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Thurston Clarke has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel-Holiday, Men’s Journal, George, Islands, and Glamour.

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Caroline Kennedy Nominated to be Next U.S. Ambassador to Japan

By Thurston Clarke
Published: Penguin Press, July 31, 2013

President Obama’s nomination of Caroline Kennedy to the post of United States ambassador to Japan was largely praised on July 24. However, questions were raised about the wisdom of sending a diplomatic novice to a country that has long been our ally but has recently begun to undergo radical change in its economics, politics, and defense policy. The victory of Shinzo Abe’s party on Sunday guarantees that Japan’s weaker Yen and the principles of the controversial Abe-nomics, and Japan’s move to re-militarize will remain challenges for the Obama administration.

If she is confirmed, as is widely expected, Caroline Kennedy will face these challenges first hand as the President’s representative. In this, she has no better diplomatic role model than her own father in the last months of his life and administration. During this period President John F. Kennedy oversaw a significant Cold War thaw and approved a plan to reduce the number of U.S. military advisors in Vietnam. In both arenas, Kennedy evidenced both the wisdom and the courage that true diplomacy requires.

Early in his administration, Kennedy had avoided challenging the hard-line cold warriors in either party and resisted engaging the Soviet Union in serious disarmament talks. He changed his mind after the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated how easily a misjudgment by either side could start a nuclear war.

The risk of radioactive fallout had worried him since 1961, when the Soviet Union unilaterally decided to resume atmospheric nuclear tests, forcing him to do the same. He used a June 10, 1963, commencement address at American University to announce his own unilateral suspension of atmospheric nuclear tests and to propose negotiations in Moscow aimed at drafting a treaty banning nuclear testing.

His speech was a dramatic break from eighteen years of cold war rhetoric by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and himself. He blamed both sides for the arms race, called on Americans to “reexamine our own attitude—as individuals and as a Nation,” acknowledged Russia’s wartime sacrifices, declared that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue,” and reminded Americans that they and the Soviet people “breathe the same air,” “cherish our children’s future,” and “are all mortal,” expressing these truths so eloquently that one British newspaper called the address “one of the greatest state papers of American history.” Soviet newspapers reprinted its entire text and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev praised it as the best speech by any American president since Roosevelt.

In July, after only twelve days of negotiations, American and Soviet diplomats agreed on a treaty to limit nuclear testing. The treaty was signed in August and ratified by the U.S. Congress in September. In October Kennedy signed the articles of ratification, a ceremony that according to his aide Ken O’Donnell provided him with “the deepest satisfaction of his three years at the White House.”


The treaty prompted a number of tension-reducing initiatives and agreements during the summer and fall. Khrushchev wrote Kennedy that he hoped the treaty would result in “the end of the cold war.” British foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home found the atmosphere so encouraging that he told the United Nations that the world was witnessing “the beginning of the end of the cold war.” Kennedy was so encouraged that he suggested ending the costly space race, telling Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in August that they being first on the moon was “in the final analysis, not stunning that important.” In a speech to the United Nations in September he surprised everyone, including his own foreign policy advisors, by asking “Why . . . should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” and then proposing a joint U.S. Soviet Moon Mission.

In the case of Vietnam, Kennedy repeatedly refused to send U.S. combat units to assist South Vietnamese forces, repeatedly overruling advisors who wanted him to do just that. In 1962 National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy tried to change his mind, reminding him that his advisers had unanimously recommended sending combat units, and suggesting cabling Ambassador Frederick Nolting, Jr., that combat troops would be sent “when and if the U. S. military recommend it on persuasive military grounds.” Kennedy would not budge. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Maxwell Taylor concluded, “I don’t recall anyone who was strongly against [sending combat troops], except one man and that was the President.” Kennedy may have had this in mind when he told reporters at a 1962 press conference, “Well, you know that old story about Abraham Lincoln and the Cabinet. He says, ‘All in favor say “aye,” ’ and the whole Cabinet voted ‘aye,’ and then, ‘All opposed no,’ and Lincoln voted ‘no,’ and he said, ‘the vote is no.’ ”

Kennedy’s reluctance to send combat troops stemmed from his own visit to Vietnam in 1951. He and his brother Bobby had arrived at a violent juncture in the struggle between the French colonial authorities and Viet Minh guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh. A suicide bomber had killed a French general, antigrenade nets covered government ministries, and artillery flashes lit the horizon as they dined at a rooftop restaurant in Saigon with Edmund Gullion, then serving as the political counselor at the embassy. Kennedy asked Gullion what he had learned. “That in twenty years there will be no more colonies,” Gullion said. “We’re going nowhere out here. The French have lost. If we come in here and do the same thing we will lose, too, for the same reason. There’s no will or support for this kind of war back in Paris. The home front is lost. The same thing would happen to us.”

By the time Kennedy left he had been persuaded “that only a truly independent Vietnamese government had any prospect of attracting popular support.”

Bobby wrote in his diary that Vietnam had made “a very, very major impression” on his brother, and had taught them “the importance of associating ourselves with the people rather than just the governments.” Jack added his own entry to the diary, writing, “We must do what we can as our contribution gets bigger to force the French to liberalize political conditions,” “We are not here to help French maintain colonies,” and “Reason for spread of communism is failure of those who believe in democracy to explain this theory in terms intelligible to the ordinary man and to make its ameliorating effect in life apparent.”

