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John F. Kennedy: The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961-1963 [Hardcover]

Alan Brinkley , Arthur M. Schlesinger , Sean Wilentz
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Book Description

May 8 2012 The American Presidents

The young president who brought vigor and glamour to the White House while he confronted cold war crises abroad and calls for social change at home

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a new kind of president. He redefined how Americans came to see the nation's chief executive. He was forty-three when he was inaugurated in 1961—the youngest man ever elected to the office—and he personified what he called the "New Frontier" as the United States entered the 1960s.

But as Alan Brinkley shows in this incisive and lively assessment, the reality of Kennedy's achievements was much more complex than the legend. His brief presidency encountered significant failures—among them the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which cast its shadow on nearly every national-security decision that followed. But Kennedy also had successes, among them the Cuban Missile Crisis and his belated but powerful stand against segregation.

Kennedy seemed to live on a knife's edge, moving from one crisis to another—Cuba, Laos, Berlin, Vietnam, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. His controversial public life mirrored his hidden private life. He took risks that would seem reckless and even foolhardy when they emerged from secrecy years later.

Kennedy's life, and his violent and sudden death, reshaped our view of the presidency. Brinkley gives us a full picture of the man, his times, and his enduring legacy.


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About the Author

Alan Brinkley is the author most recently of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is also the author of Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, which won the National Book Award, and The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. He is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and has also taught at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1
The Irish Prince
 
