• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

John F. Kennedy The Worst President Of The 20th Century?

Thomas Ricks makes the case for a provocative hypothesis that is sure to get some people upset:

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.

Ricks also notes that Kennedy gave the green light to another coup in a country that would, thirty years later, be at the center of American foreign policy:

There’s another coup that JFK supported earlier in 1963: the Baathist one in Iraq that chucked out a pro-Soviet general. Events in subsequent decades obviously are not Kennedy’s fault, but it still is interesting to look at the documents. Here’s a State Department sitrep from, of all dates, Nov. 21, 1963: “Initial appraisal cabinet named November 20 is that it contains some moderate Baathis. Of twenty-one ministers, seven are holdovers from previous cabinet, thirteen are civilians, four are from moderate Shabib-Jawad faction of Baath (Defense — Tikriti; Communications — Abd al-Latif; Education — Jawari; Health — Mustafa) and a number of technician-type civil servants.” Did you notice the name of that defense minister? I think this might have been Saddam Hussein’s uncle.)

There is, I suppose, some irony in the fact that both the Iraqi coup, which included the assassination of several Generals,  and the coup in Saigon, occurred in the same year that Kennedy himself was assassination. That assassination, of course, has tended to romanticized  the Kennedy Administration, a process that started with the creation of the myth of Camelot by Kennedy loyalists like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. While Kennedy remained popular throughout his Presidency, thanks largely to relatively good economic times, the truth of the matter is that the real JFK bears little resemblance to the reality, especially in the foreign policy era. Ricks’s hypothesis essentially is that Kennedy’s decision to directly involve the United States in the success of South Vietnam as a state by authorizing the removal of Diem made further American involvement in Vietnam inevitable. This is a point that has been hotly disputed by Kennedy loyalists over the years, and is in fact the subject of a book I’m reading at the moment, but I think Ricks has a point. JFK was hardly a pacifist, and during his three years in office he proved himself to be quite willing to engage in military adventurism. He also intervened in the internal affairs of other nations up to the point of assassinating politicians when he believed it suited U.S. interests.

Does all of that, however, make him the worst President in American history?

Alex Massie thinks not:

Not a bad case but not, I fear, quite good enough. My own vote would go to Woodrow Wilson who not only pursued dreadful policies but was perhaps the only President of the 2oth century whose  ghastliness of character and prejudice could shame even Richard Nixon.

Kennedy of course was over-rated for years and we can see through a clearer glass these days. Meanwhile, Truman and Eisenhower’s ratings have been climbing for some time so their reputations should stall soon though they are never again likely to slip into the “Under-rated” category.

I tend to agree with Massie. Kennedy’s foreign policy choices look bad in retrospect, and set the U.S. on a path the led to one of our longest and most controversial wars, but they were fit in perfectly with the dominant views on both sides of the political aisle at the time. We were at the height of the Cold War, Berlin had just been divided by a wall, and the world had been brought to the brink of a nuclear war. Anyone who’s followed the history of the 1960 Presidential campaign can tell you that there were very few disagreements between Kennedy and Nixon on foreign policy, they were both Cold War Hawks but then so was pretty much everyone at that point in time. If Nixon had won in 1960 instead of Kennedy, it’s easy to see him making many of the same decisions that Kennedy did in that area.

So, no, I don’t agree with Ricks that Kennedy was the worst President of the 20th Century, I’m not even sure that he comes close to belonging on that list. For me, the dishonor would belong to Woodrow Wilson, a President who essentially manipulated the nation into World War I with a false neutrality, authorized the civil libertieis abuses of the Palmer Raids, and used the power of the Presidency to implement policies that were in line with his own vile racist beliefs about African-Americans. I’d also put Richard Nixon on that list, for obvious reasons, and Jimmy Carter, and Herbert Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson. Those were Presidents who either broke the law, abused the power of their office, made bad decisions, or failed to be the leader they needed to be. John F. Kennedy was not the saint his hagiographers made him out to be, but he doesn’t belong in the same class as those men.

