Thursday, October 31, 2013

Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek has followed his successful 2003 biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 with the recently released Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper, October 2013, 525 pages, $32.50), a dynamic and interesting behind the scenes account of the policy and politics in the Kennedy administration during a period of extremely high international and social stress. Like Lincoln (see Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating study Team of Rivals), Kennedy preferred to surround himself with men, and they all were white men, who represented differing viewpoints, interests, parties, and experience. Given the diversity of viewpoint present in Kennedy's cabinet and among the advisers he surrounded himself with and the volatility of both national and international events during this crucial period, it is hardly surprising that both the events themselves and the conflicting viewpoints about how to react to them and provide leadership in a dangerous world, provides fodder for a fascinating and engaging account often reading like a novel in its immediacy and dramatic tension. Dallek offers readers new, and sometimes surprising, pictures of the people and situations during this crucial period.
John F. Kennedy came to office just a few weeks before an ill-advised and ill-fated exercise by Cuban exiles based in Miami resulted in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for which Kennedy took much of the blame. During the too short three year period of the Kennedy administration, the country was besieged by a continuing fervor of anti-communism, a widening war in Southeast Asia encompassing Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, growing discontent in the U.S. over the slow progress being made towards civil rights, the tensions and fears surrounding the on-going Cold War, as well as the space race made more intense because of it. Throughout this period, Kennedy had to balance interests within his own party and continue to create an environment that would assure his own reelection.

John F. Kennedy

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Kennedy's strength is mentioned by Dallek almost in passing. Diplomat George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and an important writer on post World War II Cold War politics, wrote that Kennedy was one of the best listeners he had ever met. Charles DeGaulle had counseled him early on in his presidency to listen to all points of view and then to follow his own understandings of the correct course to pursue. Kennedy was at his best when he combined these two elements, listening carefully and then making up his own mind. He was more likely to make greater mistakes when he allowed his own careful thought and analysis to be too swayed by those around him. That being said, his closest adviser was his brother Robert F. Kennedy. Bobby was edgier than JFK and more likely to play the game with stronger language. His role was to protect his brother at all costs while often acting as both his sounding board and mouthpiece. If there were strong words to be issued, they often came from Bobby's mouth. The profiles of the various advisers Kennedy selects help to provide insight and nuance to Dallek's analysis.

Robert F. Kennedy
 Coming to office in 1960, just fifteen years after the end of World War II and a few months after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in Cuba, Kennedy took up the mantle of the Cold War. His military advisers were men who had risen in the ranks to top positions during the Korean War and whose experience was informed by the rapid technological change suggested by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima to end the second world war. During the Cuban missile crisis, their counsel was always to respond with overwhelming force and through the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Because the CIA and the NSA (National Security Agency) consistently over-estimated the military strength of the Soviet Union, their plans frequently called for the U.S. to make first strike nuclear attacks. Kennedy, despite being somewhat overwhelmed by the anger and showmanship of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, insisted on maintaining the wiser course and continuing to meet and negotiate. However, when missile launch pads were discovered on Cuba and ships seen steaming towards the island with missiles on their decks, Kennedy established a clear line and a blockade which forced Khrushchev to back down. This section communicates effectively the danger and tension of the few weeks of the Cuban missile crisis while showing Kennedy's wisdom and strength of purpose. 

President Kennedy, as the son of Joseph P. Kennedy who ruined his own diplomatic and political career through overt support of Hitler while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, needed to shore up his liberal support in order to win and hold the Presidency. He was closely advised by liberal thinkers like economist John Kenneth Galbraith and historian Arthur Schlesinger but kept them at arms length by giving them posts where they were out of the way. He chose several conservatives for key economic and diplomatic roles in his administration, while balancing them with more liberal ones. These choices led conflicts to arise in the frequent meetings he held, giving Kennedy a broad spectrum of opinion and action from which to make decisions. However, members of his military and security apparatus often kept knowledge from him and acted on their own volition, eventually needing to be disciplined. 

Many Kennedy appointees tended to be Cold War hawks on Vietnam, always counseling widening the military influence and supporting the Diem and Nhu families there. The narrative indicates that the diplomats appointed to posts in Saigon were too influenced by the Diem administration when a much better picture of conditions on the ground came from journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Shaheen, whose stellar careers were kick-started there. On visits to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robet McNamara swallowed the “rosy scenario” whole cloth, counseling widening the war to win it, thus prolonging the conflict. Meanwhile, despite the counsel of his military and political advisers, Kennedy continued to work for a nuclear test ban for both atmospheric and underground testing. Viewed at a fifty year distance, the Cuban exiles appear increasingly like a loud but ineffective bunch agitating with CIA collusion and right wing legislators to “free” Cuba from Castro. The emergence of the Tea Party dissidents, with leadership from politicians descended from this dissident group like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, only serve to reinforce this impression as the Cuban exile population reaches its third generation.

Robert Dallek
 Robert Dallek is the author of Nixon and Kissinger, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, among other books. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, for which he served as president in 2004-2005. He lives in Washington, D.C. In writing Camelot's Court he has presented an inside picture of the Kennedy administration which effectively presents the difficulties faced by the ill fated President and the conflicts helping to shape the outcomes. The book is solid and interesting reading. 

Robert Dallek's Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper, October 2013, 525 pages, $32.50) was supplied to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelwiss: Beyond the Treeline. If you decided to purchase it, please consider doing so through the Amazon portal on my blog.

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