So argues Thomas Ricks, a lifelong Massachusetts Democrat, in a short article at Foreign Policy:
“As I studied the Vietnam war over the last 14 months, I began to think that John F. Kennedy probably was the worst American president of the previous century.
In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.
Looming over it all is the American descent into Vietnam. The assassination of Vietnam’s President Diem on Kennedy’s watch may have been one of the two biggest mistakes of the war there. (The other was the decision to wage a war of attrition on the unexamined assumption that Hanoi would buckle under the pain.) I don’t buy the theory promulgated by Robert McNamara and others that Kennedy would have kept U.S. troops out. Sure, Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam — just like Lyndon Johnson wanted out a few years later: “We’ll scale down our presence after victory is secure.” And much more than Johnson, Kennedy was influenced by General Maxwell Taylor, who I suspect had been looking for a “small war” mission for the Army for several years. Indochina looked like a peachy place for that — warmer than Korea, and farther from Russia.”
It’s an interesting argument. Clearly Kennedy has been overrated to the point of canonization by Democrats who see a Golden Age in his administration that was lost to assassination. Along with the foreign policy problems Ricks mentions, many of Kennedy’s major domestic initiatives were stalled in Congress, only to be pushed through because of LBJ’s skillful politics in the wake of Kennedy’s murder.
On the other hand, JFK’s reputation has had a bit of a revival on the Right, at least by comparison with those Democrats who came after him: he did set us on the course to the Moon; he was a Cold Warrior vis-a-vis the Soviet Union (albeit an inept one); and he pushed through major tax cuts that lead to the early 60s boom.
But the worst of the 20th century? It think Ricks is using a bit of hyperbole to to force a reconsideration of Kennedy, for I can posit a few candidates for “worst:”
- Woodrow Wilson, for his imposition of segregation in the federal government, his needless violations of civil rights during and after World War 1, and his general disdain for the Constitution.
- Herbert Hoover/FDR. Peas in a pod, controversial only because Hoover is a demon and FDR a demigod in the liberal theology. Yet, far from being a laissez-faire do-nothing whose evil had to be undone by the New Deal, Hoover was a big-government interventionist whose work laid the foundations for FDR’s programs, and those programs lengthened the Great Depression by seven years. Considering the misery of the Depression, that should put both men up there on the “worst” scale. There’s also the matter of the Japanese internment of World War II, a candidate for the greatest civil rights crime of the 20th century, rivaling slavery and the ethnic cleansing of the Indian tribes in the 19th. Let’s give FDR the lion’s share of this.
- LBJ: His “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” massively and unconstitutionally expanded the federal government, harmed African-Americans, and put us well on the road to the entitlement crisis we face today. And let’s not forget badly, horribly mishandling the war in Vietnam.
- Nixon: Criminality in Watergate, wage and price controls, and weakness with the Soviets via detente. The latter made the Soviets feel they could make a final push to gain superiority over us, which for a time they may have achieved.
- Carter: Need I say more?
So, while Ricks has a point about Kennedy’s weaknesses, there are others arguably as bad or worse. If forced to make a choice, for now I’d choose LBJ; Carter was weaker, but Johnson’s entitlement binge is doing us much greater long-term damage. And while FDR expanded the government and mishandled the Depression badly, he at least won his war.
Whom would you choose?
LINK: Doug Mataconis votes for Woodrow Wilson.
via Big Peace
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)