 

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. sam says:

    LBJ’s a difficult case for me. His foreign policy record (Vietnam) vs. his civil rights record (Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965). Hard call for me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  2. lunaticllama says:

    I think the passage of the Civil Rights Act immediately moves Johnson out of this list. I would also suspect that many libertarians would have supported the 1965 Immigration Act Johnson signed.

    Completely tangential, but Carter legalized home brewing, which put the wheels motion for the craft brewing revolution, making the US one of the best places to be a beer drinker in the world today.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

  3. Michael says:

    Silly article. Carter is the worst.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 8 Thumb down 18

  4. Stan says:

    You forgot all the bad stuff Johnson did in the area of civil rights. And think how much better off we’d be if we weren’t stuck with Medicare and Medicaid. Do you know, and I swear to God this is the truth, he actually tried to give poor people dental care and legal representation? The horror, the horror! Thank God people like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush came along.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 7

  5. Jib says:

    Your list is good, better than Ricks but I would not include Carter. Although he has always been my go to example for a bad president I finally had to admit that disco really was not his fault.

    I think you should judge a bad president on how hard it is to clean up the messes he makes. Carter just did not leave that much to clean up. The economy was wreaked by Nixon’s economic policy (breaking up Bretton Woods, bizarre anti-inflation moves like govt mandated price freezes). Carter actually started the economic deregulation that Reagan expanded on.

    If you want to hang the fall of the Shah on him fine, but the alternative would be an intervention by the US to prop up a despot against a popular uprising. Dicy in the best of times and very likely impossible to pull off with the US military establishment circa 1978.

    Carter gets a lot of bad press because so many bad mistakes made before him came to fruit during his administration. And he was such a twit that it was really hard to like him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6

  6. James Joyner says:

    There’s a pretty good case (Fred Kempe’s BERLIN 1961 lays it out in detail) that Kennedy’s foreign policy was atrocious: Bay of Pigs, Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, etc. But he certainly paved the way for major civil rights reforms that his successor gets the credit for.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  7. An Interested Party says:

    If you want to hang the fall of the Shah on him fine…

    Of course, that blowback wouldn’t have happened if Mossadegh hadn’t been overthrown in 1953 in the first place…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3

  8. george says:

    Do these kind of ‘best’ or ‘worst’ lists ever tell us anything other than the politics of the people compiling the lists?

    Most of the time they’re about as insightful as a list of the best colors, or flavors of ice-cream.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  9. Graham says:

    @Michael:

    Silly article. Carter is the worst.

    Obviously you’re not a home brewer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  10. TheColourfield says:

    I’m always mystified as to how Carter makes these lists.

    He reduced debt, tried to woo the country off it’s oil fixation, brokered a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel, hired Paul Volcker as Fed President, deregulated the airline and trucking industries and continued to negotiate a reduction in nuclear arms that was also taken up by Reagan.

    Was he among the greatest ? No. But certainly above Wilson, Hoover Nixon, W and arguably Coolidge.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 7

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    When we talk about foreign policy disasters and fiascoes we shouldn’t forget that the all have the CIA’s fingerprints all over them. That certainly includes both Vietnam and Iran. Also don’t forget that the Bay of Pigs was originally cooked up by Nixon but postponed until after the election.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 7

  12. WR says:

    @TheColourfield: He was a Democrat, and many Republicans refuse to accept the legitimacy of any Democratic president. They can’t put Clinton on the worst list, because too many people remember the booming economy during his terms. But Clinton governed during bad times. Plus, he’s been a constant voice for justice and peace since he left office, which is two more strikes against him for the right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 12

  13. @James Joyner:

    There is, of course, the theory that Kennedy’s weakness at his summit with Krushchev convinced the Soviets that they could win a confrontation with the US over placing missiles in Cuba. I’m not sure how true that is, though.

