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On JFK: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

A.S.: I think that with people whom he knew very, very well, there was much more of a quick change of tone back and forth than on formal occasions.

You’ve mentioned a sense you had that Kennedy felt that his time was short. Is this retrospective? Or did you feel that at the time?

I.B.: He didn’t say it in so many words, but I think I felt it at the time, yes.

I used to ask him questions about Europe. I did ask him about defense matters—whether he really believed that the British ought to contribute more to conventional weapons in Germany, that kind of thing. Whenever he gave his answers, he kept on saying, “Something is bound to happen. The Russians will not sit still. There’ll be great cataclysms—I don’t believe that I’m going to have a quiet term of office,” and so forth. Rather like a man who certainly didn’t anticipate, perhaps almost didn’t want, too peaceful and too uneventful a reign. I had the sense of a kind of quiet, slightly suppressed dramatization, which nevertheless went on in his mind, of almost everything. I don’t know what you felt.

A.S.: Well, I think he would have been terribly disappointed to have presided over a tranquil time in the life of the world. I think he also had a great sense of the amount of violence under the membrane of civilization.

I.B.: When he talked about foreign policy, my impression was that he thought he was a duelist, with Khrushchev at the other end. There was a tremendous world duel carried on by these two gigantic figures. Enormous rapier thrusts, tremendous technique was going on, and he was always on a qui vive of some sort, and this is what kept him going, and this is what excited him. And he had a worthy opponent. Ever since Vienna, I think, he had a sense of being pitted against Dr. Moriarty at the other end somewhere. He was the man who was going to rescue civilization; and Khrushchev was the man who was going to shoot it down, unless he could teach him a lesson, unless he could show him that these methods didn’t work, in which case some kind of uneasy but nevertheless perhaps semipermanent truce could be developed. But he felt that the whole weight of what he conceived of as the ideals of Western culture was resting on his shoulders, and this somehow excited him.

A.S.: There was a considerable change in the British conception of Kennedy, wasn’t there, after he died?

I.B.: He was very much admired, and not only admired, but regarded as an exciting figure, a sort of young paladin. He was a hero to the left, not to the right. The right was suspicious and thought he was just a vigorous, probably unscrupulous and rather ruthless young American out for the American interest, who would be much more difficult to work with than previous American presidents, and who would be terribly tough. People suspected him of inheriting some of the ideas of his father, who was thought to have been not very friendly, or at any rate to have sold England rather short in 1940, and there was a general suspicion of him in those circles.

I had a feeling, funnily enough, when he talked about Churchill (this has suddenly come into my mind), whom he praised in the most unreserved fashion, and whom he regarded as the greatest man he ever met—that’s what he said, at any rate—that his father’s performance really had determined his thoughts in certain respects. That is to say, I have a hypothesis which I wish to utter—but for this I really have no concrete evidence. Obviously he didn’t judge his father as the English judged him. He didn’t just think that he was rather feeble in the face of Hitler, or class-conscious to a degree which made him more sympathetic to the forces of the right, even in their Fascist forms, than to any forces of progress on the left, which is what people suspected him of in England, of course, certainly in 1940-1941, whether fairly or unfairly.

His father was very unpopular in England; he didn’t have much of a career when he came back to the United States, and this was obviously a crack and a crisis in his career which must have affected the rest of the family. His father, I think, must have taken the line with him that it was all right to resist Hitler effectively, but that once Chamberlain had done the things which he had done, and once no real rearmament had occurred and appeasement was in full swing, by 1939 it was too late; that Munich was a correct move, that the guarantee to Poland was absurd, and that, in fact, the Germans would win the war, and there was no reason why the United States should pull English chestnuts out of the fire and be involved in a war themselves. I mean, he simply thought that England misplayed its cards; and this made it impossible for the United States to act as an effective ally, at least from the point of view of its own national interest. Something which is at any rate more palatable than the sort of picture of Joseph Kennedy which was held in England at that time, which was just of a reactionary and cowardly anglophobe.

