John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a beloved president, decorated soldier, and American Icon. His name is one that forever holds intrinsic value to the citizens of the United States. Kennedy’s legacy is one unmatched as his personality, public image, and wisdom won over the hearts of millions. The presidency he overtook however, faced countless amounts of criticism as he stumbled amongst foreign policy and came to term during a time of instability both abroad and on the home front. Though our 35th president might be memorable because of his persona, his leadership within America through the 1960’s was an utter disaster. The notorious Bay of Pigs catastrophe shows how Kennedy’s failure as a leader resulted from his inheritance of a country, constantly fearful of a communist uprising, and a government hesitant to inform or assert confidence in his ability to lead.
In analyzing Kennedy’s upbringing it is easily seen where his values, motivations, and charisma come from. John F. Kennedy was born May 29th 1917 to a high class, Irish Catholic family living in Brookline, Massachusetts (Hackwork 6). The Kennedys were an extremely wealthy clan of high prestige and status. Consistently seen as the picture perfect family, it’s fitting Kennedy’s distinguished by his poise, knowledge and morals. Joseph Kennedy, John’s father exhibited the same persona as a youthful, attractive, businessman coming from a well to do family of politicians. Both parents, Rose and Joseph instilled in their children from a young age the prestige and status of the Kennedy name (Obrien 36). Wealth and power were rooted in their eight children as their parents pushed them to their fullest capabilities, giving them the greatest opportunities to succeed and to uphold the family legacy.
Though growing up as a Kennedy seemed luxurious and limitless, John (often called Jack) faced countless health barriers throughout his childhood. Battling numerous illnesses such mumps, scarlet fever, and whooping cough, he found his passion in history and refused to let his health problems set him back from living a fulfilled life (Hacksworth 8). The happy go lucky, well rounded young man everyone viewed him as never let his weaknesses show, rarely talking about his health conditions or letting them interfere with his goals. Kennedy’s charismatic manner started early on, carrying him through high school and athletics, later leading him to Harvard (Hackworth 8). At Harvard his love for politics and history of government blossomed. His father Joe Kennedy was appointed ambassador to Great Britain around this time, pushing John to leave Harvard briefly to advise under him and partake in English High Society’s Court of Saint James (Hacksworth 10). Observing the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Harvard later on, publishing his thesis on England’s role in the war. After graduating with honors from Harvard Kennedy looked to join the military, working under the United States Naval Intelligence during World War II and later becoming an active soldier. He was awarded for his efforts, receiving the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for lifesaving and the Purple Heart for injuries endured (Hacksworth 24). Kennedy was viewed as a true American hero. His tenacious and strong willed character is clearly evident through his military excellence, love of learning, and fascination with politics, all contributing to his success to come as a politician.
From war hero to aspiring politician, Joe Kennedy pushed his son to enter the political realm and run for the congressional seat in Massachusetts. In the election of 1941, Kennedy as the underdog, won the seat over republican candidate Lester Bowen (Hacksworth 30). He later went on to serve six years in the House of Representatives, becoming more critical of President Truman’s foreign policy and the victories communist countries were quickly seizing abroad. After serving three terms in Congress, Kennedy continued on with two more elections to the United States Senate (JFK Library). From here his political career flourished as his good looks, patriotic nature, and whole hearted character ignited a spark amongst Americans. For the first time citizens felt they had found someone who’s competitive and strong willed nature would put their interests first and bring a well need change to society. On January 2nd 1960, John F. Kennedy announced his decision to run for president (JFK LIB). In her thesis JFK: An Assessment of the Man and the Image, Sandra Hacksworth summarizes Kennedy’s road to presidency, emphasizing the importance of his campaigning tactics and the platform he was distinguished by. The Kennedy family used their affluence and power to back the campaign efforts for their eldest son, capitalizing on the use of media to enhance Kennedy’s handsome appearance and excellent public speaking skills. Kennedy’s appeal to both blacks and whites along with his promise for a brighter future for Americans gained him the victory over his opponent Richard Nixon (40). The 35th President, newly elected and full of aspiring hopes for the country, faced a time of turbulence and uncertainty, however. With the rise of Communist parties in Europe and the fear growing amongst Americans as a result, Kennedy was in for a slew of problems that required solutions quickly. The incident nicknamed The Bay of Pigs, is the most noteworthy and one that contributed to the leadership failures amongst Kennedy’s Presidency.
The Bay of Pigs was a plan designed to overthrow Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro through the use of Cuban exiles, backed with American support and oversight. In Defeat is in Orphan Eric Martell analyzes the events that led up to the failure of the plan and the lack of leadership exhibited by President Kennedy. The plan to overthrow Castro was created by the Central Intelligence Agency under President Eisenhower and started off as training a small Cuban force that would rebel against the current dictator. Kennedy, believing he was approving a plan that was covert and small scaled, sanctioned a decision that was uninformed and much too complex to ever be carried out successfully. The lack of communication between the President, the C.I.A and the Joint Chiefs resulted in a national embarrassment for the United States and the failure of the Bay of Pigs.
