international analysis and commentary

Why JFK’s legacy lives on in Europe


Not far from my flat, in Florence’s quiescent Parco delle Cascine, stands the Piazzale John F. Kennedy, serving mainly now as a carpark feeding onto the Viale Giorgio Washington. In the Bologna suburb of San Lazzaro di Savena, the Via John Kennedy intersects for some reason with the Via Virginia Woolf. In fact, just about every city in the western half of the continent has its John F. Kennedy bridge, square, or avenue. Memorials to Harry Truman, the president who oversaw the Marshall Plan and NATO? Much harder to find. Dwight Eisenhower, the president most responsible for implementing America’s military and political commitment to western Europe – not to mention his rather important role as commander of allied forces in World War Two?  A few. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan? No.

Why such European reverence for Kennedy? After all, he was president for less than three years. He achieved no obvious European victories nor signed monumental treaties; the installation of America’s policy of Cold War containment in Europe, as Andrew Priest notes in a forthcoming work, was finished by the time he took office.  

The most obvious answer to this question, of course, is the simple fact of his assassination, the news of which was immediately broadcast across the world on live television. The shocking coverage of the events in Dallas, witnessed by Europeans in real time, turned JFK into an instant martyr. Most of the monuments were erected and the roads and bridges renamed in the mid-1960s. To some extent, the response would have been the same for any American president cut down in this way.

But only to some extent. For it is obvious that Kennedy has also long been regarded in Europe as the sort of mature, worldly leader that the US rarely produces. The image purveyed by the “Camelot” school – of a civilized and stylish president, with an Ivy League cabinet and glamorous (and French-speaking) wife, determined to promote liberal values and keep the peace – was one bound to appeal to a European population wary of American provincialism and ideological belligerence. Europe’s united celebration of the election of Barack Obama five years ago can be explained along precisely the same lines.

This Camelot image has frustrated many historians, who have long argued that Kennedy’s actual foreign policy was not nearly as enlightened as popular opinion, and the official mythology, would have it. He waged a brutal Cold War campaign in Latin America, increased US involvement in Vietnam, and seriously contemplated, at least for a while, the idea of winnable nuclear war. As for Europe, Kennedy alienated the French, and particularly President Charles de Gaulle, by secretly negotiating a nuclear deal with the UK, and the West Germans, and particularly Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, by totally acquiescing to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. If that was not enough, Kennedy’s larger policy toward western Europe, the so-called Grand Design, envisioned a compliant and unified ally that would spend more on its own defense (but never get its own nuclear weaponry) so that the US could dedicate its resources to waging the Cold War in places like Vietnam. JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963 certainly won him back some popular credit, but he was not loved in Paris and Bonn when he made his fateful trip to Dallas in November of that year.  

A number of younger historians, however, have begun to push back against this more critical view. Yes, Kennedy was not the saintly figure portrayed in the Camelot stories. He played rough in Latin America and Southeast Asia, dealt with the Europeans ineptly, and his private behavior was unpardonably risky. Yet this must be weighed against the positives. For one thing, as scholars such as Fredrik Logevall have persuasively shown, Kennedy might well have not taken the US to war in Vietnam. He had serious doubts about whether a war there could be won, and had he been re-elected in 1964, it is far from certain that he would have had the same incentives to escalate American military involvement in Indochina that his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, did. Even more important, JFK skilfully prevented the Cold War conflicts in Berlin and Cuba from escalating to nuclear war, a task that recent scholarship shows required much more political deftness than had been previously understood. In both cases the US had to compromise, but does anyone regret that today? As brutal as the Berlin Wall was, as devastating as it was to thousands of Germans, who believes now that the Americans should have knocked it down in the autumn of 1961? We now know that such a move would almost certainly have triggered a general war between the two superpowers, a war in which Europe would have been a nuclear battlefield.

The rehabilitation of Kennedy does not end there. For it is now clear that he was so shaken by the Berlin and Cuba crises that he concluded it was necessary for the United States to seek some kind of détente with the Soviet Union before the two superpowers destroyed the planet. A central obstacle to this objective, however, was at home. Military contractors, defense-industry labor unions,

Pentagon bureaucrats, university administrators, politicians determined to be more anti-communist than their opponents, exactly the interest groups Eisenhower identified in his famous “Military-Industrial Complex” farewell address: all had a vested interest in sustaining a tense and confrontational Cold War, and indeed, in denying that the US could ever achieve sufficient security.  This kind of politics had become very dangerous in the thermonuclear age. In a famous speech at American University in June 1963, the President called for a relaxation of Cold War tensions, and demanded that Americans must examine “their own attitude” if they were to avoid World War Three.

Kennedy did not get the chance to pursue this policy, and the Cold War would rage on, though never explode, for another thirty years. But it is a great irony that the popular European conception of Kennedy as a worldly peacemaker may actually be closer to the truth than the studied views of many Cold War historians. Consider this: JFK faced severe pressure to confront the Soviets more aggressively over Berlin and, especially, Cuba because he and his advisers understood that there would be a serious political price to pay, for himself and his Democratic party, if he were seen by the American electorate as weak. I cannot prove it, but I believe that the grotesque realization dawned upon him one day that he came very close to initiating a thermonuclear war because it was the smart political move. That was insane. 

To prevent such a situation from arising again, it would be necessary both to reduce US-Soviet tensions abroad and to take on the alarmists at home. If such a campaign cost him politically, so be it. My guess is that this is what he was up to when he was assassinated in November, and for this reason I think well of him when I jog through the empty Piazzale John F. Kennedy on Tuscan afternoons.