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John F. Kennedy and Revisionism

ISSUE:  Summer 1994

The saga of John F. Kennedy lives on for most Americans who witnessed his all too brief presidency. Its beginnings at the Capitol on a cold and snowy Jan.20, 1961 inauguration day and its ending with the shots fired from an abandoned floor of a Dallas warehouse on Nov.22, 1963 are etched in memory for millions who felt they somehow were participants in the unfolding drama. Although scores of books have been written, especially with competing theories on his life and tragic death, most have concentrated on one aspect or another of Kennedy’s character, career, and tragic death (with conspiracy theories galore about the latter).

New ground was broken in late 1993 with the publication of Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: Profile of Power. In contrast with most earlier writings on JFK’s youth or foreign policy, Reeves sought to construct an overall appraisal of the Kennedy presidency. Simon & Schuster, his publisher, advertised the book as a path-breaking, objective analysis of that presidency. And its format did indeed depart from traditional historical studies that follow the flow of events with the sole aim of “getting the story right.”

Reeves, who teaches political science at the University of California and is the author of eight books including American Journey: Travelling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America, broke out of the mainstream of historical writing. In the first seven pages, he set forth a framework of analysis made up of assumptions and guidelines for his study. He attributed the kind of book he hoped to write to Ryszard Kupscinki, who in The Emperor detailed the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. Kupscinki built his narrative story around the testimony of men from the Emperor’s court whom he interviewed in Addis Ababa. Reeves asked himself how would the picture have changed if viewed through the eyes of the Emperor. What was it like at the center? With the proliferation of witnesses and records and with the benefits of tape recorders, xerox machines, and secretaries taking notes, he felt that he could produce a study that reached beyond the recollections of intimates. It was now possible, Reeves believed, to see the world through President Kennedy’s eyes, day-by-day and sometimes minute-by-minute.

Reeves’ framework of analysis in Profile of Power is quite simply a series of five propositions or core ideas mostly critical about his subject as a person and as a president. The first is the assertion that in 1960, Kennedy’s sole presidential qualification was his boundless ambition to be president. Charles Bartlett and other friends had urged the young senator to wait, but he answered that others would emerge, and he would be forgotten. Throughout, his father had had plans for John, particularly after his older brother, Joseph Jr., was shot down in a World War II mission over Europe. Following the 1956 Democratic convention when he came close to defeating Senator Estes Kefauver for the vice presidency, the younger Kennedy concluded it would be as easy to gain the nomination for the presidency as for the vice presidency. His power came not from the top down or bottom up but was an “ax driven by his own ambition” into the heart of the political system. Candidates who came after him also refused to wait; few institutions can withstand “impatient ambition-driven challenge.” Reeves portrays Kennedy as a ruthless and ambitious politician, but one with the personal charisma to win the loyalty of friends and the love of all too many ladies-in-waiting. He had been an indifferent senator and congressman, and as president his habits did not entirely change. The second item in Reeves’ catalogue of Kennedy’s shortcomings involves the question whether or not Kennedy grew in office. The early histories by Arthur M.Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore Sorensen were eyewitness accounts written within two years of Kennedy’s assassination. Both depict his presidency as a story of personal growth. He made early mistakes, derived lessons and strengths from them, and went on to later triumphs. On the contrary, Reeves contends that Kennedy lacked understanding of what he was doing to begin with and in certain respects never changed. He retained a preference for an administrative chaos that had the effect of keeping others off balance.

Although Reeves acknowledges Kennedy’s gifts as a politician, in today’s parlance he concludes that JFK was reactive rather than proactive. He tended to react to events that he often failed to understand or anticipate, responding well to some and poorly to others while always being ready with plausible explanations. He was “intelligent, detached, curious, candid if not always honest” but careless and “dangerously disorganized.” He was a man of surpassing charm who had confidence that one-on-one he would prevail. That confidence betrayed him at his first summit meeting in Vienna with Krushchev. He was impatient, addicted to excitement, and he lived his life as though it were a race against boredom.

While Kennedy is often depicted as decisive, Reeves argues that he never made a decision unless he had to, and then he inevitably chose the most moderate of the options that were open to him. Less decisive in governing than in politics, JFK imagined that power could be hoarded for the right moment. His ideology was not much more than anticommunism and faith in an active and pragmatic government. He was willing to suspend the few convictions he had on civil rights or nuclear proliferation to avoid a clash with Congress or being seen as “soft” on a controversial issue.

