Syllabus: History 291/Winter 2016 jfk: The Decision-maker Behind the Myth

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History 291/Winter 2016

The Decision-maker Behind the Myth

University of Waterloo

History 291

Winter 2016

Thursdays, 2:30 PM-5: 30 PM

J.R. Couts Engineering Building (RCH)

Room 208

James G. Blight and janet M. Lang

Department of History, University of Waterloo


Balsillie School of International Affairs

CIGI Campus

67 Erb Street West (corner of Caroline)

BSIA Room 3-13

Office Hours: By appointment only with the instructors

Pressure, pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man asks for

Under pressure

It’s the terror of knowing

What this world is about

This is our last dance

This is ourselves, under pressure.
David Bowie/Queen, "Under Pressure" (1981)
Courage is “grace under pressure,” as Ernest Hemingway defined it. But terrible pressures discourage acts of political courage, and can drive a leader to abandon or subdue his conscience.
John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)

John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, has emerged from our own research and that of others over the past quarter century as very different from your parents’ or grandparents’ Jack Kennedy. The myths about JFK as a decision-maker in matters of war and peace have been thoroughly refuted in three respects. First, formerly thought of as a cold warrior and hawk, we now know that Kennedy was cautious and had a spine of steel in resisting his hawks, who on at least six occasions tried to talk him into taking the nation and world to war. Second, once believed to be the paragon of "vigah," health, and vitality, JFK was actually one of the sickest, most physically compromised American presidents in U.S. history. He was given last rites by a priest at least four times, and possibly a fifth--the latter while he was president, in June 1961. Third, we also know from the archives and informed oral testimony in Moscow, Havana and Hanoi, that Kennedy was right to resist his hawks. If war came, initiated by the U.S., most of Kennedy's advisers told him the Soviets would not respond, due to the U.S.'s overwhelming nuclear superiority at the time. We now know that the Soviet responses would have been devastating, probably uncontrollable, and possibly apocalyptic.
In this course, students will examine the connections between JFK’s life-long “body boot camp,” in which Kennedy learned never to trust experts—whether doctors or generals—and the decisions he made (and did not make) on the half-dozen occasions when he was intensely pressured to go to war. We will explore these connections in biographies and other books, articles, films, podcasts, blogs, graphic novels and the uniquely revealing “Kennedy tapes,” which give a “fly on the wall” immediacy to observing Jack Kennedy making decisions under tremendous pressure. We will ask: what are the takeaways for us, in the 21st century, as our leaders contemplate military options in foreign policy crises? We will ask, as we apply the lessons from a half-century ago: what would Jack Kennedy do, and why; and, what would Jack Kennedy not do, and why not? JFK was far from infallible, but his decisions on war and peace suggest considerable relevance for our own time.
The instructors want this course to be fun, as well as interesting and informative. Probably the most unusual feature of the course is its genre-busting use of transmedia (aka multiple platform story-telling) as a means of engaging digital natives like you in this wild and wooly 21st century. Start your adventure by clicking on the following three links, as you begin to immerse yourself in the non-traditional mindset of the instructors of this course:
The Transmedia Approach. Begin with this site. Plan to return to it throughout the semester, as we build our understanding of JFK’s decision-making with war and peace on the line.
JFK the Decision-maker. This post, from November 2013, provides the substantive outline for the entire course. Get to know the man, the president and the decision-maker when war and peace were on the line.
The Implications for Today. This post, from October 2012, argues that nothing could be more policy-relevant today than the tale of a leader—JFK—who resisted tremendous pressure to take his nation and the world to wars—wars that, in the light of history, would likely have been catastrophic.
All classes (except for the first class, on 7 January) will begin with five to ten minute “provocations” from one or more students. Your objective, as a “provocateur,” will be to launch the seminar discussion for that particular day, in what you believe are fruitful directions. You might address such issues as the following: anything you may have found mysterious or confusing and in need of discussion by the students and instructors; the principal message, or messages, you found central to the reading and/or viewing; what you found yourself agreeing with wholeheartedly, or rejecting with equal enthusiasm; which issues in your view need to be debated in class before you would be willing to endorse or reject something you have encountered in the reading. After the provocations (one or more students will have signed up in advance for that particular day), the instructors will open up the discussion to the entire class. Be sure to bring your laptop, tablet or smart-phone with you to class, as we will make frequent reference to our web-based sources. Each student will be required to act as provocateur at least once during the semester.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way for students to do this, other than to observe the requirement that the provocation period at the outset of class not take longer than ten minutes. Students may work together on their provocations, or work individually. It depends on the class size. The instructors will bring a sign-up sheet to the first class. First come, first served. If you sign up early, your choices of dates and topics will be greater than if you wait until the last minute. Those who do not sign up voluntarily, will be assigned by the instructors to an open day in the class schedule.
The instructors will evaluate students in part on the basis of a research paper, not to exceed 15 single-spaced pages, including endnotes and other supporting material (12 pt font and 1" margins all around). The paper should be submitted electronically to the instructors as an e-mail attachment. Longer is not necessarily better. The content of the paper will be discussed individually with each student either during office hours (by appointment) throughout the semester, or via e-mail (or both). A précis (a brief summary or outline) not to exceed 5 pages will be submitted electronically to the instructors at anytime before class on Thursday 3 March. The instructors will email feedback on the précis to students prior to the next class, on Thursday 10 March. The précis will not be graded. It is meant to help you get started in writing a good paper. The research paper will be a major factor in determining your grade for the course. An electronic copy of the research paper must reach the instructors via an email attachment on or before Monday 11 April.
The précis is fundamentally a progress report, and also an “action-enforcing device” to make sure students stick to a schedule that insures that the research paper will: (1) not be a big surprise to the instructors; (2) not be thrown together at the last minute; and (3) be worked out in a dialogue with the instructors, over the course of the semester, on a subject of interest to the students, and also on a subject about which the instructors are well enough informed to give a knowledgeable and helpful reading. By far, in the view of the instructors, the best way to accomplish these objectives is to adopt a two-pronged strategy: first, to meet occasionally, as needed (but by no means required) with the instructors, if students feel the need to discuss their progress (or lack of it) orally; and second, even more importantly, to be in touch via e-mail as often as the need arises throughout the semester, trying out ideas, asking about sources to be consulted, and so on. Since the final paper is a written paper, by far the best way for students to assess their progress is via responses of the instructors to their written products, however, tentative and preliminary they might initially be.
So: put it in writing, fire off an email to the instructors, get an email response, and then plunge back into the paper.
Each student’s provocation (or provocations) along with weekly participation in the seminar discussions will account for roughly 50% of each student’s final grade in the course. The final paper will also account for roughly 50% of the grade for the course.
Except where otherwise indicated, the required books for the course are available in the UW bookstore. The other required assignments and suggested supplemental readings and video are available in one or more of the following formats: most are free and online; others are available from online sources to download to your hard drives; and (occasionally) as attachments to email messages from the instructors to the students taking the course. Each required reading or viewing listed in this section contains hyperlinks to one or more digital sources for the material.

