John F Kennedy (JFK) was inaugurated as president of the United States nearly sixty years ago today. In the less than three years before he was assassinated in November of 1963, he managed to initiate major changes in America’s foreign policy.
Those changes are documented in books such as “JFK and the Unspeakable” and “Betting on the Africans” and most recently, in an article by one of the foremost scholars on JFK, James Di Eugenio, who just published, “Deconstructing JFK: A Coup d’Etat over Foreign Policy?.” Despite the literature, many in the West do not realize the extent to which JFK was an exception when it came to U.S. foreign policy.
While he was a staunch advocate for capitalism and the “free world” in competition with the Soviet Union and communism, he promoted acceptance of non-aligned countries and supported nationalist movements in Africa, the Middle East, and Third World generally. In the summer before he was killed, he reached out to the Soviet Union and proposed sweeping changes to promote peace and prevent war, a sweeping change from the previous Eisenhower administration which was hostile to post WW2 nationalist movements in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
In 1953, the CIA supervised the overthrow of Iran’s elected government. They supported the Saudi monarch and undermined popular Egyptian nationalist Gamel Abdul Nasser. In contrast, Kennedy was sympathetic to the “winds of change” in Africa and beyond. He criticized France’s repression of the Algerian independence movement and was sympathetic to Patrice Lumumba leading the Congo’s independence from Belgium. Kennedy worked with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold to preserve Congo’s independence and try to restore Lumumba to power. Still, the CIA managed to have Lumumba executed three days before Kennedy’s inauguration.
Under Kennedy, the United States started voting against the European colonial powers in Africa and Kennedy even provided tangible aid to Nasser in Egypt. After his death, the U.S. policy returned to support for European powers and CIA intervention and supported NATO ally Portugal in its wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. It supported secessionist and tribal forces in the Congo, Angola, Somalia, and many other countries with hugely damaging results and backed apartheid South Africa until the very end. The U.S. government even went so far as to support the sectarian Muslim Brotherhood against the secularist Nasser.
This was also a critical time for Israel and Palestine. JFK was more objective and balanced than most U.S. politicians. Just 22 years old in 1939, Kennedy visited Palestine and wrote his observations in a four-page letter to his father. In it, he is thoughtful and recognizes the Palestinian perspective. He speaks of the “unfortunately arrogant, uncompromising attitude” of some Jewish leaders.
In May 2019, more documents were released from the National Security Archives. They show that JFK, as president, was intent on stopping Israel from surreptitiously building a nuclear weapon. In a letter to the new Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol, Kennedy gives a diplomatic ultimatum that U.S. support of Israel will be “seriously jeopardized” if Israel did not comply with inspection visits to Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona.
After his death, the Johnson administration was submissive to Israel and pro-Israel supporters. It showed the ultimate political subservience by preventing the rescue and hiding the Israeli treachery regarding the USS Liberty. That Israeli attack killed 34 and injured 172 U.S. sailors. Would Israel have had the arrogance and chutzpah to do this if Kennedy had been in the White House? Unlikely.
A strategy of peace
The invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs took place just three months after Kennedy took office. The CIA and the military’s top brass expected Kennedy to provide air support for the anti-Castro attackers. Kennedy said no and resolved to get rid of the long-standing CIA Director who had managed the operation. Allen Dulles and two Deputy Directors were forced to resign by the end of the year. The Pentagon, CIA, and anti-Castro Cubans were furious at JFK. When the Soviet Union sent nuclear-capable missiles to Cuba, the hawks demanded that the U.S. attack. Kennedy opposed the move and negotiated an agreement whereby the United States removed its nuclear missiles in Turkey as Soviet nuclear missiles were removed from Cuba.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country with vast natural resources and strategic location. President Sukarno led the country to independence and was a leader in the global Non-Aligned Movement seeking a middle ground between the poles of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower-Dulles administration tried to overthrow Sukarno. In contrast, JFK changed the policy from hostility to friendship. Sukarno invited JFK to visit the country and the invitation was accepted. Following his assassination, U.S. policy returned to hostility, and just two years later, in 1965, a U.S.-engineered coup led to the murders of about half a million Indonesian citizens suspected of being communist.
In 1951, JFK visited Vietnam as French colonial powers were trying to assert control. He saw the situation as 400,000 French soldiers were losing to the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Thus, when he became president, he was skeptical of the prospects and authorized an increase in U.S. military advisers, but never sent combat troops. As the situation deteriorated, JFK finally decided that policy was wrong, and in October 1963, he issued National Security Action Memorandum 263 directing U.S. withdrawal to begin in December and to be completed by the end of 1965. After his death, President Johnson reversed course and began sending massive numbers of U.S. soldiers to Vietnam. Twelve years later, after 58,000 American and about two million Vietnamese deaths, the U.S. military departed without a victory.
From confrontation to mutual acceptance
The Soviet Union was the largest communist bloc and the primary challenger to the United States and to the capitalist system. The Cold War included mutual recriminations and a huge amount of military spending as both sides designed and produced ever more hydrogen bombs, air, and sea delivery systems. During the Cuba crisis, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khruschev both realized how dangerous the situation was with a nuclear war well within the realm of possibility.
In June of 1963, JFK delivered the commencement address at American University. It was probably his most important speech yet is little known. In it, he called for a dramatic change in U.S. posture, from confrontation to mutual acceptance.
He called for a re-examination of American attitudes toward peace, the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and peace and freedom within the United States itself. He called for a special line of communication between Washington and Moscow to allow direct communications between their leaders. And then Kennedy declared that the United States would end nuclear testing as a first step toward general and complete disarmament.
In the last months before his death, JFK opened secret communications with Soviet Premier Khruschev and used a journalist to communicate directly with Fidel Castro. He proposed face-to-face talks aimed at reconciliation with Cuba.
His initiatives toward reconciliation and peace were opposed by the CIA and militarist elements in the government. As reported by the New York Times, Kennedy privately told one of his highest officials he “wanted to splinter the CIA in thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds”. Before that could happen, JFK was assassinated, and his policy changes reversed.
From Moscow to Cairo to Jakarta, Kennedy’s death was met with shock and mourning. Leaders in those countries sensed what the assassination meant.
The day after JFK’s funeral, President Johnson supplanted Kennedy’s planned withdrawal from Vietnam with National Security Action Memorandum 273. This resulted in 12 years of aggression and bloodshed in Southeast Asia. Coups were carried out in the Dominican Republic and Indonesia. The U.S. resumed support for South African apartheid and Portuguese colonial wars. Assassination attempts on Fidel Castro escalated while military coups took place in numerous Latin American countries. In the Middle East, the U.S. solidified support for Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Jim Douglas, the author of “JFK and the Unspeakable,” writes “President Kennedy’s courageous turn from global war to a strategy of peace provides the “why” of his assassination. “Because he turned toward peace with our enemies, the Communists, he found himself at odds with his own national security state.”
Feature photo | President Kennedy delivers the commencement address at American University, Monday, June 10, 1963. Photo | Public Domain
Rick Sterling is a journalist based in the San Fransico Bay area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org