John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

The king and the crown prince are dead, and the heir apparent in disgrace. But the legend lives on, undiminished by promises unfulfilled, mistakes better forgotten, and doubts stilled by the cold hand of death. It is a tale with all the elements of a feudal chronicle—murders, usurped crowns, vendettas—and no shortage of troubadors to tell it. Theodore Sorensen, alter ego of John F. Kennedy and more recently a spurned aspirant to the public trust, now tells us, in words that will come as no surprise, that he views the Kennedy legacy “as the most important body of ideas in our time…a unique and priceless set of concepts…that endures and gives us hope.”

We need not doubt Sorensen’s sincerity—we all take hope where we can find it—to wonder what so great a faith rests upon. Whatever the Kennedy legacy may be, and we are told that it “can no more be summed up in a book than a Mozart concerto in a series of black notes,” the Kennedy record was one of great expectations rather than inspiring accomplishments. But Sorensen has a weakness for the overexcited phrase, and his pseudo-Homeric prose (“let the word go forth…we shall pay any price, bear any burden…now the trumpet summons us again…ask not what your country can do for you…”) both shaped and defined the posturing heroics of the Kennedy era.

We can sympathize with Sorensen’s difficulty in defining the exact nature of the legacy he extols, although we are told that “to love each other like brothers…is the heart of the Kennedy legacy.” Lest this hippie message seem sketchy, he also urges us to work hard, have faith in man’s ability to change our society, and not lose hope. Not by accident is “hope” a recurring word, for if ever there was a politics of hope, it was that practiced by the Kennedys. Our hope that they had a remedy for the social ills they described so graphically, their hope that we would be patient while they figured out what to do. The legacy they left is the enduring hope that somehow things would have been better were they still here.

Sorensen embellishes the Kennedy legacy in sticky, though no doubt heartfelt, panegyrics (“there has never been in American public life a family like the Kennedys”), ladies’ magazine commentary (“good taste and finesse governed not only their selection of clothes…”), political PR (“the…question asked everywhere was when the Kennedys would return to the White House”), and resentment at the usurper (“Lyndon Johnson…wanted to emulate their graceful wit and intellectual elegance”). The purpose of The Kennedy Legacy is to build a platform for what Sorensen calls a “peaceful revolution for the seventies.”

The program, which appeared in time to publicize, but not noticeably assist, his effort to fill Robert Kennedy’s old seat as senator from New York, is studded with such homilies as “we must pre-empt the extraordinary before the extremists seize it for their own…we must devise a new strategy for living instead of fighting…the United States must become the leading city of the world, not one of its largest villages.” It is not surprising that the voters were not impressed by such summoning trumpets, for as John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out in his pamphlet, Who Needs the Democrats?, “evasion, however disguised by rhetoric, moral purpose, or soaring phrase, comes over increasingly as crap.”

As the brief reign of John F. Kennedy recedes into the historical past, leaving the Vietnam war as its permanent monument, and as Robert Kennedy’s unending succession of agonizing reappraisals now seems little more than a footnote to the tribulations of Lyndon Johnson, it is sometimes hard to remember what the Kennedy legend is all about. But it does exist, as one is reminded in Arthur Schlesinger’s description, in A Thousand Days, of JFK’s inauguration when “the future everywhere seemed bright with hope…fresh winds were blowing. There was the excitement that comes from an injection of new men and new ideas.” We now know that those fresh winds were blowing hot air, that a good many of those new ideas were tired clichés in vinyl wrappings, that some of those new men wrought disaster, and that their excitement came from a lust for power. But all that came later. At the time the passing of power from Eisenhower to Kennedy seemed to presage, from the poem that Robert Frost started to read at the inauguration but was unable to finish, “the glory of a next Augustan age.”

