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On JFK: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

This is an interview given by Isaiah Berlin on April 12, 1965, in Washington, D.C., to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. It has been edited and shortened with the help of Henry Hardy, Berlin’s editor and one of his literary trustees. A recording and full transcript of the interview are held by the library.

—The Editors

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: When did you first meet President Kennedy?

Isaiah Berlin: I met President Kennedy at dinner with Joe Alsop. Joe Alsop is one of my oldest friends and he telephoned me when I was at Harvard in autumn 1962. He asked me to dinner in honor of Charles Bohlen, who was just leaving to be the United States ambassador in Paris. And at this dinner President Kennedy was going to be present.

I remember the slight stiffness of atmosphere, which always occurs when royalty attends. People are keyed up to meet them, and, at the same time, there is always an air of slight embarrassment. Kennedy went round the circle, shook hands with everybody, and we sat down to dinner. He was very amiable. He was in a jolly mood, which was very remarkable, considering that that was the morning on which he had been shown the photographs of the Soviet installations on Cuba. And I must say the sang-froid which he displayed, and the extraordinary capacity for self-control, on a day on which he must have been intensely preoccupied, was one of the most astonishing exhibitions of self-restraint and strength of will that I think I’ve ever seen.

A certain amount of chaff occurred across the table. Nothing serious was said. Present also were, I think, the French Ambassador and Madame Hervé Alphand, and one or two other people. A small dinner. Then, I remember, when the men were left alone, I was put next to the President. It was obvious that I was represented to him as a kind of Soviet expert, which I’m very far from being. He asked me a number of questions about Russia, which I didn’t answer particularly well. I felt I hadn’t really done very well.

A.S.: What sort of questions were these?

I.B.: About why the Russians were not making more trouble in Berlin than they were at that particular moment; what the Russian motive was for various of their acts. He listened with extreme intentness. This was one of the things which struck me most forcibly. I’ve never known a man who listened to every single word that one uttered more attentively. His eyes protruded slightly, he leant forward toward one, and one was made to feel nervous and responsible by the fact that obviously every word registered. And he replied always very relevantly. He didn’t obviously have ideas in his own mind which he wanted to expound, or for which he simply used one’s own talk as an occasion, as a sort of launching pad. He really listened to what one said and answered that. The only other person I had ever heard of who displayed a similar kind of attentiveness was Lenin, who used to exhaust people simply by listening to them—a particular kind of riveted attention.

Kennedy talked about Stalin and what people round the table supposed were Stalin’s fundamental motives; what differences there were between Stalin and Khrushchev; what Russian intentions were. From time to time he said things which puzzled me, and still puzzle me, for example: “Someone ought to write a book on Stalin’s philosophy.”

Well, he knew that I was a professor of this subject, more or less, and I suppose he thought this was the thing to say. I said, “In what sense do you mean ‘philosophy’?” He explained that every great political leader must have some kind of theoretical structure to his thought, and he had no doubt that Stalin had a most fascinating and important set of principles which he followed. This I rather doubted, but I don’t think I expressed my doubts very forcibly on this occasion.

A.S.: Did you get much of a sense of his own conception of Soviet society? For example, Chip [Charles Bohlen] believes that President Kennedy had an inadequate appreciation of the role of ideology in the Soviet Union, and tended to see it too much in practical terms.

I.B.: I think that was so. But I think this business about Stalin’s philosophy must have been a concession in the other direction. The thing which struck me about him then, and later, was that he was on the job all the time. I don’t know how much interest he really had in fields of study for their own sake, I mean in history or in politics, in government, that kind of thing; but it seemed to me that he was absolutely intent on what he was doing, and asked questions, listened to answers, read books, conveyed impressions which were directly geared to the conduct of his own particular office; that he was determined to use and concentrate everything that came his way toward actual practical realization, not specially of any given policy in the short run, but of some coherent, general attitude to life, to policy, so that everything was grist to a mill.

I don’t think he allowed himself to be distracted very much, at least as far as intellectual topics were concerned, by idle curiosity roaming here and there. And he was riveted by the thought of great men. There was no doubt that when he talked about Churchill, whom he obviously admired vastly, when he talked about Stalin, when he talked about Napoleon, Lenin—every time he talked about one of these world leaders, his eyes shone with a particular glitter, and it was quite clear that he thought in terms of great men and what they were able to do, not at all of impersonal forces. A very, very personalized view of history, as you might say.