  • James G. Blight and janet M. Lang, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/ Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). The book can downloaded as an ebook from itunes, as well as from the publisher, Rowman & Littlefield. (Also available at UW Bookstore.)

This book is focused on the remarkable correspondence during the height of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis between U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; and between Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The three leaders, each trying to avoid a catastrophic war over the clandestine emplacement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, are led by their own misperceptions and misjudgments to raise the risk of just the sort of conflict they most want to avoid—a nuclear war. The letters are sobering, dramatic and highly relevant to the tasks facing those charged with responsibility for dealing with contemporary flash points—such as Iran, Israel, South Korea or Pakistan. The book is the anchor of a transmedia website, and should be read simultaneously with exploring the site.

  • Koji Masutani, director, “Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived,” a 2008 feature-length documentary film, issued by Sven Kahn Films. The film can be downloaded from itunes, and is also available from many other sources. The trailer, movie reviews and a list of the awards garnered by the film are available on the film’s website.

Masutani has organized his material brilliantly, focused on six deep national security crises faced by JFK as president, each of which saw the president square off against his hawkish advisers, avoiding war on all six occasions. His film poses this question: what would Kennedy have done with a seventh crisis, over whether or not to Americanize the war in Vietnam? The film’s central argument is simple, but has overwhelming significance for the recent history of U.S. foreign policy: if JFK had lived, the U.S. war in Vietnam would never have happened.