The old sage knew what he was talking about. The era did turn out to be Augustan, at least in its pretenses (“…of a power leading from its strength and pride/ Of young ambition eager to be tried…”), but the glory was short-lived. It got tarnished somewhere around the Bay of Pigs and never recaptured its former glow. That fiasco was followed by the failure of summit diplomacy at Vienna, the manipulation of public anxiety over Berlin, a dramatic jump in the arms race, the unnecessary trip to the brink during the Cuban missile crisis, timidity on civil rights, legislative stalemate in Congress, and the decision to send the first American troops to Vietnam. Somehow everything went wrong, and increasingly the crusading knight gave way to the conventional politician who had no answers for us. John F. Kennedy’s assassination came almost as a reprieve, forever enshrining him in history as the glamorous, heroic leader he wanted to be, rather than as the politician buffeted by events he could not control.


By the time Robert Kennedy emerged from his grief over the murder of his brother and began maneuvering for the crown he believed was rightfully his, the imperial optimism of the early Sixties had given way, under a succession of failures at home and abroad, to disillusionment and rebellion. While the first Kennedy sought to lead us to the lofty peaks in forming “a grand and global alliance…that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind,” the second Kennedy faced the less exhilarating but more demanding task of saving us from ourselves. Robert Kennedy stood somewhere between the new politics and the old, increasingly aware of the injustices of American society, yet never quite able to break loose from the traditional beliefs that formed his view of the world. In his radical rhetoric lay his strength with the young and the apostles of change; in his traditionalism was his appeal to the Democratic party machines. It was a powerful combination.

Far more passionate than his brother John, he was essentially a moralist who saw the world as divided between good and evil. He wept for the poor, touched the bloated bellies of starving children, and was outraged by injustice. He was equally emotional and single-minded in his hatred of those he believed to be evil. His obsessive persecution of James Hoffa was the other side of his compassionate plea for the grape pickers. Unlike his brother, he could believe in causes. Indeed, he needed them to satisfy some deep inner compulsion that could be glimpsed in those driven, tormented, icy eyes. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who has seen generations of politicians come and go, put her finger on the difference between the two Kennedys when she told Jean Stein: “I see Jack in older years as the nice little rosy-faced old Irishman with the clay pipe in his mouth, a rather nice broth of a boy. Not Bobby. Bobby could have been a revolutionary priest.”

The complex bundle of emotions that was Robert Kennedy come tumbling out in the interviews taken by Jean Stein and assembled by George Plimpton under the title American Journey. These interviews, made mostly with the great, the near-great, and the hangers-on who traveled on the train bearing Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington, are remarkably revealing. What they reveal is less Kennedy the man than Kennedy the symbol to which people responded in different ways—some as a roller coaster to power, others as a politician who would end the war and reform the society, and to millions as a charismatic leader who could somehow understand their anxiety.

The last journey of Robert Kennedy marked more than the death of a leader; it was the end of a whole era of American politics—one in which it was possible to believe that good government could come from good style, that society could be changed if only the right rhetoric could be found, that a single man could correct everything that was wrong, that things would be all right if we just loved one another. It was not that the Kennedys said it would be easy. They often evoked sacrifice, hard work, and endurance. Rather it was that they nurtured our fantasies. The last fantasy was shattered with the murder of Robert Kennedy. The remarks of those who rode his funeral train—speechwriters, politicians, reporters, advisers, friends, celebrity-hounds—reflected the confusion of people who no longer were sure what they believed in or what the future held. “I’m very narrowly programmed,” Adam Walinsky said to someone on the train. “I can do research and write speeches for a candidate named Robert Kennedy. What can I do now?” For Stewart Alsop the long trip through the cities and the scarred landscapes

…had a slightly phantasmagoric, unreal quality to it. A little like that play, Outward Bound. All those gay creatures going off into a kind of nothingness. The train went on and on, and you saw those enormous crowds…particularly near the big cities and particularly the blacks. You got a curious feeling of disembodiment, as if the experience were unreal…. Especially after those people were killed by the train…and as the train got later and later….

