JFK, PT-109, crew
Lt. John F. Kennedy and crewmen of the PT-109, 1943. Photo credit: JFK Library

This month marks the 75th anniversary of JFK’s famed WWII heroic moment. A perfect time to examine whatever correlations there may be between leadership, military service, and views on war and peace.

Talking tough about military action and being tough are not one and the same. That’s worth remembering in the Trump era, when potential conflicts always seem just a tweet away.

While many politicians, including President Donald Trump, have been quick to threaten military action, few have seen the horrors of war up close.

As Trump rattles his sword at a shifting cast of enemies, with Iran the latest, it is worth remembering not to trust in the bellicosity of those who “mean business”… when it is others who will suffer.

Ironically, those who know combat firsthand are often the last to suggest aggressive intervention.

One reminder that war heroes do not necessarily become hawks — and vice versa — comes this month: the 75th anniversary of the day in 1943 when future president John F. Kennedy’s PT boat sank after being sheared in half by a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands. Kennedy managed to swim in the dark, for five hours, in treacherous currents — all while towing an injured mate. His teeth were clenched to the strap of a life jacket that held the man. (Go here to read the whole riveting story). Kennedy was later credited with saving members of the crew, and received both the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart for his heroics.

Kennedy’s war experience first became national news when, in 1944, both the New Yorker and Reader’s Digest published his story of survival during war on the high seas. Later, it served as a focal point of his candidacy in his first run at public office — in the 1946 Massachusetts congressional elections. The Kennedy campaign even distributed 100,000 copies of the story to “ensure no voter went unexposed to the story of Kennedy’s heroism.”

Kennedy acknowledged the importance of his “war hero” status himself, later commenting, “I was elected to the House right after the war because I was the only veteran in the race.”

After winning the presidency in 1960, Kennedy no longer had to rely on his war record to capture votes, but he did have to contend with politicians, including members of his own administration, who seemingly longed for military confrontation and relied on their own military service to legitimize their arguments — no matter how irresponsible they were.

JFK, National Security Council

A meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) regarding Cuba, 29 October 1962. Photo credit: JFK Library

In 1961, the National Security Council even presented the new president with plans detailing a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. According to Kennedy historian Arthur Schlesinger, and others, Kennedy walked out in the middle of the meeting, apparently infuriated. Two years later, after hard-fought negotiations, the president finally achieved a historic victory against the potential for nuclear war when he signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow.

While Kennedy struggled to restrain hawkish elements in his government, political opponents repeatedly characterized him as “weak,” disregarding his impressive war record. Other politicians who similarly benefited electorally by circulating stories of their wartime exploits, notably President Dwight Eisenhower and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), talked tough, and were tough — but they too worked hard to rein in aggressive impulses within the bureaucracy.

Indeed, there’s little correlation between actual toughness and the uses of propaganda to demonstrate how tough one would be as a Commander in Chief.

Probably the most ironic aspect of all this is that the most hawkish of politicians have in many cases turned out to be the least impressive in terms of their willingness to make personal sacrifices in times of war. And others, who took great risks for their fellow officers and their countries, were pilloried as “not tough enough” — and the victims of calculated campaigns to cast doubt on their exploits.

Many will be familiar with the contradictions inherent in George W. Bush, with his Iraq War and “Mission Accomplished.” Fewer may remember that Bush himself avoided Vietnam War combat service by skipping ahead of a long line to secure a spot in the Texas Air National Guard — and then even went AWOL from that cushy post. For the juicy, embarrassing details, go here and here.

As I reported exclusively in my book Family of Secrets, when Bush was but a candidate for president, way back in 1999 — long before the post-9/11 global configuration gave him a specious basis to invade Iraq — Bush was already confiding to his ghost writer that he intended to have his Iraq war. The reason? The public loved a good, albeit manageable, conflict, and it would cause his poll numbers to surge, giving him a “successful” presidency.   

Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, a huge advocate of launching wars throughout his political career, didn’t serve once.

Cheney received five deferments, four because he was a student, and one because he was a father. The New York Times reported this most interesting chain of events:

On Oct. 6, 1965, the Selective Service lifted its ban against drafting married men who had no children. Nine months and two days later, Mr. Cheney’s first daughter, Elizabeth, was born. On Jan. 19, 1966, when his wife was about 10 weeks pregnant, Mr. Cheney applied for 3-A status, the “hardship” exemption, which excluded men with children or dependent parents.

As writer John Nichols put it, “Cheney reacted to the prospect of wearing his country’s uniform like a man with a deadly allergy to olive drab.”

Related: Senate Unveils Marble Bust for Dick Cheney in ‘Emancipation Hall’

Related: Classic Who: Dick Cheney’s Secret 9/11 Operation

Ronald Reagan, who rallied the country around his invasion of the tiny island of Grenada, a purported “threat,” served in a stateside public-relations/propaganda unit during World War II that churned out training films. “He wasn’t a pilot, didn’t go overseas, and didn’t shoot down enemy planes,” said an aviation writer. But while working for the film industry, Reagan wore his uniform, and appeared in training and “patriotic” films like Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter and For God and Country.

The famously bloviating former House Speaker and presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich said he never asked for a deferment. “I was married with a child. It was never a question.” He also said, “Frankly I would not have made any difference in Vietnam but much more is what difference it would have made in me.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) called Gingrich a “Chicken-hawk,” explaining “I don’t like it when we send our kids off to fight these wars, and when those individuals didn’t go themselves… they say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I could — one person couldn’t have made a difference.’”

Rudy Giuliani — who was all for the war in Iraq — has recently been promoting regime change in Iran, and was a paid advocate on behalf of an Iranian dissident group listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

New York Magazine sums up Giuliani’s service record: “After receiving several deferments as a student, Giuliani applied for an occupational deferment as a law clerk, but his application was rejected. Giuliani appealed their decision, and asked the federal judge he was clerking for to petition the draft board for him. Which the judge did. When his deferment expired in 1970, Giuliani became susceptible to the draft. He received a high number and was never called.”  

Swiftboating Genuine Heroes


Meanwhile, genuine war heroes were pilloried, and in some cases, their military exploits questioned by opponents, for cynical reasons.

George McGovern, who ran as a peace candidate as the 1972 Democratic nominee and whom Richard Nixon said would give away the store to America’s foes, was a bomber pilot in World War II, while Nixon was literally minding the store as a Naval supply officer.

John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, had come to question the Vietnam War after serving in the very dangerous “swift boats” in the Mekong Delta. As a presidential candidate, he had to face an orchestrated effort to cast doubt on his own heroism. And Bush, whose “weapons of mass destruction” were already known to be a fantasy, squeaked to reelection.

Of John McCain, Trump said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Actually, he was a war hero. In 1967, McCain was flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese, who subjected him to severe torture, brutal interrogation, and two years of solitary confinement. Once his captors found out his father was an admiral, they offered him early release. McCain, adhering to the military code of conduct, refused — because they would not also release other POWs captured before him. He remained a prisoner for five additional years — until March 14, 1973.

Oh — and Trump’s nemesis, Robert Mueller? A decorated Vietnam vet, Marines.

According to

Mueller would earn the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry in his time in Vietnam. The citation for his Bronze Star said that during an attack on his rifle platoon, “2nd Lt. Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counterfire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them.”

During the firefight on Dec. 11, 1968, Mueller “personally led a fire team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines,” the citation said.

But what of Trump himself?

Despite having been educated at an elite private military academy, Donald Trump famously drew five draft deferments, including one for bone spurs in his feet. He would later joke, repeatedly, that his success at avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating numerous women in the 1980s was “my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from JFK PT-109 (JFK Library / Wikimedia).


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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