Commentary Magazine


Of Kennedys and Kings, by Harris Wofford

After Prince Charming

Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties.
by Harris Wofford.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 504 pp. $17.50.

With the exception of his indefatigable apologist Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., historians have been much harsher toward President John F. Kennedy than pundits and journalists were during and immediately after his brief administration. With the perspective that events in the next decade provided—a perspective that reflected the leftward shift of American intellectual life in those years—historians came to criticize Kennedy for lack of commitment in the civil-rights struggle, for strengthening American defense and cold-war postures vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and for a willingness to use military force in the pursuit of American foreign policy. Kennedy’s promise to “pay any price” in “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger,” his advice to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” in retrospect took on ominous significance. By contrast, the Eisenhower interregnum (John Foster Dulles’s rhetoric notwithstanding) ironically began to appear more attractive.

Is it conceivable that, in yet another turn of the spiral, former New Frontiersmen or liberal Democratic historians will, if not defend, then at least come to acknowledge sympathetically Kennedy’s role in maintaining the policy of containment that the United States had pursued since the start of the cold war? If this book by Harris Wofford, a special assistant in the Kennedy White House and long-time liberal idealist, is any indication, the prospect does not seem likely. Wofford believes that the revisionist critique of the Kennedys, while to some extent warranted, has gone too far and produced a cynicism about government that has paralyzed American politics. What this really seems to mean, however, is that critics have connected the first half of the decade—the short reign of Kennedy as a liberal Prince Charming—with the disastrous events of the second half. Rejecting such an ungenerous interpretation, Wofford in this memoir-history asserts that John and Robert Kennedy were not principally cold warriors, and argues that their search for world peace went farther than present-day liberals think.

Wofford writes most knowledgably about civil-rights policy (he was legal counsel to the Civil Rights Commission in 1958-59 and then special assistant to the President on civil rights in the first year of the Kennedy administration). He takes issue both with the view that Kennedy felt no urgency in regard to civil rights and with the argument (advanced by Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen) that the President was deeply committed from the first to the cause of black equality. After reviewing the events that led in 1963 to Kennedy’s long-awaited admission that civil rights was a moral issue, and the introduction into Congress of major civil-rights legislation, Wofford says that Kennedy was probably right to adopt a cautious attitude and let matters ripen as they did. He at once defends Kennedy for having raised black expectations in the campaign of 1960 and then, in the tradition of Kennedy hagiography, praises him for experiencing the personal growth that enabled him by 1963 to perceive the dimensions of the issue. Kennedy, Wofford writes, “was an extraordinary politician and learned through politics in the best American tradition of learning by doing.”

Although Wofford’s ties to Martin Luther King enabled him to serve usefully as liaison between the Kennedy administration and black leaders, the work he performed appears to have offended his liberal sensibilities. (He grew tired, he tells us, of Kennedy’s asking with a grin how his constituents were.) In any event, ever since his youthful days as a United World Federalist, Wofford’s heart was really in foreign affairs. In the 1950’s he had been an assistant to Chester Bowles in the effort to redirect American foreign policy away from reliance on military power and toward an emphasis on economic aid to underdeveloped countries. It was appropriate therefore that Wofford should in 1962 become deputy director of the Peace Corps.

Like other Kennedy apologists, Wofford is given to judging the New Frontier more by its intentions than by its results. In the case of the Peace Corps perhaps that is all one can do, but Wofford’s account is nevertheless a little startling. Whereas seemingly the whole world regarded this missionary-like undertaking as an aspect of U.S. cold-war policy, Wofford saw it—and persists in seeing it—as pointing in the opposite direction. It was, he writes, a genuine experiment in international partnership, an attempt to achieve world peace and show the peoples of the world that we were interested in them for their own sake rather than for any function they might serve in countering Communism. At the same time, Wofford also says that one of the purposes of the Peace Corps was to contribute to the development of “critical countries and regions.” He does not explain in what sense certain countries were critical, but in the context of the East-West struggle the plain meaning would seem to be that they were important to U.S. security.

Wofford was attracted to Kennedy initially because he thought he would depart from the containment policy of Truman and Acheson and move in the direction of conciliation urged by Bowles and other liberals in the 1950’s. Within months of the new Democratic President’s inauguration, however, cold-war hostilities increased and were accompanied by threats of military force. The Bay of Pigs, the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the deepening involvement in Indochina, covert planning to assassinate leaders of foreign countries: these events require Wofford to explain in retrospect how the man whose election seemed to augur the advent of peace and rationality in foreign policy could have steered the country so precipitately toward confrontation and have left the legacy of war that he did at the time of his death.