    That’s a matter of personality rather than policy of course, and given the state of mind among foreign policy professionals in the early 1960s, I doubt that things would’ve been all that different if someone else had been President at the time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  14. tps says:

    I gather that JFK met with Eisenhower after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and got dressed down like a 1st year plebe at West Point. When JFK said that he limited the planned air strikes to just one and kept the military help that had been promised away he did it to maintain ‘deniability’. Ike replied that everyone would know that the US was involved no matter what.

    JFK did seem quite reckless at times with his affairs and some policy choices. I wonder how much his Addison’s disease and cortisone shots effected it all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  15. @tps:

    The Bay of Pigs was a bad idea all around no matter how it was executed

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6

  16. I have often thought that JFK was over rated, that Johnson followed through on the progressive agenda that JFK avoided for fear of alienating southern Democrats. But in the end, the transformation of the brother RFK from ruthless to soulful was the biggest story that came out of the JFK presidency.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  17. anjin-san says:

    Carter gets a lot of bad press because so many bad mistakes made before him came to fruit during his administration.

    Carter was a poor leader, but he also inherited a very weak hand – the economy was a mess long before he took office, and the situation in Iran did not present any good options from our point of view. That die was also cast long before Carter came on the scene.

    It may make tea party types feel good to crow about how Carter was a disaster, but a serious reading of history reveals a slightly more complex picture, and one that is very different from say GW Bush, who inherited a pretty good hand from Clinton and promptly screwed it up.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 19 Thumb down 11

  18. Tano says:

    I agree with the sentiments of several commenters re. Carter. He is, probably more than anyone I can think of, due for a historical reassessment. He was a terrible political leader, but his scorecard actually has a lot of very good accomplishments and innovations.

    I suspect though that the reassessment will have to wait until he is gone – there are far too many people who have personalized their dislike of the guy to actually now praise him while he is still alive to hear it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 4

  19. Jib says:

    @anjin-san:

    Yep, I think it is fair to measure presidents by how the country was when they were inaugurated and compare it to how the country is when the next guy is inaugurated. The change from January 2001 to January 2009 is the worst decline since Hoover. 1969 to 1977 is a pretty bad decline but the country was politically already a mess before 1969 so not all of it happened during Nixon administration.

    Still no one can compare with Hoover. Real (inflation adjusted) GDP declined 27% between 1929 and 1933. Compare that to the Great Recession where GDP dropped less than 4%.

    BTW, if you want to know why your grandparents thought FDR was so great, during his first administration, real GDP rose 43%. He also reduced unemployment by 10 points. If Obama did the same thing, we would have a 0% unemployment rate. Of course the whole dug by Hoover was so deep that unemployment was still at 15% in 1937. FDR has a recession in 1938 when worried about increasing govt debt, he cut government cut spending. Sounds familiar except for the whole 4 years of booming recovery before the retrenchment. That would have been nice to have.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that calling this or that president the best or worst is frivolous at best, ideologically biased at worst. Rather than engage in that I can tell you the problem I had with John Kennedy’s foreign policy which was very much the same problem that I had with George W. Bush’s: in my view both had perceptions of risk and reward, born of privilege, that were too far removed from those that I believe most Americans have.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  21. anjin-san says:

    but the country was politically already a mess before 1969

    LBJ was no bargain. Wanted guns and butter, forgot he had to pay for it all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  22. An Interested Party says:

    BTW, if you want to know why your grandparents thought FDR was so great…

    That’s an interesting point in regards to this conversation about presidents…it seems like is has been a project among certain conservatives to tear down FDR…of course, that has failed, as his leadership during WWII ranks him among the greatest of presidents, as does the enduring legacy of the New Deal in the form of Social Security…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  23. Brett says:

    It’s not just Carter that took office with a lousy political and economic situation. Nixon got handed a pretty nasty bag in 1968-69, particularly with regards to foreign policy. He inherited all of LBJ’s and Robert McNamara’s foul-ups in Vietnam.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  24. steve says:

