Updated: Mar 22
Purely by historical circumstance and in the face of internal opposition, John F. Kennedy saves the world.
There were several flashpoints and potential stumbles into thermonuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, some more dangerous than others.
In 1966 in what became known as the Palomares B-52 crash, a US B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling over the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Spain. The KC-135 was destroyed when its fuel load ignited and the B-52G broke up.
Of the four Mhydrogen bombs the B-52G was carrying, three were found on land near the fishing village of Palomares in Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of nearly a square-mile area by plutonium. The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a 2 and a half month search.
Much later, in August 1983, the Soviets shot down an off-course Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 which had strayed deep into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board. Then there was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or "Star Wars" as it was more popularly known) of the same year, not to mention the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
The closest the world, steered by the US and the USSR, came to nuclear destruction, however, was the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962, when a relatively inexperienced US president and a Soviet premier struggling to maintain his authority, struggled with the realities of potential thermonuclear war and the responsibilities the two men shouldered to prevent such a war erupting.
History can sometimes be the story of great men or women shaping the world around them, or of lucky individuals finding themselves in the right time and place and taking decisions that have greater influence than they may have considered before fate intervened.
In 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union were emerging from a period of fierce nuclear and economic competition, following their repositioning after the end of the Second World War as the world’s dominant superpowers. Super because of their nuclear and economic power, giving each a global standing and reach which divided the world between two distinct and competing political ideologies.
Beneath and behind both US President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev were huge, complicated and highly technological political structures with the enormous influence of their political elites on how to win the Cold War. In the USSR Khrushchev had recently emerged as the leader of a country that had grown in strength and influence under Stalin and which was learning to transition into a modernised era.
Not everybody with political power in the Soviet Union agreed with this transition or with Khrushchev’s efforts to change the country and its political economy.
In the United States, Kennedy, glamorous and elitist, was a US president who had taken office after a hard-fought (if barely won) election that had divided the country just two years previously. Surrounding himself with a circle of young, technocratic technocrats, by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis arose, Kennedy had already been politically bruised by the failure of the CIA's attempt to overthrow of the Castro regime in Cuba (an operation that Kennedy was not convinced of and which damaged his administration and international standing when it failed).
As in the USSR, Kennedy was also challenged by a defence establishment that favoured a strong approach to what it saw as a threatening and expansionist Soviet foreign policy, and which questioned the ability of the Kennedy presidency to defend American interests.
Facing such challenges, Kennedy was influenced by both those around him and his personal experiences to date.
Historian Robert Dallek, the writer of the Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life, points out how many of the president's illnesses were kept from the public. Kennedy’s medical records, however, reveal that Kennedy had spastic colitis as a boy, started taking steroids at Harvard to deal with this (at a dose that was far too high), which in turn triggered Kennedy’s back problems throughout the rest of his life. The president suffered from osteoporosis of the lumbar spine and, as a result, living with pain and misery, and depending on painkillers from this point on.
In the 1950s, Kennedy was hospitalised 19 times for different ailments and treatments, including Artisans disease (malfunctioning of the adrenal gland), back problems, back surgery, sinusitis, prostatitis, all of which were hidden from the public until after his death.
Against this backdrop, Kennedy lived with a keen sense of mortality and a conviction that his life may be brief.
He died at the age of 46 when assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
From a young age, one of Kennedy’s favourite poems was I have a rendezvous with death by Alan Seegar, a promising poet killed in World War I while serving in the French Foreign Legion. Seegar is renowned for this, his poem about war, which tells of a meeting between the narrator and Death.
I have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seegar
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
According to Michael Beschloss, historian and biographer, there was every sign that throughout his life Kennedy did not think he would live a normal lifespan. Kennedy also once said that half of his days were spent in intense physical pain and that he was, as a result, short-term and crisis-orientated in his thinking (something which he admitted in private).
Historian Fredrik Logevall characterises Kennedy as coming from a loving (if dysfunctional) family. Joe and Rose Kennedy, his parents, had a difficult marriage. John ("Jack"), second in line, experienced love, though father Joe, a former ambassador to the UK, nurtured a competitive atmosphere in the Kennedy household.
Jack, one of nine children, became a student of history, partly through his many illnesses and was considered funny and charming as a young man. His elder brother, Joe, was killed in 1944, after which Kennedy moved into politics as a career.
Before the war, Kennedy travelled in the second half of the 1930s to Europe, when his father was ambassador to the UK. While there, the young Kennedy witnesses the build-up to war, which has a huge impact on the future President. He writes about this experience in an undergraduate thesis, which goes on to be a best-seller.
Then, during the war, Kennedy serves in the pacific, and both the build-up to the war and his direct experience of it leaves Kennedy sceptical about warfare as a solution to political problems. He determined to avoid war as a result, as demonstrated in his letters home whilst deployed in the Pacific and becomes increasingly sceptical of senior military commanders and their decision-making.
Kennedy comes out of the war with the view that the military instrument can be blunt. He makes it clear to those around him, once in the White House, that he is willing to use it, but he is wary of it, as he demonstrates in his reluctance to committing US ground forces in Vietnam.
Come 1962, the stage is set for both Kennedy and Khrushchev to not only face off against each other after the USSR prepares to site ballistic missiles in Cuba (a hugely threatening act to the government of the US, which up until that point had not been within reliable strike range by the Soviet nuclear missiles), but to also face down their own defence establishments, which were ready to militarily defend their own strategic interests.
What happened next, the fast formulation of an American response to the Soviet threat which relied on gamesmanship to drive the Soviet leadership to the negotiating table, whilst the Soviet leadership played the same game, with both sides using military force and manoeuvres in real-time to advance their position.
Both leaderships also had to finesse similar manoeuvres with their intelligence and military establishments to prevent armed conflict breaking out on the seas around Cuba, or on the ground in Berlin, to keep this game in play, whilst at the same time second-guessing the strategic positions and objectives of their opponents. That Cold War icon, the “hotline” was only put in place after the Cuban Missile Crisis had fully played out and as a direct result of the experience of the crisis. Up until that point, both Kennedy and Khrushchev, together their inner circles were making best estimates of what the other side was doing and why at all points of the crisis.
They were guessing and their guesses were, on the whole, accurate.
The world came close to nuclear conflict during the Cuban Missile Crisis and probably closer than it has ever come in human history. The fact that it did not tumble into this global disaster is largely down to two small groups of opposed people who were not even talking to each other directly but who were negotiating through the application of politics to political strategy. Within these groups, two men, Kennedy and Khrushchev held the future of the world in their hands.
Was Kennedy a great man of history?
The fact that the question can even be asked is probably an answer to the question.