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On JFK: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

I think Kennedy was absolutely different from this. I think he had a concentrated intellect; he believed in technology; he believed in precise formulations; he believed in the use of the sharpest intellectual, technical resources that could possibly be assembled; and he believed in verifying and checking every step. He wasn’t at all a gay cavalryman riding over hedges and ditches, which I think is what Roosevelt in fact was, whether he saw himself in that light or not. The point about Roosevelt is that he was one of those people who liked to be amused; I think one of the things he most wanted was to be amused. It didn’t matter whom he saw, provided they delighted him, stimulated him, made him laugh. I think Kennedy very carefully distinguished between working hours and nonworking hours in that sense.

I think the people he wanted to meet and he wanted to use were people who gave him the impression of understanding the new techniques and the new situations brought about in the 1960s. He had a tremendous sense of soyons de notre temps: we ought to be men of our time; we ought to be up to and fully conversant with, abreast of, every single development—scientific, economic, political, and so forth—and therefore, although he didn’t believe in the mechanical use of experts, he had some sense of constantly going forward into unknown country which one could only enter with a maximum degree of guidance provided by imaginative and gifted experts. That’s why he was never easy.

I go back to my thesis that he wasn’t the gay cavalryman. The horse he was riding was an uncomfortable horse and he was riding it with courage and care. But care: it was unspontaneous. Every step was calculated. It seemed to me that he was, in the best sense, an extremely calculating and deliberate man; whereas Roosevelt, in the best sense, was a very uncalculating and essentially easygoing man, deeply easy-going because he trusted in his own charm; he trusted in his own power.

Above all, the point about Roosevelt was that one felt he was totally unworried, no matter how terrible the disasters. It might be Pearl Harbor, it might be some fearful economic strain upon the system, or a huge strike which it might be difficult to settle, or some frightful act of butchery committed by some enemy. No matter how terrible a thing, he slept his nine hours or whatever it was, got up on the next morning, and with great gaiety and abandon and aplomb and energy and intelligence set himself to the tasks of the next day. Whereas Kennedy tended, I think, to be pursued by grave anxieties, and his life was a much more continuous performance than these marvelous and brilliant improvisations of genius by Roosevelt.

The other thing is that Roosevelt had a much more natural rapport with the feelings and wishes of the average American voter. He really was a natural politician, I think, but Kennedy, oddly enough, was not, it seems to me—politically he was made, not born. Roosevelt had the kind of antennae that oscillated delicately in response to the slightest political breeze in any quarter and registered in his infinitely sensitive system; in this respect being different from Churchill, who, I think, didn’t oscillate at all, but imposed his own obsessive personality on other people, and didn’t get anything from them, wasn’t a function of his environment, wasn’t a seismograph in any sense.

Whereas Roosevelt was the most delicate seismograph possible—every little tremor registered. When Mrs. Roosevelt would report to him what her friends felt, and what various liberal groups or underprivileged groups in the United States wanted, and so on, he understood this perfectly. Whether he satisfied their wishes or not, he understood exactly the position they occupied in society, how many of them there were, what they wanted, what the effect of such discontent was, what the possibility was of satisfying them, at what cost, and with what effect upon certain other sections of the population. He was delighted by the mosaic itself, was delighted by the variety of life, by the fact that there were reactionaries and there were progressives, that there were bad men and there were good men, that there were stupid men and there were clever men, that there were lots of countries, all differently colored. The whole thing was not exactly a fantasy, but a splendid kaleidoscopic spectacle which he thought, and perhaps rightly, he knew almost better than anyone else how to understand and how to manage.

