Ask many Americans and they will tell you that JFK, in his tragically short presidency, was one of the great presidents of US history. People point to his handling of the Cuban Missile Crises, his ‘moon’ speech and inspirational aura as signs of his greatness, and that his assassination robbed America of one of its great leaders. As perfect as this narrative seems for the ‘patriotic’ remembrance of American history, it cannot be further from the truth. Following Kennedy’s presidential trajectory, had he served a full two terms, Kennedy would have been remembered as the worst president in modern history.
One of the very first things Kennedy did after his close victory over Nixon in the 1960 election was to order an operation in which Cuban exiles would invade the island, overthrow Castro and establish some sort of Caribbean utopia. This became known as the Bay of Pigs disaster and proved to be an epic failure, as the Cubans in power (Fidel Castro) crushed the attempted invasion. The US couldn’t cleanse itself of what was supposed to be a relatively covert operation and pushed Fidel Castro into anti-American paranoia that would haunt the US in the coming years.
Kennedy’s problems didn’t end there with Cuba. The very next year the Cuban Missile Crisis rocked the US. Castro, fearing a future US attack, asked that the Soviet Union install nuclear weapons on the island. Naturally, the US found out and the ensuing diplomatic exchange brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear annihilation. The USSR did in fact back down, but for two weeks, the US was as close to nuclear holocaust as it would ever come. While Kennedy handled the diplomatic situation admirably, the entire fiasco was a direct result of Kennedy’s failed attempt to overthrow Castro a year earlier.
Kennedy was heavily involved in getting the US involved in Vietnam to the point of large-scale troop deployment. Kennedy put over 14,000 US ‘advisers’ into Vietnam during his short presidency. While his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was more enthusiastic about the conflict and would end up taking the historical blame for starting the war, Kennedy clearly would have fully committed the US into Vietnam. When Johnson took office following the assassination, he kept all of Kennedy’s advisors and same policy for the region. Kennedy started the initial US push into the Vietnam War, and had he not been assassinated, the full weight of this would have been place squarely on his shoulders.
While its clear that Kennedy’s foreign policy was often subject to failure, his domestic policy was not significantly better. The Democratic party of the early 60’s consisted of a contrast of elite North Eastern liberals (like Kennedy), and southern conservatives. To keep party unity for the sake of his election, Kennedy said shockingly little on the Civil Rights movement that was already underway. However, Kennedy needed party unity not only to get elected, but to keep his delicate coalition in Congress together as well. Only when the Civil Rights movement was ripping at the seams of American society did Kennedy begin to address the issue, and he would not do so with the same vigor as Johnson would later do, as Johnson’s credentials as a Southerner gave him more sway with the Southern conservatives.
Finally, whatever positive legacy JFK would have been able to leave with would have been ruined by Judith Exner. Exner was Kennedy’s mistress until 1962, when the FBI told the president that they knew of the affair. Kennedy also had allegedly an affair with Marilyn Monroe, and had relations with Inga Arvad, who had accompanied Hitler to the 1936 Olympic Games. We all saw how the Republicans tried to burn down Clinton when news of his presidential affair came out, but imagine the firestorm in the early 60’s, when America still supposedly had its morals. Kennedy would have been demonized in every media outlet that existed. As it happened, those who knew of Kennedy’s affairs waited before spilling the details of the President’s sex life, saving him from scandal in his lifetime. However, if news of his affairs had come out during his time in office, say, the mid 60’s, assuming he won reelection in 1964, it would have damned his image as family man. And if these allegations would have come out after his presidency (as what really happened), his legacy would have been further marred.
Kennedy’s foreign policy alienated Cuba and brought the US terribly close to nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. Kennedy’s policy for Vietnam trapped the United States in a conflict that would claim over 58,000 American lives. Kennedy’s neglect of Civil Rights until the 11th hour could well have hurt his presidential legacy and popularity in office, though the effects of this are undeterminable. He was assassinated before any of it came to fruition. And finally, had reports of Kennedy’s extramarital sex life been made public life while in office, he would have been disgraced personally. Had Kennedy served two full terms, he would not have been remembered as the great leader stolen from us by the fatalistic Kennedy curse, but as the single worst president in the modern era, bar none.