Review of the Book
JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy
by Herbert Parmet
Edward J. Dodson
[A Review of the book JFK: The Presidency of John
F. Kennedy, by Herbert Parmet. A paper prepared in partial
completion of requirements for the course U.S. Recent History, Temple
University, Summer, 1985, submitted with the title, "John F.
Kennedy, A Legacy of Unkept Promises or of Promise Fulfilled?"]
One of the most frequently discussed aspects of John F. Kennedy's
life as a political figure can never be fully resolved; namely, the
impact he would have had on history had he completed his term in the
U.S. Presidency and then gone on to become one of the nation's elder
statesmen. His legacy must, therefore, be evaluated on actual
accomplishments rather than on his intentions or the probable course
of events had he finished his first term and then been re-elected to a
second term in office. One historian, Herbert Parmet, concludes that
Kennedy was "at best an
'interim' President who had
promised but not performed." The strength of that conclusion
must be supported by Parmet's analysis of what promises were made and
the circumstances which contributed to or limited Kennedy's success in
meeting such challenges. It is also essential that a clear distinction
be made between Kenney's promise as a national and world
leader and the promises he made as a political campaigner on
the road to his election at President.
A clear summary of what those promises were is, however, difficult to
extract from Herbert Parmet's book on the Kennedy Presidency. He is
writing about the Presidency as an institution and arm of government.
And, although Kennedy's role in historical episodes is examined, the
book does not attempt to explore in depth the development of this
particular President's positions and thinking. In short, Parmet
presents a political rather than an individual history, focusing on
the politician's "need to balance regional and ideological forces
with plans and tactics that had not much to do with
An individual's true beliefs and convictions, particularly when that
person is a public figure, are seldom to be found in the texts of
political speeches or conversations with the press. Both circumstances
demand guarded responses so as not to provide ammunition for critics
and political opponents. Moreover, promises made in the arena of
election campaigns by ambitious individuals have seldom represented
concrete commitments to deliver on a particular set of policies or
programs. The temper of our time, the advance of technology and the
pace of life have changed the fabric of political organization, a view
offered by one of the nation's conservative editors lamenting
over Kennedy's election victory:
The speeches and official statements of public figures
are no longer, like those of a Washington or a Jefferson, a Lincoln
or a Douglas, even a Wilson or a Theodore Roosevelt, directed
primarily to the most persuasive presentation of a position for an
audience whose decisive members possessed at least modest training
in logic and rhetoric and almost all of whom had been educated in
schools which reinforced common sense rather than devaluing it.
Today they are filtered through the techniques of "mass
communications experts" and conditioned by a political climate
in which imprecision, bland self-contradiction, and grandiose
meaninglessness have set the style of public utterance.
If one agrees the evidence supports this evaluation of political
speeches and public utterances (and I do, based on the actions of
individuals who attain high political office), then to judge John F.
Kennedy on the basis of "did he keep his promises?" has no
relevance to the measure of his contribution. Few Presidents, if any,
could be objectively evaluated based on this criterion. What we are
left with to examine is his promise, or the strengths of
character, conviction, knowledge, thoughtfulness and other qualities
that combine to position someone for great accomplishments when thrust
into the role of political leader.
Perhaps we expect too much from those we permit to act for us. Or,
the psychological profile of those who seek the highest positions of
authority and responsibility within (or over) a society may
pre-determine a harsh judgment by history. The journalist-philosopher
Eric Hoffer, writing shortly after Kennedy's death, suggested that "history
is made by men who have the restlessness, impressionability,
credulity, capacity for make-believe, ruthlessness and
self-righteousness of children. How closely does John F. Kennedy
seem to conform to this characterization? Hoffer's judgment seems
harsh when applied to Kennedy. On the other hand, we in the
social-democracies have cultivated in aspiring leaders a quality of
moderate display in mannerisms, speech, appearance and style. We are,
generally speaking, troubled by the political figure who does not fit
into this definition of the rational and level-headed model of outward
What we know about John F. Kennedy is that his father attempted to
exert a strong influence over the thinking and decisions of his sons.
At the same time, "Jack" was for all of his years at home a
distant second behind his older brother Joe. Jack's early views on
foreign policy closely paralleled those of his father - a New Deal
Democrat with anti-expansionist views who regarded the U.S. as a
global power with equivalent responsibilities. As a student at Harvard
University, Jack became strongly influenced by his tutor, Payson Wild,
with whom he spent a great deal of time discussing the nature of
political leadership and the reasons why people obeyed certain
political leaders. In fact, Wild later observed that Jack Kennedy
considered this to be "the fundamental political problem."
Over time, Jack was to have many opportunities - in the U.S. Congress
and then as President - to experience the opposite side of that
problem in his dealings with other legislators, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, lobbyists, special
interest groups and individual state politicians.
