Obama in the Shadow of John F. Kennedy

Corporeality XI: Obama in the Shadow of John F. Kennedy


Howard Adelman

In 1957 when I was in my first year of medical school studying anatomy and histology, physiology and biochemistry at the University of Toronto, I tried to spend as much time as I could reading book after book in the Hart House Reading Room. (I had a lot of catching up to do.) I also attended, but did not participate in, Hart House debates. The last time I looked, on the wall of the Hart House Debates Room, a photograph still hangs there of one of the most memorable events in Hart House’s long and illustrious record as a forum for debating. In the picture, everyone in the audience had on a shirt, tie and jacket – except one. That figure stood out because he was wearing a white shirt, but no sport or suit jacket. That was me. I did not own a dress jacket at the time.

The other outstanding characteristic of the picture is that there were no women in the audience. Outside Hart House just below the Debates Room on the second floor, the chanting of a small gaggle of female students could be heard led by Linda Silver, Judy Graner and Margaret Brewin, the daughter of that old CCF/NDP stalwart, defender of the Japanese Canadians mistreated by the Canadian government and author of the 1965 volume on Canada’s new role in international affairs as professional peacekeepers, Stand on Guard: The Search for a Canadian Defence Policy, The three female students had asked to be able to attend but had been rebuffed by Warden Joseph McCully. In this small way, the feminist movement had begun at the University of Toronto.

The demand to attend was enormous because the guest speaker on that 14th of November was a young handsome charismatic American Senator rumoured to be on the campaign trail to become the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America. The debate topic was worded as a negative: “The United States had not failed in its role as a world leader.” Senator John F. Kennedy defended the proposition. Steve Lewis led the opposing side. Kennedy’s side won, but barely. The only thing I remember from that debate itself, if I remember anything at all, was that Kennedy both defended the American role and performance as leader of the democratic world at the same time as he insisted that the U.S. had to step up to the plate and do much more and do it better.

Two years later, by the Fall of 1959, I and another student, who would have been classified as a mature student a few years later, went to Christie Pitts to speak about the threat of nuclear testing. I copped out, but Mac Makarchuk (later a two-term provincial MPP representing Brantford) got on a soapbox and spoke before an audience of about six that had collected in front of us. (I may be exaggerating the numbers.) Our soapbox career ended when a member of the Toronto’s finest approached us on horseback. I had a reason to be wary; he came from the police station at the south-west corner of Markham and London Streets, notorious for beating up those arrested – I had lived a block away on the south-west corner of Palmerston Ave. and London St. and often enough heard the shrieks of prisoners, though no one I knew then seemed to think it was unusual for police to beat up prisoners or were disturbed by such events. It turned out, however, that the police constable was very polite. He inquired whether we had a permit to speak. We confessed that we did not even know that we needed one. He said next time get one; in the meanwhile, wind up your speech as soon as you can.

The next morning in The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper then edited by Sam Ajzenstat (who would go on to become a professor of philosophy at McMaster University), had as the front page major story, “Police Break Up Student Protesters.” Alan Walker wrote the story. In The Varsity story, he recounted the alleged events. Police on horseback charged down the hill breaking up the talk and scattering the audience. When I went to the Varsity office to confront Walker – I was the drama critic for the paper. I asked where he got his story since I had not even seen him there. He replied, “I made it up from a few details I had heard.” I was dumbfounded. He merely said coolly, “You will thank me for it. I have made you and Makarchuk heroes for your fellow students.”

The irony was that there was some truth in his prophecy. Many students contacted us and we organized the Toronto branch of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND). We went on to hold large rallies and marches protesting in general against nuclear testing and against the strategy underlying the proliferation of nuclear weapons, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) to assure mutual deterrence between the Soviet Union and the West to prevent either side from initiating a nuclear war. We argued then that nuclear weapons were only useful if they were never used, and, if ever used, would prove useless because mutual deterrence had failed and we would all be dead. Our specific target was the nuclear warheads on the missiles to be installed at Sudbury.

In the battle over the Bomarc ground-to-air missiles, designed exclusively to carry nuclear warheads, Minister of Defence George Peakes and his successor, Douglas Harkness, pushed an integrated nuclear defence strategy in partnership with the United States under the NORAD mutual defence treaty signed in 1957. The agreement entailed installing Bomarcs in Sudbury. The NORAD agreement in general had been approved by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in early 1957. Diefenbaker acted then like an American Commander-in-Chief making the decision without a discussion with or the approval of either his Cabinet or the Defence Committee.