If the scene inside was a cross between an Irish wake and a Jewish shiva, the scene outside was like the passing of some great feudal chief before his assembled subjects. The other America, the people without style or glamor—housewives in hair curlers, nuns in sunglasses, school-children, blue-shirted workers—came to the tracks for the last journey of Robert Kennedy. “I seen people running all over!” an electrician exclaimed. “They tried to touch the train as it went by.” “The tracks were lined with more people than I’ve ever seen,” another trainman said. “Everyone had a rose or a banner. They were throwing roses at the train.” Some of them carried signs saying: “Who Will Be The Next One?” and “We Have Lost Our Last Hope,” and simply “The Gebharts Are Sad.” Perhaps these people sensed that they were saying good-bye to more than Robert Kennedy.


The question remains why the murder of the two Kennedys brought forth such an extraordinary outpouring of public grief. Why did so many who did not particularly admire them in life feel an irreparable sense of loss at their death? Why were the Gebharts sad? Why did a revolutionary like Tom Hayden come to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to mourn over the casket of Robert Kennedy? Why, in the homes and shop fronts of every black ghetto do you see photos of Martin Luther King flanked by the Kennedy brothers as a Holy Trinity of martyred saints?

The reason is not the manner of their death, for it is inconceivable that the assassination of such conventional politicians as Johnson or Nixon could have evoked a similar response. It is not because they were men who accomplished great deeds, for John F. Kennedy did not live long enough to show that he was more than a mediocre President, while his brother’s fame rested almost entirely on the promise that others saw in him. Nor does the reason lie entirely in the Kennedy glamor, although that was surely an important part of it. The Kennedys, for all their overblown rhetoric and cautious performance, conveyed the impression of being something more than power-seeking politicians. For John F. Kennedy that extra element was a true sense of style; for his brother it was compassion and toughness.

To be sure, the Kennedys were glamorous, and for many people they became a kind of royal family, and thus satisfied a very real need. Unsurprisingly, many resented this. Resentment came not only from the rejects of society, the pathetic flotsam of the American Dream like Lee Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan, or from business executives who felt they were no longer being accorded the respect they assumed their position merited. It also came from many intellectuals who resented the Kennedys primarily because they were beautiful, rich, and clever. They particularly resented other intellectuals who served in the Kennedy court and thereby basked in reflected glamor. Their resentment, and perhaps even their envy, of the Kennedy court led them to condemn the Kennedys for somehow forcing us to endow them with qualities they did not have. Thus one critic has charged: “What the Kennedy administration wanted, what it sought to do, was to impose an image of itself on American society and American history; an image of itself as the rightful, by virtue of intrinsic superiority, American ruling class.”

While there are plenty of political reasons to criticize the Kennedys, such psychological ones seem unconvincing. To hold the Kennedys responsible for what others seek in them is rather like the ancients who in their sorrow struck the bearers of bad news. The Kennedys did not have to impose an image of themselves as intrinsically superior, and thus deserving of homage as rulers. We saw them as stylistically superior because in some ways they were. They had money, glamor, and beauty. Which is to say that they were like movie stars. But they also could speak intelligently and sought out the company (or more precisely the willing services) of intellectuals. Naturally there were many who were flattered by this treatment and became acolytes of the Kennedys, just as there were others who found it threatening. But it was not the Kennedys who held themselves up as natural rulers so much as a public that wanted leaders worthy of admiration (and then condemned them, as in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy, when they did something to shatter its fantasies). Kennedyism, like the Beatle-mania of the Sixties that was its cultural counterpart, was not a plot foisted on the public, but an audience response—a response that could never have occurred, whatever the public relations effort involved, had there not been a need for it.

