Robert Dallek, professor of history at Boston University and author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, discusses John F. Kennedy’s health, the war in Vietnam, and Americans’ enduring interest in Kennedy and his family.
John F. Kennedy’s Health
John Kennedy had so many different medical problems that began when he was a boy. He started out with intestinal problems… spastic colitis. In 1937 they began giving him steroids. They didn’t know how to dose properly and the steroids caused him to have osteoporosis of the lower back. His back problems were essentially the consequence of the steroids. But he also had Addison’s disease, which was the failure of the adrenal glands to function. They, in essence, shriveled and died.
Kennedy’s Medical Treatments
He was on anti-spasmodics. He was on hydrocortisone. He was on testosterone to beef up his weight because the diarrhea, the intestinal difficulties, caused him to lose weight. He was on a variety of antibiotics to combat his periodic prostatitis, urethritis. He was occasionally on sleeping medication, lots of pain killers to deal with his back… As my medical colleague, Jeff Kelman, said when he looked at this list of medications, “My goodness, if he took all of this at once he would have been dead!” So it was really a striking demonstration of how substantial his medical problems were.
Somebody once said that Kennedy was more promiscuous with his physicians than he was with women. He had so many different problems — especially his back caused him such misery, such pain. This “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson, would inject him with a variety of things — including apparently amphetamines. Kennedy, at one point, was told that what he was doing might be dangerous. “I don’t care if it’s horse piss,” he said. “It makes me feel better.”
A Viennese man by the name of Hans Kraus was brought in to consult and he told Kennedy, “If you don’t start exercising and stop taking those Procaine shots in your back and whatever else you’re taking, you are going to end up in a wheelchair. You won’t be able to walk.” He had such misery that he could barely turn over in bed at night; had trouble pulling the sock and shoe on his left foot. Going up the staircase was a trial by fire, out of the eyeshot of the press, of the media, of photographers.
Public Awareness of Kennedy’s Health Problems
During his 1946 campaign, people would see Kennedy was incredibly thin, as a rail, just almost emaciated looking. But a lot of people assumed, “Well he’s just come back from the Navy, from war service. He’ll fill out.”
In 1960 when he and Lyndon Johnson were contesting the presidential nomination, the Johnson campaign released the stories that Kennedy had Addison’s disease, and the Kennedy campaign, led by Bobby Kennedy, denied it. They said,“Oh well, there’s some small deficiency in the adrenal glands and we’re able to take care of it and there’s no danger to his health,” et cetera. So they just downplayed the problems. And then, afterwards, during the interim between his election and his inauguration they released information saying how healthy he was. Some of the medicines he took would give his face a kind of puffy — made him look in some ways not so much puffy as maybe a little too overweight. So it wasn’t clear to people. And also, the way he spoke, and the way he moved, and often when he was out in public, I think he was either wearing a back brace and/or had had shots to ease the back pain. That allowed him to demonstrate a kind of mobility which he really didn’t enjoy.
If the public had known about Kennedy’s ill health he might have been elected to the House, even to the Senate, but I don’t think he ever would have been elected to the presidency. Remember, he’s running in 1960 and he has to shoulder the burden — if he wins — of being the youngest man ever elected in presidential history; and also he’ll be the first Catholic to ever gain the White House. So to add to that the fact that he had Addison’s disease, that he had these terrible problems with his back; that he had colitis, the spastic colitis; that he had prostatitis, urethritis, sinusitis; that he had to take so many medications to cope with his various ailments, I think it would have destroyed his chances at winning the election.
Medications and Kennedy’s Effectiveness
I set the medicine administration records and his health problems down alongside of the various crises he faced — and in particular I looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis — because we have tape conversations over those thirteen days. I found him to be as lucid, as cogent as anyone would have hoped a president would be in such a crisis. So I do not see evidence of his medical problems deterring him from being a highly effective president and manager of a crisis. In fact, my medical colleague, Dr. Kelman, tells me that if he didn’t take these medicines that he never would have been able to perform at as high a level as in fact he performed. And so he needed those medicines, but they were not a deterrent but a helpmate, an aid to being an effective chief executive.