Kennedy, I think, was not the least like that. I think he wanted as many people as possible to believe what he believed and as many people as possible to be intelligent, progressive, aware of the findings of modern science, and rational. I may be wrong about this—I’m talking without any knowledge at all—but I should have thought he wasn’t naturally reactive to every tremor in the political atmosphere, but that this had to be reported to him. When it was reported by experts whom he trusted—not necessarily by people who took polls, but by whoever there might be whom he regarded as a careful political observer—then, putting these things together, and looking at them steadily and seeing them whole, and reflecting about them in the light of all his knowledge, he would arrive at a judgment, which might or might not be correct. Probably most often it was correct, but at any rate this was, again, an unspontaneous, deliberate process which he taught himself to enact.

This seems to me quite a different temperamental reaction from Roosevelt’s. And that is probably why Kennedy was, I think, capable of making large mistakes, which Roosevelt wouldn’t have made if his judgment had been wrong. Suppose he took wrong advice, or suppose he made a wrong judgment, as he probably did over Cuba No. 1, let us say. Roosevelt would have stopped halfway and would somehow have managed to have seventeen ways out, all of which it would have been possible for him to follow. Kennedy had to go right through with it in a rather heavy fashion and then retreat in an equally tragic and deliberate way.

In a way, this was more sympathetic. Oddly enough, in spite of his hardness and in spite of his political nature and so on, I would say that Kennedy cared more about human feelings, about distressing loyal servants who worked for the State, about dropping people who had been useful, or whom he regarded as disinterested or even noble, than Roosevelt, who cast people about and flung them in the air and let them fall into all kinds of peculiar and comical positions with the greatest possible gusto and without the slightest tremor of the heart.

Stevenson I don’t know very well, but I should have thought he is totally unlike either. I think he is a much more tremulous and scrupulous figure in some ways, who I think is perhaps even less instinctively a politician than either of the other two. I should have thought that he is a man of such sweetness of character, and concern about right and wrong, about equity and iniquitousness, and with such naturally, ethically, sensitive feelings, that caught in some ambiguous situation, as politicians are bound to be, he would on the whole tend to worry and be anxious lest what he did was in some way morally damaging, or wasn’t what was good and right and upright and proper in a given situation.

He behaved much more like an ordinary, nice person who couldn’t bear the thought of having to sacrifice worthy and virtuous persons just because the machinery of politics required it, or because some huge impersonal forces, or the wheels of history, clamored for that particular sacrifice. For that reason, I think, he was not in the least like either Roosevelt or Kennedy; he was, on the whole, too easily horrified, too easily disgusted by what is inevitably cruel and squalid in the public life of democracies.

It may seem by now perhaps a rather commonplace analogy, but there was something Bonapartist about the Kennedy reign. It wasn’t a monarchy, but neither exactly was it a republic. The origins of Mr. Joseph Kennedy, and the fact that the Kennedy family represented some kind of huge financial, commercial success, had a kind of Bonapartist flavor, whether of Napoleon I or Napoleon III. That is to say, Kennedy stood between the old aristocracy which rejected him and the left wing which to some extent distrusted him, which was precisely Napoleon’s position.

He got into power by marvelous organization of technical and intellectual means, which is exactly what Napoleon believed in. The old aristocracy of Washington, or of Boston or the South or wherever it may be, was frightfully suspicious and regarded him as obviously an adventurer and an arriviste, to some extent. But some of them were sucked into the government, nevertheless, either from personal ambition or because they were charmed and fascinated by this electric personality. They came back, very much as certain members of the French upper class nevertheless did work for Napoleon I.

Then there were these kings, the brothers, whom he appointed, or wished to appoint, to responsible positions; and his father was, as it were, the Letizia, more I think than his mother in some ways—someone in the background who had bred all these persons, and looked with delight and pride upon the extraordinary generation to which he had given rise. Then there were the marshals, who served him, the devoted, dedicated marshals who liked nothing better than to have their ears tweaked, as they were, by Napoleon. He had something, it seemed to me, of that relation to the marshals.