While the Kennedys did not impose an image of themselves as a ruling class, Robert Kennedy often behaved as though he had a hereditary right to the Presidency. He scarcely bothered to conceal his contempt for Lyndon Johnson and treated him as a usurper. The Kennedys had their own government-in-exile, with Bobby as the heir presumptive, Jacqueline as the queen, and the old Kennedy staff as courtiers-in-waiting. Kenneth O’Donnell, who served as John F. Kennedy’s chief of staff and then stayed on briefly with Johnson, describes, in an excerpt in Life from his forthcoming book, an incident in the spring of 1964 that dramatizes Johnson’s isolation:

Everyone was swarming around Jackie Kennedy, who was radiant and happy to be making her first social appearance since her husband’s funeral, and nobody was paying much attention to Johnson. I stood in a corner with the President, having a drink with him, and he said to me after a while, “I guess they’re all going someplace to a dinner. Are you going with them?” I said I had to go back to work. He said to me, “Would you mind coming back to the White House and having another drink?” He was silent in the car while we were riding to the White House and then he said, “Despite what they think, I am still the President of the United States. But I didn’t want it this way.”

The Kennedy legend haunted Johnson throughout his Presidency, fed his insecurities, forced him to doubt the loyalty of his subordinates, divided the party of which he was supposed to be leader, and ultimately helped to drive him from office.

Robert Kennedy never forgave Johnson for refusing to name him as his Vice President in 1964, and when he decided to run for senator from New York it was clear that the Presidency was his ultimate goal. A politician by instinct, he once said that the political life was the only one worth living. That was the way he played it. He would adopt a cause if it seemed useful in attaining his political end, and he did not hesitate to stoop to conquer. He would justify dubious means, such as the play for the white backlash vote in the 1968 California primary, by the righteousness of his cause. This gave him a deserved reputation for ruthlessness. A good many instances of this quality are recounted in American Journey. For example, when he was Attorney General in 1961 he asked Ralph Abernathy to call off the Freedom Rides in order not to embarrass his brother, then meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna. “Whenever you see Bobby Kennedy in public with his brother,” Murray Kempton quotes a delegate at the 1960 Democratic convention, “he looks as though he showed up for a rumble.”

After JFK’s assassination he began to evolve a politics of his own that led him away from the conservatism of his youth, when he had worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy, toward something that has been called radicalism. But it was an inconsistent and basically emotional radicalism. It consisted mostly of such “peaceful revolutions” as the Alliance for Progress and the rebuilding of the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto. An early champion of counter-insurgency, he looked on General Maxwell Taylor, according to Sorensen, as his “special friend and hero,” and he continued to support the Vietnam war long after other senators had come out against it.

Always the politician, he was cautious where he felt public opinion was not behind him. The meeting he arranged in 1963 with a mostly moderate group of black entertainers and intellectuals ended in anger and mutual incomprehension. “Bobby didn’t understand what we were trying to tell him,” James Baldwin explained to Jean Stein. “For him it was a political matter…of finding out what’s wrong in the twelfth ward and correcting it.” Later, however, as Kenneth Clark observed, he gained a greater understanding of the sources of black rage and was able to deal with black activists and young people more effectively than any other white politician. So successful was he in establishing his empathy for black aspirations that today his memory is venerated in the ghettos.

There was never any doubt of his tenacity and physical courage, for he drove himself compulsively to feats of endurance, such as his fifty-mile hike, his ascent of Mt. Kennedy, and his grueling sailing trips, all of which are described in American Journey by the participants. He never stopped talking about moral courage, declaring that “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Yet even after he finally decided the Vietnam war was a “policy founded on illusion” he refused to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the nomination until Eugene McCarthy had shown it could be done. When he had to back up his noble words with courageous action, and when his action might have made a crucial difference, he remained silent. No wonder that so many who had once urged him to run against Johnson turned away in contempt. The charge of opportunism haunted him to the end. If his emotions were pure, his politics were calculating. His tragedy was that no one could be sure which was the real Bobby.

