We might not be here with the mists of myths and hectoring of conspiracy theorists — all marking the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination — if he had not insisted on caution during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.
It was his finest hour.
Civilization stood on the brink of ashy annihilation for 12 days as JFK faced and defused what began to feel like an inevitable nuclear conflagration. He withstood pressure from most of his top military advisers to launch a strike on the Cuban missile sites. An attack on the Soviet-manned missiles might not have taken out every site, leaving the communists the option of unleashing nuclear weapons on the United States.
As war drew closer, JFK deftly interpreted and replied to conflicting messages from menacing Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev and established a flexible naval blockade around Cuba. The price of peace was a pledge not to invade Cuba. He also agreed to remove some antiquated nuclear missiles from Turkey, but that was kept secret at the time.
We are all in JFK's debt for leading the world through its maximum hour of danger in the second half of the 20th century. He was, nevertheless, a mass of contradictions.
In the annals of American presidents, JFK remains distinct 50 years after his death, having served only 34 months in office. JFK's campaign team thought he was headed for a landslide, but his narrow victory in 1960 over Richard Nixon caused the Massachusetts Democrat to create a bipartisan cabinet, awarding the departments of treasury and defense to Republicans.
JFK's practical knowledge of economics consisted of two immutable facts of his life: His father provided plenty of money and his wife spent too much of it on clothes and luxuries. Kennedy's 1,000 days in office have been chronicled in greater detail than any other president, so we know his economic advisers spent a surprising amount of time tutoring the president in basic economic theory. He was an adept student, giving his approval to proposals to simplify the tax code and reduce confiscatory rates.
Like much else that JFK sent to Congress, the tax proposals languished in a Democratic Congress dominated by segregationist Democrats. He was absorbed by foreign affairs and freedom's struggle with totalitarianism, calibrating domestic policies by their impact on the cold war.
That JFK rose to the presidency was a tribute to his resilience and powers of invention. The dire state of his health was the great secret of his inner circle. His wobbliest moment during the 1960 campaign came when someone misplaced his bag of medication. Its contents would have belied his claim to the candidate possessing the most vigor.
His chronic, debilitating back pain caused the president to rely on New York charlatan Dr. Max Jacobson and his ready syringe of amphetamines and other mysterious concoctions for relief. Dr. Feelgood, as he came to be known, was a looming presence in the Kennedy White House, alarming Robert Kennedy.
Fifty years after the president's death, it is still hard to reconcile his aspirations for success with his reckless personal conduct. His unceasing escapades, especially his reported relationships with a German prostitute in Washington and Mafia moll Judith Campbell put his presidency in jeopardy. Robert Kennedy reportedly had the prostitute deported.
This disreputable private drama unfolded as the administration reached an agreement with the Soviets on a limited ban on nuclear testing, JFK's greatest achievement after diffusing the missile crisis. At the same time, he was blundering into war into Vietnam. He approved the overthrow of the Diem government and was astounded when the generals leading the coup murdered President Diem and his brother.
He despaired in earthy language at the confusion and strife within his administration over what to do about Vietnam. His public pronouncements were contradictory to the point of incoherence, unusual for a man who knew how to compose and deliver a stirring speech full of certainties and calls to action.
He guided the free nations of the world through a perilous and complicated time, and he kept us at peace. By any measure, his brief presidency was a success.
Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.