Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.
You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”
Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013
First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.
Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?
Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.
Professor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.
Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.