If President Kennedy believed all these things, then I think what must have eaten into his soul was the notion that one must never appease; that if one begins by appeasing, one always ends up in some kind of humiliating and terrible position. This, of course, probably emerged in his book, which I didn’t read. At any rate, I think he rationalized the position of his father as somebody who, perhaps mistakenly, diagnosed the position of England as hopeless when it was nearly hopeless. And therefore his particular thought took the form of saying that this must never occur to any great country again, that as soon as the faintest little danger appeared in the sky, as soon as a cloud which was no bigger than your hand appeared, immediate steps must be taken, because once one allows oneself to drift along some kind of comfortable path of compromise and appeasement, one will end up in some hideously dangerous and, indeed, humiliating position.

This determined his whole attitude to politics, his whole attitude to Russia, for example. I mean, he was prepared to be reasonable; he was prepared to use judgment; he was prepared not to allow his passions to dominate him; but he felt that resistance must be offered at once. At no point must one allow the enemy to get away with it; otherwise the terrible 1939 situation would come upon us again.

This he had in common with people like Eden, with people like Lord Salisbury, with people like Macmillan, whose entire political outlook after the war was certainly shaped and determined by their violent opposition to Chamberlain and to Munich, and by the fact that this was certainly the worst moral crisis which England passed through in their time, in which the decision which had been taken by the government was plainly morally wrong and politically disastrous. I think he was with them, so to speak. I think his sympathies lay with the anti-appeasers of the late 1930s, an attitude which he applied to the world situation in the 1960s.

A.S.: Though I think it was tempered in the case of Kennedy and Macmillan by a great sense of the horror of nuclear war. I know Kennedy would distinguish very sharply between Berlin on the one hand and Laos on the other, as to where you hold the line. Kennedy never felt that Laos was worthy of the attention of great powers.

I.B.: No, I see that. But what I meant was that the anti-appeasers in England—I mean Macmillan, Eden, Salisbury, and all these people—felt that war could have been averted with a firmer policy. Not that war should have occurred sooner, which was a different line. There were people, of course, who thought that, too. There were people who thought that we should have fought, I don’t know, in 1936, if need be, when the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland, and that if they then refused to budge after due warnings were issued, perhaps a war at that stage would have been less costly but no less avoidable than later.

I think the people I speak of genuinely thought that Hitler could have been restrained from going to war, and I should have thought that was Kennedy’s view, too. Not so much that it is better to fight than to give in, which he may also have believed, as that if you are prepared to fight at a critical phase it is possible to avoid war; and that the English statesmen and that section of the public who took that line in the 1930s were absolutely right.

A.S.: How would you distinguish Kennedy from the two other great American liberal heroes of this period, Roosevelt and Stevenson?

I.B.: Roosevelt, I think, was a very different thing altogether. I think Roosevelt was a fundamentally optimistic, happy, charming man with the tremendous natural sense of ease of a person who was born in a socially superior position, and who held, at the same time, views well to the left of his environment and his class. He was, in fact, an aristocratic radical, which is a very different thing. Nothing is more attractive than the combination of old-world manners and new-world convictions, and this proved absolutely irresistible. He found that by the use of charm, and with his general optimism and bonhomie and his large and generous personality, and by jollying people along, and by general affability all round, and not thinking things out too clearly, and not being overconcerned about the precise details of policy, he managed to roll this enormous team along toward objectives which I think he did have.

Unlike people who think that he was a pure improviser and that he had no philosophy at all, I think he had a vision of the kind of world he wished to create. I think he really was in favor of curing poverty and ignorance and doing something for the underprivileged of the world. And I think this was a kind of generous aristocratic dream, rather of an English nineteenth-century sort. I dare say people like Lord John Russell probably had it in a perhaps not quite so exuberant and ebullient fashion.

But the point about Roosevelt was that he was easygoing and thought, “Let the future come; it is all grist to our mill. We’ll manage it when it comes.” I don’t think he liked laying precise plans, and I don’t think he liked distributing precise responsibilities. Therefore the whole atmosphere was easy, relaxed, optimistic, and maddening for those who liked tidiness and order, and wanted to know precisely where they were, and believed in balanced budgets and exact formulations. That is what gave him the reputation of being not altogether a man of honor, capable of letting people down, capable, with an easy smile and a laugh, of transforming one policy into another, and not really being overscrupulous about whom he happened to drown in the process.

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