The enigma of Robert Kennedy ended on a greasy kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, a victim of one of the rootless rejects of that most rootless of all American cities. Today he is mourned as the one figure in American public life who might have been able to bring us together, who could have reconciled rich and poor, black and white, hardhat and hippie. Certainly he was able to stir emotions untouched by any other contemporary politician. He spoke to people who had little in common other than a belief that he cared about them, or that he was different from other politicians. But was the strange conglomeration that formed the Kennedy constituency—white steelworkers and black welfare mothers, fruit pickers and suburban housewives, student activists and Irish cops—an alliance that could have held together? Was it one that could have exercised power, even if Kennedy had been elected? “I never doubted that if he could have gotten the nomination,” Tom Wicker told Jean Stein,

Robert Kennedy would have wished for the support of all the more traditional—even reactionary—elements in the Democratic party. At one and the same time he wanted to have Mayor Daley’s support and the support of the college students. The two are incompatible in the long run…it isn’t a feasible alliance, and it isn’t an alliance that’s going to hold political power.

Robert Kennedy may have been the people’s choice, but in the end he would have disillusioned a good many of those people, for he would have had to choose between incompatible alternatives. His heart cried for the poor and oppressed. But he was a sincere apostle of law-and-order, and the factory workers were no doubt right in assuming that he would not let black militants or white radicals get out of hand. He hated the Vietnam war, yet neither could he accept a unilateral American withdrawal, for he remained a convinced globalist. Right until the end he was talking about America’s right to the “moral leadership of this planet,” hardly the language of retrenchment. As Tom Hayden commented, Kennedy

…seemed to say that the United States had a legitimate role in Vietnam and that if it were operated correctly, it could have introduced land reform and established a civilian government and brought the people out of their support for communism. He was perpetuating a myth of the cold war. He wouldn’t break with that.

Robert Kennedy was never an anti-politician like Eugene McCarthy, who might have wiped the slate clean by getting rid of the old advisers and the old assumptions. As Attorney General, Kennedy was unable even to control J. Edgar Hoover, let alone get rid of him. He was a politician of the old school, with long-standing ties and binding IOUs to the party machines and the pros who ran them.

Perhaps Robert Kennedy would have surmounted everything in his background—his political caution, his ruthlessness, his moral certitude, his compulsion to prove himself, his cold war anticommunism, his opportunism—and emerged as the Messiah who would have led us to the promised land. Or at least helped raise us from the muck. Perhaps, but we shall never know. All we know is that Robert Kennedy, like his brother, used a language to which millions could respond. The Kennedys seemed to offer something better than we had, and today we venerate their memory because we know that there has to be something better.

The Kennedy legacy, however, is not a plan of action, and even less is it a “peaceful revolution for the seventies,” for the Kennedys were about as revolutionary as Martha Mitchell. Rather it is a romantic nostalgia for a world that might have been different had different people been around and done different things. Not only different things from what others did, but different things from what they themselves did while in office. The Kennedy Presidency, whatever its promise of future deeds, was not a record of high accomplishment. In domestic policy John F. Kennedy was a good deal more conservative than Lyndon Johnson. The tragedy of the assassination has made us forget, as I. F. Stone has pointed out, that “Kennedy, when the tinsel was stripped away, was a conventional leader, no more than an enlightened conservative, cautious as an old man for all his youth, with a basic distrust of the people and an astringent view of the evangelical as a tool of leadership.”

Like the Wall Street financiers whose advice he sought and whom he beseeched to join his Cabinet, John F. Kennedy was firmly committed to the imperial foreign policy evolved by Acheson and Dulles in the late Forties and early Fifties. He drew his advisers from the great universities, foundations, and corporate offices and gave them powerful positions in the national security bureaucracy. There they provided him with scenarios for nuclear warfare, “revolutionary development” programs to combat communism, and green beret shock troops to subdue peasant revolutionaries. These advisers considered themselves to be liberals, which indeed they were, as we use that word in the United States. They believed that world peace rested on an ideological balance of power between communists and anticommunists, that economic development would bring political democracy to feudal societies, and that the preservation of an informal empire of client states and dependencies was a vital principle of American foreign policy.

