IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING: Talking JFK Blues With Noted Historian Robert Dallek


BY JONATHAN VALANIA As historian/authors go, there are basically two species. Guys like Robert Caro who spend decades-long hermitages writing and researching exhaustive, Bible-thick multi-volume Hi-Def portraits of his subjects. And then there’s guys (and gals) like Robert Dallek, prolific generalists who keep circling back to the corpus delecti like eagle-eyed birds of prey to peck at some new fascinating and/or instructive morsel of the remains of the Kennedy/ FDR/Johnson/Reagan legacies. Dallek’s latest book, Camelot’s Court, his 19th book in 45 years, is his third examination of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. In it he argues that JFK’s dream team of advisers, his team of rivals made up of the proverbial ‘best and brightest,’ often led him astray, sometimes with disastrous results. He called it The Ministry Of Talent: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and trusted aides Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger. But as Kennedy’s presidency unfurled into history, he was often poorly served by their counsel and ill-advised in his darkest hours (SEE Bay of Pigs).

Although he aspired to usher in an era of Pax Americana, he wound up spending a great deal of time and energy dissuading the Joint Chiefs of Staff from going nuclear on the Russians and their proxies in Cuba and Vietnam. Dallek argues that Kennedy’s presidency was at its lowest ebb when he let the Ministry of Talent do the thinking for him: the slow but steady uptick of escalation in Vietnam; the tragic defeat-ensuring de-escalation of Bay Of Pigs invasion; the slow-walking of Civil Rights legislation for fear of losing the South and hence his re-election. Conversely, Dallek argues, the heights of Camelot — averting a Cold War meltdown into nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the glide path to written law, not surging troops into Vietnam — came when Kennedy kept his own counsel.

Tomorrow night, Dallek will be discussing Camelot’s Court at the National Constitution Center. Last week we got him on the phone to talk about the court of the crimson king. DISCUSSED: Vietnam, Peace Corps, Bay of Pigs, Civil Rights, Nixon; did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone; why the spell the Kennedy dynasty has cast upon America endures; why some people still think FDR have advanced knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and let it happen to goad America in World War II; and whether or not Henry Kissinger is a war criminal.

PHAWKER: What is your assessment of John F. Kennedy’s presidency?

ROBERT DALLEK: I think he was a significant president, but not a great president. As president, he achieved certain significant things.  He shut down the [Cuban Missile Crisis]; he avoided getting us into a nuclear war, which was his greatest achievement.  In Civil Rights, he was slow to react to the crisis in Mississippi and Alabama, but in June of 1963, he finally put the Civil Rights bill before Congress, which was an act of political courage because he and his brother feared they could lose the 1964 election by alienating the southern states that had voted for them in 1960. On Vietnam, we’ll never know what he would have done, but he certainly seemed reluctant to put in the numbers of ground troops that Lyndon Johnson put in, which was 545,000. He didn’t want to lose Vietnam, but he was resistant to advice to escalate the war with ground forces. We’ll never know what he would have done because obviously he died in 1963, and then Johnson took over and Johnson thought he was going to escalate and Johnson said he was following what Kennedy would have done, but that’s not provable.

PHAWKER: In a recent Gallup poll Kennedy scored the highest approval rating out of the last nine presidents — he scored 85% approval rating. This is after the fact that so much has come out over the years about Kennedy’s womanizing, his dishonesty about his health, his timidity on civil rights. How do you explain his enduring appeal to the American public? Is a lot of it the romance of Camelot and his good looks and the fact that he died such a gothic death?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well it’s certainly all the things you mentioned. The country has not gotten over the assassination to this day.  But it can’t simply be the assassination. When McKinley was assassinated – a popular president in his day – 50 years after he was killed, hardly anybody remembered him. But Kennedy is frozen in our minds at the age of 46. Part of it is television. The fact he’s there on those press conferences – so charming, so eager, so intelligent, so engaging – and part of it is the mystique of the Kennedy dynasty. People find the Kennedy family so appealing because they, in a sense, represent the fulfillment of the American Dream, the wealth and the fame they gained as Boston Irish Catholics. At the same time they endured so much tragedy: the older sister [Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish] died in a plane crash [in 1948], the president assassinated, Robert Kennedy assassinated, [JFK Jr.] killed in a senseless plane crash off of Cape Cod. But I think most of all, what really captures people, is that he remains an inspirational figure. They don’t like subsequent presidents —  Johnson was Vietnam, Nixon was Watergate, Ford, Carter, the two Bushes – the second Bush ends up in Iraq and Katrina, and the economic downturn. Kennedy and Reagan are the only two presidents who still give the public hope and the expectation of better days ahead. This is obviously appealing to people because they want to feel the country has a future and the other presidents don’t give it to them. If Kennedy were still alive, he’d be 96 years old, but people can’t imagine that, so it’s an unfinished life, a blank slate of which you can sort of write anything. And they write out Vietnam, which wouldn’t have happened without him. So he remains an inspirational figure.

