Management” became one of the catchwords of the time. For example, the new program for the military, called “flexible response,” was devised to account for all military contingencies, from nuclear to conventional to guerilla warfare.

With adequate data, and they had an inordinate faith in data, they were certain they could succeed. It seemed everything could be quantified. When a White House assistant attempted to persuade Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the “whiz kid” from Ford Motors, that the Vietnam venture was doomed, the efficient-minded McNamara shot back: “Where is your data? Give me something I can put in the computer. Don’t give me your poetry.” The problem, of course, was that much of the data on Vietnam was inconclusive or false, “Ah, les statistiques,” said a Vietnamese general to an American official.”We Vietnamese can give him [McNamara] all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.”

With its faith in formulas and the computer, the Kennedy “can-do” team brough a freshness to American foreign policy, if not in substance, at least in slogans: “The Grand Design” for Europe; the “New Africa” policy; “Flexible Response;” the “Alliance for Progress” for Latin America, and the “New Frontier” at home. Journalist William V. Shannon, after reviewing the first few months of the new administration, concluded that it had established a “cult of toughness,” with an approach to the Cold War reminiscent of the 1940’s.

That toughness was evident in Kennedy’s alarmist Inaugural Address. Its swollen Cold War language was matched only by the pompous phrasing that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” He paid homage to historical memories when he noted that that generation had been “tempered by war” and “disciplined by a hard and bitter peace. . . .” Then came those moving, but in hindsight rather frightening words: “Let every nation know that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” No halfway measures here. Kennedy and his assistants thought they could lick anything. They were impatient. As Schlesinger recalled, the Kennedy Administration “put a preminum on quick, tough, laconic, decided people. . . .”

The Cuban Missile Crisis provided an opportunity for the exercise of management skills and toughness. What is most telling about Kennedy’s response to the reckless Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba is that he essentially suspended diplomacy and chose a television address, rather than a direct approach to Moscow, to inform Khrushchev that his flagrant action would not be tolerated. Kennedy chose public rather than private diplomacy and thereby significantly increased the chances of war. Why? Ever since the Bay of Pigs muddle, the Kennedy team had nurtured a sense of revenge. The president himself was stunned by the failure and in a speech on April 20, 1961, he spelled out the lessons he had drawn: “Let the record show that our restraint is not inexhaustible,” he declared. He pledged that the United States would take up the “relentless struggle” with communism in “every corner of the globe.” It was clear, he went on, that the “complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history, Only the strong, . . .can possibly survive.” Finally, with his customary appeals for the supreme sacrifice, Kennedy announced that “I am determined upon our system’s survival and success, regardless of the cost and regardless of the peril!”

Critics pointed to Kennedy’s fixation with Cuba, which was evident even before the Bay of Pigs venture.”The Castro regime is a thorn in the flesh,” Senator J. William Fulbright told the President, “but it is not a dagger in the heart.” JFK apparently disagreed. He did not appreciate the depth of Cuban nationalism or the pent-up hatred for the United States’ 20th-century imperialistic presence under the Platt Amendment and dictator Fulgencio Batista. Kennedy worked to expunge Castro, to show him that he could not easily challenge Washington’s manliness. Kennedy took a number of steps: he increased aid through the CIA to rebels in Miama; he ousted Cuba from the OAS; he tightened the economic blockade; he refused to open diplomatic relations with Havana; he pressed other Latin American countries to break diplomatic relations with Castro; he energized propaganda efforts though the USIA, and it appears that he tolerated assassination plans.

If the Bay of Pigs had been a test of will, so had the Vienna summit meeting of June 1961. Some advisers thought that Kennedy had not been assertive enough and that the bellowing Khrushchev scored a personal triumph. George Kennan commented later, “I think Khrushchev failed to realize . . . what a man he was up against.” The Berlin Wall which went up in August also seemed to many a sign of Americanness. During the Berlin crisis, Kennedy grew impatient and personalized the test: “That son of a bitch won’t pay any attention to words,” snapped the president.”He has to see you move.” Furthermore, “if Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.”

The point is that when the missiles were discovered in Cuba in October, 1962, Kennedy was poised for boldness, for another test of will. It was an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, and remember, said Dean Rusk, the Russians blinked first. During the crisis, A. A. Berle recorded the following in his diary: “This is reprise on the Bay of Pigs business and this time there will be no charges that somebody weakened at the crucial moment.” Kennedy himself put it this way in a letter to Prime Minister Harold MacMillan of Great Britain: “What is essential at this moment of highest test is that Khrushchev should discover that if he is counting on weakness or irresolution, he has miscalculated.” Personality and style alone did not determine the American reaction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were obvious strategic calculations of national interest. What I am suggesting is that the way, the manner in which Kennedy responded was molded by the “action intellectuals’ “style and mood. The president’s desire to score a victory, to recapture previous losses, and to flex his muscle accentuated the crisis and obstructed diplomacy. Public statements via televison are not calculated to defuse a crisis; Kennedy gave Khrushchev no chance to withdraw his mistake or to save face. Kennedy never probed deeply for Soviet motivations. He left little room for bargaining but instead issued a public ultimatum and seemed willing to destroy, in Strangelovian fashion, millions in the process. The members of the executive committee which admired the President were bright and dedicated, Robert Kennedy recalled, but “if six of them had been President. . ., I think the world might have been blown up.” “We were in luck,” John Kenneth Galbraith later commented, “but success in a lottery is no argument for lotteries.”