Scarred by the Depression and Munich, honed on the cold war, and eager to demonstrate their pragmatism, they flocked to Washington to answer the summoning trumpet of the New Frontier. Whether they were Republicans or Democrats, lawyers or professors, they shared one quality: they were fascinated by power. Being tough-minded pragmatists they had little interest in showing a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” which a British foreign secretary had the temerity to seek of them during the bombing of North Vietnam. They shared the opinion of John J. McCloy, uncrowned head of the foreign policy establishment, who in the late summer of 1961 told Kennedy to resume nuclear testing in the atmosphere without worrying about its political effects abroad. “World opinion?” Schlesinger quotes McCloy as saying. “I don’t believe in world opinion. The only thing that matters is power.”

For the cold war liberals power was the fatal temptation. Equating revolution with communism, they were inherently counterrevolutionary because they feared that changes in the status quo would alter the world power balance. They did not shrink from armed intervention, but they recognized that the old doctrine of massive retaliation had become too dangerous. Instead they evolved a strategy of “flexible response” that was based upon a huge increase in conventional and nuclear arms. This was the foundation for the “2 1/2 wars” theory which required the creation of a military machine that would make it possible simultaneously to conduct not only a major war on two fronts but also a counter-insurgency operation. While such a jump in the arms race was not necessary to contain the Russians—as some of those who planned it now admit—it made possible military interventions such as the one Kennedy inaugurated in Vietnam.

They were eager architects of “nation-building,” which they sought to achieve by a combination of foreign aid and the green berets. There was nothing modest in their imperial pretensions, for they believed, as Louis Heren, Washington correspondent of The Times of London, has observed, “that Americans could engineer the world and reshape the lives of other peoples to ensure an American peace.” Heren’s absorbing study of the Johnson years, No Hail, No Farewell, shows how the cold war liberals took us into Vietnam and fed LBJ’s illusion (which, like his ego, didn’t need much feeding) that world peace hinged on which set of authoritarians ran South Vietnam.

Vietnam was a liberal’s war. Not a general’s war, as professional radicals would like to believe. Not the bureaucracy’s war, as Galbraith concludes. Not entirely Kennedy’s war, as Heren sometimes implies, nor LBJ’s war, as Sorensen would have it. It was a war conceived, promoted, and directed by intellectuals fascinated with power and eager to prove their toughness and resolve. These liberal intellectuals served Kennedy, as they later served Johnson, with single-minded passion, often despite objections from the military. It was no less than General MacArthur, O’Donnell informs us, who told Kennedy to avoid a military buildup in Vietnam, that the domino theory was ridiculous, and that domestic problems should have first priority. Kennedy was reportedly “stunned” by this advice, which was so contrary to that given him by advisers eager to try their counter-insurgency shock troops against the Viet Cong.

But Kennedy was not stunned enough to take MacArthur’s advice. He sent American troops to Vietnam and embraced the theories of his hawkish advisers because they corresponded to his own ideas of toughness. It was he who boned up on the manuals of Mao and Che, then ordered the expansion of the Special Forces, and, over the army’s objection, reinstated the green beret as the symbol of the elite counter-guerrilla units. Instead of reducing Eisenhower’s small aid program to Vietnam, he increased it, and behaved as though the preservation of the Saigon regime were essential to American survival. As early as December, 1961, he wrote Diem that the United States “would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the [Geneva] agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security.” Before his assassination (which, ironically, occurred only a few weeks after Diem’s) he ordered some 15,000 American “advisers” to Vietnam and prepared the ground for an even larger US intervention by approving plans for the construction of new airfields, ports, and roads to supply a large expeditionary force. US policy was already established when McNamara, a few months after Kennedy’s death, declared:

The survival of an independent government in South Vietnam is so important to the security of all Southeast Asia and to the free world that I can conceive of no alternative other than to take all the necessary measures within our capability to prevent a communist victory.

