As readers of this site know, the last few years have been a very interesting time for the developing scholarship on the foreign policy of President John F. Kennedy. Indeed, the picture that emerges from this new scholarship has done much to alter the portrait of who President Kennedy really was. That adjustment has in turn both highlighted the deficiencies in the prevailing view of Kennedy, and perhaps also illuminated the question of why he was killed.
To trace some of this new and valuable literature: there was the book and the film entitled Virtual JFK. Those two efforts depicted John F. Kennedy leading a withdrawal from Vietnam in 1963. And the book showed that this concept had actually accumulated some momentum in the hardest arena to impact: that of academia. (click here)
Related to this, we also had the work of Gordon Goldstein. Goldstein was a scholar who was working with Kennedy’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. They were at work on a volume that would be Bundy’s equivalent to Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect. (click here) That is, a book that would show that Bundy had been wrong in his advice to JFK on Vietnam, and Kennedy had been correct in his attempt to withdraw, which culminated in the issuance of NSAM 263 in October of 1963. Unfortunately, Bundy passed away before the work was finished. But Goldstein later published it on his own. Lessons in Disaster was a milestone book in the field, because Bundy, even more than McNamara, made it clear that Kennedy was not going to order combat troops into Vietnam. After reviewing the entire declassified record, Bundy was utterly convinced of that fact. It was such an important book that the presidential staffers who were against the USA entering the Afghanistan theater of war passed it around the White House in 2009 (click here).
These works were all welcome and well done. And they further certified facts and truths that previous scholars had already made obvious to all but the most skeptical - namely, that President Kennedy was not going to enter American combat troops into the morass of a civil war in Vietnam, and that at the time of his death, he was implementing a withdrawal plan. Jim Douglass’ book, JFK and the Unspeakable, did a nice job summarizing the scholarship pertaining to Kennedy’s policies in Cuba, Vietnam and toward Russia, demonstrating, with ample evidence, that Kennedy was working on a rapprochement with Castro, getting American personnel out of Vietnam, and constructing a détente with the USSR.
Douglass’ book touched on the subject of Africa, as did this reviewer in his 2012 edition of Destiny Betrayed. But in March of 2014, Philip Muehlenbeck published Betting on the Africans, an overall review of Kennedy’s policy on that continent. It turns out that Kennedy was essentially overthrowing the previous administration’s policy on Africa. As the head of African affairs in the State Department said, Kennedy’s administration wanted no part of colonialism or imperialism. What it wanted was – as much as possible – for Africans to own and run their own national affairs. This was a revolutionary departure from the policies of President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. And it was crystallized by Kennedy’s stance in the struggle of Congo to be free from European imperialism. (click here)
About a year before Muehlenbeck, Robert Rakove published Kennedy, Johnson and the Non-Aligned World. This work was similar in its findings to Muehlenbeck. But its scope was broader, extending from Africa to the Middle East, all the way to India. After some serious archival study, Rakove agreed with Muehlenbeck. Kennedy had consciously reversed the previous administration’s policies toward the Third World. And this reversal did not happen in 1963. It started right out of the gate, in 1961. (click here for summaries of these books)
But further – and just as interesting – both authors found that, unlike what one would expect, the Democratic Vice President under Kennedy did not hew to the paths JFK had forged. In almost every case, Lyndon Johnson slid backwards into the heritage of Dulles and Eisenhower. For this reason, the legacy of Kennedy’s revolution in foreign policy was lost within about 18 months of his assassination.
In other words, today, there is a lot of new information about who President Kennedy really was. And this newly discovered information demonstrates that JFK’s new approach to foreign policy did not really begin to assert itself in 1963. It started right after Kennedy’s inauguration. If that is so, then Kennedy must have been gestating his new ideas many years in advance. A new look at his senatorial career would therefore be in order, because many of the more standard biographies of Kennedy do not prepare us for what he actually did in the White House in 1961. In fact, to a large degree, they ignore it (for example, the works of Robert Dallek, Richard Reeves, and Herbert Parmet).
