Understanding John F. Kennedy: A Conversation with Acclaimed Historian and JFK Biographer Professor Fredrik Logevall
tags: books,JFK,biography,John F. Kennedy
Dr. Fredrik Logevall is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, where he is jointly appointed in the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Department of History. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations history and 20th century international history. He is the author most recently of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1963, the first part of a planned two-part biography.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, Writer’s Chronicle, Huffington Post, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Re-Markings, Real Change, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. He can be reached by email: email@example.com.
Our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, remains an elusive figure often shrouded in myth despite thousands of books that consider his career and legacy. There are memories of a lionized hero and the glamor and triumph of a public life cut short by a horrific assassination. And there is also the record of his political and personal failings resulting in an image that has lost some luster over the decades.
Renowned foreign policy expert and professor of history Fredrik Logevall details and demystifies the life of Kennedy in his groundbreaking and extensively researched new biography JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1963 (Random House), volume one of a two-volume project.
Professor Logevall humanizes JFK as he illuminates how the future president responded to and was influenced by historical trends and events. He takes the reader from the struggles of the great-grandfather who fled Ireland at the time of the potato famine to Jack’s wealthy family, then through Jack’s education and war years to his early political career and his decision in November 1956 to pursue the presidency. Professor Logevall brings new light to the future president’s childhood and youth, his indiscretions, his interest in democracy and its challenges, his wartime bravery, and his early political machinations in the uncertain world of the Cold War.
As he illuminates JFK’s complex character, Professor Logevall charts the course of his life in the context of America’s rise to the position of international superpower. The biography reveals a better informed, braver, more serious, more curious, more reflective, more heedless, more ill person than previously explored. At the same time, the book candidly and unsparingly examines JFK’s personal and political failings.
For his critically acclaimed biography, Professor Logevall drew on a trove of newly released archival material as well as overlooked primary sources such as letters, diaries, personal files, and other resources. The result of his years of research is a lively and authoritative portrait of JFK and of mid-20th century America and the world.
Dr. Fredrik Logevall is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, where he is jointly appointed in the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Department of History. He specializes in U.S. foreign relations history and 20th century international history. He was previously the Stephen and Madeline Anbinder Professor of History at Cornell University where he also served as vice provost and as director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Before that, he taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he co-founded the Center for Cold War Studies. He earned his doctorate at Yale University.
Professor Logevall has written several other books including Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Random House), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History as well as the Francis Parkman Prize, the American Library in Paris Book Award, and the Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations. He also co-authored America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity (with Campbell Craig; Belknap/Harvard). His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, Daily Beast, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and the Society of American Historians.
Much of his research for volume two of JFK is completed, Professor Logevall said, but he has more work to do and is eager for the archives to reopen for researchers.
Professor Logevall generously discussed his work by telephone from his home near Harvard University during a snow storm. He remarked that the 15 inches of new snow reminded him of his native Sweden.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Fredrik Logevall on your magisterial biography of John F. Kennedy. Before I get to the book, I wanted to talk with you about your background. You grew up in Sweden and then moved with your parents to Canada. How did you choose a career in history and then become an internationally recognized expert on American foreign policy?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: We moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, not long before I turned 12. When you live right next door to the greatest power of all and like to follow current events, you automatically become interested in US politics and foreign policy. It was a step-by-step process for me. We subscribed to Time, and I remember jumping on each issue as it arrived in our mailbox every week.
If there was a particular moment of revelation, it was reading David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest [a critique of US policy in Vietnam] as an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University in BC. It just drew me in and I became obsessed with the book, with the vividness of the prose, and the sense that a great deal was at stake in the story Halberstam was telling; it just jumped off the page. I'm not sure I fully realized it at the time, but that book had an important impact on my decision to pursue graduate school ultimately where I studied foreign policy with a focus on the Cold War at Yale where I earned my PhD.
My doctoral dissertation was on Vietnam in the period from 1963 to 1965 on how Vietnam became a large-scale American war. I wrote it under the direction of Gaddis Smith, and revised it for publication during my first teaching position at UC Santa Barbara. It appeared in print in 1999 under the title Choosing War.
Robin Lindley: Did Embers of War, your Pulitzer Prize winning history of the origins of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1960, grow out of that earlier book? Your gifts as a historian and elegant writer are evident from Embers of War.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Thank you! I wasn't intending to continue with the war per se but an opportunity arose when I was approached by Random House to produce what became Embers of War. It certainly built on the work I had done for Choosing War, though it’s a kind of prequel covering the French war and the beginnings of US involvement.