Sorensen, O’Donnell, and others have argued that JFK would have done better than LBJ in Vietnam. But Heren thinks not, and the record offers little proof. Despite his much quoted statement that it was South Vietnam’s war to win, he never gave any indication that he would allow Saigon to lose, and rejected opportunities to withdraw. Instead he committed American forces and evoked American prestige. Both the hawks in his administration and his own instincts as a politician led him to seek victory in Vietnam. Although sincerely dedicated to coexistence with the Russians, Kennedy was a romantic imperialist who believed in the old Dulles-Acheson rhetoric of a world split between two incompatible forces. As anointed head of the free world he was determined to prove his mettle to Khrushchev, for the Soviet leader had gained a bad impression of him at Vienna and felt, according to George Kennan, that he was a “tonguetied young man, not forceful, with no ideas of his own.” As Kennedy returned from his meeting with Khrushchev in June, 1961, “what worried him,” Arthur Schlesinger has written,

was that Khrushchev might interpret his reluctance to wage nuclear war as a symptom of American loss of nerve. Some day, he said, the time might come when he would have to run the supreme risk to convince Khrushchev that conciliation did not mean humiliation. “If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt,” he told James Wechsler, “it’s all over.”

Having one’s nose rubbed in the dirt seemed to be a Kennedy family obsession, perhaps one instilled by endless games of touch football under the baleful eye of the founding father. To show Khrushchev that he had to be taken seriously, despite the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy mobilized the reserves in response to the Berlin ultimatum, sent American troops to Vietnam, and stepped up the arms race with a dramatic and wholly unjustified increase in Minuteman missiles and Polaris submarines. Within a year he was to take the world to the brink of nuclear war by demanding a Russian capitulation in Cuba, even though Khrushchev had agreed to accept an exchange for the obsolete US missiles in Turkey. That eyeball-to-eyeball showdown was unnecessary, but Kennedy needed a victory which was particularly helpful, as Sorensen has implied in his biography, on the eve of the 1962 Congressional elections. From the euphoria of that victory over the Kremlin came the decision to teach the communists another lesson: that “wars of national liberation” could not be won.

When Lyndon Johnson became President on that fateful day in Dallas he inherited a commitment which he in turn expanded into a full-scale war. Like Kennedy he believed the old rhetoric about the struggle between freedom and communism, and like Kennedy he was surrounded by advisers who favored confrontation. In fact the Vietnam hawks around Johnson were the same liberal advisers appointed by Kennedy: Rusk, McNamara, Bundy, Rostow, Taylor. Years later, when Robert Kennedy came out against the war and criticized the State Department, Johnson shot back, “It’s your State Department!”—which indeed it was.

Not all of the Kennedy people stayed on. Sorensen left shortly after the assassination because, in his words, he found it “hard to walk into the Oval office and find another man in the President’s chair.” Later on Roger Hilsman, James Thomson, George Ball, and a few others followed because they disagreed with Johnson about the war and felt it was getting out of hand. But most stayed on, loyally, like Arthur Goldberg, performing whatever odious tasks LBJ assigned them, or, like Robert McNamara, hanging around and talking out of both sides of their mouths until they were politely kicked out.

Not a single high official resigned in public protest against the war as a matter of conscience. They remained loyal to the team, even though they later reversed their own positions and denounced the war with the same outraged fervor they had earlier used to defend and prosecute it. But then nothing fails like failure. One of the few comical elements of the war was watching the green beret liberals scramble to dissociate themselves from decisions they made while in the administration. What was politically sound and morally right under Kennedy and, for some, under Johnson suddenly became, for them, criminal under Nixon.