Wofford’s answer is twofold. First, after years of having been charged with “softness” toward Communism, the defense, foreign-policy, and intelligence establishments, all now in the hands of Democrats, became possessed of “the military mind.” Second, Kennedy himself, for all his energy, wit, and intelligence, lacked in Wofford’s view a basic moral reference point. He had no “genuine sense of conviction about what is right and wrong.” Bored with and indifferent to moral and legal considerations in foreign policy, Kennedy operated on the basis of a thoroughgoing pragmatism that in conjunction with his competitive instinct and his fear of being seen as soft, led him to undertake one military adventure after another.

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What one sees first of all in Wofford’s account is a failure to acknowledge that anti-Communism could be seriously supported by Kennedy or anyone else for sound and objective reasons, both moral and political. In this respect Wofford is of course typical—indeed he appears as a progenitor—of the “new-politics” wing of the Democratic party that came to power in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and that now dominates the foreign-policy establishment. The reason for this unwillingness or inability to recognize the legitimacy of anti-Communism constitutes a major and inadequately understood problem in contemporary political analysis. The beginning of an answer, however, would seem to lie in the class outlook of people like Wofford, who refuse to accept the intellectual premise of anti-Communism because it means accepting middle-class values and bourgeois liberties as fundamental to American political culture.

In contrast to earlier apologists for the New Frontier, Wofford should be given credit for at least acknowledging that Kennedy must figure in an account of the events that darkened the latter half of the 1960’s. Yet he perceives Kennedy merely in personal terms, as a leader whose actions were flawed by a “false pragmatism” and a lack of moral principle. In fact, Kennedyism involved far more than the personal qualities of John F. Kennedy. It was in essence a political style and method of rule that calculatingly raised the keenest expectations of what politics and government could accomplish, and then traded on the people’s willingness, under the tutelage of the mass-communications media, to support their national leaders in crisis after crisis after crisis.

Wofford, without seeing it for what is was, participated in and contributed to this method of rule under John Kennedy, and in 1968 was ready—indeed fervently so—to participate in it again under Robert Kennedy. This time, however, in contrast to the noble if still somewhat ambivalent adventure that the New Frontier had promised, Wofford was certain that with a Kennedy in the White House things would be different and the U.S. would at last chart a new course in world affairs. For Robert Kennedy, having grown into virtually a whole new being as a result of the tragic events of his brother’s administration, committed himself—after Eugene McCarthy knocked Lyndon Johnson out of the presidential race—to reason, restraint, and peace in foreign policy. Unlike his brother, Robert Kennedy finally acquired “the courage to appear soft.” And with this courage, Wofford tells us, Robert Kennedy set out “to save the soul of the nation.” Such an undertaking, of course, appealed to Wofford, who had long thought the country in need of redemption and who did his part by ending up in jail during the Democratic convention in 1968 because, as he unctuously explains, of “Bob Kennedy, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.”

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Here as at other places Wofford’s account would be merely risible were it not so disturbingly serious. For this frequently trivial yet revealing book presents evidence of a political temperament that we have by no means seen the last of. Here is one of the original “best and brightest,” a humanitarian liberal if there ever was one, the sort who is eager to condemn government power and uphold liberty and justice for all, propounding with enthusiasm the idea that a politician might save the nation’s soul, and showing not the slightest qualm that the mission of salvation might produce a dangerous concentration of power.

If not an entirely fair comparison, it is nevertheless instructive that in the riot-torn 1830’s Lincoln urged Americans to strengthen the republic by making obedience to the Constitution and laws the political religion of the nation. It is a measure of the decline in civic virtue that in the riot-torn 1960’s the country’s governing establishment, as portrayed in Wofford’s book, in effect condoned civil disobedience and, making a religion out of politics, looked to messianic leaders like the Kennedys for salvation. In the 1970’s, through no intention of their own, Nixon and McGovern in different ways interrupted this pattern of chiliastic politics, and it may now be (as the defeat of Edward Kennedy in the 1980 primaries would suggest) that a healthy sense of skepticism and limitation has been restored in American politics. One certainly hopes so, but it is far too early to say whether the tendencies reflected in Wofford’s account have spent themselves.

In any event, this attempt to explain the 1960’s provides an occasion for reconsidering the historical origins of perhaps the central constitutional issue in American politics in the late 20th century, the aggrandizement of power in the quest for political salvation.

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