Commentary Magazine


The Kennedy Promise, by Henry Fairlie

Rhetoric and Reality

The Kennedy Promise: The Politics of Expectation.
by Henry Fairlie.
Doubleday. 364 pp. $7.95.

Inevitably, the search for an answer to the question of what went wrong in the 1960′s must lead us back to John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson was, of course, thoroughly excoriated for Vietnam, but even his worst critics have begun to suspect that a foreign policy which could have led us into Vietnam in the way it did was no spur-of-the-moment creation, that it had links with the past. This view is all the more plausible when one realizes that Mr. Johnson did not hire his own foreign-policy architects, he inherited them from his predecessor, and his predecessor was not Richard Nixon but John Kennedy.

Furthermore, the rage and frustration of many at what happened in the 1960′s are so great that they cannot be adequately discharged by saying that the events to which objection is made were the result of miscalculation or well-intentioned error. We cannot hate a man who makes an honest mistake, and since we want to hate, more than a mistake must be involved. Radicals have one answer: our expeditions in Vietnam, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic were an expression of capitalist imperialism, the foreordained result of a system struggling to fuel its domestic economy with war expenditures or make secure its overseas investments with military power.

Most critics of the war find the radical explanation unconvincing, in large part because they cannot imagine that an imperialist nation would spend $100 billion to protect a few hundred millions of investments, if in fact the United States had investments of even that magnitude in Southeast Asia. And of course they are right: the radical explanation is preposterous. Whatever Harold Geneen may have asked our government to do in Chile, neither he nor any other businessman asked it to send half-a-million men to Vietnam.

But if our country did not get involved because it was objectively imperialistic, might it not have become involved because it was subjectively imperialistic: that is, because it had a conviction of its own worldwide manifest destiny, its obligation to impose a world order, and its claim to world leadership? Contemporary critics of the “cold-war mentality” have, of course, been making just this charge for some time, but since many of these critics were admirers, or even servants, of Mr. Kennedy, they have not been in a position to offer a theory quite as sweeping as their anger requires or their assumptions imply.

Now comes Henry Fairlie, the conservative English reporter and essayist, who has no compunction born of local political entanglements about making the full case. Indeed, given his admiration of Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft, he is in a position to make his case root and branch, for he need not hedge his remarks with pro-forma declarations that American conservatives were also bad fellows. Nor, given his view of the United States, does he feel obliged to burden his explanation of what happened with any moral criticism, or indeed much evaluation at all, of the substance of what happened. The United States is of course an “imperial power” with global responsibilities and that it should become involved in Vietnam is neither shocking nor unexpected. Fairlie is dismayed not by the effort which this country made in Vietnam, but “by the manner in which it was made.” His concern is with the “political error.” The nature of that error becomes evident only as one reads through the book and is rarely stated very exactly, but the reason for that error is presented on almost every page in the clearest possible language.

The reason, in Fairlie’s view, is this: The “political method” of the Kennedys, John and Robert, suffered from a serious fault—it was hyperactive. They posed as rational, laconic, skeptical, and “cool” men, the ultimate pragmatists, but in fact they brought to office zeal, energy, and elaborate rhetoric such that if one asks what they wanted, what goal they sought, one must respond that what they wanted was activity: “Activity was their method.” They sought the “moral leadership of an entire society” such that they “would rule its arts, they would rule its science, they would rule its letters, they would rule its fashion, they would rule its taste; and all to create in the society an elevated sense of national purpose.” In ironic opposition to this style, Fairlie counterposes the remark of Harold Macmillan: “If the people want a sense of purpose, they should get it from their archbishops.”

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The vision of politics that Fairlie imputes to the Kennedys is what has been called—and indeed, what he himself comes close to calling—Caesarism. The Kennedys had no sense of the limits of politics and the limits of American power nor any belief that politics ought to be confined to matters that are truly political instead of being set loose on the culture and tastes of a nation. In his commentary on the famous passage from the Kennedy inaugural address about asking what one can do for one’s country, Fairlie notes that fifteen years earlier Kennedy had copied down a similar sentiment he found in the pages of Rousseau. The “ask not” phrase is, to Fairlie, a contemporary statement of the theory of the General Will, of the individual’s obligation to subordinate himself to larger and truer interests, and of a concept of “voluntary totalitarianism” to which Kennedy “was attracted as a young man.”

The bulk of Fairlie’s book is an analysis of Kennedy rhetoric aimed at pointing out how this country’s view of its international responsibilities was flawed by this overweening ambition, this blind confidence in the Tightness of American purpose and in the obligations of world leadership. The commitment to “excellence,” so much in vogue at the time, was part and parcel of the commitment to the idea of an American empire. The Eisenhower years were marked by quietude and caution and thus could be interpreted by American intellectuals as years of apathy and mediocrity; the call to excellence was a call to activity, and activity meant energy in pursuit of agreed-upon (but generally unstated) goals. Without reflecting much about ends, and without being overly scrupulous about means so long as they were “pragmatic” and “effective,” the Kennedys led us into the “madness of empire.”