The cold war liberals had a formula for every problem—the polyglot MLF nuclear fleet to resuscitate NATO, the Alliance for Progress to stave off revolution in Latin America, napalm and green berets to subdue the rebels in Vietnam. Although they extolled their pragmatism, they obsessively pursued the programs worked out in their social science seminars and on their computers, drawing new conviction from each failure. They engaged in what Harold Sterns many years ago called the technique of liberal failure—the practice of being analytical until further analysis becomes embarrassing, “the method whereby one hopes to control events by abandoning oneself to them.” The liberals abandoned themselves to the Vietnam war, and in 1968 the voters, understandably, abandoned the liberals. Once again they were reminded, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words, that “wars, just or unjust, have come with devastating reliability every time the Democrats have enjoyed power.”

The American people were remarkably patient with the liberals—fighting their imperial wars of intervention in Korea and Vietnam, paying taxes for a military machine that grew to gargantuan size under the Democrats, answering their unending summons to sacrifice for goals no one could explain or justify—until by turning to Richard Nixon they made it clear that they had had enough. Spiro Agnew has become a folk hero not by telling lies about the liberals, but by puncturing their pretensions, their arrogance, and their hypocrisy. Were the Vice President not hitting the mark with his comments about the networks and effete snobs, there would be less outraged intimidation. Apparently no one is silenced faster by a fast-quipping Republican than a wounded liberal. But as Galbraith has said, “a man who can be hushed up by Vice President Agnew or John Mitchell did not have anything to say worth hearing.”

The irrepressible Galbraith has certainly not been hushed up, if such a feat is possible, and his pamphlet, Who Needs the Democrats?, is a devastating critique of a party largely devoted to imperial wars abroad and windy platitudes at home. With his customary tone of earnest flippancy, Galbraith recounts a succession of domestic and foreign policy failures that would seem reason enough to disband the party forever. Troglodyte congressmen and faceless bureaucrats suffer the full force of his scornful wrath. But even as he demolishes the record of the party in which he received communion, he cannot quite bring himself to lay blame at the feet of Kennedy or Johnson. One might assume, from reading this book, that the “interventionist bureaucracy” he condemns was secretly carrying on the Vietnam war without either President being aware of it. Like a true believer flailing at dim-witted bishops because he cannot conceive of attacking the Pope, Galbraith remains firmly within the Church by concluding his indictment with a plea to reform the party because “there isn’t anything else.”

That, unfortunately, is not good enough. While some of his reforms seem eminently reasonable—such as having liberal Democrats vote with the Republicans in order to unseat encrusted Southern Democrats from their Senate committee chairmanships—they only skirt the fringes of the problem. The problem is that American liberalism has run out of steam. It has no solutions for the ailments of modern society other than even greater infusions of the same bureaucratic ineptitude and military interventionism that it has inflicted upon us for the past quarter century. What has gone wrong is not, as Galbraith and other liberals suggest, that Southerners dominate Senate committees (Fulbright, after all, is a Southerner), or that the New York foreign policy establishment runs the State Department regardless of which party is in power. Rather it is that the liberal formulas—an all-powerful central bureaucracy, an unhindered President, military interventionism—have been tried and found wanting.

The tragedy of American liberalism is that it hasn’t worked and no one knows how to make it work. The growing mood of conservatism in this country is a direct result of the failure of liberal programs that have been put into practice, of liberal wars of intervention whose bills have now come due. The Republicans are enjoying the fruits of that failure not because they have anything new to offer, but simply because they are an alternative.

The transformation of American politics is crucial to the survival of a humane democratic society. But it involves much more than the reform of the Democratic party. It means rejecting what has become self-destructive about American liberalism: the vision of the central government as the savior of the people, and America as the savior of the world. It means evolving a new vision of this society and a new politics to bring it about. Until the liberals realize that, until they stop bemusing themselves with “legacies of hope” based on dreams of a return to Camelot, they will have little to offer that Nixon and Agnew can’t do better.

This Issue

November 19, 1970