Commentary Magazine

Kennedy as Statesman

p>The Dream of the political outsider is to know why men of state are doing what they do. There are, of course, some resources available to the diligent student: he can rely on the New York Times for an accumulation of indispensable detail, he can infer motive on the basis of a general theory of political behavior, he can immerse himself in the reading of history for the sake of plucking rough analogies from the inexhaustible record of the crimes and follies of mankind. But a nagging sense of insufficiency is always there. Detail, inference, analogy do not quite add up to the real thing. How can the student be sure that he is not catching at shadows, that he is not lost in the maze of his own imaginings, that he does not see a plot where there is only confusion or an impulse where there is in fact calculation? To be sure, his occupational hazard is paranoid suspicion, dirty-mindedness, motive-mongering; and his self-administered therapy is to take refuge in the epilogues to War and Peace, or in a desperate skepticism, or finally in an acceptance of things at face value. The lust to know what really is happening, however, cannot be checked. The voices of consolation or derision will inevitably be drowned out. The truth must be pursued. He will cling to the belief—perhaps it is a delusion—that secrecy is the one great obstacle between him and his goal, which is to perceive the time in which he lives.

So it is with enormous expectations that one opens the pages of the two recent books on John F. Kennedy by Theodore Sorensen1 and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.2 Obviously, the whole truth will not be contained in them. Allowance must be made for tact and for national security. No single chronicler can have at his disposal more than a small amount of the raw ingredients of countless Presidential and bureaucratic decisions. For all that, both Sorensen and Schlesinger were close to the center; both would want to fill in the picture; Schlesinger especially could be expected to befriend the academic inquirer by letting him in on the daily actuality of the Kennedy administration. The events covered are not yet cold: we are now locked in their ramifications. Surely the intimate truth about the years 1961-1963 will make the immediate present more intelligible?

Neither book disappoints; each deepens our understanding of the Kennedy years. It would not be correct to say that any startling revelations are made; it may even be that a few vain readers will come away from these books (especially Sorensen's) with the feeling that there is nothing at all new in them, and that what the Times and a few journals had not already reported and disclosed, political shrewdness could supply. So be it. The fact remains that, at the very least, Kennedy and A Thousand Days put a great many things together, and by their very inclusiveness, permit a more definite sense of the recent past to emerge.

Truly, the sense that emerges is not the sense intended. The aim of both writers is naturally to praise—not indiscriminately, but for one main trait: newness. In the eyes of Sorensen and Schlesinger, Kennedy stood for a break with the past, and a break that was all to the good. He injected vitality into a stagnant nation, while striving to direct that vitality away from cold-war bellicosity, toward the deepest problems of the age, toward hunger, backwardness, and the craving for peace. Who can doubt that if it were only a question of Kennedy's abstract intention, this description of him would be perfectly accurate? What is so awful is that in case after case, as these two narratives (in spite of themselves) make clear, Kennedy's abstract intention gave way before pressures of one sort or another. Even more, Kennedy's initiative, in the absence of immediate pressures, was sometimes in direct contradiction to his abstract intention. To put the matter briefly: the break that Kennedy effected with the past resulted in an intensification of cold-war bellicosity, not in its lessening. Sometimes he acted deliberately; sometimes he acted as he did because he thought he could not act in any other way. The tendency of his actions, however, was to change the direction of Eisenhower's policy, and prepare the way for Johnson's activism. A good part of the story is found in these two books.

The story begins with the adoption of the so-called “McNamara strategy.” This was a deliberate act of policy on the part of the Kennedy administration; a free choice, so to speak. It is certain that if Rockefeller had been President, the same strategy would have been adopted.3 It is probable that if Nixon had been elected, he would have moved in the same direction as Kennedy. It is likely that only Stevenson, among the leading Democrats, would at least have tried, as President, to resist the adoption of the “McNamara strategy.” Among the Republicans it had been, in fact, none other than Eisenhower who prevented its earlier acceptance, thereby causing the resignations of Ridgway, Gavin, and Maxwell Taylor. Which is to say that Kennedy's position represented no new departure in principle, but rather was faithful to widespread assumptions—assumptions shared by men wanting a more vigorous and extended American involvement in the struggle against Communism. From the very start of his administration, then, Kennedy was determined to make American capacities more powerful because more refined, even though he sincerely believed, and had believed for a long time, that the affairs of the world perhaps needed an altogether different approach.

