I’m including a recently written review of this book because the book addresses the importance of rhetoric–the power of words. As we note the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, it’s important to look behind the trauma to what he did and said in his limited time. I believe what he said–and how well he said it–amounts to more than his actual accomplishments (his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis provides the crucial exception). Our words count, too, so we can can benefit from this reflection.
In this book well-known economist and public intellectual Jeffrey Sachs moves from the world of economic development and environmental concerns to an examination of how John F. Kennedy’s thought and rhetoric changed the dynamics of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Sachs apparently came to this project through his friendship with Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s primary speechwriter. Also, I suspect that Sachs came to the project because of his own quest to alter the dynamics of thought and action about global poverty, sustainable economic development, and ecological stewardship. In this book Sachs doesn’t break any new historical ground. His main concern is to examine how the interplay of experience and rhetoric shaped the course of events both before and after the Kennedy administration.
Sachs notes that Kennedy had some important role models for his rhetoric and perceptions. First and foremost among these role models was Winston Churchill. However, his model was not simply the pugnacious Churchill of 1940 who defied the Nazis, but also the postwar Churchill, who, while warning of the spread of communism, also spoke in favor of peaceful talks. Perhaps in Churchill’s less eloquent but most apt words, more “jaw-jaw” and less “war-war”. This attitude of conciliation was carried forward by Dwight Eisenhower. Sachs notes a couple of Ike’s speeches that struck a conciliatory note and that appreciated the dangerous dynamics that were developing between the US and the USSR. The most famous of Ike’s speeches was his farewell speech, which Sachs describes is only one of two presidential farewell speeches that bears remembering (the other was George Washington’s). In Ike’s farewell speech, he warned of – indeed I think coined the phrase – “the military industrial complex”. Ike understood that there were strong pressures in the US (and certainly within the USSR as well) that pushed for military confrontation as a part of a profit and power seeking engine driven by defense contractors and the military. Roughly contemporary with Kennedy’s time in office was the papacy of Pope John XXIII, whose encyclical Pacem In Terris (Peace on Earth) provided another eloquent voice speaking out in favor of peace and justice. Kennedy was thus not alone on his perceptions and hopes, and he carried forward a line of predecessors and contemporaries from whom he could gain wisdom and assistance.
Sachs doesn’t dodge the fact that Kennedy made the Cold War worse by the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion that occurred shortly after he took office. In another one of history’s “what if’s”, historians of wondered if Ike would’ve had the good sense to have pulled the plug on the Bay of Pigs invasion, or whether he would have gone whole hog with the invasion. Kennedy chose halfway measures that embarrassed the US, made Castro more belligerent, and that suggested to the USSR that some further intervention on behalf of their Cuban comrades was necessary. Sachs details how Khrushchev developed his harebrained scheme to put offensive missiles in Cuba with the thought of revealing a fait accompli at a party Congress scheduled in late 1962 (shades of Dr. Strangelove here). This scheme led to the Cuban missile crisis, where humankind came within an eyelash of worldwide catastrophe. Credit goes to both Kennedy and Khrushchev for avoiding a nuclear Armageddon by backing away from the demands of hardliners. Kennedy had to deal with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay (the model for Stanley Kubrick’s general Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). Khrushchev obviously had his own people to deal with as well.
After this harrowing experience, Kennedy chartered a new course to try to ease the tensions of the Cold War. His renewed concerns with this subject eventually led to his June 1963 speech at American University that has since been dubbed “The Peace Speech”. Kennedy laid out the need for renewed efforts to avoid war, efforts that were neither naïve nor impossible to achieve. This included a voluntary suspension of nuclear testing so long as no other nation engaged in tests of their own. Kennedy followed up the next day with a major speech on civil rights where, I believe for the first time, he described the civil rights movement in terms of a moral imperative. These two speeches, perhaps more than his better-known inaugural address, highlight of Kennedys’ rhetorical gifts and moral vision.