PHAWKER: Does history bear out the affection the American people have for Kennedy and Reagan? Or are their legacies just better stage-managed than those other presidents you mentioned? Or that they had the fortune of not having those major setbacks befall their presidencies?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well they have the advantage of having said things that the public finds appealing. It’s not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, Kennedy gave us Peace Corps and he promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and that happened. Reagan promised a new morning in America and this is what resonates with people, you see. It gives people hope, and I think that’s really what makes it so appealing.

PHAWKER: The major theme of the book is that essentially Kennedy assembled this magnificent brain trust of advisors, the best and the brightest —  he called them the Ministry of Talent — but in the long run, he was poorly served by their council and often disappointed by their recommendations.  Can you speak to that?

He started out with the hope that these folk were indeed the ‘best and the brightest,’ but he learned on the job that you couldn’t always trust their advice.  They mislead him; he felt mislead in the Cuban Bay of Pigs episode. So he was very distrustful of the military during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was a very wise man because they probably would have gotten us into a nuclear war if he listened to what they said. He learned to take his own council; he sought out Charles de Gaulle in Paris in the spring of 1961. De Gaulle told him to get as much advice as you can but at the end of the day you have to make up your own mind. So he was skeptical what advisers told him. The only one he trusted was Robert Kennedy, as he said initially “I want him there because I need someone I know well and can put my feet up with and talk candidly to.” And Robert Kennedy served, as I call it in the book, as the “adviser-in-chief.”

PHAWKER: Everything I’ve ever read about Kennedy’s involvement in the Bay Of Pigs indicates he was utter reluctant from day one. Your book is no different in that regard, and the picture that emerges is that his number one priority seems to be managing public perception or the politics of it, and the impact that this might have on his reelection chances. Doing whatever it took to actually accomplish the goal of  overthrowing Castro seems to rank a step or two below on the priorities list. Can you speak to that?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well Kennedy was much more concerned with perception, of course. He wanted the public to see him as authoritative and effective.  And he was going to run in 1964, of course, and like any first term president running for second term, he wants to win. But he was profoundly concerned with world peace. His greatest achievement – I think – was holding the Joint Chiefs back from considering the possibility of [launching a] nuclear war. He got the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and if he lived I think we would have seen sooner than we saw it under Richard Nixon. There was genuine substance to the man, it wasn’t all show or celebrity by any means and he saw himself as a foreign policy president. As he said, “Politics can unseat you, but foreign policy can kill you.” He was devoted to the idea that you have to deal with the Soviets in a more effective way and in that great speech he gave in June of 1963 called “The Peace Speech” said we need to rethink our relationship with the Soviets because he understood it was impermissible to use these nuclear weapons. He wanted to do all he could to reduce the likelihood that we’d get into a nuclear conflict with the communists.

PHAWKER: It’s kind of shocking to present-day sensibilities but the generals at the time seemed to be much more willing to literally go nuclear in any number of geopolitical situations than they are now.

ROBERT DALLEK: That is true. But you have to remember they were generals that fought in World War II. They fought Nazi German and Japan, they saw the Soviet Union in the same light; they’ll destroy you if they get the chance. Therefore, if you have the opportunity, you beat them first. Our advantage was in nuclear weapons and their attitude was they’re there to fight and win a war, and the way to do it is to employ the greatest power you have. But the mentality was out of World War II. And the old saying goes, “General always fight the last war,” and they were ready to do that, but Kennedy had a different outlook. And, as I say, his greatest achievement was to not listen to these generals and to take his own council and aim for world peace.

PHAWKER: Stephen Kinzer’s recent book about John and Allen Dulles, The Brothers,  argues that the Dulles brothers had a disproportionate influence on foreign policy, often in the service of American corporate interests. As a result, they left behind a lot of geopolitical messes behind that we’re still trying to clean up. Cuba, South America, Iran, Afghanistan.  What was their impact on the Kennedy years?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well John Foster Dulles had no essential impact on Kennedy except to make him think that he wanted to make a different foreign policy. John was the Secretary of State for Eisenhower. Kennedy whole outlook was a great departure from what has come before. As far as Allen Dulles is concerned, he saw Allen Dulles as an architect of the failed operation of the Bay of Pigs and had to get rid of him, but he couldn’t do it at once, because it would hurt him politically, he felt, and also would have given the communists certain satisfaction. But he did ease him out pretty quickly, so he didn’t hold him in high regard.

PHAWKER: How do you rate Kennedy on civil rights? There seemed to me a great deal of hesitation and timidity and that he really only acted when they had to, when he couldn’t delay anymore.

ROBERT DALLEK: I think that’s fair enough. He was very cautious. He thought it would ill serve his domestic program, that if he pushed on Civil Rights it was going to kill off his three other major initiatives: the tax cut, the federal aid to education, and the Medicare bill. He didn’t want to risk those if that didn’t work out. Finally in 1963, he said, “These Southerners keep saying they’ll change, but they never will, and we have to act.” And as I said before, this was an act of political courage on his part because putting the Civil Rights bill before the Congress was putting his reelection in jeopardy. The South had made a difference in winning him the election in 1960, specifically him getting Texas. People ask if he would have dropped Johnson from the ticket, I think not. He needed Johnson there to help him hold the South. He knew that would be essential for him in the 1964 election. So it’s a mixed record. He used executive action to advance Civil Rights but it wasn’t until June of 1963 – he came late to this – but he finally saw that he had to push very hard on this and so he put forward that bill that should eventually be called the Kennedy Johnson Bill which was passed in 1964.

