John F. Kennedy would have turned 100 on Monday, and his life’s work on foreign policy provides compelling insights into how we might approach our own challenges in an increasingly unstable world.
From his election to the House in 1946, through his Senate tenure in the 1950s, to his 1,000-ish days as president, JFK sought to know more about the world, recognized the special U.S. role in it, focused attention on the challenges that a free and democratic America faced from authoritarian adversaries, pursued a coherent set of policies to confront them and, most importantly, learned from his mistakes.
Kennedy, who was born on May 29, 1917, read voraciously about history from his childhood, traveled widely across Europe and Asia, worked in America’s embassy in London while his father was the U.S. ambassador in the late 1930s, and penned diaries with his thoughts about different systems of government that he observed up close and what they meant for America’s prospects around the world.
He never doubted that freedom was far better than its authoritarian alternatives, whether it be the fascism of the 1930s or the Soviet-led communism that represented America’s biggest global challenge in the post-war years.
With Washington and Moscow battling for the allegiance of nonaligned Third World nations, Kennedy proudly promoted freedom over communism – never more than when he told a massive crowd in the besieged city of West Berlin in 1963, “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin.”
Speaking near the Berlin Wall, which the Soviets built in 1961 to stop the flow of East Germans fleeing to the West, he declared, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.”
More than most, JFK recognized that “freedom is not free.” From at least his college days, as reflected in his Harvard senior thesis that he turned into the best-selling book “Why England Slept,” he believed that the United States faced the test of whether its democratic system was tough enough to prevail over authoritarian systems that could largely ignore public opinion and organize all of their resources for warfare.
To meet that test, he pursued a peace-through-strength policy, boosting defense spending and facing down Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over the Cuban Missile Crisis and U.S. access to West Berlin. Nevertheless, he knew the horrors of war as a World War II commander of the PT-109 and, hoping to reduce the chance of a nuclear conflict, he inked a nuclear test ban treaty and spoke eloquently about U.S.-Soviet peaceful coexistence at American University five months before his death.
Nor did he think that America’s security was the responsibility solely of America’s leaders or its military. At what he often called a moment of “maximum peril,” he asked Americans – from corporate leaders to blue-collar workers – to lend their effort to America’s struggle to contain the Soviets. His “New Frontier,” he said after accepting the 1960 Democratic nomination for president, “sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
However knowledgeable he was, however much he had pondered America’s global role, Kennedy never thought that he knew it all. In fact, he was wise enough to learn from his mistakes – which included his approval of the ill-advised Bay of Pigs operation to topple Cuba’s Fidel Castro in April of 19961, his inability to match wits with the blustery Khrushchev at their Vienna summit that June, and his decision to boost U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam as its government was losing public support.
When, due to JFK’s failures at the Bay of Pigs and Vienna – and the signals that those failures sent to Khrushchev about Kennedy’s weakness – the Soviets began putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, a wiser Kennedy rejected the advice of most of his advisers that he launch military strikes to wipe them out.
Instead, with a keen appreciation for the pressures Khrushchev was facing from Kremlin hardliners, he settled on a less confrontational approach to make it easier for Khrushchev to back down.
JFK was knowledgeable about the world, thoughtful in his approach to America’s challenges, and sensitive to the predicaments of his adversaries – and those traits should never go out of style.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.