President Obama’s initial public pitch in favor of his deal with Iran mentioned only one of his predecessors by name—John F. Kennedy.
Describing the Iran deal as “in line with a tradition of American leadership,” Obama said, “It’s now more than 50 years since President Kennedy stood before the American people and said, ‘Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.’ He was speaking then about the need for discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which led to efforts to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Persons of goodwill can debate whether the nuclear deal with Iran is a good idea. I tend to defer to the judgment of the elected prime minister of Israel, which is on the front line of Iranian-backed terrorism. But even critics of the deal such as myself acknowledge that its outcome is a matter of speculation about the future. Either Iran will cheat, or it won’t. Either it will use the $150 billion in sanctions relief to fund additional terrorism and military troublemaking worldwide, or it won’t.
Kennedy’s views on arms control, by contrast, are a matter not of speculation but of clear-cut, incontrovertible historical record. As the author of a book about President Kennedy and someone who spent years immersed in the records and rhetoric of his administration, I’m here to tell you that President Obama’s invocation of a line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address as a precedent for his Iran deal is a gross distortion of Kennedy’s actual views.
Kennedy Stood Up to International Aggressors
In contrast to the imaginary Kennedy of President Obama’s selective, out-of-context quotation, the real, historical President Kennedy went to Berlin and said, dismissively and derisively, “There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.” It was a core Kennedy belief: In a June 16, 1947 radio broadcast, the young congressman John Kennedy had said, “There can be no compromise with communism.”
As a way of clarifying the apparent contradictions, Kennedy spoke on October 19, 1963, at the University of Maine. “Let us always make clear our willingness to talk, if talk will help, and our readiness to fight, if fight we must,” he said. “Let us distinguish between our hopes and our illusions, always hoping for steady progress toward less critically dangerous relations with the Soviets, but never laboring under any illusions about Communist methods or Communist goals.”
Jacqueline Kennedy, in taped conversations with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1964 after her husband’s assassination, recalled, “When things got nicer about Khrushchev, you know, after the détente and everything, he always used to say—well, remember what he said after Vienna, that he really is a gangster, and so everybody mustn’t get deluded. But if you deal with him out of firmness—it’s different. But he never wanted people to think that now Khrushchev is the sweet, benign, undangerous person.”
Obama Is a Bit Player Next to Kennedy
All this is evidence Kennedy was less inclined to negotiation than President Obama said he was. What’s more, the country Kennedy was negotiating with about a ban on atmospheric nuclear tests, the Soviet Union, was already a superpower. The Soviet Union had a substantial nuclear arsenal, a vast landmass, satellite countries in Eastern Europe, and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Today’s Iran has none of those things.
Kennedy didn’t negotiate any arms-control deals with small-time countries such as Cuba or North Vietnam. Instead he tried to oust or kill Fidel Castro, and he ramped up the American military presence in South Vietnam.
Kennedy increased military spending dramatically, while Obama has cut the defense budget in absolute dollars, as a percentage of the overall federal budget, and as a percentage of gross domestic product.
President Obama has every right to try to make his best case for the Iran deal. His critics can speak for themselves. But if Obama is going to exhume Kennedy and attempt to use him as a spokesman, the least he can do is to be accurate in describing the record of the late president, who isn’t around to speak in his own defense. Anything less is disgraceful nonsense. It does a disservice both to Kennedy and to historical truth.