Review of the Book

JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy
by Herbert Parmet

Edward J. Dodson

[A Review of the book JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy, by Herbert Parmet. A paper prepared in partial completion of requirements for the course U.S. Recent History, Temple University, Summer, 1985, submitted with the title, "John F. Kennedy, A Legacy of Unkept Promises or of Promise Fulfilled?"]

One of the most frequently discussed aspects of John F. Kennedy's life as a political figure can never be fully resolved; namely, the impact he would have had on history had he completed his term in the U.S. Presidency and then gone on to become one of the nation's elder statesmen. His legacy must, therefore, be evaluated on actual accomplishments rather than on his intentions or the probable course of events had he finished his first term and then been re-elected to a second term in office. One historian, Herbert Parmet, concludes that Kennedy was "at best an … 'interim' President who had promised but not performed."[1] The strength of that conclusion must be supported by Parmet's analysis of what promises were made and the circumstances which contributed to or limited Kennedy's success in meeting such challenges. It is also essential that a clear distinction be made between Kenney's promise as a national and world leader and the promises he made as a political campaigner on the road to his election at President.

A clear summary of what those promises were is, however, difficult to extract from Herbert Parmet's book on the Kennedy Presidency. He is writing about the Presidency as an institution and arm of government. And, although Kennedy's role in historical episodes is examined, the book does not attempt to explore in depth the development of this particular President's positions and thinking. In short, Parmet presents a political rather than an individual history, focusing on the politician's "need to balance regional and ideological forces … with plans and tactics that had not much to do with convictions."[2]

An individual's true beliefs and convictions, particularly when that person is a public figure, are seldom to be found in the texts of political speeches or conversations with the press. Both circumstances demand guarded responses so as not to provide ammunition for critics and political opponents. Moreover, promises made in the arena of election campaigns by ambitious individuals have seldom represented concrete commitments to deliver on a particular set of policies or programs. The temper of our time, the advance of technology and the pace of life have changed the fabric of political organization, a view offered by one of the nation's conservative editors lamenting over Kennedy's election victory:

The speeches and official statements of public figures are no longer, like those of a Washington or a Jefferson, a Lincoln or a Douglas, even a Wilson or a Theodore Roosevelt, directed primarily to the most persuasive presentation of a position for an audience whose decisive members possessed at least modest training in logic and rhetoric and almost all of whom had been educated in schools which reinforced common sense rather than devaluing it. Today they are filtered through the techniques of "mass communications experts" and conditioned by a political climate in which imprecision, bland self-contradiction, and grandiose meaninglessness have set the style of public utterance.[3]

If one agrees the evidence supports this evaluation of political speeches and public utterances (and I do, based on the actions of individuals who attain high political office), then to judge John F. Kennedy on the basis of "did he keep his promises?" has no relevance to the measure of his contribution. Few Presidents, if any, could be objectively evaluated based on this criterion. What we are left with to examine is his promise, or the strengths of character, conviction, knowledge, thoughtfulness and other qualities that combine to position someone for great accomplishments when thrust into the role of political leader.

Perhaps we expect too much from those we permit to act for us. Or, the psychological profile of those who seek the highest positions of authority and responsibility within (or over) a society may pre-determine a harsh judgment by history. The journalist-philosopher Eric Hoffer, writing shortly after Kennedy's death, suggested that "history is made by men who have the restlessness, impressionability, credulity, capacity for make-believe, ruthlessness and self-righteousness of children.[4] How closely does John F. Kennedy seem to conform to this characterization? Hoffer's judgment seems harsh when applied to Kennedy. On the other hand, we in the social-democracies have cultivated in aspiring leaders a quality of moderate display in mannerisms, speech, appearance and style. We are, generally speaking, troubled by the political figure who does not fit into this definition of the rational and level-headed model of outward leadership behavior.

What we know about John F. Kennedy is that his father attempted to exert a strong influence over the thinking and decisions of his sons. At the same time, "Jack" was for all of his years at home a distant second behind his older brother Joe. Jack's early views on foreign policy closely paralleled those of his father - a New Deal Democrat with anti-expansionist views who regarded the U.S. as a global power with equivalent responsibilities. As a student at Harvard University, Jack became strongly influenced by his tutor, Payson Wild, with whom he spent a great deal of time discussing the nature of political leadership and the reasons why people obeyed certain political leaders. In fact, Wild later observed that Jack Kennedy considered this to be "the fundamental political problem."[4] Over time, Jack was to have many opportunities - in the U.S. Congress and then as President - to experience the opposite side of that problem in his dealings with other legislators, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, lobbyists, special interest groups and individual state politicians.

