Sunday, November 17, 2013

John F. Kennedy’s ‘Profiles in Courage’

Review by Bill Doughty

Seventy years ago -- August 2,1943 -- young John F. Kennedy was a PT-boat commander when his PT-109 was rammed by Imperial Japanese destroyer Amagiri.  His boat exploded, killing two crew members and burning one so badly he was unable to swim.

Oil painting by Gerard Richardson (official Navy artist 1961)
“Clutching a strap of the injured man’s life jacket in his teeth, Lieutenant Kennedy towed the wounded sailor to the nearest island, three miles away.  For the next six days, with little food or water, the men hid, fearing they would be captured by the Japanese.  Each evening Kennedy swam through the shark-infested waters to other islands seeking help, until he was spotted by two Solomon Islanders, Eroni Kumana and Biuka Gasa.  They picked a coconut, onto which Kennedy carved a message, which they took to the hideout of a nearby Australian coast watcher who arranged rescue.  In the summer of 2002 a National Geographic Society expedition found that the legend of John F. Kennedy’s courage lives on in the faraway Solomon Islands.  Using remote-controlled vehicles with underwater cameras, explorer Robert Ballard and his team discovered the sunken PT-109.  Expedition members met Eroni Kumana, the man whose simple canoe saved my father’s life and changed the course of history, and his son, John F. Kennedy Kumana.”

Caroline Kennedy writes the introduction, including the excerpt above and below, in the HarperCollins 50th anniversary edition of her father’s “Profiles in Courage.”   (The book was first published in 1956 and is one of 15 top recommended reads of Navy's Chief of Information Rear Adm. John Kirby.)

“The collision with the Japanese destroyer left him with a spinal injury, which required surgery in the winter of 1954-55.  Elected to the U.S. Senate two years before, my father was interested in understanding the qualities that make a great senator.  History was his passion, and he spent his months of recuperation reading the chronicles of his legendary predecessors.”

Caroline Kennedy writes of President Kennedy’s courage in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, in which he successfully averted nuclear war, and of his support to nonviolent civil rights demonstrations in 1963 when he mobilized the Alabama National Guard, taking a stand for the ideals outlined in the Constitution.

Equal rights, equal opportunity and harmonious preservation of the Union are common themes throughout JFK’s "Profiles in Courage."  The profiles by then-Senator John F. Kennedy are of political leaders and diplomats John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund Gross, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, George Norris, Robert A. Taft and others.

Kennedy, at right, with crew of PT-109 in Solomons.  Photos from JFK Library.
Courage -- one of the core values of the Navy and Marine Corps -- is shown in the context of these profiles, where public service is motivated by “the national interest, rather than private or political gain,” JFK wrote.

Courage can be found in balance, conciliation, mutual concession and compromise, “an art essential to keeping a nation united and enabling our government to function.”

“It is compromise that prevents each set of reformers -- the wets and the drys, the one-worlders and the isolationists, the vivisectionists and the anti-vivisectionists -- from crushing the group on the extreme opposite end of the political spectrum.  The fanatics and extremists and even those conscientiously devoted to hard-and-fast principles are always disappointed at the failure of their Government to rush to implement all of their principles and to denounce those of their opponents.  But the legislator has some responsibility to conciliate those opposing forces within his state and party and to represent them in the larger clash of interests on the national level; and he alone knows that there are few if any issues where all the truth and all the right and all the angels are on one side.”

The quote brings to mind what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Kennedy hoped his profiles of political heroes, some long forgotten by most Americans, would be stories “that teach, offer hope and provide inspiration” for everyone.

“To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance.  It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”

It’s been seventy years since the future President Kennedy’s encounter with Imperial Japan in World War II and fifty years after his assassination.  This week, in an ultimate symbol of reconciliation, harmony and peace, JFK’s daughter Caroline has been welcomed in Tokyo as U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

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