Acts of agony

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Power is only Pain—
Stranded, thro’ Discipline . . .
Emily Dickinson
 
In his national security decisionmaking, JFK was a thoroughgoing sceptic, suspicious of slogans, yesmen, easy answers, rosy forecasts and overblown estimates. Paradoxically, it seems that his greatest strength as a decision-maker – his doubt in the face of advisers urging him to go to war – derived mainly from the way he dealt with his physical weakness, and the conclusions he drew from the inability of the top doctors of his time to diagnose and/or successfully treat his array of physical maladies.
 
This president, once believed to be a paragon of “vigah”, health and vitality, was possibly the sickest US commanderin chief in history. He was given the Last Rites by a priest on at least four occasions, and possibly a fifth – the last of these while he was president, in June 1961. He suffered from Addison’s disease, an adrenal deficiency, which doctors treated with steroids, which both increased his risk of infection and accelerated the degeneration of his spinal cord.
 
Surgeons operated on him three times for unbearable back pain. Each operation failed. He nearly died of an infection he developed during the 1954 surgery, while he was serving in the Senate. He spent the equivalent of three years of his life hospitalised or recuperating at home from his various ailments.
 
Kennedy’s near-death experiences, excruciating back pain and complications from his barely controlled Addison’s disease provided the crucial “body boot camp” where he learned never to trust the experts –whether doctors or generals – and made him a lifelong sceptic about the advice he was given. This mindset also gave rise to certain signature features of his decision-making as president: an obsession with operational details, with which he could reach an independent judgement; disregard for rank and/or experience; and a tendency to leapfrog to scenarios of possible catastrophe, despite reassurances from hawkish advisers that his fears were unfounded. JFK required proof, not reassurance, a habit that kept the US and the world from disastrous wars during his presidency.
 
 

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?