The decision making process that took place during the planning and execution of The Bay of Pigs was a significant factor in why it was unsuccessful. Eisenhower had originally drafted the plan during his administration however, it’s implementation was left to Kennedy when he took office. The plan had started to take a new direction when Kennedy came to office, as it looked to use American troops and guerilla warfare to support the rebellion ( Martell 96). Kennedy had to no idea in the end the type of military plan he ended up approving and just how involved the United States military and Air force would be in its execution. Ultimately, the information conveyed between the President and C.I.A was often censored, misleading, and manipulated (Martell 95). Kenney though, lacked the authority and confidence to question a plan created by his successful predecessor and knew his approval was needed to affirm his zero tolerance on communist regimes. Vanden brings to light the secrecy amongst the C.I.A who had been accused of proving unreliable reports to Kennedy that clearly underestimated the power of Castro’s regime while overestimating the expected support from the Cuban people (476). The President’s perspective had been skewed from the beginning as he was consistently pressured to conform to the majority and given inaccurate information to confirm such beliefs. When unwilling to conform the C.I.A used his own platform (strong discontent for the spread of communism) against him, pressuring him to believe that Cuba would fall at any moment to a communist regime and that American troops were absolutely necessary to prevent such a catastrophe from happening (Martell 94). A product of his own inexperience and ignorance, Kennedy allowed others to manipulate and control both him and his decision making process in the execution of the Bay of Pigs.
Secrecy of the plan created to overthrow the communist regime did not last long as Castro quickly learned of the American backed revolt. The Cuban revolt was quickly halted on the beaches of The Bay of Pigs. The air support provided by the U.S after also failed after the planes were shot down by the Cuban military (JFK Lib). All blame fell to Kennedy as the U.S. was forced to renegotiate with the Cuban government to free those imprisoned during the revolt. Failing utterly and leaving Americans disappointed with the “new future” Kennedy had promised, the President’s legacy and success was forever dampened by the execution of The Bay of Pigs.
Wren and Swatez’s contextual model is extremely useful in analyzing the contextual factors surrounding Kennedy’s failure with executing the Bay of Pigs. The model works from the outside in starting with the historical context, moving to the contemporary context, then to the immediate context, and ending with the leader follower relationships (Wren and Swatez 246). In using this model one is able to observe the context much more clearly and thoroughly, understanding the impact of both long term and short factors in the leader’s success or failure.
Starting with historical context we look to the persisting factors that have been deeply rooted within society. Wren describes the historical context as, “The long term trends and influences which most impact any given leadership scenario and shape the resulting leadership options” (Wren 247). In the case of The Bay of Pigs Kennedy’s ability to lead was drastically effected by numerous long term political and social factors. The notion of American Exceptionalism and supremacy played a major role in Kennedy’s rash decision to approve the Bay of Pigs. With America’s notorious reputation as the global policemen and enforcer, a potential rise in a Communist regime so close to American territory was a red flag. The president’s execution of The Bay of Pigs was largely influenced by the country’s long term standing as a world superpower, suppressing any threat to the principles of democracy. From a long term political perspective, it is evident throughout history that the power of the President has often been undermined and manipulated by those working with or under him. Since the time of Lincoln’s presidency and the Reconstruction Era there has always been turmoil between the President and his advisors as they debated and fought over what policies were best for the future of the nation. The Bay of Pigs was just a result of the differing opinions between both groups and who’s interests they were primarily concerned with.
Moving now to the contemporary context one must observe the current social and cultural mores that impact the present context of the situation. Wren and Swatez define the contemporary context as being “The norms, values, and the customs of the surrounding society” (Wren 249). In the context surrounding The Bay of Pigs the most evident contemporary context would be Americans’ concern with the spread of communism. In the mist of the Cold War, the spread of communism across Europe, and the Red Scare, Americans were consistently on edge of a foreign dictator gaining popularity and supremacy over the U.S.. Kennedy was pressured to back and approve a revolt that would reestablish the confidence Americans held in their government along with upholding the principles of democratic republic.
