Peter J. Ling. John F. Kennedy. Routledge Historical Biographies Series. New York: Routledge, 2013. Illustrations. 336 pp. $135.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-52885-6; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-415-52886-3.
Reviewed by Alan J. Bliss (University of North Florida)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner
The Facts Explain Little
“The facts don’t account for much” (p. 251). So mused a woman at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, trying to explain the meaning of the place to her child born nine years after the president’s assassination. Historians agree. The record of Kennedy’s presidential accomplishments remains thin, while the evidence of his personal shortcomings has grown. But Americans’ admiration for him also grows, confounding historians. To historicize Kennedy requires appraising a life most memorable for how it ended. Peter J. Ling does this in an impressively disciplined narrative. Indeed, the relative brevity of this account forces upon it a clear-eyed discussion of a mythic American president. Ling also benefits from a fresh vantage point, fully fifty years removed from Kennedy’s death. Biographers assert that it is possible to critically appraise the dead president in the cool, clear light of history. Ling can reassert the claim with more authority than any to date.
John F. Kennedy is a work of historical biography, aiming to place its human subject in broad context. Opening well before JFK’s 1917 birth, the story covers his own forty-six years, plus the fifty years that followed his 1963 death. In telling Kennedy’s story, Ling brings into view much of twentieth-century US history. As a result, Ling’s John F. Kennedy can be useful in teaching US history survey courses. It works as a device for personalizing the events of the twentieth century, especially the Cold War period, while introducing students to one of the era’s iconic figures.
Like many people who write about Kennedy, Ling begins with JFK’s family background, which is essential to evaluating the life Kennedy led. Chapter 1, “The Second Son,” situates the Kennedys as an upwardly mobile Irish family whose experiences shaped the family’s internal historical memory, and their external political identity, through subsequent generations. The president’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a piratical businessman who became a larger-than-life multimillionaire. He married Rose Fitzgerald, a privileged child of Boston’s mayor, and the couple had nine children, all of them remarkable. Parents and siblings figured prominently in the forty-six-year span of JFK’s life.
Ling’s opening chapter goes on to explain how and why World War II powerfully shaped JFK’s adulthood. His father became the ambassador to England during Europe’s slow march to war. The senior Kennedy strongly opposed US intervention, not an unusual position at the time, but problematic after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jack, as JFK was called, wrote thoughtfully about the outbreak of war between England and Germany. Once the United States entered the conflict, he became a decorated veteran of the naval war against Japan, while his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died while flying a combat mission against Germany. Ling shows how pivotal both events were, while weaving in details of young Kennedy’s social life and health issues. The events of the late 1930s and 1940s lastingly influenced Kennedy’s politics and worldview, while his father’s robust prewar isolationism caused persistent political trouble for both men.
Chapter 2, “Kennedy and the Democrats,” takes Kennedy through his postwar career as a US congressman and then senator from Massachusetts. A particular strength is Ling’s explanation of Kennedy’s cautious navigation of the late-1950s political minefield that was race and the American South. Within a tight page and a half that establishes JFK’s early relationships with historical actors Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon B. Johnson, Ling concludes that Kennedy “gained sympathy from Southern whites, and mistrust from African Americans in equal measure” (p. 53). The passage lays the ground for chapter 6’s description of Kennedy’s weak presidential record on the emerging civil rights crisis. Kennedy was not always so timorous. In relating JFK’s early positioning of himself for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ling affirms that Kennedy, with his campaign manager brother, Bobby, moved forcefully against old-guard party insiders and proved ready to play political hardball. Veteran politicians of both parties had tended to dismiss Kennedy as a dilettante. In the face of his campaign’s ruthlessness, those estimates necessitated revision.
