This volume in Cambridge University Press’s series on key figures in U.S. history and culture leans heavily toward a lit-crit take on the 35th president of the United States—which is not surprising, since more than half the contributors are literature professors. Historians of U.S. foreign relations or the Cold War in general will not find essays on the Berlin Wall, South Vietnam, or the Cuban missile crisis that incorporate the latest archival findings or recent scholarship to make us think anew about the Kennedy administration. Chapters that one might think would be assigned to a historian, such as “JFK and the Global Anticolonial Movement,” turn out to be written by an English professor, resulting in an essay short on history and long on analysis of presidential rhetoric.
Even the chapter notes and the guide to further sources appearing at the end of the book do a poor job of directing interested readers to narrative-altering books and articles that have been published in the aftermath of the Cold War. Important works [End Page 204] are overlooked and perplexing choices made (e.g., Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s flawed 2009 collection, The Kennedy Tapes, rather than Sheldon M. Stern’s superior book on the missile crisis, Averting the “Final Failure”).
Andrew Preston’s “Kennedy, the Cold War, and the National Security State” is one of the more historically oriented essays. His treatment of the administration’s deepening involvement in Southeast Asia is understandably brief. What is harder to understand is why Preston does not incorporate new information about the repercussions of the violent overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, presented in such works as Lien-Hang T. Nguyen’s Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) and Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). Both works document the profound impact of the coup d’état—supported by the Kennedy administration—on the war debate in the North Vietnamese Politburo. Although Preston does not exactly absolve Kennedy of responsibility for what followed, a more critical approach might liken the policy of deposing Diem with George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003: Both were epic blunders, based on wishful thinking and ignorance of the adversary.
The volume emphasizes what might be called the cultural meta-narrative constructed by the youngest man ever to be elected president, and a Catholic to boot. The editor of the volume, Andrew Hoberek, an associate English professor at the University of Missouri, agrees with John Hellmann, the author of The Kennedy Obsession, that Kennedy created “the most influential story of the twentieth-century United States” (p. 5). That may be, but partisans of Franklin D. Roosevelt might have a better case to make. One might even argue that the dominant political figure during the Cold War portion of the twentieth century was Richard M. Nixon rather than Kennedy. Moreover, if one views the conservative ascendancy that followed the 1960s as a response to the failed domestic and foreign policies of the New Frontier and Great Society, the claim of Kennedy’s dominance is further undermined unless one is strictly talking about presidential myth-making.
Fortunately, when the book address issues of culture, the result is a thoughtful and sometimes thought-provoking series of essays on subjects ranging from the assassination, the turbulent 1960s, the Kennedys’ focus on imagery, the transformative role of television during the 1960 election, and the family’s relationships with the Protestant establishment in Boston, Harvard, and the Catholic Church. Even here, however, a notable work such as Thomas Maier’s The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings (New York: Basic Books, 2003), which is entirely about the Kennedys as Irish-American saga, is made conspicuous by its absence from the narrative.
Two essays relating to the November 1963 assassination—one pertaining to the inauguration of postmodern paranoia, the other on the memorialization of...