A fifth failing in Reeves’ view is summed up in what Charles Bartlett once observed: “No one ever knew John Kennedy, not all of him.” That was what he wanted. His relations were bilateral and compartmentalized. He was “comfortable with secrets and lies.” He had “much to hide.” He called on people when he wanted them for what he wanted from them. His White House organization represented a wheel with many spokes with himself always at what he called “the vital center.”


Starting from these five core ideas, Reeves goes on to introduce sub-plots in the Kennedy drama. He discovers a chain of events in the early months of the presidency in which one crisis and difficulty led on to the next. For example, the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the spring of 1961 led to the president’s despair before and after his Vienna meeting later that year with Khrushchev and to the decision to build up American power in Vietnam.”We have to confront them (them being the Communists),” he said after the Summit. And he added: “the only place we can do that is in Vietnam.” After the Bay of Pigs and Vienna, Kennedy recognized the need for a display of national and personal strength. He believed that a third setback would undermine his presidency for good. The fact that Democrats had been blamed for the loss of China was a specter hanging over the president as he sought to deal with Laos and Berlin.

Following Vienna, Khrushchev told his assistants that Kennedy was intelligent and sensitive, but he wondered whether anyone who had abandoned the Cuban invading forces on the beaches would have the will to launch a nuclear attack. As the president of Westinghouse prepared to leave a meeting with Khrushchev, the Soviet premier asked: “How can I deal with a man who is younger than my son?” When New fork Times columnist James Reston asked Kennedy following the Vienna summit, “How was it?”, Kennedy responded “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me,” and he added, “I think I know why he treated me like this. He thinks because of the Bay of Pigs. . . I had no guts.”

After Vienna, the president flew on to London to consult with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who later wrote in a note to Queen Elizabeth: “The President was completely overwhelmed by the ruthlessness and barbarity of the Russian chairman. It reminded me in a way of Lord Halifax or Neville Chamberlain trying to hold a conversation with Herr Hitler. . . . For the first time in his life Kennedy met a man who was impervious to his charm.” Later, Macmillan wrote in his diary: “I “feel in my bones” that President Kennedy is going to fail to produce any real leadership.” In fairness, Macmillan later modified his harsh judgment of Kennedy.

The pressures on the new president were internal as well. His health was an ever-present concern. On May 18, 1961, he returned home from his first foreign trip requiring crutches and in a few days reversed an Eisenhower policy that restricted American activities in Vietnam to Saigon, the capitol. Whereas Eisenhower had followed a conservative strategy, Kennedy, perhaps responding to the gung ho attitude he had inspired in the White House, substituted a strategy of expanding engagement to the countryside. These strong actions restored some of the president’s lost confidence, but he spent half of his life coping with what is now generally accepted to have been Addison’s disease, a deficiency of the adrenal glands. Four times he was administered last rites and several times underwent life-threatening surgeries.

Doctors of questionable competence moved through his White House days, in particular Dr. Janet Travell, who for years persisted in injecting novacaine, sometimes several times a day, deep into his muscle, and Dr. Max Jacobson, the amphetamine doctor, who looked after him during the 1960 campaign and on his 1961 trip to Paris to meet President DeGaulle. On returning from Paris, his back went out completely and his 1954 surgeon, Dr. Preston A.Wade, joined Dr. Hans Kraus, a New York orthopedic surgeon and Admiral George Burkley, his other White House physician in caring for him. He was warned that his back muscles would become increasingly stiffer unless he exercised for an hour three times a week, but he resisted out of fear that White House reporters would see his therapist coming and going and begin writing about his health problems.


The late Bryce Harlow, who served four presidents and who understood politics and governance far better than most top aides to presidents, said of the Kennedy administration: “They ran the place like a country store.” Up to a point, Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., respective authors of two earlier eyewitness accounts of the nowlegendary 1, 000 days, and Reeves might agree. The image of Kennedy in the Oval Office is of a president searching for new insights and promising initiatives, particularly from bright young staffers, whatever their titles. Observers and colleagues remember him brandishing his presidential phone and calling on junior staff for answers and ideas that eluded his Cabinet officers. For admirers, his habits were a sign of flexibility; for his detractors, proof of a preference for chaos.

