vice-presidential nominee Senator Joe Biden recently predicted that
within the first six months of an Obama administration the freshman
president would be tested by a contrived international crisis. Obama
supporters quickly pointed to John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s handling of the
Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 as a model for how Barack Obama
might respond. That crisis, however, was the last in a series of tests.
In fact, the poor way in which JFK handled earlier crises fostered that
nearly disastrous nuclear confrontation.
In February 1961, JFK faced his first crisis in
far away Laos, where a three-way civil war raged. Kennedy soon
discovered that U.S. forces, structured for conventional warfare in
Europe, would be logistically hamstrung fighting hundreds of miles
inland in the land-locked, mountainous jungle kingdom bordering Red
China and North Vietnam. In July 1962, the Kennedy administration
acquiesced in the neutralization of Laos. Kennedy then decided to “draw
a line in the sand” in nearby South Vietnam, where U.S. forces would
benefit from large ports and numerous airfields. Thus, JFK placed the
nation on the slippery slope into a Vietnam quagmire.
In April 1961, the Bay of Pigs crisis again
tested JFK’s mettle. A rag-tag army of 1,200 Cuban refugees, trained by
the CIA and supported by B-26 bombers in Cuban markings—flown from a
secret base in Guatemala by members of the Alabama Air National
Guard—failed disastrously. As Fidel Castro personally led forces that
overwhelmed the Cuban patriots, U.S. Navy fighter planes orbited just
outside Cuban airspace, anxiously awaiting orders to strike. JFK
That summer, at their first summit meeting in
Vienna, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened Kennedy with war
over Berlin. A shaken Kennedy returned home to order a massive buildup
in U.S. strategic and conventional forces. A confident Khrushchev,
meanwhile, ordered a wall built to seal off communist East Berlin and
East Germany. Kennedy responded with one dandy speech in front of the
That same summer, JFK ordered plans for a
nuclear first strike on Soviet bomber and missile bases. The plan
called for 55 B-52s to drop 80 nuclear weapons, wiping out an estimated
90 percent of Soviet nuclear forces. Because these bases were located
in isolated regions, planners estimated fewer than a million Russian
casualties and deemed Soviet retaliation unlikely, given that Soviet
nuclear forces would be drastically reduced while U.S. striking power
remained entirely intact. JFK put the plan on hold. Soviet intelligence
likely reported this plan to Khrushchev.
Having tested JFK’s mettle and finding
weakness, Khrushchev deployed medium-range, nuclear-tipped missiles and
light bombers to Cuba, threatening nuclear annihilation for every
American city within 1,500 miles. The October 1962 Cuban Missile
Crisis, the ultimate test, brought both nations to the brink of
Armageddon. JFK’s “finest hour” was almost the world’s last hour.
To paraphrase an earlier Democratic
vice-presidential candidate: Senator Obama, I grew up admiring John F.
Kennedy, and you’re no John F. Kennedy.
During his first year in office, JFK increased
defense expenditures by a third. Obama vows to reduce the defense
budget by one fourth. While ultimately JFK’s decision to “draw a line
in the sand” in Vietnam suffered from overly-optimistic assumptions
involving the efficacy of counter-insurgency, Kennedy engaged to oppose
Soviet “wars of national liberation.” By contrast with JFK’s commitment
to “go anywhere, bear any burden,” Obama vows retreat and withdrawal
within 16 months from a war that U.S. forces are winning in Iraq.
Kennedy’s perceived weakness in his July 1961 Vienna summit with
Khrushchev led to the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, the Cuban Missile
Crisis. What will Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate
unconditionally with Iranian leaders render? Any nation seeking
unconditional negotiations assumes a position of weakness.
The Soviet challenge in Cuba occurred when the
United States possessed overwhelming nuclear superiority. Additionally,
from the start of his administration, JFK rebuilt U.S. conventional
forces, including expanding the Army from 16 to 20 divisions. By
contrast, Obama proposes deep cuts in the American military while
Russia revitalizes its armed forces; China engages in massive military
modernization; Iran moves inexorably toward acquiring nukes; and
Russian, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Iranian leaders become increasingly
And who will advise the inexperienced Obama?
Senator Joe Biden, picked to balance the Democratic ticket based on his
foreign-policy experience? Will Biden again point to FDR’s leadership
demonstrated in his 1929 television address to reassure a nation faced
with economic disaster? Or will he tout how the French and NATO forces
kicked Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon? An advisor one heart-beat
away from the Oval Office should know Herbert Hoover, not Franklin
Roosevelt, occupied that office in 1929—when television was 10 years
into the future. An advisor on foreign policy must know Hezbollah is
stronger in southern Lebanon today than in 2006 and French monitoring
forces under a U.N. (not NATO) mandate can only ogle—not interfere
Most importantly, Barack Obama is no JFK.