An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 – Robert Dallek

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I have been looking for a more recent biography of JFK, warts and all, and ran across this by Dallek, released in 2003. I was absolutely dumbfounded at how good the single chapter Caro had on JFK in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power in 2012, and I’m sorry to say I mistook Robert Dallek for Robert Caro.

This book wasn’t as good on JFK as the single chapter Caro had in The Passage of Power. That’s not a negative – this is still a very good book – but Caro’s description of Kennedy’s background and illnesses seems better to me. But Dallek does a good job of explaining Kennedy’s many health problems and his drive to overcome them. He also presents a very interesting portrait of Kennedy as interested in foreign policy from a young age, going through his trips to Europe before and shortly after World War II, where he attended the Potsdam Conference as a reporter, including meeting Eisenhower while traveling with Navy Secretary Forrestal.

The account of his time in the White House was very interesting, including the constant balancing he had between what he wanted to do and what was politically possible. I was interested to see that Dallek thought he could have gotten a civil right bill through after the 1964 elections, and that he believed Kennedy remained committed to the drive to put a man on the moon at the time of his death. I don’t think either is correct. I believe that Johnson was the only man who could have gotten that bill through Congress, although he did benefit from Kennedy’s martyrdom. I also believe that Kennedy saw the space program as an essential part of the global competition against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and when he successfully brought down the temperature of the conflict after the missile crisis in 1962 and obtained the nuclear testing treaty the next year, he would have stopped putting such enormous resources into a program that was no longer needed in the same way. He was clearly disenchanted with continuing to put resources into Vietnam, and while we can never know for sure, I believe that he would have pulled out after the 1964 election since he would not have had to answer to voters again. Johnson, who long believed that he would run for reelection in 1968, did not have the same ability to turn his back on a problematic foreign policy commitment.

all in all, a very interesting book, but now I know why it never seemed to catch fire the way The Passage of Power did – it wasn’t by the same author.

About Post Author

Michael C. Smith

Marshall, Texas lawyer. I post on things that attract my interest while puttering in my study. Mostly family, books, home, history, World War II and scale modeling.
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