Have we ever had a president before this one who so disdains the advice and policies of those who have spent their lives working for the government he leads? Have we ever had a chief executive who is so skeptical of the judgments of career diplomats and military leaders, who rejects the advice of top intelligence leaders, who trusts his family more than those with a lifetime of experience?
Yes we have. And his name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
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Kennedy and Donald Trump are hardly similar men, nor are they similar presidents. JFK’s 14 years of experience in the House and Senate, his knowledge of history and his prudence in public (as opposed to private) matters make that notion absurd. But in one way they are alike: Throughout Kennedy’s presidency, he came more and more to distrust the received wisdom of the “permanent government” or “deep state” or “military-industrial complex” or whatever term seems apt today. In his case, that skepticism may have saved the planet from nuclear annihilation.
During the tumult of the Trump years, generals like H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis have been glorified as steadying influences in the room—military wisemen whose opinions on everything from Syria to NATO Trump has recklessly disregarded. And that is true. Trump deserves censure for his refusal to listen to the advice of experienced hands, and his White House can be faulted for jettisoning decades worth of scientific, economic and military expertise.
But in the reflexive rush to criticize Trump, we risk forgetting the lesson of the Kennedy years: There is danger in relying too heavily on the “wisdom” of the elders. A president with a well-honed resistance to the certainties of experts and a strong sense of history can be a crucial protection against disaster. Unlike Kennedy, Trump possesses only one of these traits. But we shouldn’t let the current president’s lapses reset our expectations for civilian control over the military and foreign affairs.
JFK campaigned in 1960 as a conventional Cold Warrior, warning that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union, arguing that a (nonexistent) “missile gap” was threatening our security, embracing the idea that the fall of any nation to Communism would threaten surrounding nations—the domino theory. But he had also come to office with a strong belief that the power of nationalism was changing the dynamic of world politics. He’d been skeptical about France’s ability to hold Indochina in the early 1950s. And in his first days in office, Kennedy rejected the advice of his military advisers to commit troops into Laos—advice that included the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
His skepticism about the military grew steadily. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, he said, “Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there, nodding, saying it would work.” He was furious when it took hours for the army to deploy troops to deal with rioting at the University of Mississippi when the first black student was admitted. And in the closest brush with nuclear war ever—the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—Kennedy repeatedly refused to strike at Soviet missile installations on the island.
His judgment may well have made the difference between war and peace. But the military and intelligence heavyweights saw it otherwise. “The greatest defeat in our history,” Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay called it. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson—the ultimate “wise man” who had confidently assured JFK that the Soviets would not respond to a military strike in Cuba—called the peaceful resolution of the crisis a matter of “luck” and later said, “We have to face the fact that the United States has no leader.” And Allen Dulles, the longtime CIA chief cashiered by JFK after the Bay of Pigs, said in retirement: “Kennedy is weak, not a leader.”
Kennedy, in turn, was sufficiently worried about his military advisers that he encouraged director John Frankenheimer to make a movie out of Seven Days in May, a novel about an attempted military coup, and even vacated the White House for a weekend to accommodate the movie’s shooting schedule.
By June 1963, Kennedy was signaling his intention to break with the Cold War consensus. In a speech at American University, he called for a new approach toward the Soviet Union. While condemning their totalitarian system, he said: “Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Kennedy sought to lessen criticism of his proposed new approach to Moscow with huge increases in the defense budget. And he bears substantial responsibility for sending 15,000 “combat advisers” into Vietnam. But history suggests that he was looking for ways out of that quagmire, while dealing with the harsh domestic political realities. He told a friend: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out. … But I can’t give up a piece of territory to the Communists and then get the people to re-elect me.”
Kennedy pushed back against the “permanent government” by relying on different eyes and ears for advice and information. Most obvious was his turn to his brother, Robert Kennedy, as a key adviser on any and all matters, beyond RFK’s job as attorney general. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK used ABC correspondent John Scali as a go-between with Alexandr S. Fomin, a KGB official in Washington and a personal friend of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. When Kennedy learned that French journalist Jean Daniel was going to interview Fidel Castro, he met with Daniel and asked that they meet again on his return. He encouraged Deputy U.N. Ambassador (and former journalist) William Atwood to maintain contacts with members of the Cuban delegation.
No one can know, of course, whether JFK would have moved further from the Cold War consensus in a second term. What we do know is that throughout his presidency, he was one of the few voices pushing back against the assumptions of those around him. Virtually every “wise man”—McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, the joint chiefs—argued for escalation in Vietnam, but Kennedy pushed back. He would say, for example, if you can convince Douglas MacArthur that a land war in Asia is a good idea, let me know. And after his death, his successor—far less grounded in history or foreign policy, and without Kennedy’s deep doubts about the wisdom of the military, presided over the full-scale tragedy that was Vietnam.
The wrong lesson, then, is that it is acceptable for a president like Trump to carry out an ignorant, narcissistic foreign policy. But it is equally wrong to think that presidents should mindlessly defer to their military and diplomatic advisers. It was “the best and the brightest” who led us into Vietnam; it was the counsel of seasoned, experienced leaders who led us into Iraq in 2003; it was a team of well-versed experts who presided over the descent into the Great Recession of 2008.
Under Trump, we have seen that a president without the gifts of knowledge and judgment is ill-served by ignoring advice from the grownups in the room. By relying on his own instincts in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president greatly strengthened the hands of Iran, Russia and ISIS while shaking our allies’ faith in America’s judgment.
The heavy costs of ignoring sound advice may lead the next president to reaffirm respect for the “deep state.” But if respect becomes veneration, if the next president does not know how and where to look for alternatives to the consensus, that could well lead to a new series of destructive policies. A president without the ability to thoughtfully contest the conventional wisdom, without the ability to argue for new alternatives to old problems, does the office and the nation no favor.