October 25, 2013

It is tempting to say of Robert Dallek’s latest book that there’s nothing really new here. The basic story line in “Camelot’s Court” will seem familiar to even casual readers of the vast Kennedy oeuvre, and the major themes struck by Dallek were sounded by David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” more than 40 years ago.

Nonetheless, Dallek, whose “An Unfinished Life” (2003) first exposed the severity of JFK’s medical condition, is an assiduous digger into archives, and he writes with a kind of granular authority. He doesn’t labor to spell out lessons of leadership, but he doesn’t need to. The story of how a glamorous but green young president struggled with conflicting and often bad advice while trying to avoid nuclear Armageddon remains a gripping and cautionary tale of the loneliness of command.

Kennedy was devoted to the Great Man theory of history. As he spoke about Churchill, Stalin and Napoleon, “his eyes shone with a particular glitter, and it was quite clear that he thought in terms of great men and what they were able to do, not at all of impersonal forces,” observed the British historian Isaiah Berlin after several conversations with Kennedy at White House dinners. But of course even the greatest men, from time to time, need wise advisers to battle the impersonal forces. Kennedy surrounded himself with what he called a “ministry of talent,” personified by McGeorge Bundy, the brainy but chilly Harvard dean who became national security adviser. These men — and they were all men back then — were well-intentioned, but, as Dallek shows, they often served Kennedy badly.

In particular, they had difficulty handling the military and the intelligence community. The current Pentagon is relatively restrained about the use of force. Not so the top brass in 1961. Consider Air Force Gen. Thomas Power, the head of the Strategic Air Command. “Why are you so concerned with saving lives?” Power once asked the authors of a Rand Corp. study. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win.”

Power’s boss, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay — a model for Gen. Jack D. Ripper in the doomsday movie “Dr. Strangelove” — described Power as a “sadist” and “not stable.”

In his first few months in office, Kennedy was bamboozled by the CIA, which persuaded the new president to back a “secret” invasion of Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was a fiasco. After the defeat, Jackie Kennedy recalled her husband crying in the privacy of his bedroom. “He put his head in his hands and sort of wept,” she said, according to Dallek’s recounting. John Kennedy’s repeated refrain: “All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts. How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

But in Dallek’s retelling, the young president learned on the job. Wisely, he made clear to the press and the public that he was the responsible government officer, adding, with a characteristic edge of rueful humor, “There’s an old saying that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

By the time of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Kennedy had learned how to better handle the experts. While the ExCom, his secret group of advisers during the crisis, struggled to decide whether to bomb or invade Cuba to dislodge the Soviet missiles, Kennedy worked out a crafty, face-saving deal, trading away some obsolete U.S. missiles in Turkey. “We’ve been had!” spluttered Adm.George Anderson, the chief of naval operations.

Kennedy just shook his head. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor,” he told his appointments secretary, Kenneth O’Donnell. “If we . . . do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

One of the central tenets of the Kennedy myth is that the Cuban missile crisis was the final making of the man — the crucible that forged him into a wise peacemaker who, in his final year in office, reached out to the Soviets in detente and launched a civil rights bill to end discrimination in the South. The flaw in this smooth and uplifting arc is that in the autumn of 1963, Kennedy’s administration was in a shambles over Vietnam.

As he tried to figure out America’s role, the president found it almost impossible to get a straight answer from his advisers. In September 1963, Marine Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak and State Department Asia expert Joseph Mendenhall reported to the president on their recent Vietnam visit. As Dallek recounts, Krulak said the war was going in “absolutely the right direction and was going to be won.” Mendenhall described “a virtual breakdown of the civil government” and the near-collapse of the Diem regime.

“Astonished and frustrated,” Kennedy asked: “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”

Through the summer and fall of 1963, various camps in the CIA, the State Department and the military bickered and connived against one another. The on-again, off-again, on-again coup against the Diem regime ended in a bloody assassination. Kennedy was apparently caught by surprise. Receiving the news that Diem had been murdered, JFK “leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before,” recalled Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is hardly a picture of a great man who has learned to control his fate.

Kennedy himself was assassinated less than a month later. What would he have done about Vietnam? “Given the hesitation he showed about Vietnam during his thousand-day administration, it is entirely plausible that he would have found a way out of the conflict or at least not to expand the war to the extent Lyndon Johnson did,” Dallek writes.

Maybe. Kennedy was very worried about the political fallout from “losing Vietnam,” and he could be as expedient (and craven) as any politician. Still, as Dallek shows, he struggled to be his own man and came to understand that brilliance does not always, or perhaps often, equal good judgment. Kennedy did learn to question his aides, even if he could not always master them. He might have made a good second-term president — unless his egregious personal behavior caught up with him.

Dallek’s account does not finally redeem or exalt JFK, but it does make you want to elect presidents who are not easily fooled by the so-called experts.

Evan Thomas, the author of “Robert Kennedy” and “Ike’s Bluff,” is at work on a biography of Richard Nixon.

CAMELOT’S COURT

Inside the Kennedy White House

By Robert Dallek

Harper. 492 pp. $32.50