Jack Kennedy said the reason that people read biography is to answer the question, “What was he like?” With this fine biography Chris Matthews tries to answer this basic question about JFK himself.
The result is an affectionate, though clear-sighted, biography of Kennedy charting his path from sickly second son of Joseph Kennedy Senior, to President of the United States. It is a short book, only 400 pages or so with equal weight to each chapter of his life, from his childhood to his presidency.
There are many bad things one can say about JFK, from his almost pathological womanising and frequently callous treatment of his wife, Jackie, to his stupid decision to support an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, to his escalation of the US involvement in Vietnam and his acquiescence in the coup against, and assassination of, South Vietnamese President Diem.
And yet… even when all this is considered there is a greatness about Kennedy which even the most damning assessments of him cannot deny. From his earliest days he displayed an extraordinary indomitability of spirit: when his life was threatened by ill-health; when his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese ship and he displayed enormous fortitude in saving his crew; in his post war efforts in politics; and finally to his election to the Presidency. As President he showed himself on the right side of history and progress more often than not, introducing an economic stimulus to reduce unemployment, bringing the weight of the Presidency to bear in support of civil rights, and in a sustained focus on a nuclear test ban treaty as a first step in de-escalation of the arms race.
But Jack Kennedy’s historical greatness would be guaranteed by one thing: his comportment during the Cuban Missiles Crisis. As Bobby Kennedy noted, “if any one of half a dozen [others] were President the world would have been very likely plunged into catastrophic war,” a war that would have ended humanity.
During this crisis, Kennedy faced down the hawks amongst his own advisers, rejecting their advice to immediately attack Cuba in favour of a more cautious naval blockade of the island. It has subsequently emerged that had he followed that advice it would have precipitated a nuclear war. As a result Jack Kennedy, the junior naval officer from the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, proved Clemenceau’s dictum, “War is too important to be left to the generals.”
Jack Kennedy saved the world. Shortly after the forces of reaction had him killed and then conspired to assassinate his character and historical achievements. But still there is this, as Chris Matthews puts it, “In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of ultimate judgement, an American president kept us from the brink, saved us really, kept the smile from being stricken from the planet. He did that. He, Jack Kennedy.”
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