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An Admirable, Balanced Examination of JFK
on 18 November 2003
The fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting availability of Soviet archives to researchers have brought about several new studies of the cold war and its leading figures. This book is an excellent example of the new insights to be gained by a more through understanding of what the Soviet leadership, in this case Khrushchev and company, were thinking. For a biography like this however, new Soviet material, while important, is not enough. Any author who chooses to write about JFK must not only deal with the cold war, but also civil rights, Lyndon Johnson, Boston politics, George Wallace, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., and even Richard Nixon. Robert Dallek has done a wonderful job of sorting through tons of material on the above subjects and much more to bring the Kennedy brothers and their era to life. I say the Kennedy brothers because no study of JFK could possibly be complete without a close look at his brothers.
At first Jack's life is dominated by competition with his elder brother Joe, Jr. At home, in school, and in the military Jack was expected to live up to his brother's example. A task the future President was not up to. The strong and healthy Joe, Jr. always seemed to be better than Jack at most everything and their father actually seems to have been angry with Jack when he got sick. Dallek points out over and over that Joe and Rose Kennedy were not ideal parents. After Joe, Jr. was killed in WWII Jack became the heir apparent to his father's political ambitions for his eldest son. It was during one of his early campaigns that Jack grew close to Bobby.
Bobby Kennedy does not come off well in this book. He appears to be a spoiled, ill tempered, bully who yells at anyone who doesn't agree with him. Given his later stands it is amazing to see RFK as far more belligerent toward the USSR than his brother. In fact, at one point during an international crisis the author states that the U.S. and the world were lucky that JFK was president instead of RFK. Still, it is obvious that President Kennedy put much faith in his brother and often used him as the bad guy. Jack himself did not take criticism or opposition well; often referring to any whom opposed his view as a SOB. But still, he was a much better sport than Bobby was.
Dallek has put together a highly readable and well-researched volume. He is clearly impressed by his subject but does not hesitate to point out Jack's failures, and there were several. JFK was in fact much more interested in foreign policy than domestic policy and seems to have been very much led in his decisions by polls. He really did not become much of a leader in either category until the Cuban missile crisis, which seems to have given him more confidence. He never really, for example, offered any leadership on civil rights until 1963 and even then the rich boy from New England never really could understand the dynamics in play. He had never really been around blacks and had problems relating to them, while at the same time never grasping the attitudes of white southerners. Worse, since Bobby couldn't stand LBJ, Kennedy never really used his Vice-President much, even though as a southerner Johnson was very familiar with the problems. Dallek has not pulled any punches and his criticism of Kennedy's civil rights record shows it as does his detailing of Jack's health problems and womanizing.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly and after seeing the changes in Kennedy after October 1962 I can't help wonder: what if? Unfortunately, the same question apparently occurred to Dallek who ends his book by trying to assess how successful JFK might have been in a second term. As I said before, Dallek deserves high praise for his objectivity through out the rest of this book, but at the end his objectivity falters. The book ends basically assuming that Congress would have passed all of Kennedy's second term proposals, Castro would have become the best friend America ever had, the Vietnam war would have just gone away, and the Soviets would have behaved admirably. While all of this is possible, it is not likely and the credibility of the whole book suffers as Dallek himself falls victim to the very Kennedy aura he has been trying to explain.