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The Responsible Idealist

The Responsible Idealist

The lessons of John F. Kennedy’s youth that forged his character are lessons that our elites would do well to heed today.

Mike Fox
JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956
by Fredrik Logevall (Random House, 816 pp., $40)

There are many, many books about the one thousand days of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, covering everything from the elevated to the mundane and scandalous. JFK maintains a hold on our imagination despite his brief tenure, cut short by assassination, and his arguably mixed record of accomplishments. This hold is no accident. He created a mass-media presidency, aided by his TV-ready looks and charisma. After his death, his legacy was deliberately transformed into the American myth of Camelot by his widow, Jacqueline, and the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall’s book, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, is a little bit different.

Logevall’s enjoyable bildungsroman covers JFK’s first thirty-nine years and ends just before his campaign for president. The book concentrates on the human Kennedy, showing him as privileged and flawed but well intentioned and sometimes courageously idealistic. But Logevall also uses Kennedy as a way to understand America’s trajectory through the early 20th century. In the story of Kennedy’s rise to face a changing world, we can see lessons for rising generations of leaders figuring out what role the United States should play today.

Logevall draws on material newly released from the Kennedy family archives: letters, diary entries, even FBI wiretaps. The book offers small, revealing details: Young Kennedy’s clothes were never pressed or even clean. He often stiffed friends over the check at dinner; his sexual relationships were many. These stories rescue the book from being a cardboard hagiography, but they do not fulfill Logevall’s goal of being a comprehensive “life and times.”

Important figures like Neville Chamberlain play significant roles in the narrative, but only as minor characters in the drama of the Kennedy family. The hard-edged Boston politics of JFK’s grandfathers is mentioned, but not in the vivid detail provided by other books, such as David Nasaw’s 2013 biography of JFK’s father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Logevall provides substantial context around these secondary figures and events, but it consists of restating known history rather than revealing new information. The narrative proceeds nicely without such material; but more of it would have provided a fuller sense of the environments—moneyed Boston, interwar England—that shaped the young Kennedy and the contradictions that he later embraced and fashioned into political strengths.

Logevall’s writing is straightforward, almost a stereotypical hero’s journey featuring a well intentioned young man finding his way to an opportunity to lead. The book stands out, however, not just for the new revelations from Kennedy family archives, but also for Logevall’s juxtaposition of Kennedy’s personal development with the historical circumstances he faced, a conceptualization relegated to footnotes in other JFK biographies.

A Mind of His Own

Looming over the narrative almost to a cliché is Kennedy’s relationship with his father, a wealthy financier who became U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Joseph Kennedy was both the font of the privilege and comfort that JFK enjoyed and much of what the young man would later reject. In JFK’s relationship with his father, we see the book’s core themes: generational conflict, privilege versus service, isolationism versus international engagement, political expediency versus values-based leadership.

Ironically for someone who has himself become an American archetype, Kennedy’s worldview was shaped by childhood tales of adventure and history. He was a sickly child who spent time reading and developed what his mother, Rose, called a “romantic and idealistic streak,” which would lead him to study history and eventually embrace public service. But unlike most people who dream of venturing into the world and changing it, Kennedy was born into immense wealth. In this sense, his youth resembled that of his early icon, Winston Churchill, another leader born into privilege who sought a poetic sense of glory in war and expressed his curiosity and values through writing. The book shows Kennedy constantly struggling between privileged complacency and taking risks with his life and reputation to make an impact.

One early personal document that Logevall gives us is a prep school essay in which JFK wrestles with the questions of how a just God could allow pain in the world and why it is easier to be born wealthy and live a productive life than to be born poor and be expected to act morally solely for heavenly rewards after death. Kennedy here shows a precocious understanding of his fortunate circumstances and challenges Catholic dogma. Despite such signs of prescience, Kennedy got poor grades overall; his father often intervened with his headmaster and teachers. Kennedy’s education was full of teachers who gave him constant opportunities to reach his potential despite his personal failures and lack of initiative.

JFK often failed to measure up to the example set by his older brother, Joseph, Jr. Joe was the son with better grades, the athletic captain, and the sibling whose isolationist views aligned with his father’s. The traditional narrative is that Joe, Jr., was to be his father’s avatar in politics until he was killed as a pilot during World War II. JFK was the class clown who never lived up to his potential; but Logevall makes clear that politics was on his mind from a young age, separate from his brother’s ambitions. Logevall’s access to primary documents helps him adduce evidence of JFK’s early social justice mindset and independent commitment to service.

Kennedy’s father supported JFK’s pursuit of public service, hiring him as an aide at the U.S. embassy in London and subsidizing and promoting his senior thesis to produce a 1940 bestseller, Why England Slept. The story of a man having his entry into politics and policy subsidized by family wealth is not unfamiliar. Ambassador Kennedy paid for his two oldest sons to travel; JFK took a formative trip to Europe in 1939, meant to resemble the Continental tours that moneyed youth took in previous generations. During his travels young Kennedy saw the rising threat of fascism when he passed through Nazi Germany and occupied Czechoslovakia. After the trip, his views diverged from those of his father and older brother.