Richard Reeves is one of the detractors in his discussion of Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam. In his chronological account of unfolding events, he notes that on Aug.26, 1963, Secretaries Dean Rusk of State and Robert McNamara of Defense, and General Maxwell Taylor came to the White House to tell the president he had been tricked into approving or ordering a coup by a group of Vietnamese generals. In the secretaries’ absence one weekend, the anti-Diem faction in the administration led by Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman had become de facto decision makers for Vietnam. At the same time the Voice of America broadcast a top secret cable alerting whomever was listening that the United States was preparing to abandon Diem and back the generals in overthrowing the government. Meantime, the new U.S.ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge waited impatiently, having made up his own mind that a change of government was required.

Later the administration decided to send General Victor Krulak, who was pro-Diem, to Vietnam to survey the problems on the ground. When Harriman caught wind of the Krulak mission—an officer whom he had repeatedly called a fool to his face—he instructed his ally, Assistant Secretary Hilsman, to join the Krulak mission or to find someone to counter the general. The State Department rejected Hilsman but substituted another anti-Diem official, Joseph Mendenhall. In their 36-hour on-the-ground survey, Krulak conferred with responsible American and Vietnamese officials in Saigon while Mendenhall visited rural areas. The two envoys thoroughly disliked one another and refused to talk on the return flight from Saigon. After listening to their reports, the president asked: “Did you two gentlemen visit the same country?” The following week when President Kennedy decided to send Secretary McNamara and General Taylor to Vietnam, Harriman told his man in the White House, Mike Forrestal: “These two men are opposed to our policy,” and he meant not U.S.policy but his own policy that Diem must be overthrown. Faced with such divisions, Kennedy declared: “My God. My government’s coming apart.”

Some in the administration were aware of the problem because it had surfaced earlier than Vietnam. Sorensen had written: “He paid little attention to. . .charts and chains of command.” JFK himself had said: “the more people I can see. . . the more effective [I] can be as President.” On balance, the early historians saw Kennedy’s administrative style as a virtue, and Schlesinger wrote that Harriman would have been his first choice as secretary of state.


When Reeves argues that the witnesses to be interviewed and sources to be studied have proliferated, his critics, notably the historian Barton Bernstein of Stanford, respond that he outruns his sources and “shuffles the chronology of people’s words, even occasionally placing the discussion at the wrong meeting.” (The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, Nov. 15—21, 1993, p. 31.) Respected administration officials such as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon and Under Secretary of State George Ball insist they were not present at meetings Reeves has them attending. Schlesinger finds such lapses “unforgivable in a serious work.” (Letter to this reviewer dated Dec.22, 1993). According to his critics, Reeves has violated the canons of historical writing.

Equally deserving of critical review is Reeves’ claim that Kennedy suffered from political ambition. Few if any successful political leaders come to mind who were without political ambition, including the greatest of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill declared it to be an axiom of politics that “pride and ambition are the prod of every worthy deed.” Without “pride and ambition,” how many future leaders will endure the slings and arrows of office to say nothing of our increasingly bitter political campaigns?

In the days immediately following World War II, identifying a leader as a pragmatist might have been damning. Americans dreamed of a brave new world without power politics. However too much water has passed under the bridge of the Cold War and too many leaders have had to make hard choices for such a criticism to be convincing. We have learned to live with complexity. Hasty and illconsidered decisions can be worse than no decision. We live in a world where buying time may prove more promising for peace and security than reckless action. This having been said, it is wrong to think of Kennedy as a leader without objectives. If he saw the road to a test ban treaty and civil rights as enshrouded in the mathematics of domestic politics, he in the end chose “live and let live” as a goal for dealing with the Soviets. His American University speech, reminding the Communist world that if we can’t settle our differences, we can make the world safe for diversity, heralded the dawn of a new era.

The point on which Reeves and the traditional interpreters differ most fundamentally is whether Kennedy grew in office. Not only Sorensen and Schlesinger but other friends and observers find the evidence conclusive that he did. Charles Bartlett, who had urged Kennedy to wait because he lacked experience in a leadership role, felt that the change in him between 1958 and 1960 amounted to “the most phenomenal growth” in any human being Bartlett had ever seen. For the first time Jack Kennedy spoke out with passion and a deep sense of what the country was all about. He grew into the job in the process of getting there. The real JFK emerged from the pressure cooker. When his father criticized his campaigning, he retorted that a Democrat couldn’t win unless he excited the people to believe their lives would be better with him in the White House. He told Bartlett he wasn’t going to listen anymore to his dad on campaign strategy.