JFK was assassinated in November 1963. At that moment, the U.S. commitment to its ally, South Vietnam, was limited to roughly 16,000 military advisers. Less than two years later, JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, ordered hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, as the nation and southeast Asia sunk into a quagmire of war. Would JFK have Americanized the Vietnam War? The authors answer “no,” to this tantalizing “what-if?” question, providing oral testimony, documentation and analysis of many key documents from U.S. archives. The authors also offer the most authoritative account so far of JFK’s decision-making in matters of war and peace.

  • Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (New York Simon & Schuster, 2011). The book can be downloaded as an ebook from itunes, as well as from Google Books. (Paperback of the book is available at the UW Bookstore.)

The author is known to millions as the host of the long-running MSNBC talk show,

“Hardball.” He is also the author of several well-regarded books on recent U.S. political history. His “Kennedy and Nixon” explores a little-known secret kept by both leaders: both JFK and RN actually liked each other, and they regularly hung out together while in the House of Representatives in the immediate post-war years. In Jack Kennedy, Matthews provides, for the first time, a biography of Kennedy focused primarily on his evolution as a politician, first in Massachusetts, then at the national level becoming, at 43, the second youngest president in U.S. history. (Theodore Roosevelt was a few months younger than JFK when he took office.) Matthews, who worked for many years as a political organizer, interviewed many of the key behind the scenes political advisers who helped make Kennedy’s whirlwind career possible.

  • Bruce Riedel, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2015). Bruce Riedel is a 30-year veteran of the CIA, and has served as an adviser to four U.S. presidents, including the current President, Barack Obama. Riedel is an outstanding scholar of both the Middle East and South Asia. He has also been an important participant in the instructors’ ongoing project on Iran’s relations with the West since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 was the most dangerous crisis the world has ever faced. The fate of the earth was, quite literally, at stake. In a new book, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War, CIA and National Security Council veteran Bruce Riedel shares the gripping story of the conflict that has escaped history’s attention, yet still resonates today: the Sino-Indian War, that also occurred during October 1962. Drawing on newly declassified documents, Riedel details the decisions made by the president to stem the tide of an all-out war, and explains how this forgotten crisis is still influencing the world more than a half-century later. He puts you in Kennedy’s shoes so that you see and feel why this time was Kennedy’s finest hour. (Available at the UW Bookstore.)

Note: We will be reading “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis” at the end of the course. Bruce Riedel will attend our last regular class meeting to discuss his book with you.

  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, expanded ed. (New York: Random House, 2010). The Black Swan in pdf format is available to download free and online.

On at least six occasions, JFK refused to follow the recommendations of the majority of his advisers, who counseled him to use U.S. military force. We can now see that what seemed so maddeningly illogical to most of JFK’s advisers on national security has, in fact, a profound logic of its own: Black Swan logic. This book can help us understand how JFK made his decisions, and how we can apply a model of JFK as a decision-maker to problems of war and peace in this 21th century. (The aptness of the term, “Black Swan,” derives from the belief that, since all previously encountered swans are white, one becomes convinced, perhaps unconsciously, that all swans are white, and thus is shocked when confronted by a black swan—which are metaphorical everywhere outside western Australia, where they actually exist.) Time and again, Kennedy the decision-maker proved to be far more interested in what he knew he didn’t know, than what his hawkish advisers claimed they did know. He was also concerned more with what might conceivably happen, than with what his advisers told him probably would happen. JFK was thus a thoroughgoing practitioner of Black Swan logic. The Black Swan is accessible, often funny, always interesting, and full of implications for political decision-making with war and peace on the line.

Note: In addition to the required books, articles and movies, the instructors have listed relevant web-links: commentary on documents, reports, analyses, photos and video relevant to the issues under discussion in the seminar in each particular week.