As the Second World War ended, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. expressed strong opposition to the Truman Doctrine because of the dangers he believed such policies posed for the United States. "We are throughout assuming that by pressing steadily and persistently to establish liberal democracy throughout the world, the world will eventually reach such a state of advanced civilization that there will be no more war or fear of war," he wrote. The consequences of acting on this point of view were, he believed, very dangerous. "This is a policy which is ardent, sincere, active, and optimistic, but it is one which would involve the nation in a program of minding other people's business on a global scale, never previously attempted or seriously considered."[5] This was a world view shared by many of Joseph Kennedy's generation; however, leadership was passing to younger men who believed in the power of democratic institutions to achieve real and permanent progress. Jack Kennedy was ready - eager even - to play a role in creating this new, post-colonial and post-imperial world.

As a U.S. Congressman, Jack supported both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.[6] Parmet tells us he "saw the world as the battleground of a civil war between the extremes of Right and Left."[7] In a radio interview he gave in 1951, after returning from an extensive trip abroad, he told the American public that "the fires of nationalism so long dormant have been kindled and are now ablaze … [but that] Communism cannot be met effectively by merely the force of arms."[8] He then specifically talked about the crisis arising in Southeast Asia:

We have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire. …To check the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is rather to build native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a spearhead of defense.[9]

We need to ask ourselves how thoroughly Kennedy understood the underlying causes of so much unrest among the largely agrarian peasant populations around the world, historically dominated by domestic forms of landlordism and in more recent times by foreign and often absentee landlordism. Did he have a sense that more concrete and deeply-penetrating reforms were needed than merely introducing democratic forms on top of old socio-political arrangements? The elder Kennedy sensed there was little the U.S. could do to bring about constructive change in such situations. He pressed Truman and others to "disentangle ourselves from the far-flung commitments … recently made."[10] Arthur Schlesinger quotes both father and son that by 1950 their arguments over foreign policy were so strained that they ceased discussing the subject.[11]

As early as 1940, Jack condemned U.S. isolationist policies. He pointed to Britain's lack of preparedness to meet the German threat, asking: "Are we in America to let that lesson go unlearned."[13] Parmet observes that he was already displaying a pattern of "sailing-against-the-wind" by his "missionary approach" to the "exporting of democracy."[14] His own writings do not indicate the extent to which he thought his own country had achieved the promise of democracy, the most glaring problem being the plight of African-Americans and millions of rural and urban poor Whites.

Despite his differences of opinion with his father, Jack Kennedy relied on his family's influence and financial strength to advance his political fortunes. Yet, once in office his decisions indicated his formal education and exposure to abstract thinking was stronger than the perspectives offered by those around him whose education came from involvement in city and state politics. "Jack Kennedy was a Democrat by culture and geography only," concludes Herbert Parmet. "Having come to power by that route, his only way to move ahead was by mobilizing the remnants of the New Deal, trying to resurrect and reorder that coalition through a style that fused moderation with idealism."[12] He shared with his predecessors and all other victorious politicians a long list of political debts to repay. However, having reached the Presidency, Jack Kennedy believed he possessed (if not completely earned) the right to act according to his own conscience. He was encouraged to do so by individuals he brought aboard who shared with him a belief in the new liberal consensus - as understood by a select group within the foreign policy establishment. At the same time. And yet, his Presidential appointments attempted to satisfy both his political debts and his desire to built a consensus for leadership[15]

At the cabinet level and for key advisory positions, Kennedy sought to find "the best fellows I can get." To help with the selection process he called on former Council on Foreign Relations organizer Robert A. Lovett, a member of the nation's financial elite. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writes that Kennedy was anxious to calm the nerves of the New York establishment, who were very suspicious of what the new President might do based on the long-held views of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. As Schlesinger writes:

Kennedy … was little acquainted in the New York financial and legal community - that arsenal of talent which had so long furnished a steady supply of always orthodox and often able people to Democratic as well as Republican administrations. This community was the heart of the American Establishment. Its household deities were Henry L. Stimson and Elihu Root; its present leaders, Robert A. Lovett and John J. McCloy; its front organizations, the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations and the Council on Foreign Relations.[16]

With Robert Lovett opening the door, the President was able to overcome this handicap. Robert McNamara was brought on as Secretary of Defense. Other Council on Foreign Relations members were also assured a prominent role in developing U.S. foreign policy during the Kennedy years. This level of influence carried by Council has been pointed to by critics of U.S. foreign policy, two of whom wrote in 1977:

It is an interesting commentary on the close relationship among the people in the establishment's "front organizations" that five of the men who were being mentioned for the position of secretary of state were at a meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation board when President Kennedy first contacted [Dean] Rusk, the Rockefeller Foundation president. Others present at the meeting … were Lovett, Mccloy, Chester Bowles, and Ralph Bunche.[17]