Even those who disagreed with some of Kennedy’s policies said he would have changed in a second term when learned wisdom would have ripened into new policies. In office he developed an extraordinary ability to persuade, partly by charm but mostly by an appeal to reason. His growth reached its climax in the Cuban missile crisis when he and his brother resisted calls for “surgical strikes” and preserved the peace in what some consider the most dangerous Cold War confrontation of all between the Soviet Union and the United States. Throughout that crisis, he remained calm, cool, and detached. On the subject of growth, Sorensen described an inner struggle in Kennedy between the political dilettante and the statesman, between the lure of luxury or self-gratification and law making. Gradually the statesman won out. Many factors contributed: his reading, his travel, a widening scope of associates but most of all experience and responsibility.

Reeves criticizes Kennedy for a lack of decisiveness. At the same time he questions Kennedy’s tendency to intervene in the bureaucracy. Kennedy surprised Dean Rusk by the extent to which he wanted to look at everything “from the beginning, the ground up. . .the origins.” Rusk once said that the problem in Washington was not so much men greedy for power as it was finding those willing to use it, with all its risks and hazards. If Kennedy sometimes appeared indecisive, he did so because he wanted the facts. Isaiah Berlin said that like Lenin, Kennedy exhausted you by his listening. He was conscious he had been elected by only a few tens of thousands of votes. Leaders in his own party opposed him on civil rights and the test ban treaty. He had to find his way and the decisions he made are the more remarkable given the forces arrayed against him, including his earlier thinking and some of the views he abandoned.

Is it fair to ask what remains of Reeves’ questioning of Kennedy and his presidency? Does he raise legitimate issues that could lead to a revisionist view of at least some aspects of the Kennedy presidency? Does he pose important questions worthy of continuing thought? For example, does he reinforce Bryce Harlow’s claim that the Kennedy administration was “run like a country store?”

Defenders of the Kennedy presidency question whether Eisenhower’s style of governance was appropriate to that succeeding administration. The Kennedy team of free spirits was ill-suited to a military chain of command. However if Reeves goes too far in condemning Kennedy’s “love of administrative chaos,” the image persists of a president who had little faith in the orderly and predictable processes of governance, preferring instead to depend on those he considered the best and the brightest. If he learned from his mistakes, as with the Bay of Pigs, it is hard to explain his tolerance of sub-cabinet officials who tried to take over U.S. policy, for example, on a military coup in Vietnam. A president’s White House staff is made up of people who have gone through the campaign with him. Usually they have little experience in government, but the president relies on them more than he should. They seek to prove their loyalty to him sometimes by undermining more experienced Cabinet members who have been confirmed by the Congress. Whether justified or not, outsiders had the impression of a highly personal style of administration that separated authority and responsibility and made holding officials accountable more difficult.

Further, problems cropped up at various stages in the Kennedy presidency that were a consequence of administrative style. Following the Bay of Pigs episode, the president’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, submitted a letter of resignation. In rejecting the offer, Kennedy told the former Harvard dean to get control of the flow of information into the Oval Office. Bundy moved from his spacious quarters in the Executive Office Building to a post nearer the scene of action in the basement of the White House. There he set out to write a long memorandum to the President beginning “I hope you’ll be in a good mood when you read this.” (I can find no reference to the memorandum in Schlesinger or Sorensen.) He called attention to “a management problem . . . We can’t get you to sit still” and he added that “we” included Rusk, Sorensen and the president’s brother.”Right now it is so hard to get to you with anything not urgent. . . that about half of the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them.” The situation improved, but critics continued to write about the problem.

Secondly, Reeves struggles with an issue on which there are surprising differences among historians and seeming contradictions in the work of the same historian. On one hand, Reeves, as we have seen, maintains that Kennedy was overly cautious. He put off making decisions until forced by events even though he was impatient and approached life, and presumably decision making, as if he were in a race with boredom. Nowhere does Reeves explore the relationship between Kennedy’s disparate characteristics of caution and impatience. Schlesinger, by contrast, analyzed the interaction in Kennedy’s policy-making between activism and pragmatism and was frank to acknowledge a problem. At various stages in the administration, Kennedy’s activism outran his pragmatism, especially in foreign policy. According to Schlesinger, activism became “a besetting sin” of the New Frontier. With some problems it would have been better to leave things alone. The idea that every problem demands an instant remedy became the source of new problems. The tendency to move into the internal affairs of other countries to press ideas of reform led Schlesinger to conclude that the belief of professional diplomats in restraint and caution had more wisdom “than we understood at the time.”

