It really pisses me off that people with really questionable track records are portrayed as saints in school textbooks and in the media. Sometimes it is due to a selective inclusion and omission of certain facts. At other times the facts are not in dispute, but rather the interpretation of events is skewed severely. I want to cover two people in this post, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy was President of the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was lauded at the time and in school textbooks, in academia and in the media ever since his assassination. How is this possible? How could such a despicable human being be upheld as a great statesman? He nearly wiped humanity of the face of our planet. The ultimatum presented to the Soviets, get your missiles of Cuba or else was in my opinion a needless escalation of tensions. The US had nuclear tipped missiles near the Soviet border in Turkey. That is well known. So it is hypocritical to get your panties in a twist when the Soviets essentially mirror that move by placing missiles in Cuba. I get why it was extremely unpopular among the brass of the US military and amongst the US populace in general, but that doesn’t excuse the very dangerous escalation of the situation that Kennedy was responsible for.
The period has been portrayed in books and media since as being without any significant choice of action. Kennedy could decide to attack Cuba with airstrikes, carry out a land invasion or blockade the island (which he did, also an act of war). This is a false dichotomy. He could simply have done nothing. He could have tolerated the existence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Soviets had ballistic missile submarines anyway, so the strategic impact was not as great as people want us to believe. We were lucky that the situation got resolved without a nuclear holocaust. It would have been prudent to accept the presence of missiles in Cuba. A potentially fatal chain of events spiralling out of control would have been avoided. To me the risk to humanity in general was and remains unacceptable. No single human being (or country for that matter) has the right to gamble on the survival of our species. It would probably have been politically unpopular, but that is his responsibility as a member of the human race.
In the end the Kennedy administration negotiated the removal of the Titans in Turkey in exchange for the missiles in Cuba through back-channels. Why not do this negotiation above board? It would have sent a very powerful signal to the world if the US leader and the Soviet leader had been able to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement. The signal would have been no further spread of nuclear weapons. It would have helped to freeze the proliferation. What a tremendous opportunity for peace and stability. Sadly, it was not to be. I can only come to the conclusion that Kennedy belongs on a list of the worst human beings ever due to his gambling with the lives of billions of men, women and children. All for political vanity.
Another lauded figure is Ronald Reagan. Still portrayed by the US right almost as a saint, he remains at the core of US presidential debates, political discussion and collective memory of the 80’s. He is remembered as a fierce warrior for small government. The only problem is that his record defies this portrayal. The US federal government grew 69% under his tenure. To me at least, that is not small government and fiscally conservative. In fact it is quite statist. Reagan is also responsible for two other disastrous policies. He championed no-fault divorce while governor of California, which led to a breakdown of the nuclear family. The consequences of that are still being felt today. He also greatly expanded the War on Drugs. Leading the US on the first steps on the path to mass incarceration. The amount of people in US jails and prisons for this victimless crime is astounding.
I believe that we can applaud historical figures for their great deeds while at the same time have the intellectual honesty to speak up about their dark sides and bad policies. There are of course many more historical figures that deserve this treatment, my knowledge is unfortunately insufficient to expand further. Greater writers than I have covered Abraham Lincoln. He is another person with questionable actions under his belt. I would recommend Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s books if you’re interested.