The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, February 05, 2005
 

JFK's astonishing admission


Reading the latest analysis of Bush and the media - this from Jack Shafer - I'm prompted to go back to the April 12 1961 presser I mentioned yesterday in discussing pre-Bay of Pigs news coverage, for a (totally unscientific) compare-and-contrast.

On Cuba, he carefully cuts out the cardboard so that what he doesn't say is a silhouette of an invasion by anti-Castro Cubans with US support [1].

Nothing startling until you get down to the question at para 13:
Mr. President...[t]he Communists seem to be putting us on the defensive on a number of fronts--now, again, in space. Wars aside, do you think that there is a danger that their system is going to prove more durable than ours?

That's like asking Bush whether Al Qaeda have a chance of beating the US. But Kennedy (according to the transcript) plays it straight in a 330 word answer, which concludes:
My feeling is that we are more durable in the long run. These dictatorships enjoy many short-range advantages, as we saw in the thirties. But in the long run I think our system suits the qualities and aspirations of people that desire to be their own masters. I think our system suits better. Our job is to maintain our strength until our great qualities can be brought more effectively to bear. But during the meantime, it is going to require a united effort.

The President of the United States is looking forward to his team winning deep into extra innings.

My guess is - this is not something I've ever studied - that an integral component of Cold War ideology in both the Eisenhower/Dulles massive retaliation and the Kennedy/McNamara flexible response versions was that the USSR was an enemy well-matched with the US in the scope of its interests, ambitions and resources - and in the durability of its institutions. Manicheism really only worked with a symmetrical opponent.

(The need in Bush's post-9/11 strategy to boost bin Laden and his organisation is analogous. Kinda.)

Manicheism also excluded the tertium quid - the Cold War (in 1961, at least) was strictly a game for two players, which simplified things well beyond the point of egregious error - characterising Ho Chi Minh being the stock example round here.

JFK certainly seems generally smoother than Baby Bush [3] - but is his devotion to serving his policy and the ideology that drives it any the less? Is his respect for his interlocutors in the Press Corps - as evidence by the fullness and frankness of his answers - any greater?

For now, I'm sticking by the Null Hypothesis - no significant difference between the two in those respects.

  1. The first question (para 4) is on Cuba:
    Mr. President, has a decision been reached on how far this country will be willing to go in helping an anti-Castro uprising or invasion of Cuba? What could you say with respect to recent developments as far as the anti-Castro movements in Cuba are concerned?
    JFK says that US forces would not invade; and he would do his best to stop US citizens invading; he mentions the indictment of Rolando Masferrer (emphasis mine)
    on the grounds that he was plotting an invasion of Cuba, from Florida, in order to establish a Batista-like regime should indicate the feelings of this country towards those who wish to re-establish that kind of an administration inside Cuba.
    And ends his answer
    The basic issue in Cuba is not one between the United States and Cuba. It is between the Cubans themselves. I intend to see that we adhere to that principle and as I understand it this administration's attitude is so understood and shared by the anti-Castro exiles from Cuba in this country.
    Adding up the things Kennedy does not rule out, you get a USG endorsement of an invasion by Cuban democrats with all types of US military aid except personnel.

  2. The list of presidents on the right of the page is not linked! You have to use the search box on the left - scroll down.

  3. Not all the time - note 4 of yesterday's piece.

MORE

The Public Papers of the President series - online from Hoover onwards [2] - is a useful resource for president/media relations, which I've rather neglected.

The FRUS volume Cuba 1961-62 is online but without a descriptive index - so you need to download the lot to see what there is there! Vince Ferraro has a Missiles Crisis page. (Both basic - but the URLs are to hand, so...)

On misconceptions of the strength of the USSR prevalent in the US during the Cold War right down to its collapse at the end of the 1980s, there is (was?) a polemic that I vaguely took cognizance of. One gets a flavour from CIA Assessments of the Soviet Union: The Record Versus the Charges, a long piece by Douglas MacEachin, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence.

Exaggerations of Soviet power - Kennedy's fake missile gap was one - were worth billions to the military-industrial complex over the years (Cato piece).

Which is not to say that pols deliberately hyped the Soviet threat to get campaign contributations from defence contractors on the strength of plans for new weapons programmes to meet said hyped threat. But you wouldn't be staggered to see evidence (I haven't) that this went on.

On the economic front, estimations of Soviet GNP growth are dicussed in a 1992 article (PDF); and some (what look like) fantasy numbers from a Marxist site.


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