Kennedy’s interactions with his Ministry of Talent not only enrich our understanding of his presidency; they also serve as useful cautionary tales for voters considering future aspirants to the Oval Office and judging those candidates’ ability to meet the day-to-day problems of governing.
From the Introduction to Camelot’s Court
Robert Dallek’s forthcoming study of John F. Kennedy’s inner circle, his “Ministry of Talent,” is a strong and comprehensive behind the scenes view of the personalities, issues, and debates of JFK’s brief Presidential administration in the early 1960’s.
Dallek, with respect for Kennedy as President during a turbulent time in American history and politics, takes us behind the scenes of what came to be known as Camelot and allows us to sit with the President in the often turbulent meetings which seemed to characterize his administration from the start over the two major issues, both foreign, that defined his time in office – Cuba and Vietnam. (The major domestic issue of the day, civil rights, is woven into the book as more of a sidebar issue.) The result is a study in leadership and politics and the nature and need for a President to pick advisers that can help him move forward on his main goals and policies while trying to maintain public support as well as working with Congress and the Senate.
But as Dallek shows, JFK’s choices for his key cabinet posts and national security staff caused him to become increasingly frustrated and stalemate in achieving his legislative and foreign policy goals. In an attempt to create fresh ideas and direction for important foreign polices such as ban on nuclear testing, his choices instead divided his administration due to their own strong personal views, such as with the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the lack of experience in government policy in such positions as the Secretary of Defense; and the lack of personal initiative in positions such as the Secretary of State and I think, his reliance on his brother Bobby Kennedy who served both as his Attorney General and his chief adviser which today would be called his Chief of Staff. And while Kennedy showed great leadership and courage during the defining moment of his administration – the Cuban Missile Crisis – there was still the wrangling between the hawks and the doves while Kennedy tried to steer a course between all out war and simply allowing the missiles to stay but finally to course of action called a quarantine which ultimately resulted in the missiles being dismantled and shipped back to the Soviet Union.
I found two things helpful in Dallek’s work. First, is that through his detailed narrative we have an understanding of just how much Vietnam was turning out to be a quagmire even before Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in 1965. A quagmire deepened through a deep seated fear of communist dominance in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Second, through the detailed descriptions of the tense meetings in trying to determine the correct course of action on Vietnam and Cuba is that the challenges of finding good advisers is a major one for any President. Dallek makes this very clear.
Third is that I was struck as I read by how much the loss of China to Mao Tse-tung and the Communists and the stalemate in Korea influenced the thinking of Kennedy’s leadership (and Kennedy as well). With the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and the democratic movements in Eastern Europe such a view might seem foreign to today’s readership but needs to be kept in mind as one reads this book.
Well written and well researched (over 100 references cited in the bibliography including the Kennedy letters) Camelot’s Court will be a helpful addition to the study of John F. Kennedy and his Presidency in the years ahead.
I give this book an ‘outstanding’ rating.
Note: I received an advance reader’s copy of this book via the Amazon Vine Review program in exchange for review. I was not required to write a positive review.