A.S.: Roosevelt, was he mentioned?

I.B.: No. Roosevelt wasn’t mentioned on this occasion. No. I’m trying to think what was mentioned. Bismarck he mentioned. Him he asked questions about.

A.S.: He had a great admiration for Bismarck. I never heard him mention Napoleon.

I.B.: Napoleon came up, I think, in the course of some comparison with Stalin or Lenin. I remember that on a later occasion I told him a rather frivolous story about Lenin’s personal life; about the fact that somebody had published a piece on a personal affair of Lenin’s, some kind of curious, still uninvestigated connection that Lenin had with a lady somewhere in 1911, 1912. He was very displeased. He thought this was not at all the way to treat a great man. I felt that he thought this was in some way debunking, or anyhow a contemptuous attitude towards a man who ought to be treated with a greater degree of solemnity, at least by me, and at least in his presence.

I dare say with more intimate persons he would have gossiped happily about this subject. But in this particular case I had a feeling that he thought one mustn’t talk about the private affairs of great heads of states in quite that tone of voice. I felt put in my place. I went on and on too. I had one of those compulsive moments in which I realized my story wasn’t going down very well. There was a total silence. And I carried on in the most reckless fashion till I finished. He didn’t snub me in any way. He frowned. We changed the subject.

A.S.: On this first night, in retrospect, did any of his questions bear upon what was happening in Cuba?

I.B.: Yes, to the extent that he couldn’t understand, given that there was a generally disturbed situation then, why the Russians didn’t make more trouble in Berlin, in order to make general trouble for the United States. Various hypotheses were then advanced by Bohlen, by Phil Graham, by Joe Alsop, by myself, and this was generally discussed round the table. But the point about him was that he gave one the air of luminous intelligence and extreme rationality, and cutting through a lot of dead wood. He didn’t accept loose or vague statements, or the kind of general statements which people make who haven’t very much to say but feel they ought to make some contribution to the conversation, simply as a form of registering the fact that they are present and have views.

Whenever that kind of statement was made by any of us, he stopped us short and asked us exactly what these words meant, and brought it all down to extremely clear and shining brass tacks. In all these cases he was very good. As a cross-examiner he was absolutely superb: no doubt about that. But I had the impression of an extremely concentrated figure, very uneasy to talk to, not at all cozy, not at all comfortable; on the contrary, self-conscious and no doubt, on that evening, worried; in general, withdrawn rather than outgoing, in spite of all the jokes and the jollity during dinner and afterward, and his iron self-control. There was an enormous sense of unsureness of some sort, maybe simply because he felt among intellectuals, or something of that kind, and he wasn’t quite sure what he ought to talk about, or what he was expected to do. A curious lack of self-confidence on the part of the President of the United States.

He wasn’t at all easily dominant. He was like a very important person, a frightfully important young man, who was in charge of enormous things, constantly leaping over hurdles. I had a sense—I may be wrong about this—that except at times when he really relaxed, no doubt among his intimates and people he knew well, he thought of life as a series of hurdles, resistances, which had to be overcome, and therefore screwed himself up to it each time; and that he didn’t do it in a sort of easy, jaunty fashion, which obviously Roosevelt must have done, or with the natural sense of public life as his proper element which Churchill had. I think he had to screw himself up each time and expend nervous energy upon obstacle after obstacle, hurdle after hurdle. It was a hard thing.

A.S.: Did anything surprise you about him that night? I mean anything that was different from what expectations you might have had?

I.B.: Yes. I think I must have conceived of him as being rather more ordinary in a certain sense. Rather like a sort of amiable, gay, successful, ambitious young Irish-American, with a great deal of blarney. Not at all. He was serious and glowed with a kind of electric energy; and a rather inspiring figure to work for—that I could perceive. And there was this mysterious charismatic quality, certainly. I could see that he was driving somewhere, and people who liked that sort of thing would be delighted to follow him, to be driven by him, to cooperate with him. He was a natural leader, and absolutely serious, absolutely intent. There was something deeply concentrated and directed, fully under control. If ever there was a man who directed his own life in a conscious way, it was he—it seemed to me he didn’t drift or float in any respect at all. Some kind of embodied will, you felt. This was really very impressive.

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