The third chapter, “The 1960 Campaign,” recounts Kennedy’s calculated pursuit of the post-Eisenhower White House. The entire Kennedy family threw itself into the campaign. With their help, Kennedy overcame youth, inexperience, frail health, and anti-Catholic prejudice. Kennedy’s advantages included his telegenic family, personal charm, a fiercely competitive nature, and his father’s imposing wealth—perhaps as important as all other factors combined. The outcome was never certain, a fact of which the candidate himself seldom lost sight. Had Kennedy won the nomination but lost the 1960 election, he would have been unlikely to attract much biographical or historical attention. In another example of sparse but effective narrative, Ling relates the murky details of JFK’s selection of his vice presidential running mate. The choice of Johnson seemed unlikely in many ways. Because of its fateful consequences, it has challenged and mystified historians ever since, and explanations have trickled out over the decades. This further demonstrates how Ling effectively mines recent scholarship, in this case availing himself of the strongest resource on this episode, volume 4 of Robert T. Caro’s biography of Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, published in 2012. (Caro’s detailed account of Johnson’s vice presidency and the assassination contribute much to the scholarship on JFK.)
Chapter 4, “Let Us Begin,” details Kennedy’s rocky first year as president. Frustrations and disappointments piled up, most notably with the Bay of Pigs incident, over which Kennedy publicly contained his fury and accepted responsibility. The failure of the US-backed invasion of Cuba weakened Kennedy at home and abroad. A renewal of Cold War tensions in Berlin put Kennedy further on the defensive. In domestic affairs, Kennedy also looked ineffectual. The gap between the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural address and the hesitant policy steps of his administration disappointed many Americans for whom the 1960 election promised change. Civil rights activists were foremost among the disillusioned, especially after Kennedy and his by-then attorney general, his brother Bobby Kennedy, equivocated on support for the embattled Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi.
Chapter 5, “Brinksmanship,” and chapter 6, “The Pace of Change,” recount what remained of Kennedy’s truncated presidency, with an emphasis on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ling assesses the Kennedy record on the basis of fifty years of historiography. He concludes that the Cuban Missile Crisis has become “the lynchpin of Kennedy’s reputation” as a strong leader and as a statesman who was maturing in office (p. 150). The president’s support for the civil rights movement is a different matter, and Ling delivers a nuanced account of Kennedy’s continued temporizing. As to the murky evidence concerning the president’s readiness to intervene militarily in Vietnam, Ling seems aligned with the historians who view JFK as having been likely to escalate the war much as his successor did.
Chapter 7, “The Mysteries of November 22, 1963,” is one of the book’s strongest. Here Ling presents the facts to the extent that they are knowable, interwoven with context and supporting or contradictory evidence, and sensitive attempts at interpretation. “The details of [Kennedy’s] death are more widely known than any other aspect of his life,” Ling notes ruefully (p. 180). Still, despite fifty years of investigation and speculation, the assassination remains one of the most provocatively inscrutable events in US history. Polls continue to find a majority of Americans believing that there was a conspiracy to assassinate the president, even though compelling evidence or even a sustainable argument for such a thing remains elusive. Among other writers, Ling cites David Kaiser, who systematically gathered the threads of evidence and wove them into an argument for a conspiracy that involved Cuba. Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (2008) is a recent example of serious assassination conspiracy literature that nevertheless fails to satisfy. Ling scrupulously makes no claim to fresh insight, which helps make him effective at deconstructing the immense field of Kennedy assassination studies.
In his concluding chapters, “Images and Actions” and “Remembrance,” and in a bibliographical essay, Ling engages post hoc appraisals of Kennedy’s life and presidency. After mostly uncritical adulation in the months and years after his death, Kennedy’s legacy came under increasing fire from pundits and professional historians who seem vexed by the public fascination with, and admiration for, the martyred JFK. Former Kennedy White House aides, such as Ted C. Sorenson and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., published sympathetic treatments of their late employer (Kennedy  and A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House  respectively). They were soon followed by revisionists, including Garry Wills, whose edgy critique The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (1982) not only animated a backlash from Wills’s own critics (portraying him as having authored a hit piece), but also inspired more revisionists, who have by now their own revisionists. Historically revising Kennedy sold (and sells) books, predictably resulting in a literature of uneven quality. One problem is the temptation to judge Kennedy according to the standards of an author’s contemporary moment. Few serious historians consider Kennedy to have been a “great” president. However, a consensus holds that he was at least competent, and many see him as having been, at his death, on a steep gradient of improvement. Robert Dallek’s balanced, comprehensive 2003 biography of JFK, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, remains the standard reference. Ling’s brisk, concise book has the advantage of another decade as he strives to put Kennedy in fresh context. From the vantage point of fifty-plus years, JFK continually comes into sharper focus.