 
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into an Irish American world that his family helped change forever. For generations, Americans of Irish descent had faced almost insuperable boundaries to their aspirations. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, most Irish Americans lived in insular communities and were largely excluded from many professions. They attended Catholic schools and—for those who chose to enter politics—ran for office in Irish wards and won votes from mostly Irish voters. Rarely did they attract support from outside their own communities. But the two families who gave birth to the first Irish American president broke new ground.
One of John Kennedy’s grandfathers, John F. Fitzgerald, was himself a politician who crossed the boundaries that had limited Irish American ambitions. He was a charming, garrulous, energetic man who graduated from Boston College, enrolled briefly at Harvard Medical School, and was elected to Congress in 1894. Twelve years later, he became the first Irish American mayor of Boston, serving three terms between 1906 and 1914. For years, he remained one of the best-known political figures in the city. (He lived long enough to see his grandson elected to Congress, and he predicted that he would become president.) Fitzgerald’s wife and second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon, gave birth to six children. The eldest of them was Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, born in 1890.1
The future president’s other grandfather was Patrick J. Kennedy, who left school at fourteen to support his large and struggling family. But despite his scant education and his impoverished beginnings, he saved his earnings and bought a small string of taverns and bars. Later he opened a liquor importing company and later still bought substantial interests in a coal company and a bank—enterprises that made him a wealthy and substantial figure in the Irish American community. His wife, Mary Hickey, was herself the daughter of a prosperous tavern owner. She had four children—among them Joseph P. Kennedy, born in 1888.2
Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy were exceptional young people within this enclosed world. Rose’s eminent political family made her something of a celebrity at a young age. She attended elite Catholic schools and took an extensive tour of Europe. By the age of eighteen she had abandoned her early hopes to attend Wellesley College to join her father’s political life.3
Joe Kennedy, although from a less eminent family than Rose’s, was more ambitious—and more successful—than almost anyone else in the Irish community. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, graduated from Harvard, and moved into banking. By the age of twenty-five, he was the president of Columbia Trust, a modest bank in which his father had once invested. Joe quickly doubled its accounts.4
Rose and Joe had become attracted to each other as early as 1906, when she was sixteen and he eighteen. Rose’s father had another suitor in mind for his daughter—a wealthy contractor and friend of the family—and Fitzgerald tried for years to keep her apart from Joe. But Rose found Joe a much more compelling figure than her father’s choice, and she wore him down. They were married in 1914, and they broke with tradition by moving to a house in Brookline, then an almost entirely Protestant community. Their first son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., was born in 1915. Two years later, on May 29, 1917, their second son—John Fitzgerald Kennedy—was born.5
*   *   *
Life in the Kennedy family was dominated by Joe’s social ambitions and his spectacular financial success. His marriage to the mayor’s daughter was only one of many steps that would lead him and his children well beyond the Irish world in which they were born. Joe was smart, ambitious, and often ruthless—determined not only to accumulate wealth but also to gain power. Banking, he believed, was the key to the kind of success he sought. “I saw, even in my limited dealings, that sooner or later, the source of business was traced to the banks,” he wrote later. Banking, he claimed, “could lead a man anywhere, as it played an important part in every business.”6
It was not just power and wealth he sought. He could have had a prosperous career as the most eminent Irish banker in the city, but he aspired to rise higher. He wanted to move into the great world of finance—a world dominated by old Yankee families in Boston and New York. World War I interrupted his plans. He left the bank and became a manager of war production at the Bethlehem steel yards in Quincy, Massachusetts. When the army tried to draft him, the Bethlehem executives fought to keep him, calling him indispensable. His success in a world of Yankee businessmen helped draw him into larger and larger worlds. “The key to Kennedy’s spectacular financial success,” one of his colleagues later said, “was his anticipation of the future … his vision of what lay down the road, a vision that was always there, sustaining him and guiding him—that vision was simply phenomenal.”7 In the heady days of the stock market boom in the 1920s, he joined a Brahmin brokerage house, where he expanded his connections in the financial world and became one of the canniest and most successful investors of his era. By 1927, he had relocated his family to Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, where he could be closer to Wall Street. Even before the family’s move, he had accumulated over $2 million, which was only the beginning of his extraordinary rise.
Joe’s remarkable success created problems for Rose. She wanted an ordered and respectable domesticity. But Joe was not much of a partner in the home—traveling constantly, working late, and always looking for new connections and new opportunities. That left Rose alone in a large and complicated home. By the early 1930s, there were nine children: Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted. It was a loud, boisterous, and at times chaotic household that never lived up to Rose’s hopes—perhaps in part because Rose herself was either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy for the first seventeen years of her marriage. After the family moved to Riverdale, they retained a foothold in Massachusetts. Joe purchased a large property in Hyannis Port that became the family’s most enduring home. The celebrated pictures of the Kennedy family in later years—sailing off the coast of Cape Cod, playing touch football on the lawn—were a reminder of decades of outdoor activity and competitive sports. Long before the Kennedys became politically active, the family had already become among the most famous Irish American families in America—a result of Joe’s enormous and conspicuous wealth, and also because of the attractive image of the Kennedy tribe.8
But the attractive, even idyllic, images of this apparently golden family disguised its share of troubles. Rose remained overwhelmed by her large family, particularly after their first daughter, Rosemary, was diagnosed as mildly retarded. Rose had few friends and few activities in New York beyond taking care of her growing family. She distanced herself from her husband sexually except for procreation and traveled extensively around America and Europe to escape the pressures of home. Her absence dismayed her children (and especially Jack). Joe Sr. was still mostly away, traveling on business and expanding his business empire—including an investment in the movie industry. He also maintained an extramarital sexual life—most conspicuously with the actress Gloria Swanson. The children grew up supervised for long periods by servants and relatives.9
