On JFK: An Interview with Isaiah Berlin

This is an interview given by Isaiah Berlin on April 12, 1965, in Washington, D.C., to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. It has been edited and shortened with the help of Henry Hardy, Berlin’s editor and one of his literary trustees. A recording and full transcript of the interview are held by the library.

—The Editors

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: When did you first meet President Kennedy?

Isaiah Berlin: I met President Kennedy at dinner with Joe Alsop. Joe Alsop is one of my oldest friends and he telephoned me when I was at Harvard in autumn 1962. He asked me to dinner in honor of Charles Bohlen, who was just leaving to be the United States ambassador in Paris. And at this dinner President Kennedy was going to be present.

I remember the slight stiffness of atmosphere, which always occurs when royalty attends. People are keyed up to meet them, and, at the same time, there is always an air of slight embarrassment. Kennedy went round the circle, shook hands with everybody, and we sat down to dinner. He was very amiable. He was in a jolly mood, which was very remarkable, considering that that was the morning on which he had been shown the photographs of the Soviet installations on Cuba. And I must say the sang-froid which he displayed, and the extraordinary capacity for self-control, on a day on which he must have been intensely preoccupied, was one of the most astonishing exhibitions of self-restraint and strength of will that I think I’ve ever seen.

A certain amount of chaff occurred across the table. Nothing serious was said. Present also were, I think, the French Ambassador and Madame Hervé Alphand, and one or two other people. A small dinner. Then, I remember, when the men were left alone, I was put next to the President. It was obvious that I was represented to him as a kind of Soviet expert, which I’m very far from being. He asked me a number of questions about Russia, which I didn’t answer particularly well. I felt I hadn’t really done very well.

A.S.: What sort of questions were these?

I.B.: About why the Russians were not making more trouble in Berlin than they were at that particular moment; what the Russian motive was for various of their acts. He listened with extreme intentness. This was one of the things which struck me most forcibly. I’ve never known a man who listened to every single word that one uttered more attentively. His eyes protruded slightly, he leant forward toward one, and one was made to feel nervous and responsible by the fact that obviously every word registered. And he replied always very relevantly. He didn’t obviously have ideas in his own mind which he wanted to expound, or for which he simply used one’s own talk as an occasion, as a sort of launching pad. He really listened to what one said and answered…

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