Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen
Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen; drawing by David Levine

When I met John F. Kennedy in 1956, at a symposium sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam, I tried to size up the man and was baffled. What, if anything, I wondered, was behind that bland, slick, polished façade, with words and gestures moving with almost mechanical precision? Fate has allowed history to answer that question only in part. There was indeed something of substance behind the façade. But what was it? Messrs. Schlesinger and Sorensen say it was greatness, and their books are monuments to it. However, it is a greatness assumed but not proven. I am not saying that Kennedy could not have become a great President if fate had allowed him to test his inner resources against a series of momentous challenges. I am saying only that the record is inconclusive. The record was not without promise. That promise rested on three qualities of which these books provide abundant evidence.

First, Kennedy had the ability to make fun of himself. To be able to regard oneself from a distance without being overly impressed is indeed, in a statesman, an attribute of greatness. It allows a man to look at the world as it is, undistorted by the involvement of his ego. Of recent contemporaries, Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson had that gift. I remember a conversation I had with Eleanor Roosevelt in which she related how her husband had once used her for his political purposes without the slightest concern for her feelings, let alone for her value as a human being. She spoke with complete detachment, with an objectivity suggesting that it was not she who had suffered, but somebody else; she permitted herself no display of emotion but only the desire to understand. Kennedy’s detachment was more ironic, closer to the mocking self-deprecation of Stevenson. Capable of regarding himself with ironic detachment, he could be objective about the situation he had to master. He lived up to Goethe’s saying: “Wer sich nich selbst zum Besten haben kann, gehoert gewiss nicht zu den Besten.” (The pun cannot be translated; literally it means: he who is unable to make fun of himself is not among the best.) When Kennedy was reminded that Schlesinger had written a memorandum opposing the Bay of Pigs invasion, Schlesinger reports that he said, ” ‘Arthur wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration.’ Then, with a characteristic flash of sardonic humor: ‘Only he better not publish that memorandum while I’m still alive…. And I have a title for his book—Kennedy: The Only Years.’ ” Again, according to Schlesinger, “When the first volume of Eisenhower’s presidential reminiscenses came out, he said drily to me, ‘Apparently Ike never did anything wrong…. When we come to writing the memoirs of this administration, we’ll do it differently.”‘

The second element of Kennedy’s personality that held the promise of greatness is related to the first: a keen and open intellect, an unusual intellectual voracity, energy, and restlessness, an openness to new ideas, a hospitality to experiments. His impatience with the Department of State, which both of these books reveal, derived from his awareness that from top to bottom it was lacking in those very qualities. The Cuban crisis of 1962 provided a dramatic opportunity for a fascinating interplay of minds, proposing, debating, criticizing, thinking aloud. The President made his decision in full awareness of this intellectual process. What is important in view of the intellectual qualities of this decision is not whether it was right or wrong (I thought then, as I do now, that it was wrong because it did not go far enough, concentrating upon the tactics to be used against Khrushchev rather than the strategy against Castro), but that it was the distillation of a collective intellectual effort of a high order, the like of which must be rare in history.

Kennedy’s potential greatness rests upon still another quality which the historic record does not show clearly, but for which these books give impressive evidence. It is the ability to grow, not just to learn from experience, as we all do and as Kennedy did from the Bay of Pigs debacle, but to transform experience into wisdom. Two incidents which Schlesinger reports make the point. Kennedy was bound to be annoyed and embarrassed by the open hostility of some of the leading generals to his policies. While he did not allow them to influence his policies substantially, he lived with them and even placated them with secondary concessions, as he did in the settlement of the Cuba crisis of 1962 and the partial test-ban treaty. He recognized their value in their proper sphere, that is, in the conduct of military operations. “It’s good to have men like Curt LeMay and Arleigh Burke commanding troops once you decide to go in,” he told Hugh Sidey. “But these men aren’t the only ones you should listen to when you decide whether to go in or not. I like having LeMay head the Air Force. Everybody knows how he feels. That’s good thing.”


