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On JFK: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

I met Mr. Churchill late in life, and he was by this time a famous sacred monster, and therefore behaved in acordance with what must have become a kind of second nature. He behaved exactly like a person permanently on a stage, saying those mar- velous things in a splendid voice and delighting the company, but they weren’t the natural utterances of a normal human being. They were the grand utterances of somebody on a great historic stage. Whereas with Kennedy you felt that it cost him some effort, but that probably the Emperor Augustus was rather like that, who had suddenly inherited an enormous empire, was frightfully serious, perhaps rather ruthless, but determined to carry the whole enormous load, to carry the whole thing to an enormous success, cost what it might. This, anyway, was terrifying but rather marvelous. Oh, I was deeply impressed; I really was. Frightened, rather, but impressed.

A.S.: When was the next meeting?

I.B.: The next meeting was in the White House. Well, you remember that. Nothing very significant occurred on that occasion. The atmosphere was much easier. This, of course, was after Cuba No. 2 had occurred, and he was in a glow of absolute happiness. He said, more or less, that he thought that Cuba No. 1 would remain as a stain upon his reputation, no matter what he achieved later, no matter how glorious and splendid his presidency would be. There would always be this fearful stigma, which historians would always note. I then felt that he really was thinking about history: not so much his reputation in a small sense, as a personal reputation, but the figure he would cut in history and his particular relationship to other historic figures. He saw a panorama. There is no doubt it was all very self-conscious, in that sense. He was unspontaneous to the highest degree. This is, I think, what made conversation with him—for strangers, at least—a little difficult. Interesting, but difficult.

He obviously, quite naturally, was in a state of triumph and satisfaction after the second Cuba crisis, and again talked about the Russians, but this time in a much more relaxed fashion. He wondered what he was going to do; he wondered how he would now get on with Khrushchev; he wondered if this humiliation cost Khrushchev too much; he wondered if something ought to be done to save his face and what, if so, he could do.

He talked about British statesmen on this occasion. He said that he liked Macmillan very much. He got on very well with him. Although he found him difficult in some respects he found his company delightful and his wit unexpected. But the person he really liked was Hugh Gaitskell. He said he liked them both and couldn’t understand why they detested each other. I tried to furnish some explanation in political terms, but he rightly brushed this aside and said that he thought that the hostility was beyond the call of ordinary political duty, which I am sure is true.

Gaitskell said about him to me that he thought he was a wholly rational man; what was so admirable about him was that he was moved by rational motives. By contrast with Eisenhower, whom he regarded as moved by emotional prejudice to a high degree, he regarded President Kennedy as a man whose motives were intelligible and with whom one could, so to speak, do business at the highest level. One could do business with a highly mature figure who understood exactly what one said, without having to adjust one’s words or one’s thoughts to somebody obsessed by some particular pattern of emotion, or some particular outlook to which one would have to fit oneself in some particular way. I could see that Gaitskell liked him very, very much indeed, and really was delighted by his meeting.

This was, as is so often the case, reciprocated. Kennedy talked about Gaitskell in very warm terms, but wondered why he was being so intolerable about Europe. It struck him that Gaitskell was highly unreasonable about not wishing to enter Europe.1 He knew that the Labour Party was divided on this issue, and he understood the political motives which might have made Gaitskell careful in this respect. But he could not persuade himself that Gaitskell didn’t see absolutely clearly that entrance into Europe was right. In fact he was convinced that when Gaitskell put up objections to entering Europe, he wasn’t wholly sincere; or at any rate was acting politically and would presently do something else, alter his course.

He hoped he would, and asked me whether I thought that he would. I can’t remember what I answered. I think I agreed with him. I think I thought that Gaitskell was fundamentally pro-European, even though he might object to this or that aspect of the particular terms on which England had been asked to come in, and didn’t think it a short-term proposition. But he kept on harking back to this problem.

A.S.: That evening came about because Jackie called me and said that, now that the missile crisis was over, we should have an evening of gaiety to relax the President, and suggested getting hold of you, and I suggested getting hold of Sam Behrman.