Robin Lindley: I recently learned that you were involved with the PBS Vietnam War documentary produced by Lynn Novick and Ken Burns and that you did an essay for Geoffrey Ward’s companion book. There are mixed opinions, but I think most agree that the film was compelling, moving, and showed the human face of war from all sides.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes. It was a pleasure for me to be a member of their advisory board. They brought us to New Hampshire to watch and dissect the rough cuts, and I came away impressed by the seriousness of the endeavor. The decision they made to include the Vietnamese perspective was key, and the film is also excellent in bringing out the soldierly perspective.
There were suggestions later that the South Vietnamese views should have been better integrated into the film. That's a reasonable argument, and I have some other quibbles with the interpretations and emphases at various points. But it’s a powerful, moving film. I’ll show a portion of it in my class this spring, and also portions of the old WGBH documentary, Vietnam: A Television History, which to my mind remains incredibly powerful, even four decades after it first ran.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that background. Now, to your sweeping new JFK biography. How did you come to write another book on JFK when so many already cover his life?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: First, I’m fascinated with his era in American history and American foreign policy. I had written about Kennedy in other contexts pertaining to the Cold War and Vietnam, so I had an intrinsic interest in him.
Second, although the literature on the Kennedys is huge—by one count there are 40,000 books on him and his family—we don't have a lot of biographies of him, and none that do what I attempt here, which is a full-scale “life and times” effort. It’s surprising, but it’s true. The books by Dallek, Parmet, O’Brien, and others are valuable, no question, and I of course cite them, but to my mind they give insufficient attention to Kennedy’s early years and to the broader context in which he came of age. The conceit of the book is that one can use the story of JFK’s rise to also tell the remarkable story of America’s rise to superpower status, that each story fleshes out the other.
I suppose a third reason for doing this, Robin, is that the source materials are just fantastic, and many of them are just down the street from me at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. It’s a marvelous collection with a vast trove of letters, diaries, texts, oral histories, and official documents. It's really quite spectacular. So, in addition to the wealth of secondary sources which I've used with profit, the primary material is very rich.
Robin Lindley: Did you find that more family and government documents have been released for researchers in the past decade?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes, there is new material, no question. If not all of it is brand new, per se, much of it has only become generally available in the past few years. But I was also struck by the number of collections that have been available for decades and yet have not been widely consulted as far as I can see.
Robin Lindley: That’s certainly a gift for a historian. What was it like for you to follow in JFK’s footsteps at Harvard? Are there special sites where he lived and studied?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes. There’s Weld Hall, his freshman dorm in the Yard, and there’s Winthrop House where he lived in his sophomore, junior and senior years. They have a Kennedy suite, which is open to visitors and is really well done. And there are traces of JFK all over the university.
Though I signed the contract for this project before I joined the Harvard faculty, it’s certainly a blessing to live and work right here where he spent a highly important part of his life. I think I write better history when I can experience first-hand the places I’m writing about—and on a sustained basis, in different seasons, at various times of day.
Robin Lindley: You mentioned that some of the primary JFK materials have been overlooked and there’s new material. What are some surprises you found?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: One of the things that surprised me was that this supposedly elusive figure actually reveals quite a lot of himself in his teens and twenties—critical years for him, as they are for most of us. That is to say, I could actually get fairly close to him because of the voluminous documentation, the letters that the family wrote to one another, the student papers, the diaries that he kept on his travels.
The second surprise is that JFK was less dominated by his father than many previous accounts have suggested. Unlike his older brother Joe Junior, Jack was willing and able to forge his own path, both in terms of his political philosophy and his views on foreign policy. For example, his view on what the American posture should be in the lead up to World War II was independent of his father's position in a way that I had not fully anticipated. Whereas the father was an arch appeaser both in the lead-up to the war and afterward, JFK determined well before Pearl Harbor that appeasement was untenable. He became, and would remain, an internationalist. Later, when the two men disagreed on political strategy during Jack’s campaigns, Jack’s view prevailed. Though JFK admired his father no end, and though the two of them were very close, at key moments he separated himself from his father and insisted on taking his own course. That surprised me and it’s an important theme in the book.
