Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on November 27, 2019
I can’t decide if I am more disappointed with JFK’s “unfinished” presidency or with Robert Dallek’s pedestrian account of his tragic life. I must have set my expectations too high. Historians rank Kennedy as one of the ten best and “An Unfinished Life” is the highest rated single-volume biography of America’s 35th president.
Dallek does a solid job of chronicling Kennedy’s early life. Like TR and FDR, Jack trod a path of Northeastern wealth and privilege that led to Harvard. Like both Roosevelts, he would have to overcome formidable health challenges. Dallek speculates that Jack’s father Joe most likely pulled some strings to allow his ailing son to see action in the South Pacific as the captain of PT-109. This was when I began to struggle with Dallek’s narrative. Dallek allows his access to newly obtained medical records to overshadow Kennedy’s wartime exploits. After wading through all the medical diagnoses and treatments, I had a good sense of the sinking of Jack’s boat and his heroic rescue of his men, but Dallek subsequently relates, “And for the next six weeks he got in a lot of fighting and, to his satisfaction, inflicted some damage on the enemy” (p. 100). What fighting? What damage?
Dallek makes it clear that for all his charisma, quick wits and eloquent speeches, Kennedy accomplished little during his 12 years in Congress, with his father playing a crucial role at every turn. Kennedy’s most notable (and controversial) action was to not vote to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his Communist witch hunt. Kennedy did become a celebrity and launched his presidential run with the publication of “Profiles in Courage,” but as one of his colleagues put it, “Why not show a little less profile and a little more courage?” (p. 217). Even though JFK’s election in 1960 was every bit as close as Truman’s in 1948, Dallek’s account lacks the drama or verve of David McCullough’s “Truman.”
JFK was in the poorest health of anyone to become president. He was always taking at least ten different drugs, including pain killers, to treat a range of ailments, led by Addison’s disease and a bad back. As one doctor reviewing his medical files put it, Kennedy was “doped up” (p. 471). This makes it all the more amazing that JFK was competing with LBJ to be the most promiscuous president. Indeed, Dallek spends more time discussing Jack’s affairs, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to a White House intern (thinking of you, Bill!), than he does Jackie Kennedy and his two children.
Foreign affairs-wise, Kennedy is best known for approving the CIA’s botched invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Dallek is strongest in relating these two events, but he fails to convey the public’s widespread fear that the world was on the precipice of a cataclysmic nuclear war. Dallek and most analysts have praised Kennedy for standing up to Khrushchev's dispatch of nuclear weapons to Cuba, but what if the mercurial Soviet leader hadn’t turned back his ships once Kennedy imposed the blockade? You can only win a game of chicken if your opponent folds first. Yes, the missiles violated vague notions of the Monroe Doctrine, but did they qualitatively change the nuclear threat posed to the U.S.? No. Besides, Soviet troops remained even after the nukes were removed.
American also became a little bit pregnant in its military involvement in Vietnam on Kennedy’s watch. I would pinpoint the moment of conception as 15 November 1961 when Kennedy announced a tripling of the number of military “advisers” in Vietnam. Dallek does not provide the figures, but according to militaryfactory.com, more American soldiers died during Kennedy’s first year in office (16) than during the previous five years under Ike. The U.S. went from having several hundred to 16,000 troops dispatched when Kennedy died. Based on my reading of Ambrose's "Eisenhower," Ike saw Vietnam as a fool's errand. Kennedy also failed to listen to his policy coordinator at the State Department. Kennedy's failure to reject the hawks and conventional wisdom showed poor judgement and a lack of leadership on the critical issue of the decade--just as W, Hillary and Biden would do the same 40 years later (Iraq).
Dallek does make a strong argument that JFK would not have escalated like LBJ did in 1965 because he was more skeptical and would not be facing reelection. Still, Kennedy started America down a disastrous track that LBJ failed and even Nixon would struggle to take America off of.
Kennedy’s unambiguous accomplishments were more modest. He did sign the first nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviets and pledged to take Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. Amazingly, Dallek doesn’t even mention Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech at Rice University in September 1962. Instead, I found myself having to skim through pages of stillborn domestic policy initiatives.
My favorite accomplishment? Kennedy created the Peace Corps. I wanted to join when I was at U.C. Berkeley until I discovered they had pulled out of South Korea several years earlier. Kennedy’s ambitious domestic agenda, particularly expanding civil rights and social welfare, would have to be accomplished by his successor. To my great surprise, Dallek provides only a cursory account of Kennedy’s assassination, devoting only a few sentences to the event itself.
Reading about JFK made me realize that I have had the good fortune of meeting three of the most important people from Kennedy’s inner circle. Chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen gave a talk to my fellow interns at the World Affairs Council in SF when I was a senior. Ten years later, I made a point of introducing myself to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at a conference in Washington, D.C. because we both went to Cal. And I interviewed key adviser Arthur Schlessinger for a Korean newspaper a few years after that. How I wish I had asked them about Jack!
This review makes me realize that I am more disappointed with Dallek than JFK because I still want to read much more about Kennedy and those around him. To his credit, Dallek mentions his favorite previous biographies of Kennedy, especially those by Richard Reeves and Seymour Hersh. I was surprised that Kennedy relied heavily on advice from Dean Acheson, which moves him up my supporting roles reading list. One of the joys of reading about so many presidents is discerning the thru-stories of folks who served multiple presidents, like like Lincoln's John Hay and FDR's Henry Stimson. I had planned to read “Profiles in Courage” until I learned it was written primarily by Sorensen. First I plan to read Chris Matthews’ “Bobby Kennedy” (2017). Bobby was Jack’s closest friend by far. Next will be McNamara’s “In Retrospect” (1997) as much to better understand the Vietnam tragedy. That means I should also read Max Hastings’ “Vietnam” (2018).