Rosemary aside, Jack had the most difficult life of the family. He was under the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr., who was the recipient of his father’s greatest hopes. Jack developed a competitive relationship with his older brother, who almost always won whatever contests they waged. But a more important part of his youth—and indeed of much of his life—was the long history of illness that began shortly after birth. He was restless and fitful even as a baby, had trouble digesting milk, and suffered frequent stomachaches. By the time he was three, he had experienced scarlet fever, causing his mother “frantic terror” and leading his father to spend hours praying (uncharacteristically) in the Catholic Church, which he rarely attended.10 This frightening illness was followed by other debilitating diseases (chicken pox, ear infections, and undiagnosed stomach, intestinal, and other ailments that made it difficult for him to eat and sometimes left him so weak that he could hardly stand). Sickness plagued him into adolescence and beyond, baffling his doctors, his family, and Jack himself. For months at a time, he was gaunt, pale, and weak. Multiple and often mistaken diagnoses added to his ordeal. Treatment for one problem created problems elsewhere, and there was no definitive explanation of what ailed him. Jack liked to joke about his frequent illnesses, and he tried to disguise the pain and fear that he often felt. But there were also periods of near despair, especially when he was in hospitals for weeks, submitting to endless tests, and still failing to get any answers to what his problems were.11
His illnesses inevitably affected his schooling. Shortly after the family’s move to New York, Jack was enrolled in the Riverdale Country School. But at the age of thirteen, with his grades an undistinguished C+ average, his parents decided he should go to boarding school. Rose Kennedy was especially eager to get the boys out of the house because she felt so overwhelmed by her many children. Jack expected to follow Joe Jr. to Choate, the distinguished boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, but Rose—on her own—decided in the fall of 1930 to send him instead to Canterbury, a Catholic school for boys in New Milford, Connecticut. He suffered there not only from his chronic ailments but also from homesickness. He complained to his family about the “whole lot of religion” and the isolation of the school. (“The only time you can get out of here is to see the Harvard-Yale and Army-Yale [games].”)12 Much of the time he was in the local hospital, and he spent the last months of the academic year at home, with tutors.13
The following fall, he enrolled at Choate, which he found more tolerable because his brother Joe was already there. Jack remained a lackluster student. He was constantly reprimanded by his teachers and the headmaster, who considered him “one of the most undependable boys” in his grade. He lacked “application.” He was “careless” with his work. He was notoriously “casual and disorderly” in a school committed to order.14 He insisted that he was “trying to be a more socially minded person.”15 Everyone agreed that he was intelligent, but that made his scholarly “mediocrity” all the more damning.16 Inattention was only one of his problems, for he fell victim soon again to his puzzling and often debilitating illnesses. At one point, according to his lifelong friend Lem Billings, he “came very close to dying.”17 He was in and out of the infirmary and local hospitals, trying to lead a normal life, and struggling to keep up with his work. Through it all, he forced himself to remain cheerful, funny, and almost irresistibly charming. “I’ve never known anyone in my life with such a wonderful humor—the ability to make one laugh and have a good time,” Billings once wrote.18 “Jack didn’t like to be too serious,” the Choate headmaster said long after Jack left the school. “He had a delightful sense of humor always … He was a very likeable person, very lovable.”19
Living in the shadow of his older brother was difficult. Joe excelled in athletics, discipline, and leadership. Jack could not compete. He did not like Choate very much more than he had liked Canterbury, and he often described it as a prison. But he made his way through his school years with garrulous charm and wit. It was not surprising that his jokes were often dark, because his health continued to deteriorate. He spent weeks at the Mayo Clinic, where he submitted to what seemed endless, humiliating tests. But as usual in his letters to Billings he treated it all as a joke. “I’m still eating peas and corn for food and I had an enema given by a beautiful blonde,” he wrote. “That, my sweet, is the height of cheap thrills.”20
Partly to compensate for his inability to thrive in sports or academics, he developed a new sexual prowess that lasted through the rest of his life. Like his father, he treated sex as a kind of sport—casual, frequent, mostly unconnected to affection or romance. Most of his trysts were one-night stands, and he sometimes forgot the names of his sexual partners. The constricted world of Choate did not make sexual activity easy, but he found ways to get around the boundaries of the school in the same way he got around his illnesses.21
Jack’s disaffection—his illnesses, his poor academic performance, and his disdain for the stuffy traditions of the school—led him to join a group of similarly alienated students to form “the Muckers Club.” (Mucker was a term coined by the faculty to describe rebellious students with little respect for the “Choate culture.” Jack’s father, somewhat in sympathy with his son, later noted that if he had organized the club, its name would not have begun with an M.) The Muckers composed and sang vaguely obscene songs, sometimes about teachers. They organized pranks that mocked the staid habits of the school. The headmaster called them “a colossally selfish, pleasure loving, unperceptive group” and nearly expelled the entire group. Rose Kennedy, horrified by Jack’s rebelliousness, liked to believe that this confrontation with the headmaster was a turning point in his life—that he had learned to respect authority and to live by the norms of the school. But Jack was far from tamed. He avoided the more dangerous behavior that had created trouble for the Muckers, but he could not resist a final challenge to the Choate establishment by launching a successful campaign for the title of “Most Likely to Succeed,” using his popularity to defeat the more obvious candidates.22
*   *   *
Jack’s path to college was as rocky as his path through prep school had been. He enrolled at Harvard for the fall of 1935, then withdrew before the term began to go to England to spend a year at the London School of Economics. But the onset of another mysterious illness, and his disappointment with the LSE, drew him back to America, where—weeks after the term had begun—he enrolled at Princeton, primarily because Lem Billings and other friends were already there. His enthusiasm for Princeton soon cooled. He found it provincial and oppressive—with its Protestantism, its small-town environs, and its eating-club culture that did not often welcome Catholics. “I think he was a little disenchanted with the country-club atmosphere of Princeton,” one of his friends later wrote.23
Before he finished his first term, he was rushed to Boston and was hospitalized with yet another apparently undiagnosable illness. After weeks of invasive and humiliating tests—“the most harrowing experience of all my storm-tossed career,” he wrote to Billings—he was diagnosed with leukemia. “Took a peek at my chart yesterday and could see that they were mentally measuring me for a coffin,” he reported.24 But he refused to take the diagnosis seriously. He was vindicated when the doctors finally admitted that they had been in error. He spent the rest of his aborted academic year trying to restore himself to health—through vacations at Palm Beach, a few Teddy Roosevelt–like months on a ranch in Arizona, and a libidinous week in Los Angeles. In the summer of 1936, he was accepted again to Harvard. “To be a ‘Harvard Man’ is an enviable distinction,” he wrote on his application.25 The Admissions Committee said of him, “Jack has rather superior mental ability, without the deep interest in his studies … He can be relied upon to do enough to pass.”26 His father wrote the dean saying much the same: “Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things he is interested in, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested. This is, of course, a bad fault.”27