The McNamara strategy was meant to repeal the principal military theory of the Eisenhower administration, the doctrine of massive retaliation. Under this doctrine, the Soviet Union was to be held directly responsible for any Leninist coup or insurrection anywhere in the world, and would stand to suffer an overwhelming nuclear attack as punishment for its imputed responsibility. Furthermore, the response to any Soviet conventional military move would also be an overwhelming nuclear attack. The doctrine needs only to be stated to be convicted of monstrous absurdity; but there were doubtless numerous officials who accepted it in its full absurdity. It is impossible, however, to believe that either Eisenhower or Dulles ever took their own theory literally. It may even be possible to believe that by talking about massive retaliation, Eisenhower was indirectly saying two things. First, American opposition to coups and insurrections would have to take essentially non-military forms, like bribery, good works, economic pressure, and backstage conspiracy. Second, the old cold war was over, and no overt Russian military move was foreseen. In any case, the development of American anti-guerrilla forces and, more important, the buildup of conventional forces, in the name of open American engagement, were ruled out. The costs were prohibitive; the effort provocative; the consequences treacherously uncertain. Schlesinger says half in humor, “Eisenhower could never find the use of local aggression to which nuclear warfare seemed a sensible response.” But the joke is now on Schlesinger.

Kennedy initiated the abandonment of that policy. He embraced, as Schlesinger neatly puts it, “. . . the strong view taken by the service whose mission, money and traditions were most threatened by the . . . doctrine [of massive retaliation]—the Army.” In his first months, he added six billion dollars to the last Eisenhower military budget. A large fraction went to the nuclear deterrent: McNamara was, and is, a firm believer in something called “flexible response”: nuclear weapons must be so diverse and sophisticated as to permit selectivity and gradation in their use. This is another phantom, and I need not chase it now. The important point is that great sums were allocated to the buildup of anti-guerrilla and conventional forces. Sorensen gives the rationale: “. . . if this country was to be able to confine a limited challenge to the local and non-nuclear level, without permitting a Communist victory—then it was necessary to build our own non-nuclear forces to the point where any aggressor would be confronted with the same poor choice Kennedy wanted to avoid: humiliation or escalation. A limited Communist conventional action, in short, could best be deterred by a capacity to respond effectively in kind.” The only trouble with this rationale, in regard to Russia, is that the buildup of conventional forces was much more a provocation than a deterrence. Who could take seriously the possibility that Russia would invade Western Europe or the Near East—who except the army and its intellectuals? What was there to deter? The trouble with this rationale, in regard to revolutionary movements, is that the inability of conventional and anti-guerrilla forces to deter would soon become apparent, and America would be tempted to use its strength to destroy what it could not deter. The counterrevolutionary career would be launched in earnest, with no end in sight. A task more huge, more hopeless, could not be conceived. The view of Communism as a monolithic force was retained from the old theory of massive retaliation; but now the ambition of meeting it in all its forms became entirely serious. Containment became a universal and undiscriminating principle of foreign policy. The threats to American security were seen as infinite.


Kennedy's vision of the world comes out most clearly in his conversations with Khrushchev at Vienna in June 1961. Schlesinger's report is fuller than Sorensen's, though Sorensen's is also quite valuable. Tension over Berlin, the Laotian crisis, and the Bay of Pigs episode were the background to the conference. But the great theme was the balance of power throughout the world, and the relation of “wars of national liberation” to that balance. Delicately but insistently, Kennedy tried to get Khrushchev to see the world as he saw it. War between the two great powers was out of the question; the use of nuclear weapons was too terrible to contemplate. But each great power had vital interests which had to be respected; let there be no miscalculation concerning the determination of either side to protect its vital interests. The effort to impose Communism by force of arms in any country would obviously imperil the balance of power in the world. The United States and the Soviet Union would compete peacefully, and allow the uncommitted world to choose freely its way of life.