A final surprise is the one I mentioned earlier: to a degree I did not anticipate, I found I could use Kennedy’s life to illuminate the era. Many of the key historical developments I examine in this first volume can be better understood through his life—for example, the charged debate in the U.S. between so-called “isolationists” and interventionists in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; the origins of the Cold War; the Red Scare and McCarthyism; the growth in importance of television in U.S politics; and so on. I anticipate that the same will be true in my second volume, when other issues will come to the fore.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for those comments and on your groundbreaking research. You mentioned Joe Senior’s strong influence on JFK. How do you see his relationship with his mother Rose? One view is that she was distant and domineering with all of her children.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Rose Kennedy has not gotten her due, it seems to me. She was a highly important figure in young Jack’s life, as mothers usually are. His interest in reading, in history, in the world, got much more from her than from his father. Ditto his love of politics. As you say, she could be emotionally reserved, even distant, but she matters a lot in the story, and would be highly important in his rise in politics. His campaigns were family affairs, and Rose’s role in them should not be underestimated.
Robin Lindley: And you mention Jack’s older brother Joe Junior who, in the popular imagination, was the family member destined for greatness. How do you see Jack’s relationship with him? And why do you think Joe Jr. volunteered for a virtual kamikaze mission in 1944—which ended in his death?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: The relationship was highly consequential, and thus looms large in my book. There’s no question that Joe Junior was the golden child in the parents’ assessment, and in the view of many others. Over time, however, Jack began to outshine him, to show greater promise. The parents never quite accepted this reality, which is a fascinating thing, but Joe himself could see it all too well. And though we cannot know for sure, I suspect that a desire to match Jack’s heroic exploits in the South Pacific in 1943 contributed to Joe’s decision to volunteer for that fatal—and absurdly dangerous—mission in August 1944.
Robin Lindley: You do a superb job of describing JFK’s formative years, his childhood and education. You’ve alluded to your sense of JFK, but did your view of JFK evolve in the course of researching and writing the biography?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes, certainly. To begin with, I just know him better. Based on my previous work I had a broadly sympathetic view of JFK as presidential decisionmaker, especially in foreign policy. I have been critical of his actions on Vietnam, but overall I have tended in my past work to give him pretty high marks.
Now I understand his formative years much better, and have a better sense of personality, his strengths and his limitations. What I try to offer is a “warts and all” picture—or, to put it differently, I try to humanize him. He could be heedless of his friends, heedless of women (including his wife Jackie), and was not always a “profile in courage”—for example, in his cautious approach to the scourge of McCarthyism in the period 1950-54. But I also depict young man who was more substantive than previous accounts suggest, who cared deeply about policy and politics, who had a well-honed historical sensibility from an early age, and a commitment to public service.
Robin Lindley: When you deeply research and think about a person, preconceptions may fall away.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: I think that's right. There are lots of examples with JFK. Here’s one: his experience in World War Two, especially when he was in the South Pacific in 1943, had an important effect on his outlook, as it did with many fighting men, and that caused him to think more deeply about his place in the world, about what should be the U.S. posture on the global stage. I lay out in the book the ways in which I think the war really mattered for him, and that’s another example of how my assessment of him changed in the course of the research and the writing of the book.
Robin Lindley: For me, your book is a profile in courage, an amazing story of young JFK’s resilience and courage and risk-taking. As you illuminate, he accomplishes so much, yet illness runs like a red thread through his life. He was often sick and in pain and he received the last rites on a couple of occasions. Yet his courage and strength are impressive as when he rescued his PT 109 crew after a Japanese destroyer rammed and sank his vessel. Despite his heroism and the admiration of his crew, he was always humble about that experience. I wonder if he felt some kind of responsibility for that collision?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: I think he understood that his own actions as skipper were partly responsible for allowing the ramming to occur, and he was determined in the hours thereafter to make amends. I also think, as you are suggesting, that his actions in helping to save the crew and himself were extraordinary, indeed genuinely heroic. The crew felt the same, both at time and in later years, as did his superiors.
And as you say, he demonstrated courage throughout his life. He was suffering from one malady or another almost constantly from early childhood on, yet seldom complained, and was always very active. And let’s not forget the crushing family tragedies. Consider that he loses his older brother, Joe Jr., in the war in 1944. Then the sibling to whom he felt closest, Kathleen, who was known as Kick and whom he considered his soulmate, dies in a plane crash in 1948. Earlier, he effectively loses the sibling who was closest to him in age, Rosemary, through a botched lobotomy in late 1941. So, of the four oldest children, he's the only one who's alive by the middle of 1948. It’s hard if not impossible to imagine how being in that position would have been for him.
Robin Lindley: You flesh out the complexity of his character. Despite his history of serious illnesses, he didn’t try to avoid danger. Even before the PT 109 incident, he joined the Navy—with the help of Joe Senior—and then volunteered for combat dirty. Then he saved his crew. He swam miles to drag a wounded crewmate to safety. He would have been exempt from any service with his medical issues, yet instead of avoiding combat, like most men with the choice, he served with distinction in a war zone.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes, I agree. It’s a remarkable part of this story, the degree to which he was determined after Pearl Harbor not only to get into the service but then, as you say, ultimately to be in harm's way on the front lines.