7 January/Class #1: Welcome to the Instructors’ World
During the first part of the class, the instructors will provide a multimedia outline of the course. After the break, the instructors will open up the class for discussion. Together we will explore what students believe about JFK, on what basis they believe it, and whether the study of a decision-maker who died a half century ago can have any relevance to problems of war and peace in the 21st century.
Students who have not already done so, should click on the three links in Part Two, above, and explore the posts by the instructors. Priority should be given to JFK the Decision-maker. But students should familiarize themselves with the two papers, plus the transmedia site listed in Part Two, above, by 15 September (class #2), as well as the reading that is specific to that class.

Part One: JFK Immersion School/October 1962
14 January/Class #2:

Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe
Students will enter a “JFK immersion school,” focused on Kennedy’s decisions before, during and after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. The crisis was the most dangerous in human history, an event that nearly spiraled into a nuclear catastrophe. JFK himself was partly to blame for the onset of the crisis, as were the other two major players, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Cuban President Fidel Castro. In the period leading up to the missile crisis, misunderstandings and misperceptions abounded, defensive actions were mistaken for threatening gestures, and the leaders began their sleepwalk toward the brink of nuclear war.
Required Reading and Viewing:
Blight and Lang, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 1-78 (to the end of the section called “Collision”).
The Armageddon Letters (Transmedia site).
In particular, cruise through the more than a dozen short films, which provide various perspectives on the crisis, as well as personality profiles of the principal figures in the unfolding events of October 1962. A useful way to begin exploration of the transmedia site is to click first on the introduction, "Who Cares About the Cuban Missile Crisis?", before proceeding to the trio of short films that challenge you to "Be Kennedy," to "Be Khrushchev," and to "Be Castro."
Suggested Viewing:
"The Missiles of October: What the World Didn't Know." This is the best comprehensive documentary ever produced on the Cuban missile crisis. It is based, in large part, on the research of a team led by the instructors, who gained unprecedented access to documents and decision-makers in the U.S., Russia and Cuba. It is narrated by Toronto native Peter Jennings, and produced by Sherry L. Jones, for ABC News, in October 1992.
"Memories of Underdevelopment", a 1968 film by Thomas Gutierrez. Many regard this as the greatest Cuban film ever made. It takes place during the Cuban missile crisis and focuses on a man who cannot decide whether he wants to emigrate to Miami, as many of his friends have done, or whether he should stay, and fight for Cuban dignity, even though Cuba cannot win the fight with the U.S., and even though he believes Cuba will be destroyed in a U.S. nuclear attack. It gives insight into a peculiarly Cuban style of patriotism, with its emphasis on martyrdom. Free online.
Soy Cuba! (I am Cuba). A 1964 collaboration between Soviet and Cuban filmmakers, who attempt to show the corruption and degradation of Cuban life before the Triumph of the 1959 Revolution, and the revolutionary values that replaced them once Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement came to power. The film is propagandistic, but is nevertheless an accurate portrayal of the way the Cuban revolutionaries thought about themselves during their early days in power. Click and download.
21 January/Class #3: On the Brink of the Unspeakable
This is where it really gets scary. Fearing that the U.S. is poised to destroy the Cuban Revolution and put another U.S. puppet in power in Havana, the Russians secretly deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba. The U.S., which is closely monitoring what the Russians are giving the Cubans, does not immediately realize that missiles capable of hitting U.S. targets are involved in the Soviet “gifts” to their Cuban allies. When Washington does realize it, the Kennedy administration reacts strongly by establishing a “quarantine” of the island and threatening to bomb and invade if the Russians don’t take back their “offensive” weapons. The Cubans, who have been in the U.S. crosshairs ever since they came to power in January 1959, announce repeatedly that the Cuban nation will fight to the death against any American bombing campaign and/or invasion. So the stage is set for the ultimate tragedy. For a week or more, the world seems poised on the brink of total destruction.
Required Reading:
Blight and Lang, The Armageddon Letters, pp. 79-122 (“Spiral”).
Suggested viewing and listening:
"The Missiles of October", a 1974 play filmed for presentation on U.S. television. It stars William Devane as JFK, Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy, and Howard da Silva as Nikita Khrushchev. The film was made long before the Cuban side of the crisis came to light, thus the focus is exclusively on JFK and Khrushchev. In spite of that limitation, however, the film is a minimalist gem of what it must feel like to make decisions in a crisis in which, if all does not go well, a catastrophic nuclear war may commence. Free online.
Bob Dyan's apocalypse. No one captured the anxiety and contradictions of the nuclear age better than folk-rock legend, Bob Dylan. He was just beginning to emerge in the New York folk music scene when it got very scary: the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 were frightening, not just to high level decision-makers, but also to ordinary people. Dylan, with his sense of irony and his sometimes screechy, in-your-face voice, turned fear into outrage—that the leaders of the world would put the human race at risk for a wall in Germany or a bunch of missiles in Cuba. Out of Dylan’s encounter with nuclear danger, came some of the greatest songs he ever wrote. These include, but are far from limited to, the following:
Masters of War

