Obama Channels John F. Kennedy: Brown Bag (III)

Revisionist Cold War historian James Blight — the scholar behind Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” documentary with Robert McNamara — drops a resonant thought I’d never considered: that every day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency was a centennial anniversay of a day in Abraham Lincoln’s term.

And he’s constantly asking Ted Sorenson, his principal adviser, to go to the Library and find out how he can take something from the American Civil War, that horrible scene — 600,000 Americans killed. ‘How can I take that and use that for my purposes now? Because I want to avoid that! There must be something in that for me.’

Professor James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown in conversation with Chris Lydon for Open Source, January 28, 2009.

The question in this conversation is how President Barack Obama can use the Kennedy record for his purposes, and what JFK might say to BHO if he had the chance. Jim Blight cuts through the personal and romantic connections between the two princely presidents — the two young and inexperienced Senators, so attractively bright and writerly, each with his detached, anthropological eye. The hard point is that Obama like Kennedy inherits a military machine already in high gear, with a momentum driving escalation in Afghanistan entirely analagous to the pressure toward war that Kennedy resisted in Cuba, Berlin and Southeast Asia. What Kennedy would say to Obama would begin with “all war is stupid,” as Kennedy wrote from his PT boat (before it was rammed by Japanese) in 1943. Jim Blight’s guess is that Kennedy would go on:

“Look deeply into what you’re actually deciding — to send a lot of people miserably to their graves. Furthermore, and this is the essence of it for Kennedy, you have no idea what you’re getting into. You have no idea how this could escalate beyond your control. You have no idea how politically unmanageable it’s going to get for you, or how quickly it is going to happen… When somebody comes in and tells you you have no more options other than to send troops into a battle zone: don’t believe it… Find another way out. Take your time.”

James Blight imagining John F. Kennedy’s counsel to President Barack Obama.

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  • olivercranglesparrot

    Superb. Absolutely superb. Thank you Professor Blight. Thank you Chris. Very enjoyable. To repeat myself, Mr. President, get on board with the ICC and Kyoto, as a first and important step to show some moral/ethical high ground. And, most importantly, no horse trading immunity as a sign concession. Jam through congress at the first opportunity.

    My ‘What-If’ regarding JFK and Vietnam. I would guess a draw down escalation after the 1964 election. But, just speculation on my part.

    My favorite moment in this conversation, regarding McNamara and Vietnam: The whole idea of bombing them (North Vietnamese) to the table was total bullsh*t. Yepper. Can’t be said enough about a variety of contexts.

  • Hear hear! OCP. And thank you Chris for bringing us this conversation with James Blight and the previous one with Anthony Bogues. These voices and the great questions from the host are what make OS vital. Keep them coming.

    Listening to both shows and the two clear voices appealing for America and its president to find a peaceful way in a post-colonial, post-Coldwar, post-Neocon (hopefully) world, I was drawn back to the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner, especially the following lines…

    And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

    Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:

    … and really wonder if it is possible for the US to be a nation without an engaged enemy, real or, more often the case, fabricated. I’m hoping that Obama’s empathic heart might lead him to choose the road less travelled.

  • Enjoyed the anthropological/ethnographic reference, for obvious reasons. It was rather appropriate in that we are indeed “detached” in our approach to understanding people before (or, even, “instead of”) condoning or condemning them. The notion of “cultural relativism” has often been misunderstood but Blight’s description fits.

    Speaking of anthro, it’s rather surprising that Lutz has yet to be on Open Source. She’s connected to the Watson Institute and is well-known throughout the discipline (in part because of her work with Abu-Lughod). Would make for a fascinating conversation with a global attitude.

  • sargent6

    Excellent show. As you began I figured – oh no, another Kennedy groupie trying to figure out a way to keep the sparkle on a rock star president who failed miserably (bay of pigs, cuban missles, vietnam). Keep in mind, I live in Massachusetts where Kennedyism is a cult.

    Well, Mr Blight gave me a different perspective. I still think it’s easy to pick out the facts that support your notion that Kennedy was swell and would have gotten us out of Viet Nam. But the arguments were good and maybe I was a bit harsh.