When Kennedy told the Congressional leaders of the Cuban crisis of 1962 and of his plan for a quarantine, Senator Russell of Georgia disagreed and recommended invasion; he was supported by Senator Fulbright who, together with Chester Bowles, had been alone among Kennedy’s top advisers in opposing the invasion in 1961. “The trouble is,” Kennedy told Schlesinger later, “that when you get a group of senators together they are always dominated by the man who takes the boldest and strongest line. That is what happened the other day. After Russell spoke, no one wanted to take issue with him. When you can talk to them individually, they are reasonable.” One is reminded of the wisdom of the Roman saying: “Senatores boni viri, Senatus autem mala bestia.”

These two books cannot fully reveal, because in a sense it was not their purpose to do so, what I regard to be the three great weaknesses of Kennedy’s personality. They are the vices of his intellectual virtues: a tendency to take rhetoric as the equivalent of action, the absence of a communicable political passion, and disorderly administration.

To a great extent Kennedy’s rhetoric was divorced from action (as I pointed out in the January, 1962 issue of Commentary). It was political literature of a high order. But it was not, as was Churchill’s or Roosevelt’s, verbalized action, an explanation of deeds done or a foretaste of deeds to come. There was in Kennedy’s rhetoric no organic connection between the words and the deeds. The classic example is the speech of July 1961, in which Kennedy committed himself to the construction of fallout shelters without having decided on the purpose the shelters should serve. It was only after the speech that his aides searched for a sensible policy which would not be too much at variance with the President’s words.

Similarly, there was no organic connection between Kennedy’s grandiose pronouncements on foreign policy, for instance with regard to Berlin and to relations with the Communist world, and the actual policies pursued. Nor could there be, since the policies proclaimed in one speech were incompatible with those announced in another. During his triumphal tour through Germany, Kennedy identified himself unreservedly with the national aspirations of Germany. He spoke as though he were a German statesman, and he was received with the enthusiasm befitting one. His declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner” was not only hyperbole; it strikingly summed up his rhetorical commitment to German policies. On the other hand, in his speech at American University, Kennedy opened up the vista of improved relations with the Soviet Union. Yet the great unsettled issue from which the Cold War arose twenty years ago and on which it has fed ever since is the issue of Germany. The United States cannot simultaneously take an uncompromising stand on the German question and work for the elimination of tensions with the Soviet Union. It must choose between these two mutually exclusive policies. Germany and the Soviet Union have been aware of this, but Kennedy’s rhetoric showed no sign of such awareness.

Because of this divorce between words and actions Kennedy failed to move us as did Roosevelt and Churchill. We would admire the intellectual and literary quality of his speeches, but we would not be moved to tears and to action. Only once, listening to the Madison Square Garden speech on Medicare, have I felt at least a suggestion of that emotion which comes naturally even today when I listen to the recorded speeches of Roosevelt and Churchill.

Kennedy’s intellectual curiosity, energy, and restlessness were also responsible for the disorderliness of his administration. Both books give many examples of this weakness, without, of course, dwelling on them. Kennedy exposed himself to advice from a great many sources, official and unofficial. He would receive information from, and give orders to, second-level officials without informing their chiefs, and it happened that when an issue was later discussed in the formal councils of government, he had forgotten that he had already given an order contrary to his present position. From Schlesinger’s discussion of Kennedy’s Vietnam policy emerges a melancholy tale of ignorance, miscalculations, confusion, and absent-mindedness. The initial decision to withdraw support from Diem derived from a Presidential misunderstanding of the actual position of the different executive departments concerned. The result was confusion.

Kennedy’s stewardship, then, bears the mark of extraordinary intellectual awareness, brilliance, and activity, far outpacing its political achievements. These very intellectual qualities impeded not only the ability to act effectively but even the determination so to act. Time and again, Kennedy demonstrated that he knew the score, but either he did not act at all upon that knowledge or he acted ineffectually. Thus he was fully aware, as we have seen, of the proper role of the military in the determination of policy, and he stood his ground in the Cuban crisis of 1962 at least on the issue of air strikes and compromised on the test-ban treaty. Yet even after he had burned his fingers at the Bay of Pigs, he accepted the military assessment—consistently wrong—of the situation in Vietnam and sometimes acted upon it, however halfheartedly. He was by no means convinced of the merits of the MLF (the multilateral seaborne nuclear force), yet he allowed this outlandish scheme to become our European policy. Kennedy was aware of the defects of the State Department, but at the end of his tenure they were at least as pronounced as they had been at the beginning. He committed himself in words to great innovations in the field of civil rights and social reform, yet it remained for his successor to get them on the statute books.


