What manner of man was John F. Kennedy? Perhaps Theodore “Ted” Sorensen, his special counsel and legendary speech writer, and the man behind some of Kennedy’s most ringing presidential statements, could best answer that. But that’s cheek.
A collection of JFK’S letters, edited by historian Martin Sandler, hopes to illumine the personality of America’s most charismatic president since Lincoln, beholden to popular media culture. The 300-odd letters included in this book range from Kennedy’s schooldays to crafted official White House documents, written by the president, and many written to him during a life tragically truncated.
This book, with a rash of others, was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Strangely, a great book on Kennedy has been wanting in spite of “an estimated 40,000 books published after Kennedy’s death.”(According to a New York Times report) Historians remain divided while assessing his presidency. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s humongous A Thousand Days ultimately veers towards hagiography, while Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life has some semblance of definitiveness on Kennedy’s tumultuous life, loves and times. The problem is that the psychosis issued by JFK’s assassination and aggravated by the irresolution of the 888-page “Warren Commission report” has left us with a residual universe co-habited by a martyred Kennedy and his spectral assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The events of November 22 have often swamped Kennedy, the man and his work. Authors like Don DeLillo and Norman Mailer have made capital of the assassination in their fiction, positing Oswald as a hapless a “patsy” rather than JFK’s lone-nut assassin. Now, Sandler’s selection of epistles pares away the mythic Kennedy, presenting JFK as a literate, courageous, witty scion of a fantastically wealthy family of distinction, grasping with some of the most momentous domestic and foreign policy problems ever faced by an American president.
He follows Plutarch’s credo in attempting to unravel Kennedy through his private life and thoughts rather than only his public deeds. While largely being an anodyne volume, the book really peaks during the fascinating “private” correspondence between Kennedy and Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev before, after and through the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world watched with bated breath as it came within an inch of a nuclear meltdown.
The letters offer glimpses into Kennedy’s political acumen, noteworthy in his adroit manoeuvring of Eleanor Roosevelt while campaigning for the Democratic Party’s 1960 presidential nomination. Roosevelt, who condescendingly referred to Kennedy as “my dear boy”, was opposed to the senator’s presidential nomination on grounds of his youth and political inexperience. There is warm and memorable correspondence between Kennedy and Robert Frost, when the latter became the first poet to attend a presidential inauguration ceremony in 1961, and between Winston Churchill for whom Kennedy strove hard to be granted honorary American citizenship. The ones written to, and received from children, are the most amusing and endearing. Several are moving, like Kennedy’s reply to a Solomon Islander who helped row his crew to safety during the sinking of PT 109 during the war. The incident, and a subsequent article by John Hersey in the New Yorker, made Kennedy a hero.
But his courage would be put to the test as racial violence exploded in Alabama and Mississippi and impassioned petitions from civil rights activists James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. flowed in, rebuking Kennedy for shilly-shallying on the Civil Rights legislation.
We get a glimpse into the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961 in Mayor Willy Brandt’s angry and desperate appeal to Kennedy urging the Western powers to act against the Russians. To be savoured are incisive exchanges between trusted Kennedy advisors like John Kenneth Galbraith and the President. Particularly trenchant and prophetic is Galbraith’s sober reply to what American policy in Vietnam should be and why the US should disassociate itself from the corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Which leads to the tantalising question: Would Kennedy have pulled out of Vietnam had he lived? It remains one of the great what-ifs of foreign policy, like what if the French had stopped Hitler from crossing the Saar and remilitarising the Rhineland in 1936. When the president asked Galbraith for his opinion on the pamphlet prepared by the Defence Department to prepare American civilians in the event of a nuclear attack, Galbraith in a sharp reply castigated the pamphlet that only sought to “save the better elements of the population” and censured the document for its “offensive social philosophy.”
Sandler would have done well to include more of such exchanges, thereby shredding some of the pabulum which occasionally hamstrings an otherwise interesting book. Either way, Letters aids us in getting a grip on the reality of a man whose fiction has endured more than his fact.