In light of all the above, John T. Shaw’s JFK in the Senate seemed like a good idea for a book. If one thoroughly traced Kennedy’s career in the Senate, one could get a very good idea of who he was and what he was going to do in the White House, since, as many have noted – including Tip O’Neill –, very few men grew the way Jack Kennedy did in his years in the Senate. (Shaw, p. 6) Shaw’s book is not without its virtues. Foremost among them is its originality. For, as the author notes early on, there is no other book about Kennedy that focuses solely on his Senate career. But when all is said and done, what I think Shaw has written is sort of a Cliff Notes version of what a senatorial study of Kennedy should have been at this point in time.
The book begins with a presentation in 1959 in the Senate Reception Room. The presentation was for the results of a poll taken by a special committee headed by Senator John Kennedy. Vice-President Richard Nixon was there, as was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. The committee’s job was to find the five most important and accomplished senators in the chamber’s history. Lyndon Johnson had first headed the assignment, but he bowed out due to health reasons. (ibid, p. 3)
The first of the featured speakers was Nixon, the titular head of the Senate. The second speaker was Johnson, the actual leader of the body. The third speaker was Kennedy, the man who had set up the committee and managed it through its long life to its ultimate conclusions. The five senators that Kennedy’s committee decided to honor were Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina, Robert LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin, and Robert Taft of Ohio.
As Shaw sees it, this presentation was both a coming of age and a notice of leaving event for Senator Kennedy. (p. 5) It was the former because it was the only committee of any long life – it took three years – which Kennedy ran during his Senate years of 1952-60. And, as Shaw notes in his book, almost anyone would have to admit that Kennedy did a fine job in helming this rather difficult and thankless task. But Shaw also points out that this may be the only committee Kennedy helmed because he did not feel like the Senate was going to be his home base, and this may have been the cause of his "reluctance to immerse himself in the drudgery of legislative affairs." (p. 6)
Shaw uses this unveiling in the Senate Reception Room as a sort of preview of what will come. He then begins the book proper with Chapter Two. Here he gives us a short synopsis of Kennedy’s life before he entered the Congress as a representative. Young Kennedy subscribed to the New York Times at age 14. And after a long discussion about politics with family friend and political science professor William Carleton, Carleton came away quite impressed. He later said about this conversation, "It was clear to me that John had a far better historical and political mind than his father or elder brother; indeed that John’s capacity for seeing current events in historical perspective, and for projecting historical trends into the future, was unusual." (pp. 12-13)
Shaw now summarizes the major events in Kennedy’s life before running for Congress. This would include his graduation from Harvard with the manuscript thesis that would end up constituting the 1940 book Why England Slept. Shaw briefly mentions Kennedy’s years of service during World War II, and his adventures in the Pacific on PT boat 109. When Kennedy was released he thought about going into journalism as a career. He worked for both the Chicago Herald American and International News Service. But he ultimately decided not to be a reporter. As Shaw states it, "He found it too reactive; he wanted to make decisions, not write about those made by others." (p. 14)
And this, of course, becomes the segue into Kennedy’s decision to run for John Michael Curley’s empty Massachusetts congressional seat. He formally announced his candidacy in April of 1946. He was 29 years old. During this campaign, Kennedy vowed to strive for peace, provide housing for veterans, work for national health care, advocate the rights of workers, provide a fair minimum wage and to secure the survival of the United Nations as the best hope for tranquility in the world. (p. 16) Concerning the last, Kennedy regretted that the USA had given in to Soviet demands to provide veto power to members of the UN Security Council. And, as Shaw notes, Kennedy "even envisioned a scenario in which the atomic bomb might be turned over to the United Nations." This last is rather important since it shows just how early Kennedy was declaring himself to be an internationalist in the field of world affairs. And further, that he was willing to give up certain aspects of state sovereignty to the United Nations.