As the Second World War ended, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. expressed strong
opposition to the Truman Doctrine because of the dangers he believed
such policies posed for the United States. "We are throughout
assuming that by pressing steadily and persistently to establish
liberal democracy throughout the world, the world will eventually
reach such a state of advanced civilization that there will be no more
war or fear of war," he wrote. The consequences of acting on this
point of view were, he believed, very dangerous. "This is a
policy which is ardent, sincere, active, and optimistic, but it is one
which would involve the nation in a program of minding other people's
business on a global scale, never previously attempted or seriously
considered." This was a world view shared by many of Joseph
Kennedy's generation; however, leadership was passing to younger men
who believed in the power of democratic institutions to achieve real
and permanent progress. Jack Kennedy was ready - eager even - to play
a role in creating this new, post-colonial and post-imperial world.
As a U.S. Congressman, Jack supported both the Truman Doctrine and
the Marshall Plan. Parmet tells us he "saw the world as the
battleground of a civil war between the extremes of Right and Left."
In a radio interview he gave in 1951, after returning from an
extensive trip abroad, he told the American public that "the
fires of nationalism so long dormant have been kindled and are now
[but that] Communism cannot be met effectively by merely
the force of arms." He then specifically talked about the
crisis arising in Southeast Asia:
We have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a
French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire.
the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through
reliance on the force of arms. The task is rather to build native
non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a
spearhead of defense.
We need to ask ourselves how thoroughly Kennedy understood the
underlying causes of so much unrest among the largely agrarian peasant
populations around the world, historically dominated by domestic forms
of landlordism and in more recent times by foreign and often absentee
landlordism. Did he have a sense that more concrete and
deeply-penetrating reforms were needed than merely introducing
democratic forms on top of old socio-political arrangements? The elder
Kennedy sensed there was little the U.S. could do to bring about
constructive change in such situations. He pressed Truman and others
to "disentangle ourselves from the far-flung commitments
recently made." Arthur Schlesinger quotes both father and son
that by 1950 their arguments over foreign policy were so strained that
they ceased discussing the subject.
As early as 1940, Jack condemned U.S. isolationist policies. He
pointed to Britain's lack of preparedness to meet the German threat,
asking: "Are we in America to let that lesson go unlearned."
Parmet observes that he was already displaying a pattern of "sailing-against-the-wind"
by his "missionary approach" to the "exporting of
democracy." His own writings do not indicate the extent to
which he thought his own country had achieved the promise of
democracy, the most glaring problem being the plight of
African-Americans and millions of rural and urban poor Whites.
Despite his differences of opinion with his father, Jack Kennedy
relied on his family's influence and financial strength to advance his
political fortunes. Yet, once in office his decisions indicated his
formal education and exposure to abstract thinking was stronger than
the perspectives offered by those around him whose education came from
involvement in city and state politics. "Jack Kennedy was a
Democrat by culture and geography only," concludes Herbert
Parmet. "Having come to power by that route, his only way to move
ahead was by mobilizing the remnants of the New Deal, trying to
resurrect and reorder that coalition through a style that fused
moderation with idealism." He shared with his predecessors
and all other victorious politicians a long list of political debts to
repay. However, having reached the Presidency, Jack Kennedy believed
he possessed (if not completely earned) the right to act according to
his own conscience. He was encouraged to do so by individuals he
brought aboard who shared with him a belief in the new liberal
consensus - as understood by a select group within the foreign policy
establishment. At the same time. And yet, his Presidential
appointments attempted to satisfy both his political debts and his
desire to built a consensus for leadership
At the cabinet level and for key advisory positions, Kennedy sought
to find "the best fellows I can get." To help with the
selection process he called on former Council on Foreign Relations
organizer Robert A. Lovett, a member of the nation's financial elite.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writes that Kennedy was anxious to calm the
nerves of the New York establishment, who were very suspicious of what
the new President might do based on the long-held views of Joseph
Kennedy, Sr. As Schlesinger writes:
was little acquainted in the New York
financial and legal community - that arsenal of talent which had so
long furnished a steady supply of always orthodox and often able
people to Democratic as well as Republican administrations. This
community was the heart of the American Establishment. Its household
deities were Henry L. Stimson and Elihu Root; its present leaders,
Robert A. Lovett and John J. McCloy; its front organizations, the
Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations and the Council on
With Robert Lovett opening the door, the President was able to
overcome this handicap. Robert McNamara was brought on as Secretary of
Defense. Other Council on Foreign Relations members were also assured
a prominent role in developing U.S. foreign policy during the Kennedy
years. This level of influence carried by Council has been pointed to
by critics of U.S. foreign policy, two of whom wrote in 1977:
It is an interesting commentary on the close relationship
among the people in the establishment's "front organizations"
that five of the men who were being mentioned for the position of
secretary of state were at a meeting of the Rockefeller Foundation
board when President Kennedy first contacted [Dean] Rusk, the
Rockefeller Foundation president. Others present at the meeting
were Lovett, Mccloy, Chester Bowles, and Ralph Bunche.