The result? Russia was humiliated publicly. Having its own pride, recognizing its nuclear inferiority, and being harangued by the Chinese as “capitulationist,” Moscow launched a massive arms build-up.”Never will we be caught like this again,” concluded the Soviet deputy foreign minister. The American lessons for the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to political scientist James Nathan, illustrate my point: “force and toughness became enshrined as instruments of policy.” Indeed, “the policy of toughness became dogma to such an extent that non-military solutions to political problems were excluded. The 1962 “victory” in Cuba may have emboldened the Kennedy administration to take firmer action in Vietnam.


The presidential style, the historical imperatives, and the third generator of John F, Kennedy’s foreign policy: counter-revolutionary thought. Rostow has instructed us that for Kennedy “ideas were tools. He picked them up easily like statistics. . . . He wanted to know how ideas could be put to work.” And the intellectuals in the Kennedy court fed the new president a steady diet of ideas. The key concept was “nation-building.” Through “modernization” (what Kennedyites called the “peaceful revolution”), developing nations would be helped through the stormy times of economic infancy to economic (and hence political) maturity. The Kennedy team understood the force of nationalism in the Third World; rather than flatly opposing it, the “action intellectuals” sought to use it or channel it.

The governing notion was that evolutionary economic development would insure non-Communist political stability. The Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps were two programs designed to fulfill this concept.”Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,” Kennedy proclaimed, “will make violent revolution inevitable,” Washington thus tried to induce what Schlesinger called “middle-class revolution.” Land reform, industrialization, tax reform, and public health and sanitation had to be undertaken, Schlesinger informed the president, or “new Castros will infallibly arise across the continent.” “Modern societies must be built,” Rostow told the 1961 graduating class of the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, “and we are prepared to help build them.”

Kennedy liked to quote Mao’s statement that “guerillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which fish swim. If the temperature of the water is right, the fish will thrive and multiply.” Kennedy sought to affect the temperature of the water through modernization. Counter-insurgency became one of his means. Whether or not Khrushchev had given his January 1961 proclamation that Russia would support movements of national liberation, the Kennedy team would surely have undertaken counter-insurgency operations. They were committed before Moscow uttered its alarming pledge. Insurgencies were destabilizing movements, assumed to be Communist-inspired.

Counter-insurgency took several forms, all reflecting the “can-do” philosophy. Popular were the training of native police forces and bureaucrats, flood control, transportation and communications, and community action projects. Most dramatic, and something in which the President took a keen interest, were the American Special Forces units or the Green Berets. Kennedy did not create this elite corps of efficient warriors, but he personally elevated their status and supervised the choice of equipment for them. They would apply America’s finest technology in Vietnam to succeed where the French had failed after a ten-year effort. In late March 1961, Rostow urged a “counter-offensive” in Indochina by using “our unexploited counter-guerrilla assets.” As Rostow advised JFK, “in Knute Rockne’s old phrase, we are not just saving them for the Junior Prom.” Kennedy ordered a five-fold increase in the size of the Special Forces and gradually enlarged the number of American military personnel in Vietnam from 685 to more than 16,000 by the end of 1963. As Kennedy’s favorite general, Maxwell Taylor, put it, Vietnam was a “laboratory” in counter-insurgency techniques.

The arrogance and bias of these ideas are striking, No matter how one cuts them, they meant significant American interference in the affairs of other nations. They amounted to, as Robert Divine suggested, an American planning commission for the world. They were grand in theory, so pragmatic and humanitarian at the same time.

Something went wrong. The nation-building concept simply did not pay proper attention to the world’s diversity and complexity, the multitude of indigenous forces, the varied traditions of other cultures, the entrenched position of native elites, and the persuasive appeals of the insurgent left. It is remarkable how blindly ignorant Rostow and other officials were of foreign cultures when they chose to project the American experience onto aliens. We found out that economic growth and democracy do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, that the middle class could be selfish or did not exist at all, that some nations had no tradition of liberal politics, that not all insurgencies were Communist, and that rebels, closer to their nation’s pulse, believed deeply in their cause. In a revealing question, an American reporter once asked why did “their” Vietnamese fight better than “our” Vietnamese?