Kennedy won the Democratic primary by a large margin, outpolling his closest opponent by a margin of 2 to 1. He then won the general election in a huge landslide. When he entered the House of Representatives, Kennedy was a mini-celebrity. He was a well-publicized war hero and a published author (Why England Slept sold 85,000 copies). Or as Shaw puts it, "He was the glamorous young bachelor, the most enticing new figure on Capitol Hill in many years." (p. 18)
As Shaw writes, the issue that Rep. Kennedy really fought for, and spent a lot of time on, was more and better housing for returning veterans. (Shaw, p. 19) There was a huge shortage of this commodity for returning vets and Kennedy wanted to move fast to correct it. JFK hammered the GOP for stalling eventual approval of a housing bill that he backed. He particularly hit hard at the American Legion which, he claimed, was being used as a stooge for the real estate lobby. He actually said that the leadership of the American Legion had not had a constructive thought since 1918. (p. 21)
Shaw points out a little known fact about Kennedy at this time. There had been a wave of strikes in America from 1945-47. Even President Truman thought the power of unions at this time was too dominant. Kennedy was for some labor reform, but he was against the Taft-Hartley Act. As he commented, "In seeking to destroy what is bad, they are also destroying what is good." (p. 23) During the raging controversy over the draconian Taft-Hartley Bill – which would seriously weaken unions – Kennedy debated fellow representative Richard Nixon in McKeesport, Pennsylvania over the issue. As Shaw notes, this is unusual today because neither man was from Pennsylvania, let alone McKeesport. As most of us know, Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, but it was passed over his veto. Kennedy, of course, voted against it. (ibid)
Shaw notes two other issues Kennedy acted on in the domestic arena. Kennedy was quite interested in federal aid to education, but he was against direct public support for parochial schools. He was also a member of the House’s District of Columbia committee, and he supported home rule for DC. (p. 24)
Shaw briefly outlines Kennedy’s foreign policy views as they were discernible at this time. According to the author, Kennedy backed the George Kennan concept of containment of the Soviet Union. This had been fully adopted by Truman and his Secretaries of State George Marshall, and Dean Acheson, although not in the form that Kennan had envisioned it. Kennan always insisted that he never wanted this policy to be accented by a military build up. But, in 1950, it was so accented with NSC-68. Which, as Mike Swanson shows in his fine book The War State, was pushed through by Paul Nitze. According to Shaw, Kennedy also did not like the loss of China to the communists, and he criticized Truman and the State Department for it. At this time, Shaw notes that Kennedy seemed to believe in the Domino Theory.
In this reviewer’s opinion, Shaw should have made more of this than he does. Or, at least, he should have flashed a preview card here as to the change that was coming around the bend. Because, as a senator, and then president, these views about the Domino Theory and containment were going to be altered. In fact, Kennedy would become a real maverick in that regard – especially as opposed to his predecessors, Truman and Eisenhower, and the man who followed him into the White House, Lyndon Johnson.
In preparing to run for the Senate, Kennedy tried to visit every major city and town in Massachusetts. He almost never turned down an invitation. And every association or agency was glad to have him because he never charged for an appearance, not even for expenses. (p. 30) On these weekend trips, the millionaire’s son got by with hamburgers and milkshakes, and he once shaved in a bowling alley rest room. Because of his bad back, he was often on crutches and at night he would soak in a warm bath in a hotel room. Finally, in April of 1952, Kennedy announced he would run for the Senate against the formidable Henry Cabot Lodge. In this race, after Joe Kennedy fired Mark Dalton, Bobby Kennedy served for the first time as his brother’s campaign manager. (p. 36)
Lodge wasted a lot of time in this race, because he was dedicated to convincing Eisenhower to run as a Republican for president. He needed to do that for the simple reason that he felt the early favorite, Robert Taft, would lose a national race. After he convinced Eisenhower to run, Lodge was then instrumental in advising his campaign. (p. 40) As many have noted, Lodge underestimated both John Kennedy, and the apparatus that Bobby Kennedy and Larry O’Brien had constructed with the money given to them by Joseph Kennedy. Towards the end, Lodge did something that an incumbent rarely does: he demanded a debate with Kennedy. Kennedy and he debated twice. (Shaw, p. 42) But this did not strongly impact the head start Lodge had given young Kennedy. Kennedy won with about 51.5% of the vote.