Talkin’ World War III Blues

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

With God on Our Side

Click on the link to Dylan’s vast and fascinating website, and then cue up these songs. Dylan also wrote a song, never officially released, which is specifically about the Cuban missile crisis. A cover for this song, simply called "The Cuban Missile Crisis," has been posted by a young Scandinavian fan of Dylan’s.
Of all the songs Dylan wrote about the threat of nuclear war, his masterpiece is “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Dylan's own version of it is shrill and to the point. Joan Baez's cover is perhaps little too beautiful, given that the subject is blowing up the world. The instructors’ favorite version is by Bryan Ferry, the former lead singer of the British pop group, Roxy Music. Ferry speeds up the delivery to almost twice as fast as Dylan sang it, and makes it scary—weird and

A short graphic novel by the eminent Italian artist, Lorenzo Mattotti, attempts the impossible: to capture visually what Dylan is trying to accomplish via the wild and wooly metaphors and images in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” And Mattotti nearly pulls it off. Here are the lyrics by Dylan. See if you can match them with their respective images by Mattotti.

Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction", sold millions following its release in 1965, three years after the missile crisis, and just as hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops were landing in South Vietnam. Written by P.F. Sloan and recorded by many artists, McGuire’s version is still the one to beat. He didn’t sing it so much as he growled it. The song, as someone said at the time, is a four-minute rendition of the American apocalypse, by a very angry guy who can’t sing or play the guitar.
28 January/Class #4: Resolution of the Crisis/Lessons
Over the past quarter century, our knowledge of decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis has increased exponentially. From interviews, conference transcripts, and declassified (formerly top-secret) documents from the U.S., Cuba and Russia, we now know just how close the world came to Armageddon. The more we have learned, the scarier it gets. Yet the three main participants in the crisis—Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro—found a way out. Their mutual misunderstandings led to the crisis. But the threat of nuclear war seems to have focused their minds on a single objective: prevention of a nuclear war. Even Fidel Castro and his Cuban constituents, threatened by the U.S. and betrayed (as they saw it) by their Russian patron, agreed to compromises that prior to this brush with oblivion would have been unthinkable. This week we will discuss what was involved in the leaders last-minute grasp at a resolution to the crisis, and what it teaches us about “the art of the possible” when the threat of nuclear war is imminent.
Required Reading and viewing:
Blight and Lang, The Armageddon Letters, pp. 123-238 (“Escape,” “Squeeze,” and “Hope”).
"The Fog of War." This film by Errol Morris won the Academy Award in 2004 for best documentary feature film. The film consists of an extended interview with the former U.S. secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara. It is poignant, scary, and illuminating. It has become one of the most viewed documentaries ever produced. The film is especially brilliant in its sections on the Cuban missile crisis and the U.S. war in Vietnam. McNamara played a key role in both. Pay special attention to his remarks concerning why the missile crisis ended peacefully, and why the Vietnam war became a tragic, protracted slaughter of several million people. Free online.
"Zero: The Surprising and Unambiguous Policy-relevance of the Cuban Missile Crisis." The instructors posted this paper in October 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the crisis. It argues that the crisis indicates not only proves that nuclear arsenals must be reduced, but that they should be completely eliminated.
Suggested exploration: This website was established by The JFK School at Harvard just before the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis in October 2012. The tab on lessons is useful because it tracks the way the crisis has been understood and misunderstood by several generations of leaders and citizens alike. This website on the Cuban missile crisis was constructed by four high school students in Austin, Texas. It provides easy access to some of the most important documents and video material connected with the Cuban missile crisis.

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