The nation-building concept also over-estimated the power of the United States to shape other nations. It assumed that soldiers from Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut, and North Carolina could manage “natives” abroad, much as they had done in the Philippines at the turn of the century or in Latin America through part of the 20th century. But unable to force reform on others, they often ended up violating our principles by supporting the elite or the military or by trying to topple regimes, such as that of Diem in Vietnam. Strategic hamlets, part of counter-insurgency in Vietnam, proved to be disruptive of village life. Villages bitterly resented resettlement. It made the Viet Cong appear to be Robin Hoods. The tasks were too great for the United States. We learned that even our massive air power, our B-52s, could not knock Vietnamese from their environment. The concept assumed further that the United States had an obligation to cope with insurgencies everywhere. It made few distinctions between key and peripheral areas in terms of American national interest. It did not define the “threat” carefully, It tried to do too much. It was globalism gone rampant.

The concept also possessed a pro-capitalist, private-enterprise bias. It favored “private” development, But in the Third World that method was traditionally identified with exploitation. It was simply an unpopular concept in developing nations bent upon gaining control over their own natural resources. Finally, nation-building did not estimate the strain that would be placed on American resources and patience in this long-term, global role as policeman and teacher. In other words, it tended to take for granted the American people and the constitutional system, including congressional prerogatives in policy-making. Overall, then, the revered, clinical concepts of the Kennedy Administration bumped up against a host of realities,


The Kennedy Administration, propelled by Cold War history, by its own bumptious “can-do” style, and by its grandiose theories for world revival, bequeathed a dubious legacy in foreign policy. Would JFK have changed had he lived? Unlikely. He would have had to fire the hard-line advisers who persistently clung to their theories. The Cold War was too ingrained in Kennedy’s experience to permit too much adjustment, Moreover, it is likely that he would not have shed his penchant for personalization or bold action. And, like all people who must make decisions they need to justify, he would probably have persisted in defending his mistakes with the distortions necessary.

There is no question that he temporarily quieted the crisis in Laos and followed a cautious policy in the Congo, that some of his policies had a touch of humanity, and that just before his death Kennedy had doubts about Vietnam and about the rigidities of his Cold War stance. His June 1963 address at American University is often cited as the example of his change of heart, for therein he expressed an uneasiness with high weapons expenditures, called for a reexamination of American Cold War attitudes, suggested that conflict with the Soviet Union was not inevitable, and appealed for disarmament. It was a high-minded speech and seemingly reflected a willingness to negotiate—one product of which was the test ban treaty. Still, “one speech is not enough,” George F. Kennan has remarked. This speech was not typical of Kennedy or his advisers, many of whom stayed on to work with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

More typical are other elements of the Kennedy legacy in foreign policy: an arms race of massive proportion and fear, reflected in the bomb shelter craze which Kennedy encouraged; neglect of traditional diplomacy, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis; conspicuous reliance upon military force to solve diplomatic tussles; globalism of over-commitment. Kennedy showed a distinct impatience with the philosophy of “doing little or nothing.” As Anthony Hartley has suggested: “The style of the Kennedy diplomacy excluded the attentive watching and patient waiting which are the secret of a successful foreign policy.” Kennedy continued concentration of foreign policy decision-making in the White House and fed the “imperial presidency.” Congress was not even informally informed, for example, that the United States intended to attack a sovereign nation at the Bay of Pigs.

The Kennedy team exaggerated the threat posed to the United States by insurgencies and the Soviet Union, confused Communists and insurgents by espousing the “domino theory,” and alienated the Third World through interventions. An increasingly disenchanted but good-humored Galbraith wrote the president in March 1962: “Incidentally, who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to have his name and address and ask him what is so important about this real estate in the space age. What strength do we gain from alliance with an incompetent government [in Vietnam] and a people who are so largely indifferent to their own salvation? Some of his decisions puzzle me.” The Kennedy Administration continued a tired, antiquated policy of non-recognition toward the Peoples’ Republic of China. As Kennedy simply remarked on the Sino-Soviet split: “A dispute over how to bury the West is no grounds for Western rejoicing.”

The world wasn’t plastic, the 1960’s were not the 1940’s, and Kennedy’s style of toughness was probably more appropriate to the football field than to diplomacy. Kennedy did not act like a Cold Warrior because he was pressured by recalcitrant right-wingers, a Cold War Congress, or an out-of-control bureaucracy. And, although the Russians were belligerent and uncooperative, they had been so for much of the postwar period. What changed in 1961 was not Soviet diplomacy but the inauguration of a new administration in Washington. Kennedy believed in Cold War dogmas and gave them a new vigor. He was thus not only a maker of history but a victim of it.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading