Here’s my chat with Lawrence Haas on his new book The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby and Ted Remade America’s Empire.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, today with the pleasure of conversing with Larry Haas, the author of a fascinating new book on the Kennedy brothers in the world, addressing their global statecraft across several decades. Three careers of three exceptional Americans. Lawrence Haas is a foreign affairs analyst and commentator, now historian. So, Larry, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
Haas: I’m delighted to be here. Thank you, Mark.
Tooley: It’s hard to think of another set of brothers who have had more impact on American foreign policy. Maybe the Dulles brothers. So, the three Kennedys, Jack, Robert, and Teddy, are exceptional in that regard. So, what draws them together in terms of their foreign policy perspective?
Haas: Well, first of all, it starts in the very early days of their lives, as their parents Joe and Rose are tutoring them and encouraging them not just to attain power, but to look beyond America’s borders, to learn about the world, care about the world, and once they attain power, to shape America’s role in the world. And through that, to change the world itself. In terms of what ties them together, over the course of more than sixty years in public office, they believed in American leadership. That America needed to step up, discard its traditional isolationism, and lead the free world, to promote freedom and democracy. They believed heavily in American engagement. America engaging not just with traditional powers, but with the new emerging nations across the developing world in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They all feared war, favored diplomacy, and wanted to control the world’s deadliest weapons. So, they wanted a strong but secure America, and they pursued that for over the course of more than six decades in public life.
Tooley: Well, as you address, their father Joseph’s public career effectively was ended by his close association with Neville Chamberlain and the policies of appeasement while he was ambassador to Great Britain. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that his sons were internationalists in reaction against the father’s mistakes, but the story is actually more complicated than that, isn’t it?
Haas: It really is. I don’t think that they became internationalists as a reflection of youthful rebellion. I think actually what happened was that the parents, and Joe in particular, sent each of the sons overseas to learn about the world, to his great credit. He didn’t tell them what to believe, he just told them to learn about the world and make up your own mind. And they all by themselves came to the conclusion after traveling to the four corners of the world that America could not sit back. That the challenges were too grand. That if it was going to defend itself and defend its interests, it needed to discard isolationism. And Joe never tried to talk them out of that. He argued with them. In fact, interestingly, he continued to promote isolationism while they were public figures and they were promoting something quite different. But again, to his great credit, he did not tell them what to believe. He encouraged them to make up their own minds, and all three of them made up their own minds in a way that was dramatically different than what he thought over the course of his career.
Tooley: Now famously, Jack Kennedy was America’s first Catholic president. Each of the brothers was raised as a Catholic, especially by their devout mother. To what extent did their Catholicism shape their viewpoint towards issues of war and peace and America’s role in the world?
Haas: Well, they were all fierce anti-communists. They all really understood the difference between a free and democratic society and an unfree communist or otherwise authoritarian society. They had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and I do believe that that is a reflection of their Catholic roots, their teachings as to what’s a good life as opposed to a bad life, what’s the virtuous life. And the virtuous life to them was a life of attainment in a free society. A society in which people can pursue their own interests. Bobby, interestingly, is the one who has the strongest sense of right and wrong. In fact, he sees foreign policy like he sees everything else, in terms of black and white and good and evil. And I don’t think that it is a coincidence that, among the three brothers, he in fact is the most devout, the most like his mother, in terms of attachment to Catholicism. He was an altar boy when he was a boy. He attended mass regularly throughout his adult life, and he married Ethel Skakel, who was even more devout than he was. But I do think that you see Catholicism in the general approach to foreign policy in all three of the brothers.
Tooley: The Kennedy family was very close to Senator Joe McCarthy. Of the brothers, I believe RFK was the closest. And I think Joe McCarthy attended the weddings of two of the three brothers. JFK seemed less inclined to want to align with McCarthy. How did the Kennedys navigate their relationship with Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism and all that that represented?
Haas: Somewhat awkwardly, frankly. There was politics involved. He was in fact a close family friend, and the Kennedys, as I mentioned earlier, all were fierce anti-communists with the emergence of the Soviet Union. So, their initial reaction to the rise of McCarthyism was that Joe McCarthy was serving a quite worthwhile public purpose in rooting out communists in government. And Jack defended him at moments when he was under attack. Bobby worked for him as a senate staffer on the investigation subcommittee when McCarthy was at the height of his power. When you see McCarthy fall, Jack and Bobby kind of handle it awkwardly. Jack is in a hospital bed, so he has a very good excuse. But in fact, he was not there for the Senate vote to censor Joe McCarthy when the political winds changed and the feeling was that he had gone too far. Bobby kept his human attachment to Joe McCarthy, even after he left, due to the fact that he was disagreeing with where McCarthy was going. Very quietly, he attended Joe McCarthy’s funeral in 1957. Interestingly enough, Joe McCarthy was not just a family friend and somebody who attended, as you mentioned, some Kennedy weddings. But Joe McCarthy was the godfather to Bobby and Ethel’s first child, Kathleen, who is now Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. So, McCarthy was involved in the Kennedy life over the course of quite a number of years.
Tooley: JFK visited Indochina when it was still under French colonialism in the 1950s, and that certainly had a profound impact on how they would come to view Vietnam, of course. President Diem was assassinated during Jack Kennedy’s presidency and RFK’s rise in 1968 was a reaction to LBJ’s failures in Vietnam. How did the Kennedys overall view the war in Vietnam, and would JFK have administered that war differently than LBJ?
Haas: Well, in the 1950s Jack in particular, although supported by Bobby, thought that Diem was a good partner for the United States. He was a strong leader; he seemed to be presiding over society in a way that people felt like they were free and prosperous. So, he went into Vietnam only with military advisors and to make a stand against Soviet expansionism somewhere in the world, because he felt that he needed to do that and Vietnam was as good a place as any. But he only came in with military advisors, they peaked at 18,000. And over the course of his presidency, Jack, and again as also reflected in Bobby’s evolution, lost faith in Diem. Over time, Diem became more removed from his population, his constituency, and more autocratic, he cracked down much more on human rights over the course of time. And with regard to where they were headed, I think it’s quite clear that Jack planned to withdraw from Vietnam after his presumed reelection in 1964. He told Defense Secretary Bob McNamara to plan for withdrawal over the course of 1965. He told Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of his plans. He told other White House officials of his plans. He withdrew 1,000 military advisors from its peak level before his assassination, and he was speaking quite openly about his growing disenchantment with Diem and the growing challenges of the South winning that war under its current leadership. So, everything to me adds up to a withdrawal and, needless to say, American history would be much different if Jack had lived, had won reelection, and had pursued that withdrawal. Just think about how different life in America would be today. We would not have had years of internal strife. The Democratic nomination, we would have had another Kennedy-Nixon race. Bobby might have won that race and, certainly, he would have prosecuted the war much differently beginning in 1969 then Richard Nixon did. Nixon eventually got us out of Vietnam, but boy, it took a whole number of years. And Bobby certainly would have been speedier about it had he been elected.
Tooley: The most decisive role that the Kennedys played on the world stage was almost certainly the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bobby was Jack’s closest counselor during those days, and that crisis was managed successfully perhaps owing to Jack’s very cool, detached rationality. But presumably Bobby also deserves a great deal of credit.
Haas: Oh, they both absolutely do. Jack showed real courage throughout that period by withstanding the overwhelming desire on the part of his military advisers to launch a military strike to wipe out the weapons, perhaps accompanied by a land invasion to topple Castro. Jack distrusted the military in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco where they promised that exiles who would invade would topple Castro and we’d have a non-communist regime there without too much trouble. That happened in April of ’61, and he never fully trusted his military advisers after that. So, he decided to appeal to Khrushchev as a fellow politician, rather than the madman that some of the people around Jack were suggesting that he was. And he leaned on Bobby more than anyone else to help him negotiate. And it was Bobby who goes to see top Soviet official Dobrynin in a meeting towards the end of the crisis, in which they cut this deal where the United States agrees in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba that the United States quietly would remove its missiles from Turkey on the Soviet border. But he basically says to Dobrynin we’ll do this quietly, but there can be no public mention of this because we cannot be seen giving this kind of a concession, but I assure you that this will happen. To the great credit of Khrushchev, he says nothing about this, he accepts the deal, and the United States does in fact follow through in three or four months time and quietly removes the missiles. So, it’s quite an achievement in statecraft by Jack, as assisted by his most trusted advisor who is in fact his brother.
Tooley: Now Jack, of course, was the great grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants, but he also was a Bostonian. He went to Harvard and imbued much of that New England brahmin way of thinking. And how he spoke about America very much was in sync with traditional American civil religion. I believe he may have been the first major public figure who used the phrase “A City on the Hill,” harkening back to the now famous Puritan sermon. So, Jack almost seemed to have, at least how he spoke, how sincere it was I don’t know, but a mystical view of America as a special democracy with a providential role in the world.
Haas: Oh, I do believe. He may have been the first leader, as you say, to hearken back to the “City on a Hill” sermon of the Puritan era, but he was not the first president to believe that America was a providential place in the world and had special responsibility. But I absolutely believe that he felt it in his bones that America was a special place, that it needed to serve as a moral beacon for political dissidents, would-be democrats, all over the world, and that we had a special responsibility to promote freedom and democracy. That there were hundreds of millions of people all over the world who were struggling, teeming masses who were hoping for better lives, and we were the free alternative to the communist way. And we needed to take that seriously and play our role. So, yes, I share your view that Jack thought of America as a special place, and I think his foreign policy, in holding firm and promoting freedom and democracy at some very challenging times, was a reflection of what he felt in his bones of that America.
Tooley: I recall that one of Jack’s favorite books was a biography of British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Are there any particular major historical figures that were especially influential on Jack and the other brothers?
Haas: Certainly for Jack it was Winston Churchill. He used to quote Churchill. He listened to Churchill speeches in terms of learning how to speak with dramatic effect. He used Churchillian language when he talked about the challenges facing America. If you listen to Jack and it was 1947 or ‘51 or ‘56 or ’59, you really got the sense that it was Great Britain in 1940. He always spoke in those kinds of dramatic terms about the challenges facing free and democratic governments, just the way Churchill spoke to rally the British people at some very dire moments. In terms of others, they all have their favorites. Ted, who played a larger role than any other American figure over the course of decades to help bring peace to Northern Ireland, became quite enchanted with Irish figures, poets, writers, and leaders. And Bobby was very taken by Greek mythology. He read the Greek masters over time. He quoted them quite a bit. All three of these brothers were terribly learned figures. When I went back and researched, and not just learned about how they were raised, but read their writings, their books, their articles, devoured many of their speeches, boy, they were rich intellectuals who were more than happy to quote historians, leaders, poets, and other great figures of the past. So, each of them had their favorites, and you see that when you listen to them talk over the course of time.
Tooley: And finally, of course, the Kennedys were known as Cold Warriors in the 1950s, but the last brother by the 1970s and through the 1980s was much more dovish and, in some ways, undermining the Reagan Administration in his visit to Moscow in meetings with Soviet leaders. So, how do you explain that transition for Teddy, and was there actually a continuity there or did his opinions on the Soviet Union shift across the decades?
Haas: Well, I will say that all three of the brothers, as you mentioned, are hardcore Cold Warriors through Jack’s death. Bobby and Ted actually both evolve, and it’s largely because of Vietnam. They are no less anti-communist. They did not lose their real hatred of communist ideology and communist-type governments all the way till the end of their dying days, whether that’s Bobby in ‘68 or Ted in 2009. But because of Vietnam, and with the rise of China, they come to believe number one that America needs to be careful when it flexes its muscles and uses military power. So, they become much more distrustful of that. The world is evolving, China is emerging, and they’re looking for ways to live with these communist governments, even if they don’t trust them. Now you mentioned Ted going to Moscow, which he did more than once. There was actually more coordination with Republican presidents over the years than that then has been suggested. When Ted went to Moscow for two trips in the 1970s, the White House was fully involved in both cases. One under Nixon, and the second time I believe under Carter. And he returns in the 1980s and actually works in very close concert with the Reagan Administration in terms of sizing up the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and sending messages from Reagan to Gorbachev, setting the stage for the meetings that Reagan eventually would have and the arms control deals and the freeing of political dissidents that follow Ted Kennedy’s visit. So, he’s not out there as a lone ranger. He is quite cognizant that he’s an American figure and that he needs to work in concert with whoever the president of that time happens to be.
Tooley: And finally, Larry, could you hold up a copy of the book?
Haas: Yes, I’d be delighted to do so. So, in fact, the book and that picture on the cover, which is not one that people see very often, is from 1962. Jack is president, Bobby is Attorney General, Ted, in the middle, that year runs for Senate for the first time. You see, interestingly, Bobby is wearing glasses, which is something that you don’t always see. It is not clear what they’re discussing, but based on Jack’s overwhelming interest in foreign affairs, it would not surprise me if they were mulling whatever the foreign policy challenge of that day happened to be. So, thank you for the opportunity to speak about it. Here’s the book, and I hope people will check it out.
Tooley: Larry Haas, author of The Kennedys in the World, thank you very much for a very insightful conversation.
Haas: Thanks for having me, Mark.