He was happier at Harvard than he had been at any of his former schools. Although he left behind his closest friend, Lem Billings, he found new friends at Harvard—many of them through his older brother. Joe Jr. was, as usual, serious, ambitious, and hot-tempered, always striving to attract the admiration of his father. His greatest ambition was to win a Harvard football letter, a goal he never achieved. Jack was more easygoing. In better health than he had been in some time, he tried out for football himself but never expected to remain on the team. He was also an avid swimmer and boxer. As at Choate, he was a popular figure among his contemporaries—witty, lively, irreverent, and highly social. He was a more serious student in his first year at Harvard than he had been at Choate or Princeton. His mediocre grades obscured his avid reading, especially during his frequent hospital stays. (He remained a fervent reader, especially of history, throughout his life.)28
Despite his mother’s belief that Jack’s near-expulsion from Choate was a defining moment in his life, a more plausible turning point was his summer-long European trip in 1937 after his freshman year at Harvard. He and Billings sailed to Europe on July 1 and returned in September—the longest trip either of them had ever made. It revealed the multiple roles that were coming to shape Jack’s young life. He was the privileged and dutiful son, who traveled with his way paved by his father to meetings with statesmen and audiences with the pope and with Cardinal Pacelli (soon to become Pope Pius XII). Joe Kennedy’s friends and colleagues assisted him everywhere he went. Jack was also the reckless playboy, chasing fun, and women, in bars and cafés in Paris, the Riviera, and Biarritz. He was also becoming a serious and ambitious student of the political world. He kept a diary of the places he visited, showing a particular interest in the fascist countries. He was eager to see Spain, but the civil war there prevented him from entering the country. Instead, he sought out soldiers fleeing into France and asked them questions about the fighting. Kennedy and Billings found Italy impressively prosperous and orderly (“Fascism seems to treat them well,” Jack wrote of the Italians).29 In Germany, Billings wrote that they both “had a terrible feeling about … the ‘Heil Hitler’ stuff.”30 Jack was more ambivalent. He too hated the German arrogance and deplored the growing persecution of the Jews, but he was impressed by what he considered German efficiency. “All the towns are very attractive,” he recorded in his diary, “showing that the Nordic races certainly seem superior to the Latins. The Germans really are too good—it makes people gang against them for protection.”31 “Isn’t the chance of war less as Britain gets stronger?” Jack wrote after his return to Harvard. “Or is a country like Italy liable to go to war when economic discontent is rife? Wouldn’t Mussolini go if there was a war—as in all likelihood Italy would be defeated in a major war?”32 These questions would increase his serious study of history and politics.
Back at college in the fall, Jack was at least as eager to be a social success as to be a successful student. His greatest ambition in his sophomore year was to be elected to one of the university’s exclusive final clubs. Neither his father nor his brother had succeeded in getting elected to a club—largely because of anti-Irish prejudice. But Jack worked hard to be accepted. Despite his uncertain health, he continued to try out for football and the junior varsity swimming team, but failed to win letters. He became a member of the Hasty Pudding Club and wrote occasionally for the Harvard Crimson. But his most important strength was his popularity. His loyal friends helped him get elected to the Spee Club. He so valued his acceptance that he spent almost all of his free time in the elegant clubhouse.33
After a term taking courses in political science and international relations (and receiving better grades than in the past), he took a leave in the spring of 1939, his junior year, to do research for a senior thesis. But his thesis took second place to a great event in the Kennedy family. His father had been appointed the United States ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. It was a position of particular pride to Joe given the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon appointments of ambassadors. Jack was drawn to England for research for his thesis topic. But he was also drawn to the dazzling new life of his family in London. Jack toured the capitals of eastern Europe and the Middle East, cared for at each stop by American diplomats. He spent much of his time in Paris, “living like a king” and staying at the American embassy.34 The beleaguered diplomats working feverishly in the shadow of war were often irritated to have to serve the needs of what seemed a pampered son of a wealthy and powerful man. But they gave him material and arranged interviews, nevertheless. Jack also found time, as he always did, for “recreation”—including a luxurious September vacation in Antibes, where he learned of the outbreak of war.35 He returned to Harvard as determined as before to understand the crisis in Europe.
Joe Kennedy, like most Americans, was opposed to U.S. intervention in the European war. And, not surprisingly, Jack shared Joe’s belief that neither Britain nor America was equipped to defeat Germany. Jack argued for a negotiated end to the war, mediated by President Franklin Roosevelt, which would allow the Third Reich to survive and grow but would permit Britain and France to remain independent. With this unpromising premise, Jack began to write his senior thesis, which he called “Appeasement at Munich.” Characteristically, he enlisted help from a network of helpers: his father’s diplomatic colleagues, who scoured libraries and research centers in Britain for materials to send him; research assistants, who did his legwork in Harvard’s Widener Library; typists and stenographers, who helped him write the manuscript.36
The final draft of his thesis was respectable and impressively ambitious—better than most of his earlier, mostly undistinguished academic work. His advisers admired the importance of the topic and the intelligence that went into the thesis. But it was also cumbersome, with a somewhat muddled argument and a text filled with grammatical and punctuation errors. Some of his readers found it excessively wordy, and none of them imagined it to be a significant work of scholarship. “Badly written, but a laborious, interesting, and intelligent discussion of a difficult question,” his advisers wrote. He received a magna cum laude grade for the effort.37
The thesis had two major assets. One was its timing. He finished it in the midst of a global crisis, and despite its weaknesses it addressed a critical question: “Why was England so poorly prepared for the war?” The other asset was his connections—the efforts by his father and many colleagues and friends who gathered around on Jack’s behalf and helped him make a “typical undergraduate effort” (as one historian wrote at the time) into a published book.38 Jack, somewhat presumptuously but characteristically, drew distinguished people to his assistance. “Arthur Krock … feels that I should get it published,” he wrote his father.39 Krock, an eminent columnist for the New York Times with many lucrative ties to Joe Kennedy, helped rewrite the thesis (how substantially is not known) and provided a new title—Why England Slept, derived from a contemporaneous book title of Winston Churchill, While England Slept.40