Ironically, although Jack Kennedy had not been courted by the foreign
policy establishment because of his family history, he nonetheless
became its political voice. Those who believed in and quietly
promoted an internationalist role for the United States began to see
Jack Kennedy in a different light. "Now that he was President
they were prepared to rally around; and
he was prepared to
receive them." The term "liberal" was not yet
associated with "socialist" or "leftist" policies
and programs. Thus, the "liberalism" John F. Kennedy shared
with establishment leaders was essentially conservative but grounded
in the recognition that the Soviet and Chinese states, under the guise
of communism, were determined to expand their spheres of influence -
or direct control - over as much of the globe as possible and by
whatever means necessary. Kennedy surrounded himself with individuals
who believed these threats superior to all other considerations, a
perspective dictating that the United States take the side of despots
and dictators against oppressed peoples struggling for
An early critic of the post-Second World War approach to global
politics taken by the United States was William J. Lederer, the Far
East editor at Reader's Digest. In 1961, in his book A
Nation of Sheep, Lederer shared his fears about where the nation's
leaders were taking the country:
Our ignorance of the world outside our borders, and our
assumption that an anti-Communist stance is all that a chief of
state needs to qualify for our support, are errors which compound
quickly and work well for our enemies.
Yet our government -
with the tacit approval of the press - seems content to blame all
foreign revolution on Communists; and after one debacle has passed,
we proceed as before to help create the climate in which revolution
becomes almost inevitable.
The problem in the world of the late 1940s and afterward was how to
respond to the broad demand by people for sovereignty, for freedom
from external domination. In the face of these demands stood the
British and French imperialists, determined to reassert their control
in Asia and Africa. Once the Soviet leaders consolidated their control
over the conquered portion of Eastern Europe, they began to ferment
communist-led uprisings wherever the opportunity presented itself. The
Chinese had to choose between the lesser of many evils, and the
communist promises at least offered hope that centuries of misery
would end with the simultaneous removal of landlordism and foreign
imperialists. Along the way, the U.S. foreign policy establishment
side-stepped any arguments that conflicted with an
anti-Soviet/anti-communist response. The cumulative effect by the time
John F. Kennedy entered the Presidency was a world where most
non-communist governments were dependent on U.S. support for their
existence but where a growing percentage of the world's population
looked upon the U.S. as an agent of oppression rather than liberation.
Kennedy himself warned: "Those who make peaceful revolution
impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." He proved unable
during this brief time in the Presidency to do much to advance this
The above paper, in its original form, was moderately
criticized by my instructor. I have made a number of (what are
hopefully) improvements in the paper -- seventeen years later.
Ed Dodson -- September, 2002
 Herbert Parmet. JFK: The
Presidency of John F. Kennedy (NY: Penguin Books, 1984), p.354.
 Ibid., p.51.
 Frank S. Meyer. The Conservative Mainstream (New
Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), p.243. (Cited from a National
Review editorial dated February 11, 1961.
[4} Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (NY: The
Dial Press, 1980), p.243. This observation comes from Professor Payson
Wild, who had John Kennedy as a student in a course on international
law at Harvard and also acted as his tutor. Wild apparently stimulted
the future President's thinking by posing the question: "Given a
few people at the top and masses below, why do masses obey?"
 Burton Hersh. The Education of Edward Kennedy (NY:
William Morrow & Co., 1972), p.58.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger. Robert Kennedy and His Times
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978), p.72.
 Herbert Parmet. JFK: The Presidence of John F. Kennedy,
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, p.92.
 Ibid., pp.92-93.
 Ibid., p.93.
 Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, p.352.
 Herbert Parmet. JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy,
 Herbert Parmet. The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, p.352.
 Ibid., p.88. James Reston concluded that: "The
Kennedy Administration is an odd mixture of idealism and cynicism, of
liberals and conservatives, of professors and politicians, of Harvard
grafted on to the Boston Irish."
 Arthur M. Schlesinger. A Thousand Days (boston: Houghton
Miffliln Co.., 1965), p. 128.
 William Minter and Laurence H. Shoup. Imperial Brain Trust
(NY: Monthly Review Press, 1977), p.64. The authors cite Schelsinger
-- A Thousand Days, p.141 as their source.
 Godfrey Hodgson. America In Our Time (NY: Random House,
1976), p.115. Hodgson's viewe is that "It was the war that
brought together the three groups that make up the armature of the
modern foreign policy Establishment: the internationally minded
lawyers, bankers and executives of multinational corporations in New
York, the government officials in Washington, and the academics,
especially in Cambridge." While not born into this group, John F.
Kennedy's education and global travels "matured" his
thinking and brought him into their corner.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger. A Thousand Days, pp.128-129.
 William J. Lederer. A Nation of Sheep (NY: W.W. Norton &
Co., 1961), p.93.