Because of dithering over paying transportation costs, safety in storage and the need for Canadian consent for their authorized use, we protesters had plenty of time to launch a powerful campaign. We soon gained an ally in the Diefenbaker cabinet, Howard Green, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was a proponent of diplomacy and peacekeeping and opposed putting nuclear-armed missiles on Canadian soil as incompatible with our international anti-proliferation stance. A few months after his inauguration in office, in May 1961, Kennedy arrived in Ottawa to meet with Diefenbaker to use his enormous persuasive powers and charm to resolve the dispute. However, the only result of this additional pressure was deepening the rift in the cabinet. In the end, the Diefenbaker cabinet broke up over these differences and Diefenbaker lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

This was but a relatively minor setback for Kennedy compared to others he suffered in his first year in office. We (CUCND) had already been in direct conflict with John F. Kennedy when he was running to be elected as U.S. president in the November elections. For he ran on a platform of American military weakness in the face of the Soviet growing juggernaut – what he had dubbed in 1958 as “the missile gap,” the claim that President Eisenhower had been weak on defence and allowed the Soviet Union to leap ahead in advanced military technology. It was a fabrication. We knew it. Kennedy probably knew it and merely wanted to show he had “iron balls,” more even than the general, then President, who had led the allied fighting forces in Europe to win WWII in the European theatre.

Subsequent scholarship had absolutely verified that the claim of a missile gap was based on the exaggerated and erroneous estimates of the Gaither Committee. Our nuclear disarmament movement in Toronto had been launched by a fiction and a fabulist. Kennedy had enhanced his own presidential career prospects on a much more profound fiction. All this is background for assessing John F. Kennedy’s role as Commander-in-Chief when he won the presidency by the slimmest of margins against Richard Milhous Nixon.

While the Diefenbaker government was being torn apart over nuclear missiles, Kennedy was suffering one setback after another, even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress with substantial majorities. The columnist George Wills dubbed it the most incompetent first year of any American presidency. When Jack Kennedy, the 35th president of the United State, was completing his first year in office, when he appeared once again on the cover of Time magazine on 5 January 1962 as Time’s man of the year, he was just beginning to recover from the depression that he had been thrust into because of a number of setbacks – from the war in the Congo, where the U.S. financed and led the UN “peacekeeping” operation, to Laos, to Berlin, but mainly in Cuba. 1961 was the year of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. It was a wonder that his approval rating at the beginning of 1962 stood at 78%.

John F. Kennedy had authorized the invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles. The original plan had called for American air support. Kennedy took that option away and made clear to the exiles that they would not be getting that air support. The Cuban exiles agreed to go ahead with their plans anyway. The CIA had prepared a report stating that there was no chance of success without American air support but it is unclear whether Kennedy ever saw it. The General Chiefs of Staff, who had been gung ho over the plan, knew the Cuban invaders would get in trouble without air support, calculated (mis-calculated as it turned out) that Kennedy would be forced to back down and would send in air support for the invaders. Kennedy did not. Castro’s intelligence service knew where the invaders were landing, when and in what strength. The Cuban military were waiting. When the exiles landed, 100 were killed and 1,200 were taken captive. The United States, and President Kennedy in particular, were covered in mud.

We in CUCND were having our own crisis at about the same time. The USSR had resumed testing now at an even more furious pace. In October 1961, they conducted a series of tests in the atmosphere, one utilizing a 50 megaton hydrogen nuclear weapon 2500 times more powerful than the one used on Hiroshima. Danny Goldstick, the President of the Communist Party on campus, was part of our comprehensive political executive. I demanded he resign unless he denounced the Soviet renewal of testing. He would not, so I resigned asking the membership to rescind his appointment to the executive as inconsistent with his support of Soviet testing.

If I was angry at Danny, think of how furious Kennedy was with the Joint Chiefs of Staff for keeping him in the dark, allowing the invasion to go awry knowing it would, and trying to trap Kennedy into making a political decision he did not want to make. He was then determined to reign in his Chiefs of Staff. The issue was command and control. 62-year-old General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, barely kept his contempt hidden for the 42-year-old President who had only ever commanded a PT Boat. Like Admiral Arleigh Burke, Air Force Generals Curtis LeMay and Austin Power, and NATO Commander General Louis Norstad, all were anti-communist hawks. All seemed willing to risk MAD by using nuclear weapons to force enemies to retreat or back down. All jealously protected their authority to use nuclear weapons as part of strategic decision-making. Admiral Burke even went on a public speaking tour to address the issue of an overall strong response to America’s enemies by really threatening to use nuclear weapons.

General Maxwell Taylor, Kennedy’s military advisor in the White House, had preceded Lemnitzer as Chief of Staff of the Army and would succeed him as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He had published a book called The Uncertain Trumpet in 1959 that had advocated the carefully calibrated use of nuclear weapons in a military theatre. Given the then existing right of senior officers to decide to use nuclear weapons, this would mean delegating to field commanders the responsibility for making decisions to use nuclear weapons. Kennedy acted. He insisted that senior military officers clear all speeches with the White House and took back exclusive authority to employ nuclear weapons to the Office of the President.