I.B.: There was no gaiety on that occasion, and I didn’t think, on the whole, that this particular company would conduce to gaiety, as far as he was concerned. He was only gay, if he was going to be gay, in relaxed company of some sort. No, he talked about politics to me on that evening as well, certainly. Mrs. Kennedy came in after having looked, if you remember, through some kind of glass partition at a meeting of the National Security Council at which Adlai Stevenson must have been present.2 She conveyed the fact that he was speaking with the most fearful indignation about the treatment which had been meted out to him in a then fairly recent article, I think, published in the Saturday Evening Post by Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett.

A.S.: I think that was later.

I.B.: Well, I think the point was that he had been accused of weakness on Cuba. Wasn’t that in the article?

A.S.: That was in the article. I think the article came out in December. I think this was in November.

I.B.: Well, then, something else must have come out—a column, perhaps.

A.S.: Yes, probably.

I.B.: At any rate, Stevenson was accused of softness about Cuba and felt that the White House had not supported him sufficiently in this respect, and hadn’t exonerated him from this fearful charge, or hadn’t made out, anyhow, that he’d behaved in a manner for which he thought he ought to have been, if not actually congratulated, at any rate respected more than he turned out to be. He was obviously in a rather indignant mood [in the NSC meeting]; and the President did make one or two ironical remarks about that. That I clearly recollect.

Later the President left, but so long as he was there, tension prevailed. There’s no doubt about that—a rather exciting tension, but tension nevertheless. I think perhaps I felt it more strongly than my wife did, who found him very amiable, and quite easy to talk to. But every time he turned to me, I felt I was a little bit under examination—being, not grilled, but cross-examined about subjects about which I was conceived to know. I had a feeling, although I may be wrong, that he always, with strangers at least, docketed and labeled them as being experts on this or that, likely to provide interesting or important or at any rate stimulating information about this or that subject, and wished in some way to exploit them—I mean in the best sense of the word—to make use of them intellectually, at least, to the highest advantage, not just to let the conversation dribble in some undirected fashion.

I had the general feeling, also, that he looked round the world in this sort of way. It was a kind of orange to be squeezed. There were a lot of facts in the world, and a lot of persons, and a lot of events. The great thing was not to allow oneself to drift along, or to allow oneself, even, to be passive in the face of them. One hadn’t many years to live, and one must do what one can with what one has. One must make use of everything, and direct everything.

I don’t think his ambition was to leave his own impress upon life. The idea was to act, to act, always act; never relax, always act, strive for something, try for something, build something, make something, fail, try again. Endless drive, endless remorseless forward movement, which may come from his palace education. At least people said so.

On this particular occasion, I think, his brother, the attorney general, was present. The rapport between the brothers was absolutely astonishing. Whenever either spoke to the other, the understanding was complete, they agreed with each other, they smiled at each other, they laughed at each other’s jokes, and they behaved as if nobody else was present. One suddenly felt there was this absolutely unique rapport, such as is very uncommon, even among relations. They hardly had to speak to each other. They understood each other from a half word. There was a kind of constant, almost telepathic, contact between them.

Always, always there was this atmosphere of high tension, and a sense that Kennedy wanted to get things done on the basis of the best factual evidence, the best intellectual judgment available. He didn’t believe in off-the-cuff conduct at all. I felt he was a tremendous non-improviser, that everything cost him a lot of effort, that he really did expend a lot of himself. I may be quite wrong about this, this may be just a subjective impression, but he didn’t seem to do anything with ease, facility, panache, a sense of throwing it off, in the sense in which Roosevelt did.

I had the general impression, also, when I met him, that he switched from gear to gear. Either he was talking seriously, in which case his whole attention was concentrated and directed upon what he was talking about. Any book he might have read, any article he might have read, any conversation he might have had, any personal impression he might have sustained—all this was brought together and brought to bear upon the subject in question, and he asked these very penetrating and drilling questions.

Either that, or he decided not to do this, in which case he leant back and behaved in the kind of jolly fashion of any rich young man enjoying himself in a highly convivial, ordinary, conventional, quite easy, quite agreeable manner. Nothing in between. About that you would know more than I would. Perhaps this is oversimplified.

  1. 1

    Gaitskell had opposed UK membership in the European Community.

  2. 2

    Stevenson was then ambassador to the UN.

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