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john f. kennedy

23 february 2013

Alan Brinkley characterizes John F. Kennedy as a "reactive" President, and the insight is convincing. JFK was at the center of so many momentous events that he would be a memorable President even without the aura of Camelot and the tragedy of his assassination. Yet they weren't events of his choosing, and his actions, in retrospect, seem ad hoc, without guiding principles.

Brinkley's analysis even suggests that Kennedy was at times most successful when he failed to react. The Berlin Wall is a case in point. The Soviets, in 1961, were arguing stridently for a unified Berlin – on their terms, as part of East Germany. The official line of the Western alliance was that Berlin should remain unified and free. The building of the wall was a mockery of freedom, but it was also a concession: West Berlin would remain free (to everyone except East Germans) till the wall came down in 1989, and ever since. Kennedy, by refusing both to concede West Berlin or to insist on a unified Berlin, effected a compromise that kept the peace.

Or at least that's one way of looking at it. Barry Goldwater would probably have argued that the U.S. had to throw its nuclear weight around over the principle of an undivided city. But time and again, Kennedy's patience would help establish better relations between the US and the Soviets in the long run, and lay the grounds for detente and the post-Communist world. Granted, the relations he was starting from were dismal. But you have to start somewhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis was another episode where forbearance ultimately worked for the best. So was the nuclear test ban treaty: a compromise, but one that fostered peace and environmental safety. (Well, if you ignore the French.)

Kennedy also reacted to domestic events, like the steady progress of the Civil Rights Movement, and the violent counterreaction of white supremacists. Brinkley argues that Kennedy eventually came around to at least saying the right things about civil rights, though his practical contributions were very limited.

Kennedy's death helped the 1964 Civil Rights Act pass. In that sense he was truly a martyr. Paradoxically, if Kennedy had lived (the fondest "what-if" of an entire American generation), more dreams might have been deferred, more violence enacted. He's a President full of paradoxes, one whose place in rhetoric and imagination far outweighs his historical achievements.

Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy. New York: Times Books [Holt], 2012. [The American Presidents]