In October 1963 Kennedy approved a plan to withdraw one thousand of the 16,000 U.S. military advisors in Vietnam, with the goal of removing all the advisors by 1965. On November 19, 1963 he told aide Michael Forrestal, “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country [Vietnam]; what we thought we were doing; and what we now think we can do. I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.”

Ambassador Kennedy would do well to emulate her father: to respect the unique experiences and nationalism of a foreign nation, and to seek a peaceful resolution of even the most challenging conflicts.


hoto credit: Paul O. Boisvert

Photo credit: Paul O. Boisvert

Ask How

By Thurston Clarke, Willsboro, N.Y.
Published: New York Times, January 15, 2005

AMERICANS watching John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration on television saw a scene worthy of Currier & Ives. The marble facade of the Capitol gleamed in the sun, dignitaries wore top hats and dark overcoats and the cold air turned Kennedy’s breath into white clouds. When he said, “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation,” his words actually appeared to be going forth into the exhilarating air.

No one knew that Kennedy was wearing long underwear so he could remove his topcoat and appear youthful and energetic, or that he had received months of tutoring from a speech coach, or that there was so much animosity among the platform’s dignitaries that if grudges had weight, the entire contraption would have collapsed. No one suspected that Cardinal Richard Cushing had slowed his invocation because he believed that smoke wafting from beneath the podium came from a smoldering bomb meant for Kennedy, and he wanted to absorb the blast himself. (It was actually a short circuit.) No one knew that as Cushing droned on, Kennedy was probably improving his address in his mind. (He would make 32 alterations to the reading copy of his inaugural address as he spoke.)

Praise for his inaugural address came from across the political spectrum — Barry Goldwater said, “God, I’d like to be able to do what that boy did there” — and was so extravagant it seems hard to believe the nation was even more divided than it is today. Kennedy had won the 1960 election with only 49.7 percent of the popular vote, yet a Gallup poll taken soon after his inauguration showed him with an approval rating of 72 percent. His own pollster, Lou Harris, put it at an astounding 92 percent. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, perhaps hoping for similar ratings, have paraphrased lines from Kennedy’s speech in their own inaugural addresses.

The most recent offender was George W. Bush, who in 2001 translated “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” into “What you do is as important as anything government does. I ask you to seek a common good beyond your comfort; to defend needed reforms against easy attacks; to serve your nation, beginning with your neighbor.”

Kennedy’s imitators have failed to appreciate that the words in his address were only part of its magic. There was also the brilliant weather, Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe, Robert Frost’s poem and a president-elect who had devoted almost as much attention to his appearance as his words — darkening his tan in Palm Beach, and fussing over the cut of his suit and the arrangement of dignitaries on the platform.

They have failed to appreciate something else, something that is nearly impossible to replicate. It was Kennedy’s life — and his close calls with death — that gave the speech its power and urgency. Those who study the speech would do well to pay less attention to the words and more attention to how he wrote the speech and to the relationship between its words and Kennedy’s character and experience.

Kennedy composed the most memorable and poetic lines of his inaugural during a flight from Washington to Palm Beach 10 days before his inauguration. He summoned his secretary Evelyn Lincoln into his private compartment on his plane, the Caroline, and told her that he wanted to dictate some “ideas” for his inaugural.

He had in hand a draft written by his principal speechwriter, Ted Sorensen. Throughout his campaign, Kennedy had often carried a Sorensen speech to the stage only to abandon much of it in favor of his own off-the-cuff remarks. He did this again during the Palm Beach flight, and dictated several pages of his own material.

It is in Evelyn Lincoln’s shorthand loops and squiggles, then, that one first reads versions of “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship,” and “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.”

Kennedy revised his inaugural in Palm Beach, without the assistance of the focus groups or speechwriting teams that have become de rigueur. He read it aloud to his wife, rewrote some passages on sheets of yellow legal paper and consulted with Ted Sorensen. He did not need much help revising his dictation because it was essentially autobiographical. It told his story, and that of his generation: “born in this century,” “tempered by war,” “disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

Behind this structure lay five pivotal moments in his life: his travels through Europe on the eve of World War II, his experiences in the Pacific in 1943, his visit to a devastated postwar Berlin in 1945, his tour through Asia as a young congressman in 1951, and his encounter with the abject poor during the 1960 West Virginia primary. All but one of these had occurred overseas, a reminder that he was not only the most widely traveled man ever to become president, but someone who had experienced many of the defining moments of his life outside his own country.

Kennedy had a strong emotional connection with the passages inspired by his own experiences. Throughout his political career he had sometimes choked up at Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies when speaking about those who had lost their lives in World War II. Among the passages he had dictated on the flight was this one: “Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.”

Numbered among these young Americans, of course, were his brother Joseph Kennedy Jr., his brother-in-law Billy Hartington, and his PT-109 crewmen Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney. These two sentences, a tribute to their sacrifices, would prove to be the emotional turning point of his inaugural, the moment when his voice assumed a passion he seldom revealed, inspiring the audience at the Capitol, touching even the hearts of his opponents, and sending half-frozen tears rolling down cheeks.

It is possible that a future president will evoke a similar reaction with an inaugural address, uniting Americans in a common purpose, and opening a new era of idealism, optimism and national happiness. But to accomplish this, he must do more than others have done, which is simply paraphrase or echo Kennedy. Instead, he will have to deliver an inaugural that has so clearly engaged his emotions, and so convincingly represents a distillation of the spiritual and philosophical principles guiding his life, that it will, in the end, evoke an emotional response from the American people, too.



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