Obviously, Khrushchev did not accept the responsibility that Kennedy seemed to wish to thrust on him. Sorensen paraphrases his reply: “Was the President saying that Communism should exist only in Communist countries, that its development elsewhere would be regarded by the U.S. as a hostile act by the Soviet Union? The United States wants the U.S.S.R., he said, to sit like a schoolboy with hands on the table, but there is no immunization against ideas. . . . [Khrushchev] returned time and again to the thesis that the Soviet Union could not be held responsible for every spontaneous uprising or Communist trend. . . . Castro was not a Communist but U.S. policy could make him one. . . .”


It is apparent from the reports that Khrushchev alternated between two responses. Either the Soviet Union could not be held responsible for the surge of revolutionary discontent throughout the world, or the Soviet Union could not be expected to withhold aid, when asked, to insurgent movements and new regimes. It is hard to see what else Khrushchev could have said: he was, in effect, describing the role of the Soviet Union in world affairs analogously to that of the United States. He nowhere said that the Soviet Union would export revolution in the old Trotskyist sense: not by Soviet arms, or by Soviet instigation in an otherwise tranquil situation. That there would be uncontrolled revolutionary movements could not be denied; but Soviet responsibility could not possibly extend to them.

Kennedy's words at Vienna, and the policies he followed, show that he accepted the view that all insurgencies in which Communists take part are inspired by and directed from Moscow. In turn, the triumph of any such insurgency represents a shift in the balance of power between the great power-blocs, a defeat for the West, a serious impairment of its security. As Sorensen says, “The extent of U.S. commitment and of Communist power involvement differed from one to the other, but the dilemma facing John Kennedy in each one was essentially the same: how to disengage the Russians from the ‘liberation’ movement and prevent a Communist military conquest without precipitating a major Soviet-American military confrontation.” The way out of the seeming dilemma was to increase the American anti-guerrilla and conventional capacity.

Sooner or later that capacity would be used. Political moves are determined by the means on hand as much as by anything else: men do all they can. One would like to praise Kennedy unreservedly for apparently limiting American military involvement in the Laotian crisis of 1961-62 to dramatic but empty gestures, despite intense pressure put on him by his military advisers to land American troops in Laos. (Sorensen says his “posture . . . combined bluff with real determination in proportions he made known to no one. . . .) But the praise must be qualified. First, Kennedy was strongly inclined to intervene: he saw the Laotian crisis as a manifestation of the world Communist conspiracy rather than as the product of local antagonisms, in which local Communists played a part; and he thought that a Communist victory in Laos would imperil the security of the United States and its major allies.4 Second, the reason for staying out of Laos was, in part, the Bay of Pigs affair. “‘Thank God the Bay of Pigs happened when it did,’ he would say to me [Sorensen] in September. . . . ‘Otherwise we'd be in Laos by now—and that would be a hundred times worse.’” Kennedy told Schlesinger the same thing. It took one fiasco to prevent another. As it turned out, the Pathet Lao stopped short of total victory: Khrushchev, appalled at the prospect of American military intervention, managed to police an insurgency he had no part in starting and little part in sustaining. By acting as he did, Khrushchev must have lent credibility to the view that all insurgencies were his to turn on and off. The nature of his act was not seen for what it was.

The stage was set for a reversal of Eisenhower's policy in Vietnam. In May 1961, Vice-President Johnson reported to Kennedy, according to Schlesinger, “. . . the basic decision in Southeast Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a ‘Fortress America’ concept.” In October, General Maxwell Taylor made a three-week visit to Vietnam and urged positive action on Kennedy. Once again, Kennedy was induced to see a local struggle as an element in a greater struggle. Schlesinger says, “. . . given the truculence of Moscow, the Berlin crisis and the resumption of nuclear testing, the President unquestionably felt that an American retreat in Asia might upset the whole world balance.” Sorensen says, “What was needed, Kennedy agreed with his advisers, was a major counterinsurgency effort—the first ever mounted by this country. . . . Formally, Kennedy never made a final negative decision on troops. In typical Kennedy fashion, he made it difficult for any of the pro-intervention advocates to charge him privately with weakness.” Gradually, almost insensibly, the American commitment grew and became irreversible. This is not to say that Kennedy would necessarily have permitted the expansion of American force which Johnson has permitted. It is impossible to speculate; one must simply acknowledge that by the end of 1963 “only” 15,500 American soldiers were in Vietnam. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Johnson's commitment having been made without Kennedy's prior one, and without the wholehearted support Kennedy gave to the development of American non-nuclear capability—to the McNamara strategy. When anti-guerrilla activity fails (as it must in conditions like those in Vietnam), a next step can be taken. There will be many to say that it must be taken. Guerrilla warfare will be changed into conventional warfare, so that American technical superiority can be brought into play.