Ironically, although Jack Kennedy had not been courted by the foreign policy establishment because of his family history, he nonetheless became its political voice.[18] Those who believed in and quietly promoted an internationalist role for the United States began to see Jack Kennedy in a different light. "Now that he was President … they were prepared to rally around; and … he was prepared to receive them."[19] The term "liberal" was not yet associated with "socialist" or "leftist" policies and programs. Thus, the "liberalism" John F. Kennedy shared with establishment leaders was essentially conservative but grounded in the recognition that the Soviet and Chinese states, under the guise of communism, were determined to expand their spheres of influence - or direct control - over as much of the globe as possible and by whatever means necessary. Kennedy surrounded himself with individuals who believed these threats superior to all other considerations, a perspective dictating that the United States take the side of despots and dictators against oppressed peoples struggling for self-determination.

An early critic of the post-Second World War approach to global politics taken by the United States was William J. Lederer, the Far East editor at Reader's Digest. In 1961, in his book A Nation of Sheep, Lederer shared his fears about where the nation's leaders were taking the country:

Our ignorance of the world outside our borders, and our assumption that an anti-Communist stance is all that a chief of state needs to qualify for our support, are errors which compound quickly and work well for our enemies. …Yet our government - with the tacit approval of the press - seems content to blame all foreign revolution on Communists; and after one debacle has passed, we proceed as before to help create the climate in which revolution becomes almost inevitable.[20]

The problem in the world of the late 1940s and afterward was how to respond to the broad demand by people for sovereignty, for freedom from external domination. In the face of these demands stood the British and French imperialists, determined to reassert their control in Asia and Africa. Once the Soviet leaders consolidated their control over the conquered portion of Eastern Europe, they began to ferment communist-led uprisings wherever the opportunity presented itself. The Chinese had to choose between the lesser of many evils, and the communist promises at least offered hope that centuries of misery would end with the simultaneous removal of landlordism and foreign imperialists. Along the way, the U.S. foreign policy establishment side-stepped any arguments that conflicted with an anti-Soviet/anti-communist response. The cumulative effect by the time John F. Kennedy entered the Presidency was a world where most non-communist governments were dependent on U.S. support for their existence but where a growing percentage of the world's population looked upon the U.S. as an agent of oppression rather than liberation. Kennedy himself warned: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." He proved unable during this brief time in the Presidency to do much to advance this cause.

The above paper, in its original form, was moderately criticized by my instructor. I have made a number of (what are hopefully) improvements in the paper -- seventeen years later. Ed Dodson -- September, 2002


[1] Herbert Parmet. JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (NY: Penguin Books, 1984), p.354.
[2] Ibid., p.51.
[3] Frank S. Meyer. The Conservative Mainstream (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), p.243. (Cited from a National Review editorial dated February 11, 1961.
[4} Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (NY: The Dial Press, 1980), p.243. This observation comes from Professor Payson Wild, who had John Kennedy as a student in a course on international law at Harvard and also acted as his tutor. Wild apparently stimulted the future President's thinking by posing the question: "Given a few people at the top and masses below, why do masses obey?"
[5] Burton Hersh. The Education of Edward Kennedy (NY: William Morrow & Co., 1972), p.58.
[6] Arthur M. Schlesinger. Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978), p.72.
[7] Herbert Parmet. JFK: The Presidence of John F. Kennedy, p.352.
[8] Arthur M. Schlesinger, p.92.
[9] Ibid., pp.92-93.
[10] Ibid., p.93.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, p.352.
[13] Herbert Parmet. JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy, p.68.
[14] Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, p.352.
[15] Ibid., p.88. James Reston concluded that: "The Kennedy Administration is an odd mixture of idealism and cynicism, of liberals and conservatives, of professors and politicians, of Harvard grafted on to the Boston Irish."
[16] Arthur M. Schlesinger. A Thousand Days (boston: Houghton Miffliln Co.., 1965), p. 128.
[17] William Minter and Laurence H. Shoup. Imperial Brain Trust (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1977), p.64. The authors cite Schelsinger -- A Thousand Days, p.141 as their source.
[18] Godfrey Hodgson. America In Our Time (NY: Random House, 1976), p.115. Hodgson's viewe is that "It was the war that brought together the three groups that make up the armature of the modern foreign policy Establishment: the internationally minded lawyers, bankers and executives of multinational corporations in New York, the government officials in Washington, and the academics, especially in Cambridge." While not born into this group, John F. Kennedy's education and global travels "matured" his thinking and brought him into their corner.
[19] Arthur M. Schlesinger. A Thousand Days, pp.128-129.
[20] William J. Lederer. A Nation of Sheep (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1961), p.93.