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The Testing of a President

KENNEDY'S WARS / Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam By Lawrence Freedman Oxford University Press: 528 pp., $35

November 26, 2000|TIMOTHY NAFTALI | Timothy Naftali is coauthor of "One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964" and is the director of the Presidential Recordings Project at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs

Most Americans alive today are not old enough to remember him in office, yet John F. Kennedy retains a hold on the popular imagination. There was a time when opinions about him served as a kind of political Rorschach test. Conservatives admired him for his tough anti-communism and his commitment to lower taxes; liberals loved him because of his intelligence and because of a faith in his unrealized potential. Those distinctions have blurred by now into bipartisan respect.

But historians don't like icons; after all, if the world were made of perfect people, what would there be to write about? But Kennedy is an especially challenging subject. As most everyone knows, he could be very human in his appetites, or superhuman if all the pillow talk is to be believed. However, the more important arguments are not over how much this philandering mattered but on the question of how Kennedy handled his Cold War challenges. Between 1961 and 1963, the world saw two of the greatest events of the Cold War--the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis--and during this time the American tragedy in Vietnam had its start. It is fair to say that Kennedy would have wanted judgments of his presidency to rest on his handling of these crises. Though he worked to cut taxes to stimulate the economy and the African American struggle for civil rights attracted his attention, the events of World War II had ingrained in Kennedy the belief that the true test of American leadership came in foreign affairs.

Lawrence Freedman's important book, "Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam," incorporates new materials from the Kennedy library and recent scholarship on the Soviet Union to scrutinize Kennedy's handling of his greatest foreign policy challenges. The book is wise and judicious. Freedman argues that Kennedy was resolute about ends if unsure about means. Whether it was for Berlin, Cuba or Southeast Asia, he was not committed to any particular course of action. Instead he worked a problem and pushed his advisors to come up with better solutions. Freedman's careful reconstruction of these cases dispels myths of Kennedy's recklessness or insatiable will to victory. Instead, Freedman offers a portrait of a sometimes tentative statesman. It was not that Kennedy was indecisive by nature, but he hated to foreclose options, preferring to "wait and see" when the stakes were high. The problem was that the stakes were inordinately high in his short time as president. The Soviets seemed to be on the offensive; American allies on the defensive. Meanwhile at home, Congress and the American people were not sure which they feared more: war or the "loss" of another country to communism.

Kennedy's chief foreign policy goals were the reduction of Cold War tensions in Europe and the containment of Sino-Soviet influence in the Third World. By starting his book with a study of how Kennedy handled the Berlin crisis, Freedman does an excellent job of identifying the security of West Berlin as Kennedy's greatest worry. Locked 100 miles inside East Germany, West Berlin was indefensible. In 1948 Stalin had blockaded the city in the hope of driving the West out. The Allied airlift that saved the city established a new level of Western commitment to its people. When Kennedy announced in the summer of 1963, "Ich bin ein Berliner," he was only enunciating what every president since Franklin Roosevelt understood about that city: It so symbolized the cause of a free Europe that it was home territory for an American.

To ensure peace, Kennedy, when he first took office, intended to accept things as they were in Europe: Germany divided and Western troops in West Berlin. He was prepared to recognize the German Democratic Republic as the sovereign government of the people in the Soviet occupation zone. He was ready to apply pressure on West Germany to swear off the acquisition of nuclear weapons and accept the Oder-Neisse line as the border between Poland and Germany.

But Khrushchev had his own ideas. He opposed NATO troops in West Berlin and any official link between West Berlin and West Germany. Freedman details how hard Kennedy probed for any give in the Soviet position. In the hope of inspiring some Soviet concessions, Kennedy went so far as to look away when the East Germans divided Berlin with a wall. Although he had every right to protest under the agreements that ended World War II, Kennedy was not prepared to go to war to stop the Soviets from incorporating the eastern occupation zone of Berlin into East Germany. "There's not a damn thing I can do about it," Kennedy said, but when it came to West Berlin, he stood his ground and hoped the Soviets would stop pushing. They never did.

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