The Joint Chiefs were convinced that Kennedy could not be trusted to confront the communist enemy. They had even kept from the President their Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan that envisioned dropping 170 atomic and hydrogen bombs on Moscow alone. McGeorge Bundy had to order the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide Kennedy with a copy. The ground had been set for the conflict between the White House and the Joint Chiefs during the Cuban missile crisis in light of Kennedy’s first year of experience in dealing with the Joint Chiefs and especially their role in the Bay of Pigs disaster, but also their advice on Laos that followed.

After Lemnitzer proposed putting American troops on the ground and initiating a bombing campaign to stop the communist advances in Laos, he also proposed using nuclear weapons against the Laotian communists who were marching towards Vientiane. He even wanted to bomb Hanoi for sponsoring the guerillas. He guaranteed victory if given the right to use nuclear weapons. The military leaders ran a covert campaign in the press to portray Kennedy as lacking the guts to confront the communists.

The most farcical proposal emanating from Lemnitzer himself was Operation Northwoods, a plan to set off terrorist bombs in Miami and Florida in general against Cuban exile targets and to blame the attacks on Castro. He also advocated faking an attack against Guantánamo to give the U.S. a pretext to attack the Cuban communist regime once and for all. Then came the October Cuban nuclear missile crisis. By then my wife and I had two children. We were in total fear of an all-out nuclear war. We had one closet filled with emergency supplies. After reviewing our options, we realized that fleeing north was useless as we would only face a nuclear winter. The nuclear clock was now set at one minute to midnight.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended a sustained all-out air attack on Cuba’s missiles followed by landing American military forces on the ground. Kennedy was already angry for the reluctance of the Joint Chiefs to follow orders promptly and send troops to the previously all-white segregated University of Mississippi when James Meredith, a Black civil rights worker and former U.S. air force pilot, went to enroll under orders that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court and Governor Ross Barnett had been found in contempt. The Joint Chiefs finally dispatched the National Guard and militia under Kennedy’s authority to “suppress any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy.” Kennedy then ignored, rather than directly rejecting, their advice on how to handle the Cuban missile crisis fearing counter attacks on Berlin and NATO installations in Turkey and then setting the cold war powers on a path of nuclear escalation. Shades of Vietnam to come, he also feared America getting bogged down in long term guerilla war in Cuba. Kennedy opted for a blockade, itself an act of war, in parallel with a diplomatic initiative.

Khrushchev backed down and ordered his ships carrying missiles to Cuba to turn around. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R not only agreed to dismantle the missiles already in Cuba, and balance that with the dismantling of obsolete allied missiles in Turkey, but also would eventually forge a comprehensive arms control agreement to reverse the nuclear arms race and ban atmospheric nuclear testing following his famous speech. It was my first feeling of exhilaration following the terror we all felt at the time of the imminence of an all-out nuclear war. Except for Maxwell Taylor, detailing the agreement in principle involved cutting out any of the senior military officers from even news of the advances in the negotiations being conducted by Averell Harriman.  However, at the Senate hearings, the generals attacked the treaty and the ban on atmospheric testing, but the Senate decisively approved the treaty.

In Andrew Cohen’s Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Changed History, he argues that the key turning point in Kennedy’s presidency came not with the Cuban missile crisis, but in the two speeches he made a half year before he was assassinated. The first was his commencement address at American University in Washington entitled, “A Strategy of Peace” on 10 June 1963. (The one the next day on American race relations can be ignored for the purposes of this topic.) Kennedy began by insisting that ignorance is too often abroad and that the truth is rarely perceived. He argued for defining peace not in terms of either “the peace of the grave” or “the security of the state.” The goal of peace had to include peace for all. For the first time I believe in public he declared what he had concluded eighteen months earlier, that the MAD doctrine and total war made no sense, though he did not repeat what he had said to Jackie in private, that he would prefer his children to be red rather than dead.

We peaceniks had won. The most powerful leader in the free world, the main publicist of the missile gap and the need to strengthen the American military, was mouthing our positions five years later. In the comprehensive test ban treaty that was reached, Kennedy had not only avoided a nuclear war, but he had kept radioactive fallout from the air and the oceans, thereby earning the country’s enduring regard for his effectiveness as a crisis manager and negotiator. When the two sides agreed to a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space, the trajectory of the nuclear arms race had been reversed. There would be no more Strontium 90 added to the atmosphere with all its dangers as a carcinogen. Kennedy had proven that diplomacy could be superior to war.

Harry Truman had understood that the Commander-in-Chief had to assert his authority over the military when senior officers indulged in a propensity to overstep their political boundaries and engage in political activities JFK’s challenges with the military had been even greater. Barack Obama would inherit a powerful precedent.


With the help of Alex Zisman