For decades now, academic historians have been telling us the same thing: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a good president, but not a great one. In 13 polls conducted between 1982 and 2011, the youngest man ever elected president—he was only 43—is ranked on average 13th best chief executive in American history.
It’s not all that difficult to see why, if one thinks back. Kennedy was president for less than three full years. His first year in office was, well… problematic, with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, followed by a weak, humiliating performance at the Vienna summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The first meeting between the leaders of the West and the communist worlds seemed to confirm the belief of many political old hands that the new president lacked both the gravitas and the experience to stand up to the truculent Russians. Throughout his thousand-day presidency, JFK had very limited success in pushing his progressive domestic reform programs through a conservative Congress.
Nonetheless, there were significant accomplishments. Kennedy showed great restraint and discernment under sustained, grinding pressure during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He resisted the pleas of hawkish advisers to bomb the missile sites in Cuba, and quite possibly set off World War III. After the Soviets withdrew the missiles, Kennedy worked with Khrushchev to de-escalate tensions in the Cold War effectively, leading to a nuclear test ban treaty and the installation of a hotline between Moscow and Washington.
In his last year on Earth, JFK seemed to be coming into his own as a national leader and a Cold War statesman. His popular approval hovered around 70 percent, higher than any of his successors up to this day. He resisted entreaties from his advisers to send U.S. combat troops to the growing conflict in Vietnam, telling Walter Cronkite that, “in the final analysis, it is their [the people of South Vietnam] war.” He made a moving appeal in a July 1963 national address, asking all Americans to support a major civil rights bill, because it was the morally right thing to do. He also proposed several innovative federal health care programs for the poor and the aged. Much of this legislation was passed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson as part of the “Great Society,” but LBJ was the first to admit that in passing the legislation, he was fulfilling his martyred predecessor’s vision.
So, if JFK’s concrete political accomplishments were somewhat limited in the end, how do we account for his enduring popularity and near-mythical status, not only among Americans but among people all over the world? Hundreds of books have been written about his presidency, his family, and his assassination, ranging in quality from superbly crafted biographies and histories to sensationalist trash and far-fetched conspiracy screeds. Scores of these tomes have been bestsellers. In polls today, Kennedy gets an 80 percent approval rating among ordinary Americans, which is very high indeed.
Certainly there is a shared sense among historians, political scientists, and ordinary folks that John Kennedy was on his way to greatness when he was gunned down by a disturbed former Marine for reasons that remain obscure. Great leaders must be able to inspire people to act, and Kennedy clearly packed the gear to do so. Although he was often very ill from several maladies and in severe pain from a bad back, he exuded easygoing charm and confidence. He was witty, self-deprecating, and exceptionally photogenic, as were his wife and young children. He was a gifted writer and orator, whose words, even today, pack an enormous emotional punch. And he made Americans feel good about themselves and about their country’s prospects.
And of course, Kennedy was a genuine war hero, who, despite his vast wealth and privileged upbringing, had an infectious belief in the value of public service. He enjoined Americans to “ask what they could do for their country,” and millions of Americans, mostly young Americans, responded by joining the new Peace Corps, or volunteering in the civil rights movement. Others joined the military to defend freedom, as John Kennedy so eloquently called on them to do.
In many ways, Kennedy was a transitional figure. His ascent to the presidency marked the end of the slumbering and complacent 1950s, while his death marks America’s entry into the turbulent 1960s, when the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the counterculture combined to change the social and political landscape of the country in radical ways. Alan Brinkley, the leading historian of 20th century liberalism, is surely onto something when he writes that JFK came to symbolize a “lost moment of soaring idealism and hopefulness… He reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could speak to society’s yearnings and be harnessed to its highest aspirations.”
The first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s long-awaited two-volume biography of our 35th president, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, leaves little doubt that the author, a Harvard professor and leading historian of both the French and the American wars in Vietnam, would concur with Brinkley’s assessment. In many ways the immensely interesting story that unfolds here is one of gradual discovery by the scion of an Irish Catholic family of immense wealth and privilege that what mattered most to him was not the next sexual conquest of an alluring member of the WASP establishment world, or yet another vacation excursion to some exotic foreign capital with his merry band of close male pals, but preparing himself to make a lasting contribution to an ascendant America, and to world affairs, through the avenue of politics.
