John F. Kennedy has long had die-hard detractors. One vocal group continues to attack his record as a PT boat commander in the Pacific, suggesting that, rather than being hailed for his bravery, he should have been court-martialed. Just a few months ago, a retired general told me that “the real facts” behind the sinking of Kennedy’s PT-109 in 1943 “were out there for anyone who wants to dig for them”—including, for instance, the “fact” that all the crewmen were asleep when the Japanese destroyer struck their boat. That alone, he noted, would make Kennedy “criminally negligent.” We tapped longtime contributing editor Thomas Fleming to get to the bottom of these accusations. Who was Kennedy before, during, and just after his naval tour of duty? Was he a hero or a goat?
Fleming turned up a powerful creation tale about a charming, wealthy playboy who coasted through life right up until a Japanese destroyer cleaved his PT boat in two, killing two men and leaving the others for shark bait. Was he responsible for the crash? Read Fleming’s account and judge for yourself.
Whatever your conclusion, Fleming’s story makes it clear that Kennedy’s culpability is beside the point. The truth is, he stepped up. In one deadly and crucial instant he shed his sheltered existence and repeatedly risked his life to save his crew. What’s more (and is little known), afterward the debilitated Kennedy rejected his domineering father’s meddling to take command of another boat and carry out an obsessive one-man war of revenge against the Japanese. In World War II, Kennedy was heroic when it mattered most, becoming a leader of men and taking a giant step toward becoming the leader of a nation.
Whatever people may think of JFK as a president or as a man, his military record seems honorable and worthy of respect and gratitude, not potshots from the misinformed.
Also in this issue, we kick off our coverage of the American Civil War sesquicentennial with a collection of searing eyewitness accounts that describe the tense prelude to the first shots of the war, fired at Fort Sumter in 1861. We also canvassed historians and aficionados to pick the best Civil War books ever written. Look for our 150th anniversary logo over the next four years as we track the most lethal conflict in American history.
Finally, we are pleased to introduce a new column, The War List, with Geoffrey Parker’s pithy sum-up of five battles that shaped Europe.