The idea that the power of the West and the Communist bloc were in a balance that required constant vigilance to be preserved drove Kennedy not only to look on insurgencies as suitable for American military involvement, but also led him to invest every direct Soviet-American problem with a high degree of passion. The passion was of a special sort: an intense desire to avoid giving the impression of weakness. Let it be noted that this desire is not the same as the desire to give the impression of overbearing strength. No one could ever accuse Kennedy of enjoying the role of bully. The matter is more sad, more complicated. In his early book, Why England Slept, he expressed the belief that democracies were inherently pacific and self-absorbed, and that they had to have “shocks” to keep them alert to the dangers surrounding them. Being alert, they would not give the appearance of weakness; they would thereby dissuade aggressors from rashness. In line with this aim, Kennedy wanted to raise taxes in 1961 in order to enhance a sense of sacrifice and impress on Americans the gravity of world affairs. His ill-considered support of fallout shelters was part of the same purpose. More than that, all one can briefly say is that Kennedy seems to have had a naturally agonistic conception of world politics. He did not look for fights; rather he thought that they were inevitable, that crisis was the normality of international relations, even in the nuclear age. (He shocked Stevenson by referring to disarmament proposals as “propaganda.”) Beyond the conflict of aims that always exists between nations, Kennedy saw a contest of wills, an almost formal antagonism in which the prize was pride at least as much as any substantive outcome. In discussing Dean Acheson's advice during the Berlin crisis of 1961, Schlesinger says, “[Khrushchev's] object, as Acheson saw it, was not to rectify a local situation but to test the general American will to resist; his hope was that, by making us back down on a sacred commitment, he could shatter our world power and influence. This was a simple conflict of wills, and, until it was resolved, any effort to negotiate the Berlin issue per se would be fatal. . . . For Acheson the test of will seemed almost an end in itself rather than a means to a political end.” Schlesinger and Sorensen both make it clear that the tone of Kennedy's military advisers was practically identical to Acheson's. What is so troubling is that Kennedy's reasons for policy, on numerous occasions, were similar. They prominently included the wish to appear to be accepting a challenge. He was inclined to define the world as the “realists” defined it, though possessed of a self-doubt and a magnanimity foreign to them. Fortunately, one could probably say that the United States under Kennedy never yielded in a contest of wills, was never bested. But the precedents perhaps established, the opportunities perhaps missed, are not easily dismissed.

It would be heavy-handed to make much of the Bay of Pigs affair. Kennedy regretted the failure; he may even have regretted the effort. (The one time Sorensen raises his voice in censure of Kennedy is when he is reporting this event.) But the analysis made by Sorensen of Kennedy's mood before he allowed the expedition to get under way is fairly depressing: “He did not regard Castro as a direct threat to the United States, but neither did he see why he should ‘protect’ Castro from Cubans embittered by the fact that their revolution had been sold out to the Communists. Cancellation of the plan at that stage, he feared, would be interpreted as an admission that Castro ruled with popular support and would be around to harass Latin America for many years to come. His campaign pledges to aid anti-Castro rebels had not forced his hand, as some suspected, but he did feel that his disapproval of the plan would be a show of weakness inconsistent with his general stance.” Anxiety was piled on anxiety, but the sharpest of them all was the fear of having himself or his country thought weak. Appearances were accorded great weight; the United States was constantly having to prove itself. But why? Who was in a position to put this country on trial, who doubted its resolve, who was ignorant of its strength, who, indeed, was not terrified of its strength (the Soviet Union and China included)?