Sachs does a good job of carefully examining Kennedy’s rhetoric. For instance, Sachs shows how effectively Kennedy used the rhetorical device of antimetabole, the Greek term referring to the repetition of words in transposed order (e.g., “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”) A great deal of credit for Kennedy’s rhetorical success goes to his aid Ted Sorensen, who wrote the first drafts and worked revisions in tandem with Kennedy. As a team, it will come up with signature ways of speaking and arguing that proved eloquent and effective. Kennedy was able to get the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, the parties agreed to a partial nuclear test ban treaty (underground testing was still allowed), and, most notably by the standards of today, he was able to get overwhelming Senate approval for the treaty. This was one of the highlights of Kennedy’s congressional efforts. As we know, no civil rights legislation and no economic stimulus bill were enacted until after Lyndon Johnson became president and oversaw those efforts. While Kennedy’s rhetorical gifts are undoubted, I still have the sense that without Johnson, the major civil rights legislation and perhaps even the economic stimulus Kennedy sought would have been sidetracked by Congress. As we know from our experience with President Obama, formal rhetoric that artfully and clearly sets forth a vision for possibilities is important, but not sufficient to effect real change. The trench warfare of congressional approval is also necessary to translate positive visions into law. Nevertheless, one can’t leave this book without appreciating the skilled vision that Kennedy and Sorensen set forth.
Sachs spends a little bit more time on the post-Kennedy Cold War, and especially noteworthy is the period in the early and mid-1980s when Ronald Reagan and the hard core Republican right wing adapted an extremely confrontational attitude toward the Soviet Union. This attitude was perceived by the Soviet leadership and reciprocated. In hindsight, the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger efforts for détente are much more rational and reasonable. Reagan supporters argue that Reagan’s rhetorical and military build-up in confrontation with the Soviet Union led to the downfall of the Eastern block and eventually the Soviet Union. But this argument should be subject to a lot of skepticism and should be rejected without a more persuasive argument made through a careful historical analysis than I’ve yet seen. The fact is, the doomsday clock that measured the threat to human well-being crated by nuclear war (now I think subject to other factors, such as ecological catastrophe) moved up very close to midnight again during a period in the 1980’s. However, once Reagan perceived a change in Soviet attitudes in the person of Gorbachev, Reagan’s very effective rhetoric changed into one of conciliation and the need for rational consideration of the parties’ mutual need to avoid nuclear war and threatening confrontations. Neither Kennedy nor later Reagan dropped his strong stance of anti-Communism, but both came around to a much more sensible position. (Kennedy was more constrained by the extreme political right wing than was Reagan, who, like Nixon going to China, had a degree of credibility for a changed attitude toward the USSR that no Democrat could gain in order to achieve the changes the Reagan fostered.)
In my continued reading reflecting back on the presidency of John F. Kennedy, this book was a worthwhile addition. I thought it might be an exercise in hagiography, but instead, I found it a measured consideration of Kennedy and the importance of his and his predecessor’s rhetoric in defining the conflicts of the Cold War and thereby limiting the potential for a nuclear war. Perhaps because of my primal Republican background, I’ve never been an unabashed Kennedy admirer. His record was mixed, but I have gained a sense that the man grew during the course of his presidency and that the tragedy of his assassination did rob the world of his potential. Would he have avoided the deep entanglement of the Vietnam War? Would he have been able to forward the program of civil rights as effectively as did Lyndon Johnson? Would changes brought about by the initial efforts in diffusing the largest tensions of the Cold War have continued? All these “what if?” questions remain as tantalizing possibilities that will never receive a definitive answer. The only sure thing is the actual past; the future—or alternative futures—are marked by uncertainty. So with Kennedy. We should examine carefully his accomplishments, his failures, and the gifts he left behind, which though all too few, are nonetheless significant. Sachs performs an important service in this book by acknowledging that heritage and challenging us to find similar instances where we can understand and improve our world through our rhetoric and politics.