Even though John F. Kennedy grew up in an affluent family in which his older brother bore the expectation of reaching the presidency, JFK never assumed the complaisant mantle of an entitled prince; he became a man of action. After himself surviving World War II, John F. Kennedy empathized with the majority of his American male constituents – tired, war-weary, seeking respite and isolation from conflicts of politics and power. Yet America maintained her arsenal, avoiding conflict but stockpiling militant defenses and warning systems. America insulated herself, a policy which Kennedy swore to uphold whenever possible; he brought Machiavelli’s little German village to the Western Hemisphere. However, President Eisenhower, his predecessor, established international policies against socialism and communism. The American army called up its soldiers against attack but bargaining and contingencies for acceptable loss became an inextricable part of international politics. Despite this tension between the old policies and his movement toward new policies, which favored strength in peace first and strength in war if necessary, Americans view President Kennedy with a heavily-embedded sense of myth and heroism. However, if this view accurately depicts Kennedy, then his iconic avoidance of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis should never have occurred when, according to Machiavelli, “A prince who has a strong city, and had not made himself odious, will not be attacked, or if any one should attack he will only be driven off with disgrace” (p. 830). Prior to the diplomatic crisis, Kennedy spurred anti-American feeling in Cuba when he supported the invasion of the Bay of Pigs which Eisenhower pushed as part of his administration’s foreign policy regarding potential threats.
Had Kennedy ‘made himself odious’ in the first four months of his presidency, odious enough that his vision of a strong and peaceful nation was overthrown altogether? The Machiavellian prince had not acted as the master of his own village and vowed never to do so again. Thus, it is worth noting that the aggressive posturing of Castro and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis achieved only the final initiation of the prince into his own village’s leadership and his invulnerability from an attack without shame and- in a generation of emergent broadcasting- ensured that the world would share in this censure. The burden of his final assassination looms so great and heavy a chapter in American history that no person bears it willingly. The official record names one controversial perpetrator, and suspicion suggests accomplices or an assassin unrelated to John Wilkes Booth. The three names of the accused perpetrator live on, a testament of this shameful betrayal of an American prince.
Kennedy was a man between worlds— between democracy and subjugation, between Catholicism and the separation of church and state, and between his aristocratic heritage and his love for his constituency. The ecclesiastical realm does not trust to its prince and owes its fortunes purely to the favor of its religious authorities-divine and human. A man whose allegiance belongs to an ecclesiastical leader cannot be a true prince of his own right, so can a follower of the Roman Catholic Church ever be both a devoted congregant and an independent decision-maker? In his chapter regarding mercenaries, Machiavelli clarifies that why an individual fights is almost as important as the leader-prince’s reasons (pp. 832-834). To paraphrase, a just prince cannot fight with cut-throats at his back, especially where liberality appears weak “liberality exercised in a way that does not bring you the reputation for it, injures you… it may not become known, and you will not avoid the reproach of its opposite” (pp. 834-835).
However, Machiavelli overlooks the moral development which creates the ‘powerful and courageous’ prince (p. 830). A man of superior character does not emerge into the world without an understanding of where he stands and without tests of his certainty, like the Bay of Pigs. The truth of Kennedy’s pressured upbringing and his role in rescuing the men aboard his light wartime vessel, the PT-109, provided opportunity to ready him for his two years in the office of president of the United States. Machiavelli seemingly indicates that expectation becomes its own limited self-fulfilling prophecy as he explores the two-way exchange of obligation (pp. 830-832). Kennedy gave his life to the people long before his assassination shamed potential suspects. A prince gives of himself; it seems fitting to credit President John F. Kennedy with this parting addition to his short life and growing legend.
- Silva, L., & W. Overton (eds). (2011). WORLD LITERATURE ANTHOLOGY: THROUGH THE RENAISSANCE. Volume 3: pp. 830-840. APUS ePress.