Jack, for his part, revised his argument about Britain’s lack of preparedness. Originally, he had said that the British public was the source of the problem because voters were unwilling to support strengthening the military. Democracy “may be a great system of government to live in internally,” he wrote, “but its weaknesses are great.”41 In the book, Jack shifted more of the blame to Britain’s leadership—Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, both friends of Joe Kennedy. He was moving away from his father’s increasingly controversial views. Even as most Americans were becoming more supportive of Britain, Joe was becoming an increasingly entrenched isolationist. Without informing Washington, Joe was looking for compromises with Hitler, even unsuccessfully seeking meetings with him. By November 1940, President Roosevelt recalled Joe from London—creating a deep and permanent rift between them and destroying what Joe had hoped would be a dazzling political career.
Jack, however, was moving along with most of the public toward a belief in the importance of supporting the war against Germany. He never openly repudiated his father, but he slowly distanced himself from Joe’s unpopular stances on the war. His increasing internationalism encouraged Krock to provide Jack with an agent, who passed the manuscript around through many rejections until the small publishing house of Wilfred Funk agreed to publish it. The publishers were much encouraged by an admiring introduction from Henry R. Luce, the publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life magazines. “I cannot recall a single man of my college graduation,” Luce wrote, “who could have written such an adult book on such a vitally important subject during his Senior year at college.”42 By then, the writing was smoother, the argument clearer. But its timeliness may have been its most important strength. It was well reviewed and widely read. It helped establish Jack Kennedy—after years of mediocrity in multiple schools—as a serious thinker and an emerging leader of his generation.43
At the core of Why England Slept were Jack’s first significant steps toward the muscular vision of American power that would characterize his future career. Jack stopped short of advocating American intervention in the war (although he was beginning to see it as inevitable). He made a strong case that Britain and the United States could become together the great world powers to defend against the spread of totalitarianism. But most of all, he laid out what he considered the great challenge of democracy. How can a free society mobilize its citizens for war? How can it “compete with the new totalitarian system based on an economy of rigid state control?”44 Britain’s failure to prepare, he wrote, was in part “a great lack of young progressive and able leaders”—a statement that irritated some of Joe’s friends in the diplomatic corps.45 But again and again, Jack returned to the “weaknesses” of democracy in the face of crisis. Dictators, he warned, have almost always been ahead of democracies in preparing for war. “To say that democracy has been awakened by [the fall of France] … is not enough. Any person will awaken when the house is burning down. What we need is an armed guard that will wake up when the fire first starts, or better yet, one that will not permit a fire to start at all.”46
It was a measure of how little intellectual power had been targeted toward the strengthening of democracy against totalitarianism that a young college graduate could attract so much attention to a modest book. But it was also an early sign of what would become a hallmark of Kennedy’s mature career: his strong belief in the importance of a robust democracy for what he later called the “long twilight struggle” against the growing power of the communist world.
*   *   *
The success of his book did little to settle Kennedy’s plans. He briefly considered enrolling in law school. He spent a few months at Stanford University, hoping to improve his once-again deteriorating health and applying to Stanford Law School (as he had done at Yale Law School before). He traveled with his family and vacationed at Hyannis Port. But like many other young men in the year before Pearl Harbor, he was waiting for what he now understood to be the inevitability of America joining the war. He worried that his poor health would bar him from the military, and his fears were justified when he failed the physical exams for both the army and the navy in early 1941. But a few months later, Joe Kennedy arranged for another physical exam for his son, this time clearly rigged, that found no serious health issues. In October, he entered the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington.47
The work was dull, he told Billings, but he was enjoying an active social life, including his first serious romance—a relationship with a Danish journalist, Inga Arvad, who had become a friend of Jack’s sister Kathleen. Arvad was a beautiful woman (rumored to have been a Miss Denmark). She was a few years older than Jack. She was married, but in the process of divorce—a fact that, had Rose Kennedy known, would have horrified her. More important, however, were the growing rumors that Arvad was a spy—a rumor that had emerged from her assignment as the German correspondent for a Danish paper and her appearance in a few photographs with Hitler and Göring. There was no evidence that she was engaged in espionage, but the likelihood of a scandal grew once the FBI became interested. With Joe Kennedy’s encouragement, the navy quickly moved Jack out of Naval Intelligence and to the navy yard at Charleston, South Carolina, leaving Arvad behind. Their relationship soon ended painfully.48
By then, the United States was at war with the Axis powers, and Jack was eager to be assigned to combat duty. New bouts of illness—severe back problems, continuing stomach problems, and other ailments, some of them hidden from the naval doctors—kept him out of active duty. But in July 1942, he entered midshipman’s school to train as a combat officer.
His hope was to be the commander of a PT boat, a small and flimsy wooden craft that carried torpedoes and searched for Japanese vessels to attack. It was a prestigious assignment for a young novice officer, in part because of the heroic record of earlier PT commanders and in part because of the danger in serving on the fragile boats. Jack’s health problems seemed almost certain to bar him from active duty. But his father intervened, once again providing more misleading medical records and convincing the PT officers that his presence would bring publicity to the fleet. That was not the last of the influential interventions that helped Jack on his way. Unhappy to be assigned to the Panama Canal, far from the fighting, Jack appealed to Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts, who arranged for him to be assigned to the South Pacific. Jack believed it was his duty to fight. He also knew that action in the war would help him in whatever career he might choose. In his competitive, achievement-oriented family, it was almost unthinkable for him to spend the war anywhere but the front.49
In the spring of 1943, Kennedy took command of PT 109 and soon found himself in a fleet of fifteen PT boats sent to torpedo a Japanese fleet trying to escape from the American navy. The attack was disastrous. The PT boats failed to damage any of the Japanese ships. One night, Kennedy’s boat—alone without radio or radar communication in the dark of night—was idling with only one of three engines running as it awaited the enemy. Suddenly, a Japanese destroyer, fleeing the U.S. attacks, appeared out of the dark on a direct path to PT 109. Kennedy had no time to move his sluggish, underpowered boat out of the destroyer’s way, and the Japanese ship cut the U.S. craft in half—killing two of Jack’s crew, with the remaining men clinging to the hull of the boat or floating aimlessly around it. Kennedy swam out to help guide the remaining men back to the hull, surrounded by oil fires, tugging a badly injured sailor with him. By the early afternoon of the next day, with the hull slowly sinking, Kennedy organized his men in groups to head toward the nearest island. It was a five-hour swim, during which he continued to drag his injured crewman with him, fighting exhaustion. The remaining crew made it to shore. When they encountered an English-speaking native with a canoe, Jack carved his location on a coconut shell and requested a boat to rescue them. Seven days after the collision, with the coconut message delivered, they were once again on a PT boat returning to their base.
