Testing Presidential Mettle: JFK and Obama

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Joe Biden recently predicted that within the first six months of an Obama administration the freshman president would be tested by a contrived international crisis. Obama supporters quickly pointed to John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 as a model for how Barack Obama might respond. That crisis, however, was the last in a series of tests. In fact, the poor way in which JFK handled earlier crises fostered that nearly disastrous nuclear confrontation.

In February 1961, JFK faced his first crisis in far away Laos, where a three-way civil war raged. Kennedy soon discovered that U.S. forces, structured for conventional warfare in Europe, would be logistically hamstrung fighting hundreds of miles inland in the land-locked, mountainous jungle kingdom bordering Red China and North Vietnam. In July 1962, the Kennedy administration acquiesced in the neutralization of Laos. Kennedy then decided to "draw a line in the sand" in nearby South Vietnam, where U.S. forces would benefit from large ports and numerous airfields. Thus, JFK placed the nation on the slippery slope into a Vietnam quagmire.

In April 1961, the Bay of Pigs crisis again tested JFK’s mettle. A rag-tag army of 1,200 Cuban refugees, trained by the CIA and supported by B-26 bombers in Cuban markings—flown from a secret base in Guatemala by members of the Alabama Air National Guard—failed disastrously. As Fidel Castro personally led forces that overwhelmed the Cuban patriots, U.S. Navy fighter planes orbited just outside Cuban airspace, anxiously awaiting orders to strike. JFK demurred.

That summer, at their first summit meeting in Vienna, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened Kennedy with war over Berlin. A shaken Kennedy returned home to order a massive buildup in U.S. strategic and conventional forces. A confident Khrushchev, meanwhile, ordered a wall built to seal off communist East Berlin and East Germany. Kennedy responded with one dandy speech in front of the Berlin Wall.

That same summer, JFK ordered plans for a nuclear first strike on Soviet bomber and missile bases. The plan called for 55 B-52s to drop 80 nuclear weapons, wiping out an estimated 90 percent of Soviet nuclear forces. Because these bases were located in isolated regions, planners estimated fewer than a million Russian casualties and deemed Soviet retaliation unlikely, given that Soviet nuclear forces would be drastically reduced while U.S. striking power remained entirely intact. JFK put the plan on hold. Soviet intelligence likely reported this plan to Khrushchev.

Having tested JFK’s mettle and finding weakness, Khrushchev deployed medium-range, nuclear-tipped missiles and light bombers to Cuba, threatening nuclear annihilation for every American city within 1,500 miles. The October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the ultimate test, brought both nations to the brink of Armageddon. JFK’s "finest hour" was almost the world’s last hour.

To paraphrase an earlier Democratic vice-presidential candidate: Senator Obama, I grew up admiring John F. Kennedy, and you’re no John F. Kennedy.

During his first year in office, JFK increased defense expenditures by a third. Obama vows to reduce the defense budget by one fourth. While ultimately JFK’s decision to "draw a line in the sand" in Vietnam suffered from overly-optimistic assumptions involving the efficacy of counter-insurgency, Kennedy engaged to oppose Soviet "wars of national liberation." By contrast with JFK’s commitment to "go anywhere, bear any burden," Obama vows retreat and withdrawal within 16 months from a war that U.S. forces are winning in Iraq. Kennedy’s perceived weakness in his July 1961 Vienna summit with Khrushchev led to the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, the Cuban Missile Crisis. What will Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate unconditionally with Iranian leaders render? Any nation seeking unconditional negotiations assumes a position of weakness.

The Soviet challenge in Cuba occurred when the United States possessed overwhelming nuclear superiority. Additionally, from the start of his administration, JFK rebuilt U.S. conventional forces, including expanding the Army from 16 to 20 divisions. By contrast, Obama proposes deep cuts in the American military while Russia revitalizes its armed forces; China engages in massive military modernization; Iran moves inexorably toward acquiring nukes; and Russian, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Iranian leaders become increasingly chummy.

And who will advise the inexperienced Obama? Senator Joe Biden, picked to balance the Democratic ticket based on his foreign-policy experience? Will Biden again point to FDR’s leadership demonstrated in his 1929 television address to reassure a nation faced with economic disaster? Or will he tout how the French and NATO forces kicked Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon? An advisor one heart-beat away from the Oval Office should know Herbert Hoover, not Franklin Roosevelt, occupied that office in 1929—when television was 10 years into the future. An advisor on foreign policy must know Hezbollah is stronger in southern Lebanon today than in 2006 and French monitoring forces under a U.N. (not NATO) mandate can only ogle—not interfere with—Hezbollah operations.

Most importantly, Barack Obama is no JFK.

Dr. Earl Tilford, a fellow with the Center of Vision & Values at Grove City College, is currently working on a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A former Air Force intelligence officer and former Director of Research for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University.