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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