The Soviet Union vs. the United States
Khrushchev did not want to spend an enormous amount of money on military weapons, especially his nuclear program. Thus Khrushchev in public gave these enormous bloviating speeches about the fact that the Soviet Union is now the chief power in the world and the U.S. is in second place. He felt that if he said that in public it would remove from him the need to actually spend the number of rubles it would take to actually make the Soviets number one. Kennedy came into office and felt that because of his tenuous political position, the fact that he was elected by a narrow majority, the fact the Democrats were often prone to be seen as soft on communism, he had to reply to Khrushchev in kind. So when Khrushchev would give a speech saying, we Soviets are the number one power in the world, Kennedy would come back and say, I will not let the U.S. be the second rate power. And he would say it oftentimes in words that suggested to Khrushchev that Kennedy might actually have in mind initiating a first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union that would take advantage of America's superiority.
The Cuban Issue
Kennedy was very concerned about getting rid of the Cuban issue. He knew that as long as Castro remained in Havana, as long as a communist regime was allowed to flower, he would have a very bad domestic political problem. In 1961 the CIA came to him and said that Eisenhower had ordered them to plan for an invasion of Cuba. In retrospect the plans for the invasion look a little bit silly. You would think that Kennedy with his great shrewdness and skepticism would have seen that a thousand Cuban exiles in leaky boats were not likely to overthrow the government of Castro who even by then was very well armed. One diamond in the chandelier may be this: it has been said that before the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy was aware that there were assassination plots against Castro. One explanation of Kennedy approving the Bay of Pigs may be this: Kennedy may have felt that Castro was likely to be killed before the Cuban exiles reached the beaches of Cuba. If that happened, there would be chaos and pandemonium and in that kind of a situation the Cuban government would be much more easily overthrown and those thousand Cuban exiles could have served as a rallying point.
This was really John Kennedy's first enormous defeat. He had against all expectations won the Presidency. He was newly in office, very popular and then he felt that he had just kicked it all away. He had, without greater forethought, approved this doomed invasion of Cuba. He had looked very soft and not like someone who was a very intelligent President and he felt that in a way he had blotted his copy book forever. There were scenes of the President walking on the south grounds of the White House at 2 a.m., his hands in his pockets, looking very much dismayed. His wife later said that he wept in her arms on hearing of the imprisonment of these Cuban exiles by Castro, exiles for whom he felt very responsible.
Kennedy's Private Life
One of the fascinating things about Kennedy is you see this very cautious, self protective, public leader coexisting in the same body as a President who took private risks. One risk was that, from all the evidence we have, Kennedy was involved with a number of women whose backgrounds he did not know, who were not checked out by the Secret Service or another government organization. What that meant was that his presidency was vulnerable to blackmail by one of his enemies, perhaps someone from the Mafia, perhaps someone from an Eastern Bloc intelligence service. This was not a risk that he should have taken.
Kennedy's womanizing, I believe, did not interfere with his leadership but it was a ticking time bomb throughout that presidency because if ever one of these women was used by a hostile organization to blackmail the President, it could have brought everything crashing down.
Kennedy felt that a leader's public life and private life were two separate compartments that had no serious connection. Once at a White House small dinner someone brought up the subject of Lenin's love life. He got an icy stare from Kennedy at the head of the table. He did not feel that was something that was fit to be discussed. He thought that the risks he took in his private life were not likely ever to be in danger of doing something to destroy his public life.
Robert Kennedy's Role
Before the Bay of Pigs Kennedy felt, here he was elected President and now he was going to behave like other Presidents; depend on his Secretary's of State and Defense, others entrusted with foreign policy and his brother, who had been his campaign manager, should spend his time learning his job at the Justice Department. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy felt that there was no one in the Administration he could trust as much as his brother Robert. He encouraged RFK to get very involved in foreign policy and other matters that went far beyond his responsibilities at the Justice Department. It was said that after the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy presidency became almost a co-presidency between John and Robert Kennedy.
To have the President's brother in meetings where advisors were expected to say what they really thought, was a little bit intimidating. It was said by some Kennedy officials, little brother is watching, you better watch out. And they were absolutely right. Robert Kennedy would go back from a meeting with other members of the Cabinet, other Presidential advisors, where JFK was not present and he would tell the President what these people had said, therefore people were very nervous about what they should say and not say around Robert Kennedy.
Historian Michael Beschloss was originally interviewed for the American Experience film The Kennedys.