This is Dallek's thirteenth book and the second to deal specifically with the Kennedy presidency. The dust jacket describes it as "an insider's look at [JFK's] brain trust," what Ted Sorenson labeled the "ministry of talent," The book is a detailed analysis of the policy discussions that took place between president and advisors over the course of Kennedy's Thousand Days. This focus allows Dallek to zero in on the complicated, frustrating process of decision-making in a time when no one answer was clear and unequivocal and the consequences of a wrong decision frequently seemed dire.
Dallek judges Kennedy "an astute judge of character and reasoned policy . . . .a quick learner," echoing political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's observation after meeting Kennedy that the president was the best listener he had met in many meetings with world leaders. The president, Dallek makes clear, spent as much and frequently more effort in selecting the men who would advise him as he did in his Cabinet selections. (As important a selection as Robert McNamara for the post of Secretary of Defense was made with little prior knowledge of, or communication with, McNamara, because Kennedy intended to be his own determiner of military policy.)
From the start, the president encouraged discussion among his advisors. "The last thing I want around here is a mutual admiration society," he told press secretary Pierre Salinger early in his presidency. "When you people stop arguing, I'll start worrying." But it wasn't just expert advice he sought. He had read and absorbed Richard Neustadt's book on presidential power and taken to heart his analysis of how FDR kept power: FDR had sought advice from multiple sources, never letting one proposed solution dominate. As a result, only he decided the issues, instead of having to play catch up behind the runaway actions of his subordinates.
Foreign policy dominated discussion in the Kennedy presidency. (Kennedy famously said, "Domestic politics can unseat you, but foreign dangers can kill you.") The Cold War was going through a particularly dangerous phase with Castro newly seated in Cuba and Khruschev again making noises about sealing off access to Berlin. Nor, given the narrowness of his victory in the presidential race, could Kennedy ignore the hawks in Congress and the military. (Air Force general Curtis LeMay was the model for the character of Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 farce, Dr. Strangelove: How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) He could not let his administration appear "soft" on communism.
The result was the poorly conceived and executed Bay of Pigs landing. Kennedy had followed the urgings of his more hawkish advisors and gone ahead with it against his own misgivings. Its failure made him question the value of "expert" advice, especially from the military. (He once commented, "The first thing I'm going to tell my successor is to watch the generals.") The Bay of Pigs fiasco put the president in an awkward position. It encouraged Khruschev to see him as weak and inexperienced and it lost him maneuvering room with his critics at home.
The Cuban missile crisis, and concomitant with it, the U.S. military's escalating involvement in Vietnam, indicated the limitations of even so well thought out a system of advising as Kennedy's, because in truth, most of his advisors didn't have a clue what to do or how to do it, and most, at one point or another, indulged in "auto-intoxication," their expert advising becoming little more than an exercise in guessing. Kennedy disdained Dean Rusk's State Department: "they never have any ideas over there, never come up with something new." As to the military and the CIA, his assessment of them at the time of the Cuban missile crisis was crushing: "If we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
I'm not sure there's much new in this narrative but it makes you admire Kennedy for not being pushed further than his innate caution allowed him to go. We could have done a lot worse than JFK in such an uncertain time.