CRF Blog

There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK

by Bill Hayes

In There Will Never Be a Unified Theory of JFK for the New Republic, Stephen Sestanovich reviews three books on Kennedy’s presidency: Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek, JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President by Thurston Clarke, and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

These are very different books, all of them serious and interesting. No matter how much you think you know about the New Frontier, there is plenty to learn from them. As for the inevitable simplifications that occur when we try to neaten up the past — well, half a century after Dallas it is time to get beyond history’s first and second drafts. Perhaps a clearer picture of Kennedy’s aims and achievements would even hold some lessons for another young president who has struggled to develop a coherent foreign policy. If so, Barack Obama could use those lessons now, not fifty years down the road.

There are good reasons, then, to try to understand John Kennedy better. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the new view of him is really an old one. It is closer to Camelot than anything we have heard in years. America’s travails in the 1960s — especially the Vietnam War — seem about to become all Lyndon Johnson’s fault again. In the new view, even some of what went wrong while Kennedy was still president is not quite as much his fault as we used to think. Was his policy, at least in his early years, sometimes too belligerent or provocative? For this, the military and the CIA now take the blame. Was the process of reaching decisions sometimes too secretive, or disorderly, or inconclusive? This, too, can be traced to the president’s lack of confidence in those around him. If the administration often lacked clear direction, it was because Kennedy was trying to neutralize his more trigger-happy advisers.

In tidying up the story, we risk losing much of the New Frontier’s genuine contradictoriness, not to mention the complexity of America’s global role at the height of the cold war. It used to be, after all, that the Kennedy White House was seen as the source of hyperactive policy, not as a check on it. (That is why, shortly after his death, The New Yorker rhapsodized that “he did not fear the weather … but instead challenged the wind itself.”) Visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue early in the administration, Adlai Stevenson complained about what he called “the damnedest bunch of boy commandos running around.” Kennedy insiders had similar qualms. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. labeled the “addiction of activism” as the “besetting sin of the New Frontier.” John and Robert Kennedy, he admitted, were “not planners” but “improvisers.” They were “impatient with systems.” Impulsive policymaking was the costly result. It left the president, Paul Nitze lamented, “in a perpetual state of reaction to one crisis after another rather than working toward long-term goals.”

Many of his own advisers considered the president personally responsible for this way of making policy. It was he, according to George Ball, the number-two man at the State Department, who would always interrupt a discussion of strategy by asking, “Let’s not worry about five years from now, what do we do tomorrow?” [more]