Almost immediately, the PT 109 rescue became a highly publicized event—driven by the drama of the crew’s harrowing ordeal and the eminence of Kennedy’s family. (Headlines almost invariably referred to him as “Kennedy’s Son.”) The story of his heroism became a staple of the press for weeks after his rescue, enhanced by his famous family. John Hersey chronicled the PT 109 story in the New Yorker in 1944 (decades later it was the basis of a successful film); Hersey portrayed Jack as a modest, self-deprecating hero.50
Absent from these accounts were elements that did not fit with either Jack’s or Hersey’s needs. Jack’s heroic rescue of the crew might have been even more impressive if his physical problems had become part of the story, but he had hidden his pain when he joined the navy and had no wish to reveal his chronic illness and his deceptive health report. Hersey also ignored the murky circumstances that led to the destruction of Kennedy’s PT boat and ignored criticisms, many of them unfair, that—as Jack’s superior officer later said—“he wasn’t a particularly good boat commander.”51 It was in everyone’s interest to shape the story as a tale of heroism and survival. Jack himself did little to tout his sudden fame. He had no need to do so. His shipmates, the navy, the press, and his father did it for him.
*   *   *
Only ten days after his rescue, Jack returned to duty, back on PT boats. But by December 1943, his health was deteriorating again, and he was ready to go home. His doctors agreed. He left the Pacific front in December, arrived in San Francisco in early January, and a few days later checked into the Mayo Clinic once again, the beginning of several months of off-and-on hospitalization to deal with his many problems. The worst, as usual, was his back—a problem that was not caused by the PT 109 ordeal (although it had aggravated the already-existing pain), nor by playing football at Harvard (as his mother told reporters). It was an earlier chronic problem made worse by several failed operations and frequent treatments with steroids. But he received a much greater blow that summer. On August 12, 1944, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.—Jack’s brother, role model, and avid competitor—piloted a bomber dangerously packed with TNT destined for Germany. The plane exploded before it left Britain. Joe’s body was never recovered.52
The death devastated the family. Joe Sr. was inconsolable. For weeks, he stayed alone in his room in Hyannis Port, hardly seeing his wife and children. When he emerged from his solitude, he was a broken and embittered man who blamed his son’s death on Roosevelt’s march to war. Joe Sr. may also have feared that his son had taken this terrible risk in part to help restore his father’s reputation. Jack was shattered too, perhaps worried that Joe’s reckless flight was partly an effort to outdo him. (“Where the hell were you when the destroyer hove into sight … and where the hell was your radar?” Joe Jr. had written Jack after reading the Hersey New Yorker article, still competing.)53 To console himself, Jack set out to assemble a privately published book of remembrances of his brother, As We Remember Joe.54
In the face of his grief over Joe’s death, the end of his active duty in the war, the loss of his relationship with Inga Arvad, and his continuing health problems, Jack was uncertain what to do next. He was officially discharged from the navy in March 1945, somewhat aimless. A few months later, he traveled to San Francisco to write for the Hearst newspapers about the creation of the United Nations. And shortly after that he flew to Britain to begin a tour of Europe that, once again, drew him into the world of politics and diplomacy.55
He kept a diary of his experiences. He was skeptical of the United Nations treaty, which “suffered from inadequate preparation and lack of fundamental agreement among the Big Three … I doubt it will prove effective.”56 In Britain, he followed Winston Churchill’s doomed campaign for reelection, noting that the Labour victory was “a good thing” because it would require the party to make peace with capitalism.57 In Ireland, he was disturbed by reports of President Eamon de Valera’s wartime hostility to Britain. And he joined a tour of the postwar ruins of Germany with Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. He was impressed by the “perfect” discipline of the American occupation troops, and he noted the disappointment of Germans that the U.S. Army had not occupied eastern Germany before the Russians did: “One opinion here is that the Russians are never going to pull out of their zone of occupation but plan to make their part of Germany a Soviet Socialist Republic.”58 But he was not uncritical of the American troops in Germany either. “Americans looted towns heavily on arrival,” he noted. He was fascinated by his visit to Hitler’s destroyed home in Berchtesgaden, and he was strangely interested in Hitler himself.
You can easily understand how that within a few years Hitler will emerge from the hatred that surrounds him now as one of the most significant figures who ever lived.
He had boundless ambition for his country which rendered him a menace to the peace of the world, but he had a mystery about him in the way that he lived and in the manner of his death that will live and grow after him. He had in him the stuff of which legends are made.59
Kennedy was not an admirer of Hitler. But this strange diary entry suggests his interest in the exercise of power—an interest that almost allowed Hitler’s historical importance to overshadow the horrors of his regime.
Kennedy returned from Europe still uncertain about what to do with his life, but gradually it dawned on him that his future might be in politics. Joe Jr.’s death inevitably elevated Jack to become the carrier of the family’s hopes. Despite Joe Sr.’s doubts about his second son’s political skills, he began encouraging him to take Joe Jr.’s place and run for office. Jack was skeptical at first, but he soon began thinking about a political career himself. He had considered and rejected a career in the law. He had tried journalism and decided it was not for him. (“A reporter is reporting what happened. He is not making it happen,” he said years later.)60 “Nothing could have kept Jack out of politics,” Lem Billings wrote. “I think this is what he had in him.”61 Jack had spent his young years thinking about and studying politics and international relations, and he was now beginning to consider a life dealing with the great challenges facing the country in the aftermath of the war.
Jack may not have needed pressure from his father to choose a career in politics, but he continued to need Joe Sr. to make that career possible. Late in 1944, Joe began quietly negotiating with James Michael Curley, the colorful former mayor of Boston who was now serving in Congress. Curley, not for the first time, was having trouble with both money and the law. Kennedy offered to pay off Curley’s debts and help him with his legal problems in exchange for vacating his seat in the House of Representatives. Jack may not have known about his father’s intervention with Curley, but he understood that without his father’s help the likelihood of political success would be slim. “I just called people,” Joe later told a journalist asking about the beginnings of Jack’s political life. “I got in touch with people I know. I have a lot of contacts.”62 In December 1944, his father’s support assured, Jack wrote Billings, “I have my eyes on something pretty good now if it comes through.”63