PHAWKER: What about Vietnam? There is a school of thought that Kennedy was deescalating our involvement by the end of his life. What’s the reality of Kennedy’s record on Vietnam and how culpable is he in what became a major foreign policy fiasco?

ROBERT DALLEK: He was the one who put the initial advisers in [Vietnam]. There was 600 when he got into office and by the time he left office, it was 16,700. He signed off on the coup d’etat that toppled the Diem government. However, he was twofold. On the one hand, he didn’t want to lose Vietnam, both in terms of national security and in terms of domestic politics. He felt it would have been a blow to his administration. On the other hand, he certainly did not want to put mass amounts of ground forces in, even though a lot of the advice he was getting told him to do just that but he resisted. What he would have done in Vietnam he didn’t know, we will never know. It is unpredictable, but I think it’s safe to say he would not have done the same kinds of things that Lyndon Johnson did. But exactly what he would have done to hold on to Vietnam is impossible to say.

PHAWKER: The whole Domino Theory — the notion that if Vietnam fell it would trigger a domino effect and all of Asia would eventually fall to the communists —  proved to be wrong. After 12 years — and 60,000 American dead, 1.5 million Vietnamese dead — Vietnam fell, but America still won the Cold War.

ROBERT DALLEK: That’s right. We lost Vietnam and at the end of the day it didn’t matter one whit, in the sense that it certainly did not cost us the Cold War. We win the Cold War, we hold onto the rest of Southeast Asia, it really was a terrible mistake in judgment, and it was a terribly mistaken war.

PHAWKER: I know the assassination controversy is not something you wade into as a historian, but what do you think happened on that day in Dealey Plaza.

ROBERT DALLEK: What happened on that day in Dealey Plazza was that Lee Harvey Oswald was the one who killed him. I don’t believe it was any conspiracy. Fifty-nine percent of people in this country still think it was a conspiracy, but that’s because they can’t accept that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as the president. So that’s what I think happened there.

PHAWKER: Speaking of conspiracies, you written extensively about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There are many people in this country who believe to this day that FDR had advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and he let it happen because he wanted to get the United States into World War II. True or false?

ROBERT DALLEK: Utter nonsense. That was all refuted brilliantly by a woman named Roberta Wohlstetter in a book called Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. Roosevelt was a big navy man. He never would have allowed all those ships and men and planes to be destroyed. If he knew an attack was coming, why didn’t send lots of the ships out? It would have been enough to get us into the war if the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and they found just one or two ships there in the sea. So I think it’s nonsense, it’s never been demonstrated and it’s all part of what the historian Richard Hofstadter calls “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

PHAWKER: One more off-topic question. You’ve written extensively about Henry Kissinger.  A not insignificant number of Americans think he’s a war criminal. Agree or disagree.

ROBERT DALLEK: I think these kinds of opinions are reductionist. I’m rather critical of him in my book, and I think his misjudgments on Vietnam, his misjudgments on Chile, are to be heavily criticized. But he was also a very astute foreign policy leader in trying to arrange detente with the Soviet Union, the opening of China. So I would say it’s a very mixed record, but I think it’s too simple to call him a war criminal.

PHAWKER: What should future presidents learn from the Kennedy years?

ROBERT DALLEK: A president has to be independent minded, has to be judicious, has to think in terms of surrounding himself with the best and the brightest but understanding he’s got to make up his own mind. And also understanding that whatever they come to office with, they’re going to confront surprises, and they have to be pragmatic, they have to be realistic. They may have an ideology or outlook that says, “do this or do that,” but this is a huge country and as Lincoln said, “I freely confess that events shape me more than I shape events.” And I think any president with strong and prescient judgment would acknowledge that as the greatest reality. President campaign, they want to convince the public that they’re going to do this and do that, but the wisest of these presidents understand that once they get in there they’re going to confront all sorts of things that they didn’t anticipate especially international affairs where their control is limited and especially with dealing with Congress, especially if they have the opposition party in control in Congress; so, pragmatism. You got to be a visionary, you got to think in bold terms, but you also have to be highly practical and political because otherwise it’s going to be tremendously frustrating to you.

PHAWKER: What parallels do you see, if any, between Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, Kennedy broke the hold of Protestant white males on the presidency and I don’t think Obama ever would have ever become president if it weren’t for Kennedy. So I think there is a direct line from Kennedy to Obama. They both aimed to be an inspirational voice. They both believe in working as forcibly as they can for world peace. They’re not inclined to fight wars and they want to utilize the American industrial system to make it a society that is more humane and reign in the excesses of savage capitalism.