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Reviewed by:
  • An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963
  • Fred I. Greenstein
Robert Dallek , An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003. 838 pp. $30.00.

John F. Kennedy would stand high on any ranking of political leaders whose personal qualities helped shape the Cold War. His finger was on the American nuclear button during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, a confrontation that could have destroyed hundreds of millions of lives and could have eroded the habitability of most of the planet. Kennedy's advisers were sharply divided about whether to give Soviet leaders [End Page 169] the option of withdrawing the missiles they had secretly installed in Cuba or to launch an air strike on the missile sites, a course of action that might well have triggered a nuclear war. The buck stopped with Kennedy, who opted for the less draconian alternative and, unbeknownst to many of his advisers, secretly assured Moscow that his administration would accede to its demand to withdraw U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

The Kennedy who emerges from Robert Dallek's biography is of interest to students of the Cold War in that he proves to have been neither the anti-Communist ideologue depicted in such works as Thomas G. Patterson's edited collection Kennedy's Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961–1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), nor the violence-prone devotee of machismo to be found in writings such as Thomas C. Reeves's A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (New York: Free Press, 1991). Dallek portrays a JFK who was clear-headed, undogmatic, and intent on preventing the Cold War from turning hot. Dallek is closely attentive to Kennedy's sexual promiscuity, the truly parlous state of his health, and his heavy reliance on medications, but he argues that they did not impair the president's performance in office.

One might have hoped that in addition to being instructive on Kennedy himself, Dallek's book would be a useful history of Soviet-American relations during the Kennedy presidency. It is not. The book's shortcomings are illuminated by setting it against the analysis in a volume on which Dallek frequently draws: Michael R. Beschloss's The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963 (New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991). Beschloss argues that the Kennedy years were marked by a mounting spiral of misperception and hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union that began when Kennedy mistakenly concluded that Nikita Khrushchev's address on 6 January 1961 to Communist Party activists calling for "wars of national liberation" was the prelude to Soviet expansionism. (It appears to have been mainly an attempt by the Soviet leader to counter Chinese criticism of his policies.)

Kennedy responded on 30 January 1961 with an apocalyptic address to Congress in which he warned that "we grow nearer the hour of maximum danger" and requested a major arms increase—a speech that drew harsh criticism in the Soviet press. The negative effect on Moscow of Kennedy's speech was intensified by the Kennedy administration's abortive effort to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro by landing a brigade of anti-Castro exiles at Cuba's Bay of Pigs in April 1961. This effort reinforced Khrushchev's view of Kennedy's hostile intentions, but the U.S. administration's failure to do what was necessary to remove Castro suggested that the new U.S. president lacked the will to follow through on his anti-Communist principles.

Emboldened by Kennedy's seeming weakness, Khrushchev bullied him during their June 1961 meeting in Vienna, threatening to turn Berlin over to East Germany. Kennedy's response was to make public the vast strategic advantage of the United States, prompting Khrushchev to seek to remedy the imbalance through the surreptitious installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Sobered by the missile crisis, Kennedy [End Page 170] turned to finding ways to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, using his commencement address at American University on 10 June 1963 to speak eloquently about the need for peace and to announce that he and Khrushchev had agreed to negotiate a nuclear...