Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Kennedy Imprisonment, by Garry Wills

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1982).

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son.

He describes it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades. For example, in “Part One: Sex,” Wills tells a number of stories about the philandering father, Joe Kennedy Sr. He suggests that John Kennedy, also a compulsive womanizer, was both acting like his father and trying to compensate for his own weak constitution. Only years later would the moral weight of this “masculine” family habit fall squarely on Ted’s shoulders. His lonely and damaged wife, Joan, and the candidate’s obvious reluctance to come close to any woman in public were just two of the pitiful consequences of a pattern of immorality spanning two generations.

In subsequent parts, Wills likewise depicts Ted as the prisoner of “Family” and “Image,” and “Charisma.” To devastating effect, he describes a Joe Kennedy Sr. obsessed with the goal of portraying his children, especially his sons, as a group of indomitable winners. For example, working behind the scenes Joe began with John’s senior paper at Harvard and managed to have it padded, reworked, and promoted as a noteworthy book, Why England Slept. He also saw to it that the story of PT 109 was carefully crafted and publicized so that John emerged as one of the best-known heroes of World War II. Again, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Years later it was not John Kennedy, but Ted Sorensen assisted by Jules Davids, who wrote almost all of Profiles in Courage, a book that, incredibly, garnered for JFK a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, the decades-long tradition of deception and empty credentials would inevitably come crashing down. But again, in this tragedy of Shakespearean proportions the older Kennedys experienced the pride. It was Ted, in so many ways alone, who would know the fall.

In the last major section of the book, “Power,” Wills sets out to demolish, among other things, the American myth of the Cuban missile crisis. One by one, he takes out each pillar holding up the structure: Notwithstanding the attempts to spread the blame, only President Kennedy could have launched or prevented the Bay of Pigs. With a mixture of hubris and ignorance, he opted to go with the plan, in part because it was clandestine, unconventional, and high brow, “a James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by Ph.D.s” (231). And why not risk it? The president had been so lucky up till then.

The early, conventional portraits of the Kennedy administration suggest that not only did JFK learn several important lessons from his humiliating defeat, it was this new found wisdom that supposedly enabled him to act so effectively during the missile crisis. But Wills insists that the facts speak otherwise. He says that after the Bay of Pigs, the president never questioned the general purpose and plan of the scheme. To the contrary, he increased his dedication to an anti-bureaucratic approach that specialized in things like paramilitary assaults, counterinsurgency, and guerrilla warfare. In other words, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy did not change his course. Instead, he became more devoted to the prospect of unseating Fidel Castro, this time by means of the secretive Operation Mongoose. Plans designed to topple the Cuban dictator were well known by both Castro and Khrushchev. Thus, the reason why Castro reluctantly agreed to have Soviet missiles sent to Cuba was because he wanted a deterrent against an invasion by the US. When Cuba and the USSR made this claim during the crisis, they were telling the truth.

And what of the legendary restraint shown by Kennedy during the crisis? Wills answers that the president’s claim that he made “every effort” in order to provide room for his adversary is “demonstrably untrue” (265). Among other things, Kennedy ruled out open diplomacy from the very beginning of the crisis, insisted that the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey must not be seen as a quid pro quo, and eventually gave the Russians a 24-hour deadline along with his proposal, a move that actually increased the likelihood of war.

Wills says that by acting in such unrestrained fashion, Kennedy helped to precipitate the fall of Khrushchev, a relatively-easy opponent who was replaced by a Soviet hard-liner. Having been treated this way once by the US, leaders in the USSR were in no mood to make compromises later. Not only that, Kennedy’s behavior in the crisis established a pattern of insisting that the US always deal with adversaries from a superior position, instead of as equals. For these reasons, Wills concludes that the Cuban missile crisis was not, in fact, a great victory for Kennedy and America.

The Kennedy Imprisonment was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It is extremely well written and reads easily. Nevertheless, any book making so many counter claims, several of them audacious, really should be accompanied by documentation. There was no good reason for this work to be published without some sort of notes. Their absence significantly weakens the credibility and usefulness of what might have been a convincing, as well as telling, critique.


Dee Andrews said...

Thanks for this excellent book review, Frank. Now, I'm anxious to read the book! I remember those days of the Cuban Missile Crisis well.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Dee. Since this book is now 30 years old, you can get a nice hardback copy for a few dollars from one of Amazon's used-book dealers. Like I said, it's an easy (and juicy) read.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

I just read Wills book Negro President ... very good.

Frank Bellizzi said...


I thought I knew all of the Wills titles. But I had not even heard of that one. As an historian and writer, the guy is pretty amazing. Thanks for the recommendation. It'll go on my ever-growing list.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

Frank here is an Amazon link to Negro President ... are you diamond dave!!??ks&ie=UTF8&qid=1292200486&sr=1-2

Wills is an amazingly versatile writer. He's even ventured into the history of religion a time or two.

Bobby V