Again, in the case of the Berlin crisis in 1961, the same anxieties are disclosed. After a while, it becomes hard to keep on worrying about Berlin; any problem loses some of its reality through continuous exposure. One does not mean to be callous; but is a mutually satisfactory settlement out of the reach of human wit? Or is the problem useful to all parties as a source of manipulable tension? Before the U-2 incident, it seemed as if Eisenhower and Khrushchev were about to reach some accord. No accord, of course, was reached. Kennedy inherited Khrushchev's dissatisfaction, and the rigid incompetence of the imbecile East German regime. Schlesinger informs us that Kennedy “used to wonder later what had gone wrong in the spring of 1961. He thought at times that the March and May messages calling for an increased American defense effort might have sounded too threatening.” The intended deterrence to crisis had helped bring one about. What, now, to do? Kennedy's advisers, led by Acheson, as we have already seen, refused to countenance any negotiations: the possibility that Khrushchev had perhaps a troublesome situation on his hands was not granted. The exact status-quo had to be maintained; some alternative to staying put on the old terms or getting out in a humiliating way was disregarded. Kennedy was determined, Sorensen says, “. . . to make [the Berlin crisis] not only a question of West Berlin's rights—on which U.S., British, French, and West German policies were not always in accord5—but a question of direct Soviet-American confrontation over a shift in the balance of power.” The bondage to the cold war could not be relinquished. The result was, once more, dramatic gesture: “. . . draft calls were doubled, tripled, enlistments were extended and the Congress promptly and unanimously authorized the mobilization of up to 250,000 men. . . .” The Wall was built, the crisis faded. Only the people of East Berlin had lost, securely imprisoned as they were now to become. It will not do to place, as Sorensen does, the full responsibility for the stiffness of American policy on the inertia or philo-Germanism of the State Department. Kennedy had other sources of opinion—for example, Sorensen and Schlesinger. In reflecting on the crisis, Sorensen cannot forbear from remarking, “. . . no one knew when either side, convinced that the other would back down, might precipitate a situation from which neither could back down.” Only flexibility, only an avoidance of seeing one's total position implicated in every situation, only a willingness to give up the ideology of confrontation, could help to insure that intolerable situations would not emerge. The Berlin crisis uselessly impaired Soviet-American relations, and prevented (temporarily, to be sure) certain kinds of cooperation with the Soviets.


The American decision of March 1962 to resume atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons is yet another example of the politics of appearances. Russia had itself resumed testing in September 1961, and had made, Sorensen says, “important weapons progress.” That is, at the time they resumed, they must have felt that the nuclear buildup implemented by McNamara had weakened their security; the arms race had taken another leap forward. As both Sorensen and Schlesinger make clear, Kennedy's decision to resume derived primarily from considerations having little to do with American military needs. Sorensen says, “Nearly all the principal advisers involved favored resuming atmospheric tests (though a few days before the tests began, McNamara startled Rusk and Bundy at lunch by suggesting that they were not really necessary).” Schlesinger says, “Jerome Wiesner maintained in December that it remained basically a political question: ‘While these tests would certainly contribute to our military strength, they are not critical or even very important to our over-all military posture,’” Schlesinger indicates that Kennedy agreed more or less. Sorensen says that Kennedy “. . . still had doubts about the value of his test series (although not about the necessity of his decision). . . . Privately he speculated that fears of Soviet nuclear test progress might have been akin to previous fears of a Soviet ‘bomber gap’ and ‘missile gap.’ . . .” But still the order to resume was given. In reply to Harold Macmillan's impassioned plea to avoid resumption, Kennedy said (in Sorensen's paraphrase) that the Soviets “. . . would be more likely to attribute such a decision to weakness rather than goodwill. . . .” To Adlai Stevenson, he was equally emphatic: “What choice did we have? . . . [Khrushchev] has had a succession of apparent victories—space, Cuba, [the Berlin Wall]. . . . He wants to give out the feeling that he has us on the run. . . .” Feeling challenged, fearing to be thought fearful, Kennedy decided to do what he hated to do, and had little faith in. He could not escape the tyranny of appearances.