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So goes the charge: the country suffered from a state of collective megalomania induced by an excess of rhetoric and exemplified by a vision of “vigor.”

I do not believe it. Mr. Fairlie is a brilliant and subtle commentator, and the texture of his account is far richer in interesting detail than can be conveyed by any quick summary, but his general argument is never supported by anything that links it to political reality. He takes the rhetoric of Kennedy and subjects it to his own formidable skills as an analyst of rhetoric, but the result is only more rhetoric. I dearly wish Mr. Fairlie had been the Kennedy speechwriter instead of Theodore Sorensen: not only is the former an infinitely better writer than the latter, but I happen to prefer the former’s caution, balance, and prudence to the latter’s addiction to ding-dong phrases. But I do not believe Mr. Fairlie has explained much about American politics to us and in particular he has not explained—he has only deeply confused—the problem of what went wrong in the 60′s.

A foreign observer is likely to attach great significance to political rhetoric as opposed to government decisions precisely because, to a foreigner, the former data are more accessible than the latter. And a foreign observer from Great Britain may attach special importance to the rhetorical side of politics since, in his homeland, the ceremonial aspects of governance are more important and the inner workings of the ministries more cloaked from public scrutiny than they are in this country.

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But whatever the reason for the assumption that what Mr. Kennedy said in his public statements is revelatory of what he did and why he did it, it is clearly only an assumption, and I think a most problematic one. The core of American national politics is the Presidency and the struggle to win it; this requires the heavy use of rhetoric to find and mobilize a constituency. (In Great Britain, by contrast, the principal audience for rhetoric is the House of Commons, an exacting and skeptical group of political professionals.) Almost every Presidential candidate gives way to bombast and fantastical claims about what government can or should accomplish: Dwight Eisenhower, after all, led a “crusade” in his campaign, Wendell Willkie spoke about “one world,” and Franklin Roosevelt told a hungry, unemployed, hurting nation that the only thing (!) it had to fear was “fear itself.” Whether any of the men elected become prisoners of their claims, or many voters believe those claims, are open questions.

There was not much evidence that the Kennedy rhetoric delivered to him the “moral leadership” of the nation. He barely won election in 1960 and might well have lost a re-election bid in 1964. Congress was hardly under his sway and his standing in the opinion polls never reached the peaks achieved by his rhetorically less flamboyant predecessor or successor. To be sure, he captivated a large proportion of the cosmopolitan elite, a not insignificant achievement or one without consequences, but that is only to say that Kennedy had a flair for producing what that elite most likes to consume—style.

Furthermore, the “imperial” rhetoric Kennedy employed was, substantively at least, very much in tune with the prevailing national consensus at the time. In 1960 we were in the waning years of that strong sense of national purpose first created by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, welded into an awesome commitment during World War II, and kept alive after the war by the fact of Soviet hostility and domestic fears of Communism. Vietnam destroyed that consensus—perhaps it would have collapsed in any event as a generation came of age that knew nothing of Hitler and Stalin—but when Kennedy spoke, he spoke for a generation that had been in the war, had shared and shaped that purpose, and that was in no mood to see this country once again turn its back on the world or on the possibility of aggression. Kennedy no doubt made extreme or at least undiscriminating statements of that purpose, but as Fairlie himself admits, what national leader can ever afford to give a balanced statement on matters that concern his followers deeply?

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Fairlie may speak disparagingly today of the “cold-war mentality” and quote approvingly from the Nation, but such post-factum epithets are no substitute for a careful appraisal of what the posture of the United States should have been in 1960 in the face of expansionist policies of regimes that we knew to be our enemies. In short, what is needed is an analysis, not of what Kennedy said, but of what he did, how he did it, and what he might have done.

And to the extent he deals with these matters in the latter part of his book, Fairlie is superb. He argues what I believe was in fact the case: Kennedy was not only a poor, but a mischievous political executive, lacking in any experience in the management of large affairs, overly attentive to the verbal skills of “gifted amateurs” and “in-and-outers,” wrongly contemptuous of the federal bureaucracy (or at least contemptuous for the wrong reasons), and persistently inclined to attempt to govern by means of personal intervention and the waging of administrative guerrilla warfare on the slopes of a massive, complex, but not incompetent executive establishment. Kennedy not only sent a few thousand “advisers” to Vietnam without much sense of what they were supposed to do, or how, or to what end; he also, as Fairlie notes, sent them all over the globe and indeed into many parts of our own government.

The real book to be written about the Presidency in 1960-63 should not be about the “Kennedy Promise” but about the Kennedy performance, not about the “Politics of Expectation” but about the politics of management. Comparing Dean Rusk’s State Department and Robert McNamara’s Defense Department, and understanding Kennedy’s relations with each, and viewing those matters with the gift of hindsight about whose advice was right and whose wrong, will tell us more about why things turned out as they did, at least internationally, than any effort to find the roots of Kennedy rhetoric in the novels of John Buchan.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.