It was very clear who the marshals were—there were people who were marshals, and there were people who were mere generals, colonels, captains, or perhaps just faithful ministers, but who were nevertheless not quite in the position of these members of the glowing new military, technical, intellectual elite who served him. Plainly McGeorge Bundy was a marshal. I would say that Chip Bohlen had probably become a marshal by the time I arrived. Perhaps you can suggest other names. I dare say Sorensen was perhaps a marshal.

A.S.: McNamara.

I.B.: McNamara was top marshal. He was absolute père de la victoire. McNamara was in exactly the position of Carnot. Then there were people who, although they weren’t in the government, were intimates and, as it were, carried marshals’ batons in their rucksacks although they hadn’t yet the chance to use them—like Phil Graham, who I think stood rather close to the President, and who was essentially made of marshal-like material.

I’ve never met Mr. Dean Rusk, but I had the impression that he was not a marshal.

A.S.: You’re right.

I.B.: Although he had a responsible position.

A.S.: Dillon yes, Rusk no.

I.B.: Dillon was a marshal, was he? It was very clear there was an elite, there was a group of people who basked in and reflected the light of President Kennedy, people with whom he was happy, people with a great deal of energy and ambition who really were marching forward in some very exciting and romantic fashion. This really was a new phenomenon, certainly in American politics. There was nothing like it in European politics either. The nearest to a marshal we had in Europe is, I suppose, De Gaulle, in that sense. But he wasn’t really surrounded by other marshals much—a very lonely figure.

Whereas Kennedy had a sense of the team, and those who were on the team and those who were not were carefully demarcated. He was absolutely clear who was and who wasn’t. This was not so much a matter of ability or competence or even trustworthiness as a matter of responsive personal temperament, which some people had and other people didn’t. Whenever he felt that there was a kind of vigorous personal response—the word “vigorous,” of course, was much in use in Kennedy speeches and Kennedy conversation—whenever there was some kind of imagination and ambition and forward thrust—a sort of intellectual gaiety, I think, the marshals had to have.

Above all, I think, what President Kennedy hated—I may be unjust to him in this respect—was dimness. I think he liked personality; I think he liked vitality; and I think anybody who was dim, no matter how virtuous, how wise, how valuable in all kinds of ways—and a great many very noble, very saintly, very learned, and indeed very gifted people have a dim personality—was no good to him. Perhaps he was prepared to recognize such people, but they were no use to him. He somehow, I’m sure, felt that the sheen of life, the light of life, went out in their presence. Kennedy wanted not only to be stimulated but to march at the head of a small, dedicated band of men, with shining eyes. Wouldn’t you say?

A.S.: I think that’s right.

I.B.: This was a romantic concept. I don’t know where it came from: psychologically it would be most interesting to know. I suppose it was part of his education by his father, who always drove his children in an absolutely remorseless fashion, and was alleged to have said that they must always come first in everything. Being second was no good. Being second was like being a hundred and second; it didn’t count. First or nothing. There was something of that about him, and that communicated itself.

The whole Washington atmosphere was very different from what it had been when I was here during the war, although it was exciting enough then. Under President Kennedy it was terribly taut; everyone was walking some kind of tightrope and was very excited to do so. People were always terrified of slipping in some sort of way. The whole thing was stretched frightfully tight, the whole thing had a kind of dedicated and slightly desperate air, which I see would have distressed and annoyed and even depressed the sort of old radicals, the idealistic but rather loose-spun left wing, from among whom Roosevelt chose his earlier supporters. They felt the whole thing was too glittering, too much like the American Century which Mr. Luce used to support, too many men in shining armor, too heartless, too violent, too crusading, not enough humanity, not enough vagueness, not enough coziness.

A.S.: Too stylish.

I.B.: Not only too stylish, but also too driven. Knights in shining armor sitting on purebred horses, galloping in some direction, whereas what they liked was a gnarled old stick and slow cross-country progress across tufts of grass, with a lot of rather incoherent conversation of a deeply earnest and sincere kind. It’s a very different picture.

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