Book Review: An Unfinished Life John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. By Robert Dallek (Paperback 702 Pages)

Posted: March 1, 2014 in Books

JFK book

John  F. Kennedy was born on May 29th 1917, one of nine children to Joe and Rose Kennedy.  Joe made himself wealthy in by being a banker, a stockbroker, dabbling in Hollywood producing, and selling liquor after Prohibition.  While in Hollywood, Joe started cheating on Rose with starlets like Gloria Swanson, but his womanizing would not stop Joe’s rise to political power.  In December 1937, FDR appointed Joe Ambassador to England, but Joe’s isolationist views in the midst of Nazi aggression in Europe quickly ended his political career.  Joe set his sights on building a political career for his eldest son Joe Jr, but after Joe Jr. died flying a risky mission during WWII, Jack was the next in line to enter politics.

But JFK had numerous issues that held his political career back.  He was in constant bad health, he had intestinal problems, a herniated disk in his back, ulcers, and worst of all, he had Addison’s disease, that either was hereditary or developed as a result of steroid treatment for his other ailments.  There was also the womanizing that began in college and continued with his entrance into the Navy in 1941.  Kennedy performed heroically on a PT boat after it was rammed by a destroyer, he organized the 10 survivors to swim to an island that required five days of swimming, and when they came ashore on the island, they had to wait an additional seven days to be rescued.  Kennedy’s actions on PT109 made him a natural candidate for public office.

Kennedy ran for the House of Representatives in 1946, using his charm to spur the women’s vote, his father’s money, and his war record, Kennedy easily won the primary and the general election in November, despite the Democrats losing the House in 1946, Kennedy represented the 11th district in Massachusetts.  In The House, Kennedy was a staunch anti-Communist who was a personal friend of Joe McCarthy,  and who frequently criticized Truman for his lack of decisive action in the Korean war.  Kennedy even considered voting for the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, but decided there would be too heavy a political price to pay in his district for such a vote.

Kennedy ran for Senate in 1952 again on a staunch anti-Communist platform, he warned that the Soviets would have increased influence in Asia and the Middle East, if left unchecked.  Kennedy still refused to condemn Joe McCarthy, which raised the ire of liberal groups in Massachusetts, but thanks again to his dad’s money, thinly disguised as PAC donations, he barely beat Henry Cabot Lodge, the incumbent Senator from Massachusetts.

In 1953, Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, whom he considered a kindred spirit, and loved very much.  His feelings for Jackie didn’t stop Kennedy from cheating on her much like his father had cheated on Rose.

In 1954 Kennedy spoke out in favor of the St Lawrence Seaway project, which many saw as a brave stance against his state’s self-interest and the Port of Boston.  On foreign policy he was still reliably anti-communist.  Although he stopped short of saying that the U.S. should get involved in Vietnam, he also did not censure Senator McCarthy.   In 1955, Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a collection of courageous acts by 8 Senators throughout history.  It won the Pulitzer Prize and further raised Kennedy’s political profile.  In 1956, Kennedy unsuccessfully ran for the Vice Presidential nomination on the Adlai Stevenson ticket.  His views on Civil Rights was a reflection of the times and Kennedy’s own political calculus.  In 1957, he voted against a voting rights act on procedural grounds, and by the time it passed the Senate, the bill was so watered down that it had no practical effect on black disenfranchisement.  Civil Rights leaders were outraged.

Between 1958 and 1960, Kennedy tried to promote himself as someone who was trying to clean up the corruption in unions by going after union leaders like George Meany and Jimmy Hoffa.  He also seized on growing tensions in Algeria to denounce Western colonialism. At the same time, Kennedy criticized Eisenhower for what he called a ‘missile gap’ with the Soviets.

On January 2nd 1960 JFK announced his intention to run for President in 1960.  The central question facing America at the time was Kennedy’s Catholicism, he also faced antipathy from the liberals in his party as well as the labor unions.  Kennedy’s religious faith was put to the test in West Virginia, And he won in that state and wrapped up the Democratic nomination in July 1960.  Despite an early advantage by Nixon in the Presidential campaign, he went on to defeat Nixon, by what was then the closest margin in American history.

In early 1961, Kennedy faced his first test as President.  The question was what to do with the Communist Fidel Castro, the military advised him to stage a full-fledged invasion of Cuba by air and sea.  The CIA had a slightly less painful alternative, the US could support action by Cuban exiles cultivated by the CIA and make it seem like an organic insurrection was taking place against Cuba. In April 1961 Kennedy decided to go with the CIA exile plan, in a place called the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, against the advice of many of his advisors.  The 1500 exiles were quickly routed by the much stronger Castro forces.  The Bay of Pigs invasion was an unmitigated disaster.

Eager to forget the defeat of The Bay of Pigs, Kennedy quickly convened a summit between himself and Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961.  The summit was doomed to fail because of Khrushchev’s unceasingly bellicose attitude.  Soon after the summit ended, in August 1961, the East Germans began construction on the Berlin Wall.  But Khrushchev miscalculated American resolve in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs, and started transporting Soviet missiles to Cuba in May and June of 1962, Khrushchev deployed 40 missiles into Cuba.  The missile sightings were confirmed by U.S. spy planes in October 1962.  Learning the lesson from the Bay Of Pigs invasion, Kennedy decided on a naval blockade of Cuba, not allowing anymore missiles into Cuba.  The Soviets finally backed down and removed the missiles in November of 1962.