When Kennedy entered the Senate, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were proffering the New Look for the Pentagon. That is, an arsenal with smaller conventional forces, but a much larger atomic stockpile. The number of atomic weapons under these two men went from less than a hundred to 18,000. (Shaw, p. 50)
In South Vietnam, Eisenhower and Dulles eventually budgeted a billion dollars per year and 1,000 advisors to prop up the remnants of the French colonial empire. (p. 51) Much of this was given to the CIA, run by Foster Dulles’ brother, Allen. The field advisor to the enormous agency mission was Edward Lansdale.
The Democratic leader of the Senate was LBJ. He was first elected whip in 1951, and Democratic leader in 1953. He then became Majority Leader in 1955. Senator Robert Taft helmed the GOP leadership. But on the floor, Robert Kerr and Styles Bridges usually led the Republicans in debate. Southern senators controlled seven of the nine most important committees. The old joke was that the Senate was "the only place in the country where the South did not lose the war." (p. 59) There was an informal insiders’ club made up of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans from the Midwest. They met frequently and had much control over the agenda.
As Shaw notes, Kennedy never showed any interest in being a part of this club. And, almost from the start, he began to dismiss Eisenhower’s leadership as slow-moving and backward looking. (Shaw, p. 52)
Kennedy in the Senate took on some of the domestic issues that he was interested in in the House: subjects like labor reform, education and housing. He was also interested in the Hoover Commission reforms to make the actual government apparatus run more efficiently. (p. 65) He promoted about a dozen of these reforms. He was interested in lowering the voting age to 18 and repealing the requirement of taking a loyalty oath, something that Truman had installed.
One of the biggest issues Kennedy advocated for on the domestic side was his New England economic plan, which was directly related to the St. Lawrence Seaway proposal by Canada. The former was an attempt to diversify the economy of New England in order to revivify and renew what Kennedy perceived as an economic decline. The aim was to stop the flow of business relocation and to help those hurt by chronic unemployment. (p. 67)
Kennedy’s ideas on this were rather forward leaning. He wanted to create regional industrial and development corporations, practice job retraining, and teach technical assistance programs, among other ideas. But he also wanted to practice something he called fair trade. And he thought the federal government had a role to play in keeping a level playing field among states and regions in the national economy. (p. 68) For instance, Kennedy pointed out the natural advantages southern states had in the textile industry, which was now declining in New England due to those advantages. (p. 69)
Kennedy organized a bloc of 12 senators from New England. He met with them bimonthly to pass legislation on important area industries like textiles, fishing and small business expansion. He also recommended programs to help farmers, veterans and senior citizens. Kennedy drafted over 300 pieces of legislation based on his working relationship with this group. As Shaw notes, dozens of them eventually became laws. (p. 70) As he further relates, this took up an enormous amount of his time. It was not uncommon for Kennedy to be found working as late as 7 or 8 in the evening. (p. 72) This, along with his extensive travel schedule, prevented him from belonging to any of the cliques that formed in the Senate.