The Cuban missile crisis, the greatest of all crises in the Kennedy years, also contained this same obsession. Kennedy's most desperate anguish came at a moment when he felt that appearances were not to be endured; his most stunning victory came at a moment when he succeeded in altering appearances. It would be foolish to reduce the crisis to this single element of appearances; but to ignore its possibly preponderant role would also be foolish.

In a wonderfully lucid exposition, Sorensen describes the several theories suggested by the President's advisers to explain Khrushchev's move. (One of the most fascinating small aspects of this affair was the response of the Chinese, who accused Khrushchev of “adventurism” in trying to place missiles in Cuba—and of cowardice for removing them.) The theories mentioned by Sorensen are (1) that Khrushchev was testing the will of the United States, and hoped to make the United States look weak, irresolute, and faithless to its sworn commitments; (2) that Khrushchev hoped to induce us to invade Cuba in order to disgrace us in the eyes of the world; (3) that Khrushchev was genuinely concerned for Cuba's security,6 (4) that Khrushchev was bargaining, and hoped to trade off the Cuban bases for a Berlin settlement or American bases overseas; and (5) that Khrushchev was desirous of improving his strategic nuclear position. Sorensen says that Kennedy's own analysis “. . . regarded the third and fifth theories as offering likely but insufficient motives and he leaned most strongly to the first.” That is, Kennedy interpreted the move as primarily an affront to the United States, a calculated probe of weakness, a contest of wills. He increasingly insisted to his advisers that the entire matter be defined as a Soviet-American confrontation. Irrespective of interpretation, however, Kennedy insisted that the missiles “would have to be removed by the Soviets in response to direct American action.” In a television interview on December 16, 1962, to which Sorensen makes only a brief allusion, Kennedy gave a splendidly candid account of his reasons for taking any risk to prevail. He said, “. . . [the Russians] were planning in November to open to the world the fact that they had these missiles so close to the United States; not that they were intending to fire them, because if they were going to get into a nuclear struggle, they have their own missiles in the Soviet Union. But it would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality.”

Harold Macmillan could wonder “what all the fuss was about”; after all, Europe was used to living under the nuclear threat. He seems to have missed the point, namely that there was no military threat but instead a threat to America's reputation as a world power. Largely for the sake of great-power reputation (though other reasons, including the reputation of the Democratic party, figured), the world was brought close to a terrible event. (One assumes that this is so, but The Penkovskiy Papers say that Kennedy knew the Soviet nuclear capacity to be unready for action, and that Kennedy was therefore quite free to be as tough as he wanted and not incur grave risks.) Appearances do contribute to reality: reputation for power is a source of power: you are if they think you are. But was America's reputation so fragile? The irony is that America's very strength permitted Kennedy to act out of fear of being thought weak. Its very strength, however, should have permitted him to mitigate this fear. He did not carry his consciousness of American power far enough—as far as Eisenhower, before him, had carried it. And a relentless pursuit of right appearances can be catastrophic. In this instance, the pursuit was not catastrophic, but what guarantee was there? Kennedy later told Sorensen that “The odds that the Soviets would go all the way to war seemed to him then ‘somewhere between one out of three and even.’” A nuclear war to eliminate a nuclear installation—can such thoughts be entertained?

The alternative was not mortified acceptance, but negotiation before the crisis escaped control. Stevenson, according to Schlesinger, proposed the removal of the missiles in exchange for a UN presence in Cuba, an American non-invasion guarantee, and relinquishment of the base at Guantanamo. This program struck Kennedy as premature, and some of his advisers “. . . felt strongly that the thought of negotiations at this point would be taken as an admission of the moral weakness of our case and the military weakness of our posture.” The blockade was declared; unless Khrushchev backed down, “. . . the United States would have had no real choice but to take action against Cuba the next week.” The implications of invasion were understood: Kennedy said that “If we had invaded Cuba . . . I am sure the Soviets would have acted. They would have to, just as we would have to. I think there are certain compulsions on any major power.” Khrushchev did back down, and was freely granted a guarantee against the invasion of Cuba. But he did back down; he refused to breach the blockade; he agreed to withdraw the missiles. How is his decision to be assessed? Was it cowardice or was it sanity? Did he not also win a victory of sorts in the realm of appearances by emerging as a champion of rationality? As such, did not his reputation improve, and indirectly with it, the power of the Soviet Union?