Lastly one comes to the Immediate context of Wren and Swatez’s model. Wren and Swatez define the immediate context as the structure and goals, the culture, and the task characteristics (Wren 247). Ultimately the failure of the plan started with its organization and development from the beginning. Constructed under President Eisenhower and mostly analyzed and reviewed by the C.I.A., Kennedy was constantly kept in the dark, fed information that had been twisted, and was persuaded into changing his opinion on multiple accounts because of his lack of experience ( Martell 96). His relationship with the American people, being the leader and follower context within the immediate context also played a significant role in the situation. Kennedy had campaigned himself in this new light that would bring a brighter future to America. Americans were won over by his good looks, charm, intelligence, and well to do upbringing. Though hesitant to the newly revised plan constructed by Eisenhower, Kennedy had big hopes of living up to his campaign promises and providing a new America for it’s citizens. Approving The Bay of Pigs operation seemed like the opportunity to do so as he hoped to set the precedent as a stronger, more dominant world power. Unfortunately, Kennedy was manipulated too easily by his advisors and the C.I.A, leading to the approval of a plan he himself was never confident in but was assured consistently, would be an easy victory.
In analyzing the flaws of Kennedy’s leadership and why the executed plan of The Bay of Pigs failed, it is critical to recognize the role groupthink played. In The Leader’s Companion Irving James argues the effect groupthink had in The Bay of Pigs Invasion. Irving defines groupthink as “A mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action” (Janis 347). It is clear the notion of groupthink occurred in the decision to implement The Bay of Pigs covert option, as Kennedy was pressured to conform to the C.I.A.’s beliefs along with various other white house officials. Factors including morality, pressure, censorship, pride, and stress are all key elements that lead to the creation of groupthink (Janis 363). Kennedy was clearly under a considerable amount of stress coming to office, after following his well respected and well educated predecessor. The Bay of Pigs plan had also been created under former President Eisenhower, creating even more pressure for Kennedy himself to approve it and execute it successfully. The pride and morality of those involved also played a key role as they felt the American backed revolt would help to end the growth of Communism and reestablish American supremacy and patriotism. As Irving quotes President Kennedy “How could we have been so stupid? (Janis 360). In reality the failure came down to the lack of leadership exhibited by President Kennedy along with his inability to confidentially stand on his own and not fall victim to the deceitfulness of groupthink.
The Myers Briggs Personality Indicator is also an excellent tool to use in analyzing Kennedy’s leadership and how it impacted the decision to carry out the American backed, Cuban revolt. In Understanding Yourself, Komives, Lucas, and McMahon summarize Carl Jung’s findings of four categories, that break down the human personality according to specific characteristics. These three authors state “These combinations describe where we get our information from (extrovert and introvert), how we gather information from the world around us (sensing and intuition), how we prefer to process that information (feeling and thinking) and ways we prefer to make decisions (judging and perceiving) (Komives et al. 122). In observing Kennedy’s decision making process and personality traits, the Myers Briggs Indicator becomes extremely helpful in understanding how and why he fell victim to approve a plan that failed tremendously. Kennedy was described as having an intuitive personality, constantly looking at all of the options and analyzing the big picture (Anastasi 14). This made it very difficult for the president to make decisions in a timely manner as he constantly relooked options and wanted to address all possible outcomes of from the decision. Kennedy’s thinking personality type also made it difficult for him to reject the plan when the C.I.A had constructed it in the first place and believed in it wholeheartedly (Anastasia 14). The president operated constantly by the book, wanted to check all the boxes and make sure he had all advisors in agreement. He ended up approving The Bay of Pigs and conforming his beliefs to those of the C.I.A. as all boxes seemed to be checked from their (skewed) reviews and analysis. Looking at a few different aspects of Kennedy’s personality traits helps to show why he reluctantly approved The Bay of Pigs, and why some of his personality traits hindered his ability to lead.
Burns discusses a theory known as The X Factor that is highly relevant in tying together both the agency (leader behavior, motives, and beliefs) and the structure (context) in the analysis of Kennedy’s leadership failure. Burns states “ The variables in the process of causation- human motivations such as people’s wants and needs, the ambitions of leaders and rulers, the nature and interaction of agency and of situation, the mysteries of creativity, conflict, and power- are too complex and variegated to lend themselves to simplistic explanations or monocausal analyses” (Burns 21). Observing Kennedy’s leadership throughout the process of approving the invasion allows for a deeper and more collective insight to be formed. Burns supports this stating “ Only one discipline can approach causation using the widest array of conceptual and empirical tools. That discipline is leadership- the X factor in historic causation” (Burns 22). A newly elected, inexperienced president, the growth of Communism across Europe, the lack of communication between the C.I.A and president, and the manipulated information presented in backing the plan were all contributing factors the invasion’s failure. The X Factor known as leadership however, is the only discipline that incorporates all these contextual factors along with those of agency in a more profound analysis. The primary reason the operation failed so tragically was because of Kennedy’s inability to lead amongst these contextual factors. He tried so desperately to please the American people and those advising the plan, but in the end, reluctantly approved a plan he knew from the beginning was an utter disaster. A natural people pleaser and logical thinker, his leadership style failed him in this sense as he allowed the pressure and opinions of others to dictate his decision’s.