What is impressive in Kennedy’s administration, then, is the gap between intellectual awareness and actual performance; and it is the high degree of that awareness that makes the gap so starkly visible. Time and again in Mr. Schlesinger’s account, we are presented with a vivid picture of a new intellectual departure. But when we ask what happened in the real world as a consequence of that departure we are left with nothing but a change in the intellectual climate. Kennedy, as it were, told us what the promised land would be like, but he hardly began to make that promise a reality.

It is hardly to be expected that these two books would dwell on such weaknesses. Monuments present their subjects as heroes, simplified in their grandeur; but they must also make convincing the positive qualities of their heroes. Judged by this standard, Schlesinger’s book is far superior to Sorensen’s. Schlesinger’s is a surprisingly good book; for Schlesinger, a close personal friend of Kennedy’s and a member of his court, could have been forgiven had he written a panegyric to his friend and chief. As it is, he has written a history of the Kennedy Administration which is first rate by even the most exacting standards. It will not soon be superseded. His narrative is informed by high intelligence, great knowledge, and excellent political judgment. His character sketches of Rusk, Harriman, and Bowles—to mention only three whose accuracy I can test against my personal knowledge—are brilliant, penetrating, and just. It is but occasionally marred by petty malice, as when he refers to a brilliant Harvard sociologist who happens to look at the political scene from a different point of view as “a sociologist named Barrington Moore, Jr.”

Schlesinger’s book is not only firstrate history but also an impressive human document: Its prose is graceful and its human sympathy with its subject pervasive. The work is sustained and carried forward by an underlying emotion which bestows upon it a melancholy nobility and envelops the reader.

Mr. Schlesinger writes from a distinct point of view. This is as it should be; for all historians who are more than chroniclers or antiquarians must write so. It is the fatal flaw of Mr. Sorensen’s book that he tries to write as if he did not have a point of view. He lets the facts speak for themselves. Yet the facts are mute if they are not filtered through a perceptive intelligence which distinguishes what is important from what is not, and which establishes a hierarchical order among the amorphous multitude of facts. His book is shapeless and has a pedantic quality. The index contains, for instance, references to Kennedy “and drinking,” “as driver,” “and gambling,” “and prejudice,” “as smoker,” “and touch-football,” “and coat-of-arms.” All this and more appears in the book as undigested raw material, and our curiosity about the significance of such items is not satisfied. Mr. Sorensen conceives of himself as a chronicler, not a historian. In consequence, over all-too-long stretches his book is so boring as to be a sure cure for all but the hardiest cases of insomnia.

Yet Mr. Sorensen, too, cannot help having a point of view, and sometimes he lets himself go and says something profoundly revealing. Of Kennedy’s decision not to send combat troops to Vietnam, Sorensen has this to say:

Formally, Kennedy never made a final negative decision on troops. In typical Kennedy fashion, he made it difficult for any of the prointervention advocates to charge him privately with weakness. He ordered the departments to be prepared for the induction of combat troops, should they prove to be necessary. He steadily expanded the size of the military assistance mission (2,000 at the end of 1961, 15,500 at the end of 1963)…

Such asides occasionally illuminate not only the past but also the present.

It is a pity that Mr. Sorensen does not let himself go more often in that fashion. He has shown in his lectures on the making of presidential decisions, published in 1963 under the title Decision Making in the White House: The Olive Branch or the Arrows, that he has a keen mind and a felicitous style. Yielding perhaps too readily to the publisher’s pressure for speedy publication, Mr. Sorensen has turned out not so much a book as a collection of materials for one. It is a pity that he has not written the book on Kennedy he could have written had he only put his mind to it.

This Issue

January 6, 1966