The Crumbling of Camelot

Peter Riddell

  • Kennedy v. Khrushchev: The Crisis Years 1960-63 by Michael Beschloss
    Faber, 816 pp, £18.50, August 1991, ISBN 0 571 16548 6
  • A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by Thomas Reeves
    Bloomsbury, 510 pp, £19.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1029 6

In his memoirs Roy Jenkins describes John Kennedy as the best President of the USA in the past four decades. It is a curious, not to say unfashionable verdict. The demolishers of the Kennedy legend have been carrying all before them in the past few years. So battered is the Kennedy reputation that it is almost time for a new school of revisionist historians to rehabilitate the myth of Camelot on the Potomac. Almost, but not yet. Michael Beschloss’s absorbing and authoritative study of US-Soviet relations from January 1961 until Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 adds significantly to the case amassed by the demolition squad.

Like many US authors, Beschloss assumes that his readers have a week of free time to read a book, which must account for the large numbers of partially read volumes on American shelves. But while the book is very long, over seven hundred pages before the notes start, the subject merits exhaustive treatment and Beschloss offers a lively narrative as well as some telling pen-portraits. Beschloss has benefited from the accumulation of memoirs, and of US and, more recently, Soviet archive material, over the intervening years. He has also gained from the release of translator’s notes of the Vienna summit in 1961, from White House conversations taped by Kennedy (years before Nixon), and from the records of conferences on the Cuban missile crisis held in the late Eighties, which included key participants like Rusk, Bundy, McNamara, Gromyko and Dobrynin. He is therefore able to offer insights into the thinking of both sides.

His thesis is that, while Kennedy showed considerable skill in handling the main foreign crises of his Presidency, he was responsible for creating many of them by consistently misjudging Khrushchev. These were the years, Beschloss argues, ‘in which humankind came closer than at any other time to nuclear incineration, and in which the United States and the Soviet Union began the greatest arms race in human history. Both leaders ended their two nuclear crises without war and took steps to control nuclear weapons.’ But he compares the inexperienced Kennedy unfavourably with the wise and calm Eisenhower, with reference to their handling of the volatile Khrushchev. The result of Kennedy’s mishandling of Khrushchev was to create a sense of alarm and crisis which led to a substantial military build-up, as well as to the climate of mutual suspicion which has only just ended. Neither might have developed in the way they did if Kennedy had shown a surer touch at the start.

Kennedy’s reputation has moved in the opposite direction to that of other post-war Presidents, or British prime ministers for that matter. The standing of other former leaders has tended to suffer after they left office, as their policies have been reversed or modified by successors, and ex-colleagues have written score-settling memoirs. In some cases, it has taken at least a decade or even two for more favourable reassessments to emerge. By contrast, Kennedy’s standing was never higher than in the years immediately after his death. He was the hero cut off tragically in his prime and the myth was developed and embellished in the books of former lieutenants like Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen. It has only really been in the past decade that the revisionists have gained the upper hand and Kennedy’s record has been compared unfavourably with those of his two predecessors, Truman and Eisenhower. Even his two successors, Johnson and Nixon, have recently been enjoying more favourable reappraisals.

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