The St. Lawrence Seaway project was a large construction project meant to link all of the Great Lakes through a system of canals, locks and channels. The idea was to be able to float a ship all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the furthest, northwest reaches of Lake Superior. President Eisenhower had endorsed it when it was first introduced. As a congressman, Kennedy had opposed it. (pp. 73-75)
As Kennedy first saw it, by making it possible to navigate the entire Great Lakes region, the project could hurt the port of Boston and other New England harbors. But the problem was that 1.) It would help the economy of the Northeast as a whole, and 2.) Canada was going to build it if the USA went along or not. Therefore, Kennedy changed his mind. But he did some horse-trading in order to get votes for his New England economy program. (p. 78) Thus Kennedy was instrumental in getting programs of unemployment insurance to last 39 weeks. He also proposed a bill to have participants in welfare and pension plans be given annual reports upon request. (p. 80)
Sen. Kennedy also served on the McClellan Committee. This was a Senate investigatory body that explored the issues of management malpractice, labor corruption and organized crime influence in unions. Bobby Kennedy was the lead counsel on this committee, and it captured a lot of sensational headlines – especially when Teamster leaders Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa were called to testify. Sen. Kennedy was asked to design legislation based on its recommendations. Kennedy brought in authorities like Archibald Cox and Arthur Goldberg to write these bills. (Shaw, p. 80) But although Kennedy’s bill passed the Senate, it was thwarted in the House. The next year, he tried to pass it again. This time, the House attached so many counter amendments to it that Kennedy had to chair a conference committee. The ultimate bill that emerged was so different than the one Kennedy proposed that he eventually took his name off the bill. (p. 85)
I was rather disappointed with Shaw’s treatment of Kennedy and civil rights in this book. He calls Kennedy’s views on the issue tactical, and even timid, although unlike Fox News, he does say that Kennedy did support the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
As I have noted before – in my review of The Kennedy Half Century by Larry Sabato – it’s true that Kennedy did break with some of his fellow liberal senators who did not want the bill to go to James Eastland’s Judiciary Committee. They did this for the simple reason that Eastland was a strong segregationist. JFK opposed this, not because he was against the bill – he was for it – but because he thought this procedural tactic could then be used against people like himself to block future progressive legislation. Kennedy always felt that if Eastland bottled up the bill, the Democrats could just use a discharge petition to get it onto the floor for a vote. In fact, in a letter he wrote at the time, he actually said he would lead the discharge petition himself. But further, in that letter – addressed to one Alfred Jarrette – he also said he was one of a minority who voted for an extraordinary Title III clause. This allowed the Attorney General to step in in cases of discrimination, not just in voting rights, but also in cases of school segregation. It also allowed the use of civil actions against towns and cities if a pattern of discrimination could be established.
So, unlike Shaw’s characterization, as Kennedy wrote to Jarrette, he wanted a good, strong civil rights bill. Shaw compounds this misjudgment when he also writes that Kennedy was timid and tactical because he wanted to retain support in the South. One can argue the opposite was the case. As Harry Golden pointed out in his book Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, Kennedy was so outspoken about Title III that it actually started to erode his support in some states in the formerly Solid South. (See Golden, p. 95) And, of course, it was Title III which the president and his brother Bobby used to begin to file lawsuits in the South to bring down the walls of segregation. (See Golden, pp. 100-105)
Shaw devotes a chapter in his book to Kennedy’s evolving foreign policy views while in the Senate. He calls it "The High Realm of Foreign Affairs". In some ways Shaw is fair and insightful on this important issue. For example, he mentions Kennedy’s trips to Western Europe and to Asia and the Middle East in 1951. He also notes that, while there, Kennedy met with some men who did not agree with the Dulles/Eisenhower position on Vietnam.
For instance, the author mentions Kennedy’s meetings with men like Seymour Topping of the Associated Press and Edmund Gullion of the State Department. He also adds that, armed with this new information, Kennedy had difficult, confrontational meetings with American diplomat Donald Heath and the French military commander, Jean de Latre. He also mentions a radio address Kennedy made about our precarious position there, and how the USA was becoming a colonialist in the minds of the populace abroad. (Shaw, p. 92)
Shaw also details the debate in 1954 over the expected collapse of the French position at Dien Bien Phu. Shaw quotes some of Kennedy’s speeches at this time, and how they attracted a lot of attention both in the press and by his colleagues. Kennedy assailed the administration for offering years of rosy predictions about the French position there, while extending aid and succor to France. He predicted that all this was now about to come naught. Which was an accurate prophecy.
