SAN JOSE, Calif., May 29, 2015 – It is ironic that such a popular president as John F. Kennedy may have set in motion a series of incidents that could have divided Americans’ views of the United States and its military much more significantly than many people can fully comprehend, even today. As Americans celebrated such a solemn holiday as Memorial Day last weekend, a question many may have asked was whether citizens remember the purpose of the day of remembrance of those who gave their lives that the nation and the ideals of the nation might survive.
Certainly, since the days of John F. Kennedy, during and after the Vietnam War, Memorial Day took on a different meaning for the nation as soldiers returned from Vietnam. A serious split in public sentiment developed toward veterans returning from the battlefields and toward the value of the military overall. Outright animosity and disrespect directed at returning veterans grew outlandish as some soldiers were spit upon and cursed as they came back to resettle in their communities and reunite with their families.
Definite realms of vocal critics developed in which the military was loathed and bedrock values of the nation were questioned. Some Americans became fearful of supporting veterans and remained silent –afraid of challenging the emerging political correctness.
The irony of this period in American history was that it had only been a dozen years since Harry Truman had sent U.S. troops to Korea in 1950 to help the United Nations with the defense of South Korea, which was invaded by the communist government of North Korea. The soldiers returning from Korea were not treated in the same way as those returning from Vietnam. What was the difference? Were there more worthy people in Korea than in Vietnam, and thus the Vietnamese people had less real value as human beings? South Korea was a more worthy ally than South Vietnam, and more worthwhile to save from communism? American soldiers were more ruthless in Vietnam?
While the fight in Vietnam was different in many ways from the fight in Korea, there are several similarities. The first was that Kennedy did in Vietnam what Truman did in Korea for the sake of fighting for freedom. Each leader viewed the threat of international communism as real, and both were motivated to help foreign people fight for freedom. Truman had to face off against Stalin, while Kennedy had to face off against Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In reality, the takeover of both Korea and Vietnam was the ultimate objective of the communists. The Soviets failed to succeed in Korea, but they won the nation of Vietnam. It was the Vietnamese people who lost.
Ironically, Kennedy never saw the takeover of Vietnam because he was gunned down. Yet he had fought against the Imperial tyranny of Japan, only to witness our ally in defeating the Japanese Imperial military, Nationalist China, fall under the totalitarian control of Mao Zedong and his communist People’s Army in 1949, while Kennedy served as a member of the House of Representatives. The following year Kennedy witnessed North Korea, under the direction of the Kremlin’s puppet, Kim IL Sung, invade South Korea attempting to “re-unify” Korea under a communist utopia. Kennedy was also witness to Fidel Castro’s takeover in Cuba, and he understood the machinery of communist revolution in Vietnam.
During the 1960s, John Kennedy was keenly aware of the lines of division between the Free World and the world under the control of international communism. With a genuine interest in foreign affairs, Kennedy was fairly astute with regard to international affairs and understood that communism stood for the exact opposite of genuine freedom and liberty. He perceived the threat to the United States and to the free world. Ironically, Kennedy may have been the one who set in motion a chain of events that led to the divisive and destructive behavior of anti-war activists in the 1960s.
The seeds of divisiveness were planted well before activity in Vietnam when Kennedy decided to help Cuban freedom fighters to take Cuba from the communist Fidel Castro. While it is a fact that in May 1961, prior to the summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, President Kennedy increased the number of military advisers that President Eisenhower had sent to help train South Vietnamese soldiers, accusations of the U.S. being a warmongering nation started with Castro and Khrushchev. Such accusations against the U.S. was basically propaganda, and it was propaganda that was repeated again and again by anti-war protesters across the nation.
in May 1961, Kennedy’s best-laid plans went awry, and he took full responsibility on American television for the failure of the U.S. effort to assist the freedom fighters in the Bay of Pigs. But it led to Castro’s speaking out on television and denouncing Kennedy as a warmonger. It led to Khrushchev’s denouncing the U.S. in the world community as a warmongering nation. The incident was a serious blow to the new Kennedy administration. When Americans who were alive during Kennedy’s presidency think back to those days, it is hard not to remember the international turbulence of his initial two years in office.
By mid-1961, Kennedy stood against Khrushchev when the Soviets threatened to take control of West Berlin. They settled for building the Wall because the allied West would not yield to Russian demands to withdraw from West Berlin. Unfortunately, Kennedy had appeared weak before Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit in June, and during later threats regarding the western nations’ withdrawal from West Berlin. However, Kennedy made a speech on July 25 and stated that the U.S. was not looking for a battle, reiterating that he recognized the “Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe.” Yet, he boldly declared: “We seek peace, but we shall not surrender,” and asked Congress for $3.25 billion for military spending and more troops.
The international political arena can no longer be viewed as segmented or fragmented events and isolated incidents unfolding sporadically through time. During this critical time in 1961, the advisers were installed in Vietnam. By February 1962, President Kennedy created the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam for all U.S. military forces operating in Vietnam to coordinate troop activity. Near the end of 1963, the number of advisers had grown from 900 to 16,000, and it seemed that the die was cast. Throughout this period, Kennedy had a steep learning curve, but the Bay of Pigs fiasco right at the beginning set a foreboding tone for his presidency.
Sadly, the floundering over the Bay of Pigs can be directly linked to the Cuban missile crisis. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, former President Eisenhower warned Kennedy that “the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do.” It did embolden Castro and Khrushchev to agree to install ICBMs in Cuba in the second half of 1962, and it led to the incredible showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev. At the time, the peoples of the world did not realize how rapidly events had hurtled toward nuclear Armageddon.
When Americans remember this tremendous international turbulence, it seems as if he were president a lot longer. Also, had Kennedy had not taken a strong stand against communism in the 1960s, it may not have been so rocky or frightening to those who were worried about the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The world was relieved when Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the missiles as Kennedy agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey. The standoff ended up in a stalemate, but America was not the same.
The nation will never know how Kennedy would have conducted the war against the communist forces of North Vietnam as he was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963. The nation may never know who really killed him, but one fact is certain: His strong stand against Communism across the globe earned him some very powerful enemies. Amazingly, if Americans can praise and honor Lincoln for standing so strongly against slavery, the people should praise and honor Kennedy for standing so strongly against international communism. It seems quite clear that he understood that communism was just another form of slavery.
Beyond the politics, beyond the myths of Camelot, beyond the whispers of scandals, beyond the conspiracy theories swirling about his assassination, Americans would be wise to remember John F. Kennedy for what he believed in and what he was willing to fight for as a leader and not the tragic events that took his life. He expressed in word and deed, as much as he possibly could, his love of his country and the dream of freedom. Although many Americans remember the “Ask not what you country can do for you…” part of his inaugural address, Americans can find the answer to his international forays in a different part of that same speech:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty…
But, the world is very different now. The party of Kennedy has made sure that Americans have the power to abolish the beginning forms of human life and has inverted the challenge to ask what Americans can do for their country and has shriveled and contorted the ideal of liberty at home and abroad…
And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.