3 things JFK taught us about U.S. strategy
November 21st, 2013
10:22 AM ET

3 things JFK taught us about U.S. strategy

By James Holmes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: James Holmes is professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone. This is the fourth article in a series on America’s identity and image since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

As we remember the passing of John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago on Friday, it’s fitting that we leaven a solemn occasion by also remembering the optimism he brought to the Oval Office. President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address remains a bracing bit of rhetoric even today, half a century on. But rhetoric demands substance as well as verbal flourishes. Three takeaways from the address are worth revisiting as America again mulls its place in the world and strategies for achieving its goals:

Unlimited commitment. Kennedy vowed that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” This is more than a statement of steadfastness in the Cold War. In strategic terms, it's a statement that the United States affixed such importance to its goals that it was prepared to spend as many national resources – lives, treasure, military assets – for an indefinite time if that's what it took to outlast the Soviet Union.

Strategist Carl von Clausewitz would instantly grasp the import of Kennedy's words. Clausewitz maintains that the value of a nation's political goals determines how many resources it expends attaining those goals, and for how long. The corollary for Clausewitz is that if an endeavor starts costing more than it's worth, statesmen should cut the best deal they can and get out. This simple cost/benefit logic is central to rational foreign policy and military strategy.

President Kennedy in effect foreclosed a halfway outcome, ruling out capitulation or a negotiated settlement that would compromise the cause of liberty. It doesn’t get much more unequivocal than that as political statements go.

Alliance making and breaking. The president, however, acknowledged that no single nation could prevail in the “long twilight struggle, year in and year out” that constituted the Cold War. Power is finite and exhaustible for even the strongest and wealthiest of nations. They need help carrying heavy loads. Kennedy, accordingly, pledged the “loyalty of faithful friends” to historic allies while assuring nations recently freed from colonialism that they need not yield to the “more iron tyranny” manifest in communism. Firming up existing alliances such as NATO and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, drawing new allies and partners into the Western orbit, and discouraging nations from allying themselves with the Soviets were crucial to protracted strategic competition with the East.

Peace through armed strength. And finally, Kennedy left no doubt about his commitment to military defense. America, he insisted, “dare not tempt” its adversaries by letting its defenses corrode. “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” But a strong defense was about more than constructing large numbers of nuclear weapons and ships, aircraft, and missiles to carry them. It was about fielding balanced forces.

By the 1960s, that is, it was becoming clear that nuclear deterrence was largely irrelevant to peripheral wars in the Third World, or to insurgencies or civil wars. Deterrence involves issuing threats. No sane leader would unleash atomic devastation to halt low-level aggression, so threats to do so carried little weight. Kennedy believed the West could either rebuild its conventional forces or stand aside in regional conflicts, permitting communist encroachment to go unchecked. That meant submitting to piecemeal defeat.

A leadership that wants to deter deploys capabilities – nuclear or conventional – displays the resolve to use them, and convinces opponents that it will indeed use its capabilities to mete out unbearable punishment under certain conditions. JFK considered it imperative to shore up U.S. and allied capabilities, and thereby the free world's capacity to deter. That’s what he meant by strength beyond doubt.

Read the whole thing, as they say. John F. Kennedy provides a sounding board for questions of high policy and strategy from beyond the grave. That's no small achievement. What burdens is America prepared to shoulder today, on whose behalf, at what price, and for how long?

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Topics: History • United States

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. ✠ RZ ✠

    And it seemed to work well for the most part except when applied against the likes of terrorism and suicide bombers.

    November 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Much of Kennedy's legacy was his rhetoric. I wonder who was his speechwriter? That guy was brilliant. Kennedy did also an excellent job in delivering these speeches and impressing the public with his charisma, youthful appearances and elegant outfits.
    So his visions of military might and the nation's strength etc. were merely words, that were yet to be translated into actions. Would he have been able to do so, if he had lived to complete his term and possibly win a second term?

    November 23, 2013 at 8:36 am |
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