John F. Kennedy moved it forward a whole generation (his three predecessors were born between 1882 and 1890), but apart from the appearance of vigor (which disguised severe medical problems and excessive medication, not to dwell upon apparent satyriasis), his record in office was thin and composed more of promise than fact. JFK came late to the correct conclusion on civil rights and taxes, but couldn’t move them legislatively, and it was his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who got those measures adopted. He probably deserves the benefit of the doubt that he would not have made such a terrible mess of Vietnam as his successor did; would have avoided it, or if he had intervened directly, would have followed the advice of Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and other serious military experts and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As it is, the chief responsibility for turning Laos into a superhighway of North Vietnamese infiltration of the South resides with Kennedy for the Laos Neutrality Agreement—which Richard Nixon, who may well have been the real winner of the 1960 election, and has received minimal credit for not contesting it and consequently immobilizing the country—called “Communism on the installment plan.” Kennedy did sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but most of the preparatory work was done by Eisenhower. His great triumph is commonly held to be the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and he does deserve much credit for distrusting blase military and intelligence assurances of an easy invasion option, when there were in fact short-range nuclear warheads and two Soviet divisions already in-country. But before the crisis, there were NATO missiles in Greece and Turkey and no Soviet missiles in Cuba and no guarantee by the U.S. of non-invasion of Cuba. At the end of the crisis, there were no missiles in Greece and Turkey (contrary to the wishes of those countries), or Cuba, and the U.S. had undertaken not to invade Cuba. It was prudent management, but as Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon pointed out, it was no American strategic victory.
John F. Kennedy was probably an above-average president, and might have been a very talented two-term president, but that is rank conjecture. All the bunk about Camelot (a musical he didn’t even enjoy) has burnished a rather humdrum record, but he will always remain an admired and lamented man, whose life and death were an evanescent source of encouragement, and a permanent tragedy.
Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership (Encounter Books, 2013). He is chairman emeritus of The National Interest.