Redefinition of radical revolution as Muscovite conspiracy, redefinition of every problem as a great-power confrontation affecting the global balance of power, the adoption of the McNamara strategy in order to have the means to act on the basis of these redefinitions—can this be all that Kennedy bequeathed us in foreign policy? The answer is, of course, no. Who can repress nostalgia for those days in late 1962 and early 1963, when Kennedy, abetted by Pope John and Khrushchev, seemed to recapture the spirit of his inaugural address and of many of his earlier speeches? Surely this was the real Kennedy who, hitherto distracted from his mission and victimized by the foreign-policy establishment, had finally struggled free. The Cuban missile crisis may have petrified Khrushchev; it seems to have altered Kennedy. The very next morning after Khrushchev's capitulation, Kennedy told Schlesinger that “. . . he was afraid that people would conclude from this experience that all we had to do in dealing with the Russians was to be tough and they would collapse.” After a shrewd analysis of the affair, he went on to say, “They were in the wrong and knew it. So, when we stood firm, they had to back down. But this doesn't mean at all that they would back down when they felt that they were in the right and had vital interests involved.” But these words do not capture the full transformation. After the Cuban crisis, Schlesinger says, Kennedy's feelings “. . . underwent a qualitative change . . . a world in which nations threatened each other with nuclear weapons now seemed to him not just an irrational but an intolerable and impossible world.” The proof of this sentiment came in the form of strenuous negotiation to produce the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The fact is that much of the strenuousness was spent on Kennedy's own military advisers. Once again, the passion for right appearances was exhibited by the Chiefs of Staff. Maxwell Taylor told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the most serious reservations of the military had to do with the fear of a euphoria in the West which will eventually reduce our vigilance.” Only this time Kennedy, after making some concessions to the military, rejected the logic of appearances and went ahead with the treaty.

The real victory that Kennedy won in Cuba was over his own advisers. Some would like to say that he had softened up Khrushchev: that a show of strength and determination, on such a scale and under such trying conditions, had so demoralized the Russian leader that he had no choice but to feign moderation and accept Kennedy's overtures of peace. It would be equally plausible to say that Kennedy's show of strength and determination had (for the time being) won him so much prestige and brought him so much self-confidence that he could at last prevail even over his bellicose aides, and pursue a policy that he (and Khrushchev) wanted from the beginning. Not out of a good heart, but out of cold prudence, out of dread of American power, Khrushchev had been straining to be compliant. Success in Cuba accidentally made it possible for Kennedy to take advantage of Khrushchev's wishes. Kennedy's sense of reality shone through. If he had lived, would he have imposed that sense on the men around him? One wants to believe that he would.


1 Kennedy, Harper and Row, 758 pp., $10.00.

2 A Thousand Days, Houghton-Mifflin, 1087 pp., $9.00.

3 Sorensen says that in mid-1961, when McNamara's views were assuming final shape, Kennedy thought that Rockefeller was the most likely Republican opponent in 1964. “Nor was [Kennedy] unmindful of the fact that . . . Rockefeller . . . was criticizing the administration's complacency on civil defense in much the same terms Kennedy had applied to the ‘missile gap’ in earlier years.”

4 There was also a political consideration. Schlesinger says, “Kennedy told Rostow that Eisenhower could stand the political consequences of Dien Bien Phu and the expulsion of the West from Vietnam in 1954 because the blame fell on the French; ‘I can't take a 1954 defeat today.’”

5 How sly Sorensen sometimes is!—G.K.

6 Sorensen says, “It should be noted that the Soviet Union stuck throughout to this position. Mikoyan claimed in a conversation with the President weeks after it was all over that the weapons were purely defensive, that they had been justified by threats of invasion voiced by Richard Nixon and Pentagon generals, and that the Soviets intended to inform the United States of these weapons immediately after the elections to prevent the matter from affecting the American political campaign.” Sorensen acknowledges that the administration in 1962 had been “. . . readying a plan of military action in the knowledge that an internal revolt, a Berlin grab or some other action might someday require it. . . .”

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