Logevall, a professor of history at Harvard, in lapidary prose and with a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and vignette, strips away the layers of myth and sensationalism that obscures the real, live human being that was JFK, and show us how and why he did just that… with a little help from his own friends and those of his powerful family.
It’s no small achievement.
Many Kennedy chroniclers have focused on father Joe’s towering influence and personal wealth to explain his second son’s rise to the presidency. Logevall recognizes Joe’s prominent role in shaping the family ethos and the trajectory of his second son’s life, but Logevall gives Jack the lion’s share of the credit for his own success.
The sickly teenage Jack Kennedy was the most well-read and reflective of the nine children. From an early age he was fascinated by history and leadership. While the oldest son, Joe Jr., tended to parrot his father’s views on politics and adopted his father’s isolationist bent in the late 1930s—when the elder Kennedy was ambassador to the United Kingdom in London—Jack showed a strong inclination to think, and to act, for himself.
By his senior year at Harvard, JFK had crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East several times and made extensive contacts wherever he went. He kept notebooks and journals. Logevall writes that he was “deeply inquisitive about other political systems and cultures, comfortable with competing conceptions of national interest… Partly [this] resulted from his expansive reading as a bedridden child and teenager, which tilted toward European history and statecraft, and from his coursework in prep school and college (in one semester at Harvard he took four courses in the Government Department). Most of all, the internationalist ethos emerged from Kennedy’s travels during and after his college years… These trips broadened his horizons, as did his subsequent combat experience in the South Pacific. An interventionist well in advance of Pearl Harbor… Jack came out of the war committed to the proposition that the United States must play an ongoing leadership role in world affairs, working with other nations. Thereafter, he held firmly to this view.”
During his junior year, Kennedy really buckled down at Harvard as a government major, spending more and more time on his studies. In his senior year he used his (and yes, his father’s) extensive government contacts in London to assemble a massive portfolio of research for an honors thesis explaining why England had clung so long to an appeasement policy in the face of a rising fascist Germany. Thanks to a bit of help from a well-placed New York Times correspondent, the thesis was converted in a book that was published to considerable acclaim just a month after the fall of France.
The book, While England Slept, writes Logevall, “marked a significant early step by Jack toward a public career. To read the book is to see that the young author was clearly fascinated by the problems of democratic leadership in foreign affairs, and the dilemmas that confront policymakers who seek to do what is required while not alienating their temperamental constituents.” There was, wrote Kennedy, an absence of young and energetic leadership to awaken and educate the people in Britain at this time to the dire threat posed by Hitler.
John Kennedy set out to be just such a leader himself.
He was determined to get to a school where men had been learning about leadership the hard way since time began: in combat. His father didn’t want him to land in a combat assignment after Pearl Harbor, but Kennedy, despite his considerable health problems, somehow found a way. When PT-109, an 80-foot-long, wooden-hulled patrol boat with no radar was rammed and cut in two by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands, Skipper Jack Kennedy saved the life of a badly burned crewmember by towing him through dangerous shark-infested waters for four hours on a dark night. Over the next week, he showed extraordinary courage and initiative in keeping all nine of his surviving crew alive until they were rescued.
It was typical of Kennedy that he never bragged about his heroism. When asked by a member of the press how he happened to become a war hero, he quipped, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
What JFK’s squadron leader wrote to his own parents about young Mr. Kennedy right after PT-109’s crew was rescued goes quite far, I think, in explaining why so many feel that President Kennedy would indeed have become great if he had lived, and why everyone who was alive on the day of his death remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing, including myself, at the ripe old age of 5. He was, wrote Al Cluster, “one of the finest officers I have… and we’re all very proud of him. Somehow, when we heard of his boat going down, I could not believe that he was lost. He’s just that type of fellow. You know that he can take care of himself and you can always depend on him.”
In the preface to the book, Logevall remarks that to an extraordinary degree JFK’s life “tracks with the major facets of America’s political and geopolitical story” during the middle years of the 20th century. And so it does. One of the many pleasures of reading this keenly perceptive, page-turner of a biography is that it also illuminates the story of America’s ascent to great power and then superpower status in fresh and compelling way.
JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 offers readers a strikingly perceptive and fair-minded portrait of the young John Kennedy. It certainly whets one’s appetite for volume two, when Logevall will take the story of this remarkable American’s life to its shattering conclusion.