JOHN F. KENNEDY: World Leader

By Rakove, Robert | International Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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JOHN F. KENNEDY: World Leader

Rakove, Robert, International Journal

JOHN F. KENNEDY World Leader Stephen G. Rabe Washington: Potomac, 2010. 249PP, $60.00 cloth. ISBN 978-1-597971478

John F. Kennedy retains an almost unequaled currency in American politics, which makes Stephen G. Rabe's study of his foreign policy, John F. Kennedy: World Leader, an exceptionally timed book, well suited for both interested readers and the college classroom.

One must begin by noting the immensity of the challenge before Rabe: to examine concisely the president who faced two of the Cold War's most dangerous crises (which, themselves, have been the subject of entire books), but not to the exclusion of myriad other issues and relationships that do not make the history textbook but are essential to understanding Kennedy's foreign policy. Rabe, whose publications include two excellent books about Kennedy-era foreign policy toward Latin America, has an instinctive feel for the human cost of policies crafted at the dizzying heights of world power. The book has a number of attributes that make it well suited for the college classroom: Rabe helpfully provides a pre-1961 background to many issues he discusses, and an appendix of 16 documents nicely augments the author's narrative.

Kennedy scholarship has moved between pendular extremes. The first generation of books about him, written in the immediate wake of his death, conferred a kind of sainthood upon him and helped to let loose the myth of Camelot. The second generation, strongly influenced by the Vietnam War, captured a very different president: an unyielding Cold Warrior, egged on by personal demons toward reckless acts of policy. A third wave began to emerge after the Cold War as documents became increasingly available. In particular, we have benefited from the release of audiorecordings of Kennedy's deliberations during the Cuban missile crisis. Third- generation Kennedy scholarship has sought a middle ground, faulting him for aggressive policies but also crediting him with cool, prudent leadership amid crises, and reigniting debate over whether he had begun to transcend Cold War thinking in his final year.

Rabe straddles the second and third waves of Kennedy scholarship but sits a bit closer to the former. He is sharply critical ofa number of Kennedy's policies, particularly toward Latin America. He deems Kennedy incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and communism, and indicts him for "invariably" choosing anticommunist dictators or colonialists over national or elected leaders with less certain Cold War bona fides (18). He takes aim at what he and others call "Kennedy exceptionalism": the belief that Kennedy would have made fundamentally better, more prudent choices than other Cold War presidents (120). At the same time, he credits Kennedy with sound judgement during the Berlin and Cuba crises, and applauds the intent, if not the consequences, of his foreign aid policies. Rabe's Kennedy is a paradox: hawkish but cautious amid crises, sympathetic to nationalism and yet fearful of it. As such, this portrait introduces readers to much of what fascinates and aminates debate about the 35th president.

Like other Kennedy scholars, Rabe grapples with fundamentally unanswerable issues, all of which concern Kennedy's final year in office. It is a thankless but necessary task, whüe adding all the necessary caveats, to discuss where Kennedy's policies were heading in his final year and what he might have done had he not been assassinated. Three questions in particular are worthy of discussion: whether Kennedy might have achieved an early détente with Khrushchev, whether he might have pursued a modus vivendi with Castro, and whether he might have removed US troops from Vietnam.

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