With his health history, it would have been easy for him to stay on in his desk job in the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington DC. His father had helped him get that job, and that's where he could have remained, but he didn't want to do that. He worked very hard and ultimately successfully to get to the heart of the action in the South Pacific.
Robin Lindley: JFK saw the horror of war and that experience affected his attitudes. He wasn’t a pacifist of course, but he wrote of his abhorrence of war and he had a jaundiced view of how the military works. How do you see these attitudes in his politics?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: It's an interesting point. His skepticism about the utility of military force to solve political problems really took root in World War Two and it was affected by his combat experience.
As I write in the book, he came out of the war with misgivings about what the military brass had decided on both the strategic and tactical levels; more broadly, he came out of it with questions about whether military force should be used in many circumstances. This skepticism certainly didn't make him a pacifist, as you say, and he always believed in the importance of having a strong US military, but it influenced his policy decisions as president. I will explore this theme more fully in volume two, for which I’ve done a good deal of research already.
His attitude about the utility of military force played out in important ways, including at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when almost all of his advisors pushed for a military solution to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba. At key moments during the crisis, JFK was virtually alone among them in saying, in effect, No, we've got to look for a political solution here. He insisted on the need to see things from Khrushchev's perspective. In a nuclear age, Kennedy believed, the idea of great-power war was an impossibility; every effort must be made to avoid it. He felt that deeply, and felt it to the end of his days.
Robin Lindley: JFK was more introspective than many American leaders and had a sense of his own mortality. I was struck that his favorite poem was Alan Seeger's “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes, I suggest in the book that he was to an extent an outsider within his own family. He was the reader, the introspective child, the one who looked things up, who loved history. He was the one with an interest in poetry. (He had an excellent memory and he could recall poems and long passages from books verbatim decades later.)
Robin Lindley: And he also had this ready, ironic sense of humor and a willingness to make fun of himself.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: No question. I think that’s a key to understanding who he was and to understanding his success as a politician, culminating in his rise to the presidency. If you watch YouTube clips of his press conferences, for example, you’ll see many examples of this ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor that you're referring to. It really worked for him. But it was no latter-day development—one finds lots of examples of this humor in his letters when he was a kid and a young man, and in his diaries. Even when he was a boy, he had a subtle and ironic sense of humor that drew people to him.
Robin Lindley: I was impressed that, even in the 1930s, JFK visited Europe and wrote about the dangers of fascism and questioned whether democracy could survive. And, in recent years we've seen how strong and how fragile democracy can be.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: It’s an excellent point. I often think about how historical figures would respond to our current crisis if they were with us today. Kennedy would be deeply alarmed; I have no doubt.
From a young age he thought about democracy, and about the challenges of leadership in a democracy—it’s a fascinating thing about him. In his first political campaign, in 1946, he proclaimed on the stump that democracy required an engaged and informed citizenry. He further argued that it required a commitment to reasoned arguments drawing on empirical evidence and a commitment to good-faith bargaining between the parties. My guess is that if he were with us today—at age 103!—he would reaffirm his views on those points, and he would say they are vital if you want to have a democracy that actually works.
Robin Lindley: One may see many connections to our own day in reading your book on JFK. What do you think?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: I certainly felt that during the writing. A wise editor once told me that as a writer I don’t have to spell out those contemporaneous connections—the reader will pick up on it on her own. For example, when I wrote about [Senator Joe] McCarthy’s skill at identifying the resentments that bubble right below the surface in large parts of Middle America, his demagoguery, his disdain for decorum and for telling the truth, his intellectual laziness—well, it has a certain resonance!
Robin Lindley: Yes. And it's striking that the Kennedy family was friends with McCarthy and that JFK didn't stand up to his bullying and lying.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: It wasn’t one of his finest moments. He did his best to dodge the issue, to bob and weave. Partly he did so because of the family connections with McCarthy. More importantly, there were a lot of Irish Catholic voters in Massachusetts who supported McCarthy to the end. So from a narrow political perspective there was logic in his position, but it certainly doesn't make him look good in history. He also created problems for himself with liberals in the Democratic Party, including Mrs. Roosevelt, who faulted his failure to stand up to a fiendish demagogue.
Robin Lindley: He also wasn't vocal on civil rights issues. It’s understandable politically with a need to mollify a bloc of segregationist Southern Democrats, but he didn’t come out strongly for racial justice until late in his presidency.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Yes. It’s true and I will grapple in volume two with a lot of this. It’s going to be an important part of the story. It’s ironic, too, because early in his career, as a member of the House and his first years in the Senate, he actually had quite a progressive record on civil rights.
