You Don’t Know Jack

11.15.13 10:45 AM ET

JFK’s Weak Body And Strong Spirit

Kennedy was one of the sickliest American presidents, wracked with chronic back pain—but his metaphorical spine in standing up to the war hawks was unparalleled.

The … [hawks] … always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.

John F. Kennedy (October 1962)

For the first quarter-century or so after JFK’s murder in Dallas, insensitive cynics sometimes remarked that having been assassinated was a great posthumous career move for Kennedy. They were wrong. The bizarre, still incompletely solved, assassination has focused succeeding generations on the Kennedy fluff factor—all the hearsay and gossip involved in establishing JFK and his relatives as the unofficial American “royal family.” Dallas has merged with Graceland. JFK might just as well have been Elvis.


U.S. President John F. Kennedy walks on crutches as he leaves his limousine to board the presidential yacht "Honey Fitz" for a cruise down the Potomac River with Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda, in Washington on June 21, 1961.

The Jack Kennedy that has emerged from our own research and that of others over the past quarter-century is very far from your parents’ or grandparents’ JFK. Our image of John F. Kennedy has been transformed in fundamental ways. First, formerly thought of as a cold warrior and hawk, we now know that he 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, JFK—once believed to be the paragon of “vigah,” health, and vitality—was in reality 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 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 from interviews and archives that the responses would have been devastating, probably uncontrollable, and possibly apocalyptic.

Finally, and paradoxically, Kennedy’s near-death experiences, horrible back pain and barely controlled Addison’s disease provided the crucial “body boot camp” in which Kennedy learned never to trust experts—whether doctors or generals—and made him a life-long skeptic regarding the advice he was given. His diseases and unpredictable chronic pain also taught him to distrust predictions made by analysts—whether medical, military, civilian, or deriving from anyone else supposed to be an “expert.”

Many of us would be shocked to learn that JFK was fundamentally a disabled person. He was often visibly sick with infections and other illnesses connected with his Addison’s disease, or in great pain due to his back injuries and botched back surgeries in the 1950s. He was given many injections each day; he took an enormous number of pills on a carefully monitored schedule; often he could not bend over to tie his own shoes. He wore various braces for his back, each of which left him unable to bend at the waist, and which was cinched so tight that it was a wonder he could even breathe. On some days, the only time the president walked without crutches was when he was in public, although he occasionally used them even in public, when his pain was otherwise unmanageable. And perhaps most surreal of all, JFK was loaded onto a specially equipped forklift at Andrews Air Force Base, so that he could literally be deposited, like a piece of cargo, into Air Force One. This procedure also occurred in reverse, when the presidential plane flew into Andrews: the same device retrieved the president before it deposited him on the tarmac. As soon as he hit the ground, JFK hobbled on his crutches as fast as he could manage into a waiting limo for the ride to the White House.

Yet JFK, while physically frail and in pain, still had the metaphorical spine to drive his hawkish advisers up the wall. He resisted them, he frustrated them, and he angered them. He asked hard questions and took nothing on faith. What he did not do was what the hawks demanded, sometimes on a daily basis, which was to take the nation to war over one or more of the crises brewing all over a world deeply mired in the dangerous East-West Cold War.

Half a century later, we can reconstruct from the abundant evidence what went on behind the scenes in the Kennedy White House. The disadvantage of hindsight, of course, is that the flesh and blood of real-time suffering and confrontation with war-threatening crises is largely drained out of our data. But in 2013 we also have an advantage over the observer of 1963: we now have some conceptual tools with which to understand what JFK was up to, instinctively and intuitively. We can finally 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.

The idea has been around since the time of Aristotle. (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 theoretical everywhere outside western Australia, where they actually exist.) In the 20th century, the foremost advocate of black swan logic was Sir Karl Popper, the British philosopher of science. Recently, it has been popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who lists three hallmarks of black swan logic: it is an outlier; it carries extreme impact; and we tend to explain black swans retrospectively in ways that rob them of the shock we experience at the moment they appear. The fundamental proposition of black swan logic, according to Taleb, is this: “black swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you know.”

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 definitely would happen. JFK was thus a thoroughgoing practitioner of black swan logic. JFK’s world was filled with improbable but potentially ferocious black swans, which lay in wait for the kind of inattentive decision-makers, who, as Taleb writes, “confuse absence of evidence for evidence of absence.”

JFK approached decisions by relentlessly conducting premortems. That’s right, premortems—before authorizing the use of military force, one should imagine in detail how a course of action might result in total disaster.” Premortems have lately been recommended by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate in economics, who argued that our brains seem to be hardwired to be hawkish, necessitating the development of mental and emotional “software” to prevent hawkish entropy from dominating our responses to situations that may be much more dangerous than they appear.

JFK learned from his body boot camp, his war experience, his reading and as the U.S. president that a vast chasm exists between the ease of starting a conflict and the difficulty of ending it before it escalates out of all proportion to its alleged purpose. His hawks resisted his black swan logic. He listened carefully to them. He acknowledged that he might be wrong and they might be right. But then he asked himself, as his hero Winston Churchill put it: in which direction would he rather make an error—to “jaw-jaw” when he should have ordered “war-war?” Or the other way around? As JFK said in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs black swan, the president, and the president alone, is “the responsible officer of government” in matters of war and peace.

James G. Blight and janet M. Lang are on the faculty of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Department of History, at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. They are the authors of more than a dozen books on JFK’s foreign policy decision-making including, most recently, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Khrushchev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012). This article was adapted from their forthcoming book, JFK’s Backbone: Defeating the Hawks and Waging Peace in a Dangerous World (2014).