December 6, 2022

JFK and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Guest Column
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Sept. 7, 2019

America would be a much different country today if JFK had not suffered from a bad back and other serious medical conditions.

If, like a young Donald Trump, JFK had been stricken by “deadly bone spurs” in his foot, he might never have joined the Navy, never have become a war hero, never have written “While England Slept,” or won the Pulitzer Prize for his “Profiles in Courage.”  He almost certainty would not have become the 35thand second youngest president in American History.

As a young man, Kennedy desperately wanted to join the Navy, however, he was originally rejected because of chronic health problems — in particular, a back injury he had sustained playing football while attending Harvard. In 1941, though, his politically connected father used his influence not to keep Jack out of the service, but to get Jack intothe service.
Instead of hiding behind Daddy’s money, Kennedy in 1942 volunteered for hazardous PT (motorized torpedo) boat duty in the Pacific.

Lieutenant Kennedy received one of the Navy’s highest honors for gallantry for his heroic actions as a gunboat pilot during World War II. The future president also received a Purple Heart for wounds he received during battle.

In July 1943, according to the official Navy report, Kennedy and the crew of PT 109 were ordered into combat near the Solomon Islands. In the middle of the night on Aug. 2, their boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and caught fire. Several of Kennedy’s shipmates were blown overboard into a sea of burning oil. Kennedy dove in to rescue three of the crew and, in the process, swallowed some of the toxic mixture. (Kennedy would later blame the incident for his chronic stomach problems.) For 12 hours, Kennedy and his crew clung to the wrecked hull, before he ordered them to abandon ship. Kennedy and the other strong swimmers placed the injured on a makeshift raft, and then took turns pushing and towing the raft four miles to safety on a nearby island.

For six days, Kennedy and his men waited on the island for rescue. They survived by drinking coconut milk and rainwater until native islanders discovered the sailors and offered food and shelter. Every night, Kennedy tried to signal other U.S. Navy ships in the area. He also reportedly scrawled a message on a coconut husk, communicating by gesture to the islanders to ask them to take it to a nearby base at Rendova. On Aug. 8, a Navy patrol boat picked up the haggard survivors.

On June 12, 1944, while in the hospital recuperating from back surgery, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps medal for "courage, endurance and excellent leadership [that] contributed to the saving of several lives and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

Douglas Brinkley’s recent book, “American Moonshot,” describes JFK as a young man with big ideas, none of which included splashing his name all over tasteless buildings across the globe.  Rather than self-promotion, President Kennedy enabled projects that made America great in the true sense of that word. In 1961, he pledged that America would put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth; in 1969, his intention was realized.

Nobody expected a spoiled, super rich, favored son to grow up to be a man who asked not what his country could do for him, but what he could do for his country. No one would have been surprised if he had emerged from a privileged childhood as an egomaniacal, narcissistic bully whose only concern was his own welfare.

Instead we got Jack Kennedy, a man who, against all odds, spurred the U.S. to shoot for the impossible by leaving this planet and traveling 238,900 miles to an uninhabitable satellite and return with faculties, limbs and mind intact. 

McGeorge Bundy, JFK’s national security advisor, considered Kennedy’s pledge scientifically reckless, politically risky, and a “grandstanding play.” But as Brinkley noted, “the man and the hour had met.”

The man outperformed expectations, but he did not live to see his bold promise come to fruition on July 20, 1969.  There is little doubt, however, that without his leadership, vision, and courage, the impossible would never have happened. And without the fortitude forged during his military service, and the resilience he learned in the face of recalcitrant and crippling physical challenges, JFK would not have become the man whose words inspired a nation to reach higher, dig deeper, and accomplish more than we ever thought possible.

The law of unintended consequences was diligently at play in the Apollo Space Program as well; giant leaps in technology, science, and medicine followed America’s space missions. Computer science, understanding how the human body operates under different conditions — the list goes on and on. Without the moonshot, America and the world would be a different place today.

America today is hungry for that kind of leadership. We are desperate to find replacements for men with small minds and microscopic ideas. Leaders with character, discipline, largeness of heart — where have they gone?

As British novelist Mick Herron noted in his thriller, “Joe Country,” the most vicious enemies lurk within. Herron wonders if the myth of “decent gentlemen — [who] uphold values  . . . by dint of superior intelligence” has become a fiction.”  Herron believes we are now being served by “venal politicians with no values other than the grabbing of power and survival.”
The story of JFK and The Moonshot reminds us that it does not have to be this way.


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