Logevall uses this Kennedy family divide as a microcosm of the pre-World War II debate over isolationism. Ambassador Kennedy opposed war with Nazi Germany and found reinforcement for his complacency and fatalism in Chamberlain’s assertions of imminent peace and Charles Lindbergh’s threatening evaluations of German military might. Joe, Jr., defended his father’s views during debates on the Harvard campus. Despite JFK’s initial agreement with his family, his independent thinking and grasp of history, along with an empathetic humanity shaped by his extensive reading, led him to recognize the Nazi threat for what it was. In his belief that the United States had a responsibility to the world in the impending war, JFK revealed an ability to draw on his underlying values and informed experience instead of the tribalism of his tight-knit family.

Why England Slept was JFK’s attempt to understand how the world’s then-superpower missed clear signs of the impending Nazi danger. It was also a reckoning with his father. The book’s thesis is that England’s domestic politics and divisions prevented it from rallying to the unified sense of public purpose necessary to prepare for war. Politicians cared primarily about getting elected, and voters remained too scarred by World War I to absorb the need to re-engage internationally. No one acted as a leader to compensate for the United Kingdom’s democratic inertia until Churchill came to power. Logevall analyzes the book’s text, thesis, and accompanying author’s notes and convincingly demonstrates that the book and its original research were, despite previous innuendo, genuinely written by JFK.

In Logevall’s story, isolationism reflected American and British self-interest, complacency, and ignorance of long-term consequences. Ambassador Kennedy failed to compensate for these deficits, not because of skepticism about war or admiration for Nazi Germany, as has been falsely charged, but in his narrow-minded fatalism. Because he could not divorce these personal emotions from his reporting responsibilities, he wasted the U.S.-UK relationship. FDR eventually took direct charge, and Ambassador Kennedy became irrelevant.

Nearly thirty years later, JFK exhibited the opposite kind of leadership. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, his clear and honest communication with the American public, focus on solutions, and willingness to use force to back up these solutions helped the world avoid a nuclear conflict.

The Politician, and the Man

Yet at the start of JFK’s political career, his domestic political concerns overcame his better judgement. Logevall does his most impressive job of demystifying Kennedy by describing JFK’s relationship with Senator Joseph McCarthy, showing Kennedy’s lack of courage in the face of McCarthyism.

McCarthy, first elected to the Senate in 1946, came to national prominence after a 1950 speech in which he claimed he had a list of Communists in the State Department. He became a close friend of the Kennedy family, especially JFK’s father. Logevall intersperses the familiar narrative of McCarthy’s rise with JFK’s campaigns in Massachusetts, first for the House in 1946, then for the Senate in 1952. Logevall’s account of JFK’s acquiescent relationship with McCarthy is not just a story of favoritism or personal cowardice: Kennedy was afraid of losing the Catholic voters in his base. They supported Kennedy as a favorite son, but McCarthy was at the height of his popularity with them. JFK refused to leave any of these votes to chance. In his Senate race, Kennedy catered to voter whims and played on their emotions instead of leading them from a place of moral courage. Predictably, his father’s hand was heavy in these calculations.

JFK’s accommodation of a demagogue out of political expediency is especially jarring today, after the Trump-incited assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Logevall’s book ends before the era that produced most of the accomplishments and failures for which President Kennedy is remembered. One significant exception is JFK’s leadership and courage during World War II, after the ship he commanded in the South Pacific was sunk. Here the reader sees flashes of the child who dreamed heroic stories and the President who would create a vision of U.S. global leadership. Kennedy and his siblings who were of age chose to serve in the war despite their father’s fears for them. They were children of privilege who recognized that Americans could not shut out the world. That awareness was later echoed in the Peace Corps, through which President Kennedy inspired the American public, particularly young people, toward global openness and service.

This year, the United States is emerging from its greatest crisis since JFK’s youth. The country has expelled a divisive demagogue who hollowed out its foreign policy institutions, but political calculations stand in the way of a clear assertion of U.S. global leadership. The failure of leadership by elites provides space for continued ignorance and division at home. The country, and those wishing to serve it, would benefit from taking the lessons that Logevall draws from President Kennedy’s formative years. Privilege is wasted if not used in service of others. A government is weakened when entrenched elites control decision-making. International withdrawal is impossible as long as fascists abuse global institutions and goodwill. Leaders and public servants need to guide citizens toward selflessness and service, not abuse public passions to entrench their own power.

Mike Fox, co-chair of American Purpose’s Circle of Friends, is a foreign policy and politics professional with experience in the U.S. government, NGO sector, and electoral politics.

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