3The Arms Race Was an Actual Race
For America, it all started with the missile gap, when intelligence estimates revealed that Russia was kicking our ass. From then through the Reagan administration, it was on like nuclear Donkey Kong. The U.S. and Russian governments kept tabs on one another, and with each weapon the other side built, they built another to even the scoreboard.
The arms race was illogical, with both sides eventually building enough weapons to level one another, then building 100 times more than that. But it was understandable. Neither side was going to admit that they didn't have the most weapons. Hell, some have even argued that it was an unavoidable byproduct of the way international relations work.
Why It's Bullshit:
Pretending the arms race was anything less than a decades-long confidence scheme is like blaming the laws of economics for Bernie Madoff. One thing your history teachers have right is that it did all start with that "missile gap." When the Soviet Union reportedly developed a significant military superiority, the United States responded with a massive splurge on nuclear weapons and bombers to "close the gap." So how much of a gap was there, actually?
Note that every number on that left side is enough bombs to kill fucking everything.
You'll notice that America was the first to push their crazy, out-of-control war machine into maximum overdrive. According to the CIA, from 1955 to 1961, U.S. Air Force Intelligence exaggerated Soviet missile and aircraft strength to the point that they were adding more than one zero to their numbers. This led to the production of thousands of heavy bombers, nuclear missiles, a nuclear-powered bomber and even a goddamn flying saucer (the Avro Canada VZ-9 Avrocar) to try to keep up with an imaginary threat.
This came from either Wikipedia or a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Russia got spooked by the fact that the U.S. was building flying goddamn saucers and appeared to be tooling up for nuclear Armageddon and responded by overcompensating. But the arms race only happened in the first place because of a very simple three-step process. The military-industrial complex would 1) make up some crazy expensive weapons 2) claim that Russia had those weapons 3) get permission from the U.S. government to build them.
This all happened on Eisenhower's watch, and by the time he left office he realized what the U.S. Air Force and the CIA were up to and told Congress that the missile gap showed "every sign" of being what The New York Times described as "a fiction." And in one of the ballsiest speeches ever given, he retired with a grim warning to the nation about the "military-industrial complex" taking over U.S. interests.
Shut up, you pot-smoking hippie.
So how were we so woefully, utterly ill-informed? Check out this extract from a 1962 conversation between President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
McNamara: I think that there was created a myth in this country that did great harm to the nation. And it was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon. There are still people of that kind at the Pentagon. I wouldn't give them any foundation for creating another myth.
Kennedy: You mean like the missile gap?
McNamara: The missile -- that's right.
"There was only one, pulled out for children's birthdays and Christmas."
Kennedy: That missile gap -- as one of those who put that myth around, a patriotic and misguided man -- [laughter] -- that came right out of ... You were one of them and, it's because we assumed ...
Taylor: Well, it was an honest mistake ...
"Bread lines? We thought these were war lines."
Yeah. That's Kennedy being told that the arms race was founded on a myth as ridiculous as Paul Bunyan, and being able to do nothing about it, because the guys in the room are the ones who made up the lie in the first place. But, before you go casting Kennedy as the peace loving hero in the Cold War, you should probably know ...
2Kennedy Was the Peaceful Cold War President
When JFK's name is dragged through the mud these days, it's usually for all the places he put his dick that weren't on his wife's body. When it comes to his on-the-job record, he's usually held up as the ideological antidote to the warlike maniacs who followed him. He defused the Cuban Missile Crisis, focused technological resources on a race to the moon instead of nuclear annihilation and created peaceful-sounding initiatives like the Peace Corps.
His followers have even suggested that, had he not been assassinated, America never would have gotten into the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone's JFK suggested that Lyndon Johnson signed the document NSAM 273 just days after Kennedy's assassination, and according to Donald Sutherland, "In that document [DRAMATIC PAUSE] lay the Vietnam War."
Soon after this photo, Johnson jumped away from the document, which exploded.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has gone on record saying that Kennedy would not have escalated the Vietnam War the way Johnson did. Sounds like a pretty solid case that 'Nam as we know it would have never happened had Kennedy not been assassinated, right? Think about what that would mean for so many young men, and your favorite movie characters ...
Millions died to make The West Wing possible.
Why It's Bullshit:
"JFK presidential assassination conspiracy" had a whole new meaning back when he was still in office. Kennedy and his administration loved devising and launching shady plots to assassinate the presidents of other countries. The Cuban Project -- the CIA's many attempts to kill Castro in the most Wile. E. Coyote manner possible -- was launched by Kennedy. Of course, the Kennedy administration only resorted to outright murder after their secret invasion of Cuba failed miserably. So while he deserves a lot of credit for keeping Americans alive through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that Kennedy was openly and regularly trying to straight up murder their president probably helped cause the problem in the first place.
Later, Castro shaved off his beard and changed his name to Liam Neeson.
As for Vietnam, on September 2, 1963, John F. Kennedy told Walter Cronkite:
These people who say we ought to withdraw from Vietnam are wholly wrong, because if we withdrew from Vietnam, the communists would control Vietnam, pretty soon ... all of Southeast Asia would be under control of the communists and ... then India, Burma would be the next target.
"It's like Risk, which is why I've diverted the entire Marine Corps to the Kamchatka peninsula."
Politicians would spend the next decade reciting that exact justification for the war. Kennedy wasn't just pro-Vietnam War -- his administration basically wrote the pro-Vietnam War playbook.
Behind the scenes, he was already using tactics in Vietnam just as shady as Nixon's most questionable supervillainy. For instance, Kennedy authorized the overthrow and eventual assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. The evil document Oliver Stone waived in our faces in JFK was the second step in that shady CIA conspiracy, and it was all masterminded by the Kennedy administration.
"With all due respect, Mr. President, enough with the assassination conspiracies."
It's not that Kennedy was a villain or anything. Like any other president, he had to make some difficult decisions. But the widely held belief that he was less of a kill-happy warmonger than any of the presidents who followed him just doesn't hold up.