    James- You should make your case about Carter sometime. While he had his negatives, he started deregulation and continued to lower debt, as a percentage of GDP, unlike the next president. I would rate him as mediocre, not down with Wilson and Hoover.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  25. Console says:

    No love (hate?) for Warren G. Harding. He’s hands down the most corrupt president ever.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  26. @James Joyner:

    JFK was pressured many times to go to war: Laos, Berlin, Cuba, & yes, Vietnam. After the Bay of Pigs, he distrusted his generals and stood up to them and resisted war. LBJ did not. I don’t see Nixon deciding not to send in the Marines as the Bay of Pigs fell on its ass, especially since it was conceived during the Eisenhower administration. Also don’t see Nixon signing the Nuclear Test Ban treaty or making an American University type speech.

    The biggest rap on JFK by Nixon/Goldwater & the GOP was that he was soft on Communism. Goldwater even advocated that our Generals in Europe should have the authority to launch nuclear weaons on their own! JFK laughed at this lunacy.
    In Dallas, on the day of his death, a pamphlet said he was guilty of Treason for, among other things, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  27. Ditto to Wilson being much worse than Kennedy. Wilson was an American proto-fascist whom Mussolini later expressed political and personal admiration, although Mussolini did not model his own government directly from Wilson’s. By the end of Word War II, Wilson had put in place 100,000 domestic spies to report even the slightest quip of criticism of his administration or the war effort. One woman made a critical remark to friends in her own living room, and Wilson’s goons imprisoned her.

    The case also can be excellently made that Wilson’s Fourteen Points practically guaranteed a second world war, even had Hitler become a drunken gasthaus bum rather than a politician. Churchill wrote after WW2 that the two wars were really one war with a 20-year ceasefire. Oswald Spengler predicted in the early ’30s that another war was coming and laid it explicitly at Wilson’s feet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  28. Carwin says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    Someone’s been reading Jonah Goldberg’s book.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  29. James in LA says:

    George W Bush will be known as the worst American president in the nation’s history. We have the benefit of knowing much more of previous presidencies due to time passing. He admitted on national TV he gave the order to torture, and his continued liberty in Dallas makes a mockery of us all. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 10

  30. Moosebreath says:

    Any discussion of worst Presidents of the last century which does not mention W is not worth reading.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  31. Ron Beasley says:

    @Moosebreath: You are right of course bur it was not really W’s presidency it was Cheney’s presidency and while Cheney may not be in the limelight much anymore his evil spawn, Lynne, is on FOX nearly every week.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  32. Douglas says:

    I Agree, blaming JFK for everything that happened is unfair, he is overly vernerated based on the myth his despicable, and yes, I think Jacquie is despicable, created He was not, however, responsible for all of those situations, other than the kruschev and CMC, and even that slightly. He just was new to the office and things happened quickly.

    Wilson was MUCH worse, as was Roosevelt, the second, yes, he was a bad president, I think nixon is overly derided, because he was a criminal, but he was a criminal for something that would be considered as second hand for pretty much everyone before him.

    Not partisan, but I would say the 3 worst presidents of the 20th century, are wilson, roosevelt the second, and Yes, Truman. for a list of five, I would add, Nixon and Carter.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  33. An Interested Party says:

    Not partisan, but I would say the 3 worst presidents of the 20th century, are wilson, roosevelt the second, and Yes, Truman. for a list of five, I would add, Nixon and Carter.

    Hahahaha…no, that’s not partisan at all, right…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  34. JohnMcC says:

    Came here late, I guess, but if anyone’s still engaged…. The criticism of JFK vs Khrushchev should be seen in the light of the (fortunately) short-lived idea of the Soviet supremacy in technology. They had put the first satellite in orbit, as well as the first man in orbit and the first successful ICBM. They had production figures for steel and coal and similar industrial expansion that we could not match. There was a certain reality to the Khrushchev claim, made in the UN, that “we will bury you” — in that the industrial production of the Soviets exceeded ours and they would ‘bury’ us economically.