But Shaw scores Kennedy for not fully thinking through the French dilemma. He says that France could not stay engaged in a war where its ultimate aim was withdrawal. (p. 97) Therefore, the alternatives were either defeat or surrender. But this disallows what, for example, France did in Africa when it withdrew its formal colonial apparatus. There, France set up a commonwealth, or federation, in which it granted limited independence at first with trade privileges, and then ultimate freedom. That would have been a much less expensive and bloody alternative than France fighting an eight-year war in Indochina.
Shaw follows what happened in South Vietnam after the collapse of Dien Bien Phu – that is, the creation of the American role there at the Geneva Conference of 1954. The author then states that Kennedy at first backed the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Shaw then asks: How did Kennedy lose his skepticism when it came to how the USA would fare in Indochina after the French defeat? (p. 100)
As John Newman notes in is masterly book JFK and Vietnam, Kennedy was acutely aware of the political dimensions of that struggle. Therefore, he understood that, even if Diem was not a good choice to lead the fight against Ho Chi Minh – and he was not – we were stuck with him for the interim. Therefore, the fair and wise thing to do was to give him an opportunity to succeed at first. To call for his abandonment, without giving him any time to fortify his position – this would be a dangerous political stance to take in 1957. Further complicating things, by this time, Kennedy had already thrown his hat in the ring for Vice-President at the 1956 convention. And he almost won. Hence he would not want to have to defend prematurely abandoning Diem in the 1960 primaries. This is an unfortunate fact of our political system, one which Kennedy did not like, but was acutely aware of.
From here, Shaw goes on to note Kennedy’s further stance against Foster Dulles on the subject of Algeria in his remarkable speech of July, 1957. (p. 101) He does an adequate job on this immense issue. But he also stresses Kennedy’s policy ideas on the Eastern Bloc nations. Which was a parallel to his ideas about French colonialism. In other words, he wanted to offer aid to Poland, behind the Iron Curtain. (pp. 108-09) He even wrote a letter to Foster Dulles extending that idea to him. He also brought a motion to the floor of the Senate on this issue. It failed to pass by one vote. But in 1959, Kennedy managed to push it through. (p. 110) This allowed the extension of loans and grants "to Poland or other communist satellites seeking to resist Soviet and Chinese domination." Shaw praises him for this. He says that it showed "Kennedy’s ability to find tangible ways to break free from rigid Cold War thinking." (p. 110)
Shaw concludes this chapter by writing, "John Kennedy used the Senate as a platform to challenge the Eisenhower administration’s foreign and national security policy and to outline his own vision of America’s role in the world." He continues with, "As his stature grew, he became one of the Democratic Party’s most visible spokesman on national security issues." (p. 110)
In sum, this is not a bad book. And I think some of its faults can be explained by Shaw’s association with the Wall Street Journal and the Hoover Institute.
But in my opinion it could have been much better. For instance, the author did very few original interviews for the book. As a matter of fact, I counted less than ten of them. Yet, in my opinion, that process would be necessary in order to understand what was happening to Kennedy during these formative years. Also, in what amounts to a shocker, Shaw does not list Richard Mahoney’s landmark book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa in his bibliography, when, in my view, there is no better book on Kennedy’s evolving foreign policy ideas from 1950-59.
In fact, I would have to say that the vast majority of the book’s references are to secondary sources. And some of those secondary sources are ones I would not consult if I had been writing such a book. For example, the works of Robert Caro are not even really about Kennedy. Robert Dallek’s books on Kennedy do not even mention either his transformation in the Senate, or Edmund Gullion. Christopher Mathews’ books on JFK are pretty much useless, as is Richard Reeves’ book on the JFK presidency. These very questionable secondary sources are all in Shaw’s bibliography. Yet he couldn’t find time for Mahoney’s book? I let the readers make up their own mind on that point.
As I said, this book amounts to a decent enough starting point for the next author to build on.