The War in Vietnam
Kennedy sees Vietnam, ten thousand miles away, as a very dangerous place to expand a war. And Maxwell Taylor, his chief of staff, said, “Kennedy had a visceral aversion to putting ground forces into Southeast Asia, into Vietnam.” Kennedy himself said, “This is not like Korea” — in Korea there was a direct act of aggression. This is different. And it’s a kind of subversion, and if we get involved in there it’s not going to be so clear to the public that we should have done this and it could lead to a political breach in the United States.
Also, he instructed Bob McNamara in ’62 to begin planning an exit from Vietnam, and he asked him to do it over a three-year period so we could be out of there by 1965. And McNamara laid out a plan to be out of there by 1968.
But there is other evidence that Kennedy was really doubtful about the wisdom of escalating the war. I think the most telling evidence has to do with the American press corps in Saigon. The press, during Kennedy’s time in office, were critical of American performance in Vietnam and they were pushing the administration to be more effective, to save South Vietnam from Communism and demonstrate that they could be a more effective influence on that conflict. Kennedy was very worried that the stories coming out of Vietnam would force the issue onto the front pages of the newspapers and then compel him to escalate that war. In 1961, ’62, ’63 — I checked the Gallup polls — there are no Gallup polls about Vietnam. The first one is April ’64, and in that poll a cross-section of Americans are asked what they knew about Vietnam and only 37% say they knew anything about this conflict, about this war. So Kennedy has great doubts. November 20, 1963, he’s going off to Texas, he says to his assistant secretary of state, Mike Forrester, “When I come back from Texas we have to review this whole Vietnam issue and talk about how we get out of there.” See, it was including a discussion of how we get out of there… I don’t think he ever would have escalated that war to the degree, to the extent, that Lyndon Johnson did.
If Kennedy Had Lived
If Kennedy had lived, he would have been reelected, surely, in 1964, running against Barry Goldwater. He would have won probably as big a landslide as Lyndon Johnson commanded. He would have carried with him into the House and the Senate majorities comparable to what Johnson had, which were roughly two-thirds Democratic majorities. And Kennedy then would have put across his reform legislation. He had on the table an $11 billion tax cut, federal aid to elementary, secondary and higher education, a civil rights bill, a bill on poverty, a department of transportation, a department of housing and urban development. All that, I think, would have been passed. But those became Lyndon Johnson’s legislative measures. I think one hundred years from now historians will look back and see the presidency of the ’60s as a Kennedy-Johnson presidency. And especially on domestic affairs, Kennedy puts this all on the table, Johnson gets it enacted — surely using Kennedy’s martyrdom, but again — Kennedy would have passed this too.
If he had lived and had all the success in domestic affairs I think he would have matched it, in a sense, in dealing with Vietnam, Cuba. There were back-channel negotiations and discussions going on in the last three months of Kennedy’s presidency about the possibility of getting on better footing…
I don’t want to overstate this point: utopia wasn’t around the corner. But, if he had lived, we would not have had Lyndon Johnson, the credibility gap, I don’t think we would have had the extent of our involvement in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have had Richard Nixon, or Watergate. There would have been other problems, to be sure — there always are — but it wouldn’t have been the problems I’ve just mentioned, and I think maybe there would have been less political cynicism in this country, less alienation from politics than what we’ve experienced over the last forty years.
John F. Kennedy’s Legacy
It’s interesting that over the ’90s more has come out about Kennedy’s womanizing. Much more, particularly with my book, has come out about his health problems, but there seems to be a consistency in the public mind in regarding Kennedy as one of the great presidents in American history. There is something about him that continues to command the loyalty, the approval, of the public.
Part of it was the fact that he was martyred, but that’s not sufficient to explain it because William McKinley was assassinated and forty years later nobody remembered who he was. There’s much more at work here. And I think television is important here. It’s captured him on tape — he’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46… what he came across as was so charismatic, charming, witty, engaging, smart — just an extraordinary personality. And those press conferences he held are captured on tape and have great appeal to people to this day. And also I think he conveyed a kind of hope, a kind of promise to the public, the expectation of a better future. And I don’t think that’s been lost. The country, I think, is still tied to this and remembers him in such fond and positive terms.