The victory boosted Kennedy’s standing with the American public, and Kennedy’s visionary proposal for a moon mission ended triumphantly in 1969 with a man on the moon.  Kennedy seemed to lack such vision on civil rights legislation.  He was not even willing to propose a Voting Rights Act or a Civil Rights Act for fear of losing Southern white votes.  Kennedy opposed the historic March on Washington, again because he feared such direct action would lead to the loss of Southern votes.

Kennedy’s Vietnam policy suffered from mission creep.  He started his term with hundreds of U.S. military advisors in Vietnam, at the time of his death he had thousands of advisors in Vietnam.  He tacitly approved the assassination of South Vietnamese leader Diem, because he approved a coup.

There is no way to know where his civil rights or Vietnam or any of Kennedy’s policy initiatives would  play out because Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas on November 22nd 1963.

I love this book.  I love this book precisely because it does not mythologize about JFK.  Dallek could have easily mythologized Kennedy.  There was already a mythology around Kennedy. He was King Arthur in Camelot.  Kenned was also gunned down before his time in office was complete, a fact that could have engendered a lot of sympathetic treatment by Dallek, he avoided that, for the most part and stayed objective.

Kennedy did a lot of positive things for America.  By running for President as a Catholic, he opened the doors for millions of qualified people of different faiths, and enforced the Constitutional view that there should be no religious test to be president of the United States.  He stared down Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis, and got the missiles out of Cuba and averting a nuclear war.  He negotiated a partial test ban treaty with the Soviets, he set a goal that the U.S. should be first on the moon, and we got there in 1969.  His moon mission also spurred a lot of interest in science and exploration.  Kennedy established the Peace Corps, spurring a lot of young people to help the poor in underdeveloped countries.

But there were a lot of ways in which Kennedy was very conventional, a product of his times.  He was virulently anti-communist, asking for and receiving many increases in the defense budget.  Early on he had an obsession to replace Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, which led to the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion.  Kennedy also tried and failed to stop the partition of Berlin, even though he went to Berlin in 1962 and uttered the words Ich bin ein Berliner.  “I am a jelly donut.”  While other Senators censured Joe McCarthy, Kennedy refused to do it, because McCarthy was popular in Massachusetts, but I think that they shared the same anti-Communist worldview.  Dallek himself wonders why Kennedy supported McCathy for so long.  I feel that all this hawkishness on Communism was Kennedy’s reaction, or perhaps overreaction to his father’s isolationism before and during World War II, Dallek never puts that idea forward but it makes sense to me.

His stance on Civil Rights was a crushing disappointment to me.  He steadfastly refused to throw his support behind a Civil Rights bill or voting rights bill, because he was afraid to lose the Dixiecrat vote in the South.  He never saw the fight for African American self-determination as a moral crusade, just a problem to be managed, control the demonstrations, control the riots, and don’t rile up the segregationists.  He did not think the March on Washington was a good idea, and he was very wrong on that.  As a Catholic, as the first Catholic to be president, he should have been more attuned to what it felt like to be a minority in this country and he just didn’t get it.

Kennedy seemed to have a political calculus for most things he did, it seemed like he would only do something if it benefitted him politically.  He didn’t see the benefits of backing civil rights so he didn’t do it, he was antagonistic towards labor unions, but he saw that if he supported anti-labor laws like the Taft Hartley Act, it would cost him in his district, so he voted against it. Similarly, with advisors in Vietnam, he said he wanted to remove 1,000 U.S. advisors from Vietnam, but he didn’t for reasons of political expediency.

Would Kennedy have removed U.S. advisors from Vietnam?  Would we have entered Vietnam with ground troops at all if Kennedy was president?  Dallek doesn’t answer, but I will.  Given Kennedy’s hawkish stance on the spread of communism, despite all his pronouncements against deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam, we would have eventually fought a war in Vietnam, maybe not on the scale that Johnson and Nixon fought it, but we would have gone.

Most puzzling to me was that Kennedy proposed dropping the top tax rate from 91 to 70%, and the corporate tax rate from 52 to 48%.  That’s right JFK was the first proponent of supply side economics, this is especially surprising given the fact that he had people like John Kenneth Gailbraith around him.  It was actually the Republicans that opposed this idea.

But for the most part, politics stays the same, Kennedy planned to run in 1964 against the extremist Barry Goldwater, and the obstructionist Republican congress, sound familiar?

If there was one weakness in the book it was that Dallek gave Kennedy a pass on his womanizing.  He said it was a result of the fact that he knew his life would be shortened, by the Addison ’s disease, and that he wanted to lead an exciting life for as long as he could.  That kind of armchair psychology should be avoided in political biographies, but Dallek indulges in it.  For the most part, this is a well-written,  objective account of Kennedy’s life, and untimely death.  I learned a lot about Kennedy, his worldview, and his policies.

If you’re interested in JFK, free of mythologizing, this is the book for you.

  1. Steve says:

    This one’s on my list – it’ll be awhile before I get there, but glad to hear what you thought!

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