 
Copyright © 2012 by Alan Brinkley


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4.0 out of 5 stars A great rteading warts and all June 18 2014
By Maurice A. Rhodes TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I wanted to read this brief account of Kennedy's privileged life because the previous books in this series have been so compellingly interesting - Truman, both Roosevelts and Johnson about whom I knew little except for his remarkable record in progressing the Kennedy Civil Rights agenda. The books are just the right length for a good review of these political giants who often have feet of clay.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars JOHN F. KENNEDY: THE LEGACY OF HIS LIFE, TIMES & TUMULTUOUS 1000-DAY PRESIDENCY May 9 2012
By RSProds - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Five EXCELLENT Stars. The latest edition in "The American Presidents Series" is an outstanding, detailed, and sobering historical account by historian Alan Brinkley of the family background, political career, the tumultuous "1000 days", and the historical significance of the 35th President of the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The eloquent unchanging 'boilerplate' "Editor's Note" by Kennedy's 'special assistant', the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr is very fitting for this volume. Despite one historian who thought the assassinated Kennedy's short tour of presidential duty would be viewed as a "flicker" in the lineage of presidents, his legacy, as shown in this book, endures in a positive light because of his successes and despite his failures and much unfinished legislative business. This historical analysis gives many interesting facts about his life and times. A sickly child in a large family with a father driven for business success and a mother at times overwhelmed by the nine children, JFK was initially a mediocre student at the Choate prep school, during which time he began the sexual prowess which was evident during his White House years. The author tracks JFK's progress through Choate and Harvard, his WWII naval service, and his political career (with his father, Joe, successfully intervening at key times). Mr. Brinkley does a great job putting the major and minor events of JFK's life in context without unnecessarily dwelling on any topic: the true story of PT 109, meeting Jackie, the Catholicism effect, NIxon's knee, the "fluid Presidency" style, the Republican and southern Democrat House coalition against him, the disastrous "Bay of Pigs" invasion, the US vs USSR Vienna summit, the Cuban missile crisis, the "freedom rides" and the volatile civil rights issue, his lack of legislative success, "Ich bin ein Berliner", the expanding Vietnam war, the infamous Kennedy libido & his many women, Hoover, why Jackie fled a White House reception in tears, the assassination, and his incomplete goals for programs such as civil rights, Medicare, HUD, and the war on poverty. The excellent post-assassination "The Afterlife of John F. Kennedy" chapter details the many reasons for the unusual legacy of this presidency. This overview of the Kennedy life and presidential years is an excellent capsule history, laden with details that may be new even for many of us who lived through those "camelot" days of John F. Kennedy's 35th Presidency of the United States. Highly Recommended. Five INTERESTING Stars! (225 pages ~526 KB. Contains some expletives. This review is based on a Kindle download, reviewed in text and text-to-speech modes.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Biography of John Kennedy May 15 2012
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
John Kennedy (1917 -- 1963) served as the 35th president from 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963. Many baby boomers, including myself, have strong memories of Kennedy; and many people of all ages tend to see his presidency as a watershed moment for the United States. Alan Brinkley offers a sober, thoughtful, and measured account of Kennedy's life and presidency in his new short biography, "John F. Kennedy", the most recent volume in the American Presidents series edited by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz. Brinkley has written extensively on 20th Century American history; his works include books about the New Deal and American liberalism.

It is difficult to think clearly about Kennedy because of the memories his name evokes, coupled with the assassination and the United States' subsequent political history. During and after his presidency, Kennedy was a highly charismatic, graceful figure who, in the view of many, was taking the United States in a new direction with a sense of mission and purpose. He was dynamic and young. Others, on both the left and right, were less enchanted and more critical. Brinkley is fully aware of the divergent views of our 35th president and he works hard to present a realistic assessment. His book suggests that Kennedy was a gifted but flawed individual who overcame severe health problems on the one hand but who behaved recklessly and carelessly thoughout his life on the other hand, particularly in his sexual relationships with women. Kennedy's presidency, Brinkley argues, would not meet the standards of greatness. Its legislative accomplishments were limited. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent clandestine activities in Cuba haunted Kennedy's administration. Yet the president had successes in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and in his belated but eloquent support of civil rights.

The Kennedy that emerges from Brinkely's book is a careful, pragmatic politician with a reclusive temperament. He was markedly cool-headed and unemotional. In one of the most perceptive observations in the book, Brinkley writes, "{i[t is one of the many ironies of Kennedy's posthumous image that a man who himself was so uncomfortable with passionate commitment would inspire so much of it in others." The charisma that Kennedy possessed, the devotion of many people to him, and the possibly inevitable falling-off has generally struck me as, on the whole, unfortunate in its impact.

In its short compass, Brinkley's study covers both Kennedy's life and his presidency. Kennedy's wealthy and powerful father was critical in exerting influence and money in Kennedy's early terms in Congress and in the Senate. During these terms, Kennedy showed something of a devil-may-care character with few strong legislative accomplishments to his credit. An indifferent student for most of his life, Kennedy read widely, achieved fame with his historical writing, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Although his father had to exert pressure to allow Kennedy to serve in the military, Kennedy emerged as a war hero for his naval rescue efforts on PT-109.

Kennedy won a close election for president against Richard Nixon in 1960 and proceeded to establish what he termed the "New Frontier" with the still-famous call from his Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In successive chapters, Brinkley carefully parses through the major foreign and domestic issues in Kennedy's administration, from the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, to the Cuban Missle Crisis, to Berlin and Laos, to Civil Rights and to the confrontations with business and with U.S. Steel. Brinkely shows a Kennedy impatient with meetings, the Federal bureaucracy, and hierarchy. He governed in a seemingly undisciplined way. Although the term is usually associated with other leaders, the "imperial presidency" was not far from Kennedy's administration. The book shows both Kennedy's accomplishments and his failings. A late chapter of the book covers Kennedy's role in Vietnam. Brinkley shows that Kennedy played a substantial role in American involvement. He declines to speculate on what Kennedy might have done if he had lived. In the final chapter of the book, Brinkley discusses the many theories put foward following Kennedy's assassination. In explaining the continued fascination with Kennedy, Brinkley writes that many people:

"look back nostalgically to an era that seemed to be a time of national confidence and purpose. Kennedy reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could be harnessed to America's highest aspirations, that it could be rooted in a sense of national community, that it could speak to the country's moral yearnings."

Brinkley offers a careful, restrained look at Kennedy and his influence on the "national imagination". This is one of the better books in the American presidents series. It portrays Kennedy with understanding.

Robin Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solid Kennedy Bio After A Few Series Stragglers Feb. 4 2014
By Zachary Koenig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After reading the Truman & Eisenhower books in the American Presidents series and being very disappointed by those entries, I was really hoping that the J.F.K. installment would revive my interest. It did the trick, as I flew through this one faster than many previous!