    In ’60, Khrushchev essentially blew Ike away in a summit (if memory serves — in Paris) because the Soviets had shot down a U-2 (google Francis Gary Powers for the story). Something we did not think they could do. Turns out they’d cheated and actually had developed Anti-Aircraft Missiles!!

    It was the Cuban Missile Crisis that made the JFK presidency. It was the ‘Hinge of Fate’ (to steal from Churchill) in the course of the Cold War. Afterwards the Soviets were always a regional power.

    Any monday morning quarterback who leaves the Cuban Missile Crisis out of his judgement of the JFK presidency is not worth reading. He is revealed as both ignorant and satisfied with his ignorance. In other words, a conservative.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  35. Rob in CT says:

    JFK gets an I (incomplete). It’s unsatisfying, I know, but it’s the truth. We do not know how he’d have turned out had he served a full term (and perhaps a full second term).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  36. Wayne says:

    IMO JFK was not the worst President but is generally overrated. If he wasn’t assassinated he would be nowhere near as popular as he is. There are many celebrities that died at young age and\or unexpected death that probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as famous if they hadn’t.

    If Obama would have died in his first year in office before all of his hope and change B.S. was exposed as a fraud, he would have been considered great to. Now he we go down as another Jimmy Carter or worst.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  37. TheColourfield says:

    @Wayne:

    Given the comments above about Carter can you please explain why he was a bad President?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  38. An Interested Party says:

    Now he we go down as another Jimmy Carter or worst.

    “Worst” than Jimmy Carter? Oh, George W. Bush…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  39. Wayne says:

    @TheColourfield
    I’m not sure why you single me out since even by comments above I’m not the only to think so but I bite.

    IMO Carter had well meaning heart but lack leadership and competency. His lack of competency had more to do with him being wishy washy and lacking leadership than actual intelligence. He would go one way but then when he talked to another group would change positions. He wanted to please everyone which lead to pleasing very few. He lacked direction. His weak disposition hurt the U.S. when dealing with foreign and domestic issues.

    His energy policy sucked. He attack “big oil” and energy producers and tried to use taxes to manipulate the free market. I give him credit in promoting conservation but he went overboard on it. He had the attitude of we need to deal with having scarce resources instead of trying to expand those resources.

    His lopsided trade deals to places like China hurt the U.S. economy that even exist to this day. He is not the only President to have done so but he did “more” than his fair share in doing so. Then there was his handling of the military, intelligence agencies and LICs but my post is getting too long how it is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  40. JohnMcC says:

    The only way to understand Carter is to look at his predecessors. Nixon lost the faith of the American people — huge recession (not as bad as the present one but very damn bad) and Watergate. Ford rose to the WhiteHouse without ever facing a national election (think of that for a minute!) and pardoned the criminal who’d appointed him.

    LBJ was accused (convincingly iMHO) of considerable criminality in office and conducted the VietNam war as an endless battle of attrition fought with conscripts.

    Carter looked pretty damn good to me.

    He was crippled because he was a relentless meddler and tinkerer with policy and a micro-manager. He was reputed to have the parking assignments for the WH staff pass over his desk and to personally approve of the sign-up schedule for the WH tennis courts. Don’t know that that was totally factual but it didn’t seem out of character.

    He was also President while Sec’ty Volcker was squeezing the inflation out of the economy with amazingly high interest rates. The success of that project gave Carter a bad economy but set the stage for the resurgence that Reagan claimed credit for.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  41. anjin-san says:

    His energy policy sucked. He attack “big oil” and energy producers

    Yea, and the GOP policy of bending over for big energy producers and shoveling corporate welfare at them has just worked out so well…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  42. Wayne says:

    Attacking and going after the energy business does little good. It just gives sadistic people some personal satisfaction. When you try to impede and destroy a industry you usually get less of what they produce.

    Is less oil and energy really what we need?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1