Compare and Contrast: John Kennedy vs. Barack Obama on Passing the Buck

PT 109 by William Doyle highlights the combat incident that influenced John F. Kennedy for the rest of his life.  This book, written about fifty years after the bestselling book of the same name by Robert Donavan, charted Kennedy's brush with death, his leadership skills, and how the experience shaped Kennedy's attitude.  Remarkably, this incident has parallels to Kennedy's presidency and to today's world.

The book recounts how the mission assigned to Kennedy and other PT boat commanders was doomed from the start.  On August 2, 1943, while patrolling the Solomon Islands, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri barreled through thick fog and struck the U.S. Navy's motor torpedo boat PT 109, splitting the craft nearly in half and killing two American sailors instantly.  The other eleven survivors swam through flame and shark-infested waters to reach an island that was surrounded by the Japanese.  Kennedy was set up for failure, because the black waters made it difficult to stay in the convoy; there was no radar on board the boat, so communication among the convoy was inhibited; the torpedoes fired inaccurately; and the overall commander, Warfield, refused to take questions or input from his subordinates. 

Doyle noted to American Thinker, "Many Americans got killed because the Washington command took a year to figure out [that] the PT boat torpedoes did not work."  It appears that history repeated itself during the Iraq War, when insurgent forces deployed roadside bombs, RPG teams, and snipers to attack American military vehicles.  They succeeded because the vehicles were not reinforced properly.  In fact, the American fighting forces resorted to "Hillbilly armor," reinforcing the vehicles with scrap metal, Kevlar blankets, and plywood.  It was not until 2005 that the Washington command actually "up-armored" all the vehicles. Then-secretary of defense Rumsfeld commented on the incident, "It isn't a matter of money.  It isn't a matter on the part of the Army of desire.  It's a matter of production and capability of doing it."

The book also conveys how Kennedy was furious because his superior, Commander Warfield, believing that all crew members had been killed during the sinking, decided not to send out a search mission that might jeopardize the lives of other PT rescuers.  The PT 109 crew survived those six days despite broken bones, burns, no medical supplies, radio, water, food, and arms.  Doyle recalls in the book Kennedy's bitterness; his feelings were that his comrades should have looked "for us and would fight to save us beyond reasonable expectation[.] … The tragedy was that the comrades of the 109 did not go back to look for survivors." 

Understanding how it felt to be left behind, President Kennedy had a profound sense of guilt about the Bay of Pigs captives held in Cuba's prisons.  He told his brother Robert he could never turn his back on those who had done his bidding.  Thus, the administration arranged for a prisoner exchange in December 1962 for food and medicine.

The Obama administration, by contrast, has left Americans high and dry.  The Iran nuclear deal comes to mind, during which President Obama made no mention of four American hostages in Iran.  As Kennedy mentioned about the PT episode, so it is today: a reasonable expectation would have been to require Iran to release the hostages before any relief from sanctions. 

Interestingly, in September 1943, JFK did not whitewash his responsibility in the PT 109 disaster.  One quality of a good leader is being able to admit mistakes.  He candidly blamed the collision on his decision to patrol with one engine.  This also shaped his attitude as president, when he took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs.  Kennedy never blamed the Eisenhower administration, which came up with the Bay of Pigs plan, nor any of the advisors.  The press release made it clear to the media and public that Kennedy was the one accountable and that it was he who made the final decision: "President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as President he bears sole responsibility[.] … The President is strongly opposed to anyone within or without the administration accepting to shift the responsibility."  In a press conference, he made the now famous statement: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," and to his staff, "I am the president; I did not have to do what all of you recommended.  I am responsible."

Compare that to President Obama and Hillary Clinton, who are constantly playing the blame game.  Unlike Kennedy, they use deflection and fault others for their mistakes.  Take for example Benghazi, where both blamed an obscure video.  Recently Hillary Clinton stated about the Republicans, "Look at the situation they chose to exploit to go after me for political reasons: the death of four Americans in Benghazi.  I knew the ambassador.  I identified him.  I asked him to go there."  A hallmark of this presidency is how Obama passes the buck, his favorite target being former president George W. Bush.  This past March, he claimed that President Bush was responsible for ISIS, "a direct outcome of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which grew out of our invasion."

Doyle remarked to American Thinker that Kennedy's honesty seems to be something of the past, considering that "most politicians today think we are idiots and that we will believe whatever they say, never admitting to their mistakes.  Yet JFK was perfectly comfortable admitting mistakes and trying to learn from them."

The other point the author wanted to make is that Kennedy's military combat experience shaped his view of the world.  He understood the horrors of war, haunted by the loss of two of his crew, and had a better idea of how the impacts of war affected service members, their families, and the community as a whole.  Compare that to today, where the Republican candidates have no military experience except Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who served in the Air Force Reserve.  The top Democratic candidates also have no military background, and Vice President Joe Biden received five student deferments between 1963 and 1968 before being reclassified as unable to serve due to childhood asthma.

A powerful quote in the book summarized Kennedy's feelings about his experience during WWII: "The war made us.  It was and is our single greatest moment.  The memory of the war is key to our characters[.] … No school or parent could have shaped us the way that fight shaped us.  No other experience could have brought forth in us the same fortitude and resilience."  Today's candidates should read this account to learn from Kennedy's leadership skills, honesty, and desire to protect those willing to fight for America's values.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.