Robin Lindley: As you have written, JFK also stressed the need for a strong and informed leader in a democracy. It's impressive that he often knew more than his aides about arcane policy matters. Some authors see him as a lightweight in his early years in Washington, but you show that he was curious and he read voraciously and understood politics and government. Of course, we don’t see those traits in our current president.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: No, a theme in the book is that JFK was not the callow young man of our imaginations. There was a seriousness to him, as I noted earlier, from an early age. And he prided himself on knowing the details of policy and was insistent that his aides also knew the details of policy. Quite often he knew the particulars more than they did when they came in to discuss what should be done on say housing policy, or relations with Britain, or whatever the policy issue might be. He did his homework and I think his advisors, and people who served either on a cabinet or subcabinet level, respected that and he thought that knowledge was vital.
Robin Lindley: Theodore Sorensen was JFK’s speechwriter and also helped with Senator Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning history Profiles in Courage. How do you see Sorensen’s relationship with JFK?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: It’s one of the great political partnerships in the nation’s history, I’d say, certainly in the 20th century. Sorensen is vitally important. And it’s interesting that it was all about the work—that is to say, the two men almost never socialized together.
Robin Lindley: Your book ends in November 1956 when JFK decides to run for president. His family seemed all in for the run. What prompted his decision then?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: He had been thinking about running for some time already, and he could see that he came out of the Democratic National Convention that year as a star in the party. He felt that his time had arrived, and that there was a lane open for him for 1960. There would be moments of doubt in the three years to come, which I will examine in my second volume, but he had charted his course.
Robin Lindley: I was 11 years old when JFK called on us to ask what we could do for our country. He inspired me and many friends to consider careers in public service. He stressed a role for each citizen in his vision of America. How is his legacy seen today? Revisionist histories have critiqued his political decisions and often focused on his personal indiscretions.
Professor Fredrik Logevall: It’s a complex legacy.
He was a gifted and flawed figure, personally and professionally. Still, he has a powerful legacy, at least in part because his inspirational rhetoric still resonates among a lot of people. He believed in politics, believed in government. Though not a particularly partisan figure, and though a political centrist, he felt strongly that government has a vital role to play in making society function better, in creating a more just and equitable America.
And, as you point out, we associate with Kennedy a commitment to public service. That’s still a powerful message for many Americans. That most famous line from the inaugural address, and one of the most famous lines in any inaugural address, was “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Even in a deeply partisan time, that notion has real power, I believe. And, as I show in this first volume, that sense didn't just spring up from Kennedy and his speechwriters in January 1961. It was there at the beginning, at the start of his political career, in 1946. He warned his audiences that year against easy cynicism about politics and politicians, and he urged his audiences to consider themselves to perform public service of some kind. He never stopped doing so in the years that followed. That’s gripping and helps account for his outsized legacy.
Robin Lindley: Now we’re living at a time of deep political division and racial strife and economic inequality. And we face a deadly global pandemic. At this fraught time, where you find hope now and how may the story of John F. Kennedy bring us hope?
Professor Fredrik Logevall: Though as a Swede I gather I’m supposed to have a gloomy outlook on things, I am ultimately hopeful. I heard someone say the other day that American democracy has been through a stress test in this election and ultimately passed it, if less comfortably than should have been the case; that sounds right to me. The stress test indicated areas that need our collective attention in the coming years if we’re to strengthen our institutions, our democracy.
Kennedy, again, thought a lot about this—from his college days right to the end in Dallas. What I see in him is somebody who took his job seriously, his responsibilities as president seriously, and who inspired Americans, not just in death, but in life. Consider that in the middle of 1963, significantly more people claimed to have voted for him in 1960 than actually had voted for him. That’s telling. Though a committed Democrat through and through, he drew support from a sizable number of Republicans and Independents as well.
Moreover, though it’s true that our divisions today run deeper than they did in the early 1960s, we shouldn’t exaggerate the point. Kennedy, it’s well to remember, endured sharp attacks from extremists on the right who called him a stooge of the Kremlin, or the Antichrist, or both. In the months leading up to his assassination, some in the administration feared for his safety. Still, he carried on. More than that, he employed in his speeches the language of inclusion, emphasizing to the end Americans’ shared goals and dreams. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for us, as we contemplate the future of this wondrous thing we call the American Experiment.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those words of encouragement and your thoughtful comments, Professor Logevall. And congratulations on your groundbreaking and illuminating new biography JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.
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