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    Remembering JFK: A close adviser's view late in life

    Ted Sorensen talked before his own death about the assassinated president, national security and Barack Obama.
    John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union boss Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior but worked on disarmament with the Soviets.

    John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union boss Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior but worked on disarmament with the Soviets. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library/Wikimedia Commons

    Ted Sorensen is best known as the closest advisor to President John F. Kennedy — and was seen by many commentators as the greatest American presidential speechwriter. 

    Kennedy called Sorensen his “intellectual blood bank.”  And Sorensen was so close to JFK that some dubbed him the “Deputy President.”  In "A Thousand Days," historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., reported that both men “shared so much — the same quick tempo, detached intelligence, deflationary wit, realistic judgment, candor in speech, coolness in crisis — that, when it came to policy and speeches, they operated nearly as one.”

    In June 2008, I had the opportunity to conduct an extensive interview with Ted Sorensen on his acclaimed autobiography, "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History" (Harper Collins). Then 80, and with the residuals of a stroke that damaged his vision, Sorensen was still active in his law practice and international affairs. He also was advising presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama — a bright, young and hopeful politician who Sorensen saw as JFK’s heir, and the person who Sorensen believed could end what he called the Bush Administration’s “hideous, dangerous, reckless chapter in our foreign policy.” 

    In "Counselor," Sorensen recounted his childhood nurtured by a progressive and idealistic family in Lincoln, Nebraska; his JFK years as a senatorial aide and then as special counsel to president with challenges such as the cold war, the civil rights struggle, and the space race. He also dealt with his own subsequent law career advising governments, multinational organizations and corporations, and meeting with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat and Fidel Castro.  

    Sorensen also wrote "Kennedy," his bestselling 1965 biography of JFK, as well as several other books and numerous articles on law and politics. 

    Ted Sorensen died on Oct. 31, 2010 at age 82.

    Robin Lindley: Is your autobiography in part a response to the belligerent policies of the Bush-Cheney administration?

    Ted Sorensen: Very much so. I state in the preface I was spurred to write this book by the dismal state of affairs in Washington and the fact that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration had repudiated and acted contrary to everything John F. Kennedy stood for and tried to do in foreign policy. 

    John Kennedy believed in international law, international organizations like the United Nations, international alliances and therefore multi-lateral diplomacy. He did not think that in a world as ugly and complicated as this one that the United States could go it alone.  He never would have dreamed of a unilateral, pre-emptive invasion of another country, particularly one that was not posing any specific threat to the security and survival of the United States, the way Bush and Cheney did with respect to Iraq.

    You point out that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrongly compared the pre-emptive war against Iraq with JFK’s approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

    He was totally wrong in using that analogy, and he or Bush or Condi Rice quoted language that Kennedy said, “in the age of modern weapons, you didn’t need to wait until you got hit.” Kennedy said that not to justify a pre-emptive strike, but the opposite. He was saying that to justify the fact that he had opted against bombing the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and instead opted for the quarantine or blockade, which struck some people as being too passive, but which, under international law, was an act of war. He therefore wanted to point out that the United States was taking that action because it didn’t make sense to wait until being struck by a modern weapon — they are so destructive and quickly used — but that certainly was not an excuse for a pre-emptive strike.

    You obviously share Sen. Obama’s view that we must talk to our enemies as well as our friends.

    Yes. Kennedy resolved the Cuban missile crisis — the most dangerous 13 days in the history of mankind, as historians call it, by his willingness to communicate with Soviet Chairman Khrushchev, and through those communications, to negotiate with him.

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    Posted Fri, Nov 22, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    In the interview, Ted Sorensen refers to JFK's important foreign policy speech delivered at the University of Wsshington in Seattle in November 1961. And here's a link to the speech:

    Posted Fri, Nov 22, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    The interview elides the question for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which had its origins under Ike's training of mercenaries in Guatemale, which he had liberated from democracy, as he and the Dulles brothers had Iran (Mossadegh) with disasterous consequences for both countries, in the case of Iran world-wide that persist to today. Kennedy took away half the air cover and support of the Bay of Pigs invasion, thus dooming a bit more quickly what would have been a doomed endeavor anyway unless, as usual, you sent the Marines into the Carribean, and were then engaged in guerilla warfare for years to come and be even more despised than the U.S. already is in much of the world and especially Latin America for its imperialist policies and actions. Thus Sorenson's claim that Kennedy was not a unilaterist does not stand the test, nor really with Vietnam, though I grant Sorenson's feeling that Kennedy might have pulled out the advisors - if, that is, the hawks in the U.S. would have permitted him to. As to the Missile Crisis, the U.S. in the tit for tat that ended it, pulled it's Turkish missiles back. The Soviet Union certainly was within its treaty right to help an ally who had been attacked and subverted by Uncle Sam, and which kept trying to assassinate its leader, Fidel Castro - the U.S. is the only state in the world that continues regularly to overthrow governments and assassinate! But this is a fine interview and much of what Sorenson says is convincing.


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