I think the reason that this bio works so well is because it seems that author Alan Brinkley doesn't really like Kennedy all that much (or, at least doesn't buy into the "Myth of Camelot" like some do). However, that being said, Brinkley still manages to produce a very competent and engaging biography of Kennedy without injecting too much of his own biases into the matter. Essentially, I really felt that Brinkley was able to "see both sides" of the Kennedy Administration, whereas other authors in this series either deify or take to task their subject a bit too much.

Also, Brinkley doesn't let this bio get dragged down in personnel rosters or legislative affairs. He focuses on what I believe this "short bio" series should focus on: the President as a person, as well as the major workings of and events within their administration(s).

Overall, this is one of the best entries in the series. It really revived my interest after a few laggards.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Introduction to the JFK Presidency and Legacy Nov. 7 2013
By dcreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination has engendered numerous new studies of all aspects of John Kennedy’s life and presidency, ranging from the critical to the fawning. For those who wish to take stock of the Kennedy Presidency without axe grinding, Alan Brinkley’s 2012 entry in the American Presidents Series provides a succinct, up to date and highly judicious survey. In just over 200 pages (including notes, bibliography and index), Brinkley touches on all phases of Kennedy’s personal life and presidency and provides a nice tour of the enormous literature on JFK. For Brinkley, the challenge for historians of Kennedy is to understand why a President with so modest a tangible presidential record meant, and continues to mean, so much to so many.

Brinkley covers Kennedy’s family, upbringing and education, noting the importance that publication of his Harvard thesis (with considerable rewriting and support from a team of researchers) played in making a name for him, enabling him (along with his family’s money) to win a seat in Congress in 1946, followed by a successful 1952 Senate run. For Kennedy, though, Congress was just a route to the Presidency, and Brinkley details how he matured politically as he ascended the ladder, becoming a formidable national presence during his failed effort to obtain the Democratic party’s vice presidential nomination in 1956.

The next four years would see Kennedy enjoy flowery press coverage of him and his young family, helping him overcome questions about his youth, health and commitment to liberalism raised by his rivals for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Brinkley does a good job in explaining how Kennedy outmaneuvered his colleagues with what was arguably the first modern primary campaign, combining extensive air travel and large expenditures to win primaries as a means of demonstrating his electability to the small handful of party bosses who controlled the nomination.

Brinkley deals forthrightly with Kennedy’s shortcomings. He covers Kennedy’s womanizing and his efforts to cover up his health problems without going into too many details for a 200 page book. All of the high (and low) points of Kennedy’s presidency are examined, including the Bay of Pigs, civil rights, the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear test ban and Vietnam. The overall picture of Kennedy that emerges from Brinkley’s book is a highly balanced one that will likely dissatisfy both those who continue to idolize him and revisionists who have sought to undermine his legacy on those issues.

In fact, Brinkley gives Kennedy significant credit for championing civil rights legislation (though noting how late he was to act), resolving the Cuban Missile crisis without taking steps that could have led to nuclear war, and negotiating and obtaining ratification of the limited nuclear test ban. He punts on the question of what Kennedy would have done with Vietnam had he lived, though. Finally, he assigns Kennedy a significant share of the blame for his failure to make more progress with Congress on major legislation. Many items on his agenda such as civil rights legislation, tax cuts and Medicare would only become law once LBJ, a master legislator, took the helm.

Brinkley concludes with a look at how Kennedy’s perceived legacy started out brightly (65% of the population claimed to have voted with him after his assassination compared with 49% who actually did) only to falter with attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. Yet, Kennedy left a lasting legacy for many. Brinkley concludes that he remains identified with a particular moment in American history that rested in between the quiet Eisenhower era and the turbulent Johnson/Nixon days when Americans were highly optimistic about the future and therefore remains “as a bright and beckoning symbol of the world that many people believe they have lost.”
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There are two historians named Brinkley--this is the good one June 13 2012
By JLafayette - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I wonder if Alan Brinkley has ever wondered if his "brand" is being tarnished by the quickly-written, turgid books published by Douglas Brinkley. Douglas Brinkley publishes about a book a year and it always shows. He is like so much confetti--a nothingness in the air.

Alan Brinkley, on the other hand, is a true scholar, his books on Huey Long and Henry Luce, among others, reveal the mark of a true historian, one who conducts careful research and provides readers with intelligent, unbiased works that are thoughtful and enduring.

Alan Brinkley's brief biography of President Kennedy is no exception. It's hard to imagine that there could be anything new to say about JFK, especially in the wake of more recent massive works on the 35th president. But Brinkley presents a man who, despite his many health problems, had the kind of drive for public office and abiding sense of irony that was perhaps only combined to such great effect in the personality of Abraham Lincoln.

Brinkley does a nice job of giving us a president who was deeply flawed personally--his legendary sexual daliances may have never brought him down in a more compliant media era, but it certainly left him open to blackmail from Soviet agents. But also we see a JFK who was, like Lincoln, open to new ideas and always evolving. In just a short three-year period Kennedy went from being not very interested at all in the civil rights movement, to embracing it as a moral cause crucial to the future success of America. JFK also entered office determined to ratchet up the stakes between the U.S. and the USSR. By 1963 he was more open to dialogue with the Soviet government. This would probably not have been the approach taken by Ronald Reagan twenty years later, but its important to note that the Soviet leadership during JFK's era was much younger and more willing to push the nuclear button, or at least willing to threaten to do so. By the time of Reagan's ascendancy, many of those same leaders had lost their edge, and were more concerned with the kind of conventional land warfare that allowed Reagan to stand up to them without risking a nuclear holocaust.

Brinkley also nicely uses the archives of the JFK Library in Boston to produce behind-the-scenes correspondence during Kennedy's rise to power and his presidency, giving this book a nicely personal touch.
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