“Path dependency” refers to the way that events narrow the course of history by closing off alternatives. Of all the path-dependency speculation related to the Kennedy assassination, none tantalizes more than that concerning Vietnam. Before his presidency, Kennedy was deeply wary of American military involvement in Southeast Asia. As president, his skepticism grew. However, Cold War politics dissuaded him, or any officeholder, from questioning the global threat of communism to the United States. As a result, JFK rhetorically straddled a fine line between militancy and caution, while privately resisting pressures to send Americans to fight an Asian land war. The unanswerable question that occupies Kennedy students and scholars is whether, in 1964 or after, he would have gone “all in” on Vietnam, as his successor Johnson did, with disastrous consequences. Ling inclines to the belief that Kennedy would have been boxed in politically, just as Johnson turned out to be. Kennedy’s judicious biographer Dallek thinks otherwise, and the argument for each view continues to occupy Kennedy’s apologists and critics. For the loved ones of the fifty-eight thousand Americans who died in the Vietnam War, no question could be more painful. Millions of Vietnamese might also wonder whether a few gunshots in Dallas, Texas, ultimately brought catastrophe on their people.
On civil rights, JFK was reluctant to push hard, and Johnson rightly gets credit for pushing the critical reform legislation through a balky Congress, where the Kennedy bill languished. But Kennedy had already acted more forcefully than any predecessor since Abraham Lincoln. It is easy to forget that many Americans expressed contempt and even hatred toward the Kennedys for intervening on behalf of social justice for black Americans. Without Kennedy’s martyrdom in 1963, it is unlikely that any president could have pressed Congress forcefully enough to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson’s biographer Caro reinforces the point in The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
Ling does not attempt to reconcile the Kennedys’ wealth and attitude of entitlement with their reputation for ideological egalitarianism. As a young member of Congress from Massachusetts, JFK’s money, provided by his father, enabled him to employ an experienced staff of professionals with strong networks, who knew how to pull the levers of government and to perform effective constituent service. The novice congressman effortlessly looked good, an advantage that his colleagues either envied or resented. Yet the affluent Kennedy was moved to sympathy for the impoverished, such as the voters among whom he campaigned in West Virginia during the 1960 primary. Cynics dismiss the Kennedy clan’s expressions of idealism as insincere ploys to attract votes. Still, Kennedy’s fury at overreaching by powerful steel industry executives, which Ling describes, was heartfelt. The civil rights legislation that Kennedy proposed (albeit reluctantly) is another example of the president’s sympathy for the underclass. It seems plausible that the Kennedys’ inherited wealth liberated them from worry about the economic retribution that lesser elites might have experienced. Perhaps that freedom allowed them to be more clear-eyed than their political contemporaries about the systemic consequences of poverty and inequality; however, the Kennedys’ wealth does not explain everything.
In addition to the president’s wealth, glamour, and assassination, readers have been obsessed by the late president’s many personal flaws. Revelations concerning his riotous personal life have continued to tumble out. Like his father and his brothers, John F. Kennedy surely had some explaining to do at heaven’s gate—if it exists. Fortunately for historians, it is less for us to judge him so much as it is to evaluate him in historical context, a job that is hard enough. Minor editing oversights aside, Ling has met the challenge admirably. As to the future of Kennedy studies, historians doubt that we know all that matters. We wait with hope for evidence yet to emerge.
. On the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, 61 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll believed in a conspiracy: Art Swift, “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy: Mafia, Federal Government Top List of Potential Conspirators,” Gallup (November 15, 2013), http://www.gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx.
. In his concluding chapter, “An Unfinished Presidency,” Dallek appraises Kennedy’s attitudes on Vietnam right up to November 21, 1963, the day he left for Texas: “It was hardly conceivable that Kennedy would have sent tens of thousands more Americans to fight in so inhospitable a place as Vietnam. Reduced commitments, especially of military personnel, during a second Kennedy term were a more likely development.” Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2003), 684.
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Alan J. Bliss. Review of Ling, Peter J., John F. Kennedy.
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