Kennedy’s inaugural address was blatantly activist and universalist with its lofty promise that the nation would “pay the price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe,” in the name of liberty. It inspired Americans, and especially the young, to dedicate themselves anew to the nation’s high purposes. That was its virtue. For the eminent historian looking back, however, the tension between the two forces, between activism and pragmatism or dream and reality is clearly a problem. Outsiders may help us to see a presidency afresh, but so sometimes may partisans whose commitment to their discipline and to the quest for truth outlives their partisanship.

A final question that runs through Richard Reeves’ book is the question of character. He quotes Lord David Cecil’s Melbourne: “ His amateurishness was increased by his hedonism.” Reeves overwhelms the reader with vivid details of Kennedy’s sexual liaisons, offering instances not only of time, place, and duration but also photographs of those who were allegedly the president’s most well-known partners. In one sense, Reeves offers nothing new in his disclosures. For many, the most obvious reaction will be “so what.” Rumors were rife before and during the 1960 election. Some religious and moral leaders who embraced most of Kennedy’s agenda for the nation postponed endorsing him until the last moment. Their decision to support him reflected serious doubts about his opponent coupled with enthusiasm for his youth, more than approval of his character. However in the 1960’s, the majority of Americans cast their votes in an atmosphere of sexual emancipation, and Kennedy was protected by friends and companions.

Today there is evidence the climate may be changing. A larger segment of the electorate is anxious about the threat to family values. In the 1992 presidential campaign, those who sought to question candidate Clinton’s character focused on his alleged sexual adventures. Reeves, who is a popular liberal writer, may himself think the tide is turning. The majority of Reeves’ critics are skeptical, however, dismissing the issue on at least two grounds. First, they find no evidence that Kennedy’s extramarital activities affected the performance of presidential duties. For more than three decades, reassurances that his meeting the responsibilities of office had not suffered were enough to calm most questioners. Second, George Ball in a New fork Review of Books essay disposes of the issue, to his own satisfaction, by referring to Kennedy as a “sexual athlete.” Because he and other members of the Kennedy family had learned to be competitive in all things, he was understandably competitive in sex. Reeves adds another dimension, convincing or not, by suggesting a relationship between Kennedy’s illness and medication, particularly cortisone, and excessive sexual needs.

Since political scientists are not psychologists, their attention is directed not to Freud but to politics and the electorate. Certain questions are becoming thinkable in the context of politics in the 1990’s. They include: 1) If we are witnessing a shift of whatever magnitude in social mores, can a political candidate afford to ignore and write off a sizeable fraction of the electorate? 2) Is it possible that AIDS, women’s rights, urban violence, and an ever more intrusive mass media are altering the political equation? 3) Will the smaller margins of victory in elections have an impact on voters and the factors that they weigh in the balance? 4) With the erosion of public trust in politicians having reached massive proportions, expressed in proposals for term limits, can society’s attitude toward a candidate’s sexual peccadilloes plant seeds of doubt that threaten credibility when the next scandal breaks? 5) Will discussion of character issues play an expanding role in measuring a candidate’s chances of success? 6) Or will there be a public reaction against preoccupation with a candidates’s personal life and a return to more attention to his or her public philosophy and capacity for governance?

At the end of the day, I have difficulty concluding that the book President Kennedy has launched a wave of revisionist thinking. It hardly compares with Fred Greenstein’s volume on the Eisenhower presidency. Nonetheless, Reeves engages our attention and prompts us to reconsider certain questions concerning the Kennedy presidency. Clearly, the political drama of the early 1960’s merits attention. The Kennedy presidency is an unfinished chapter in American political history. A flood of books on the assassination hardly satisfies the need for serious research. Neither sensationalism nor denial provide firm ground for future studies.

Reeves’ contribution results from his focusing on a handful of questions that have been neglected or passed over lightly. Controversial as the book has become, especially for Kennedy loyalists and many presidential watchers, it forces us to reexamine our thinking on issues of governance.


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