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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 143-145

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Book Review

Kennedy's Wars:
Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam

Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 528 pp. $35.00.

Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King's College London, is the author of many important works dealing mostly with military affairs. But his new book, Kennedy's Wars, is not primarily a work of military history. It is a study of American foreign policy during the presidency of John F. Kennedy that covers both the military and the political sides of the story—or at least a major part of the story. Rather than trying to give an account of U.S. policy in every part of the globe, Freedman emphasizes what he sees as the most important topics. He does not ignore general issues, but the focus of the book is on U.S. policy in three distinct areas: the Berlin crisis, U.S.-Cuban relations (including the missile crisis), and the growing U.S. involvement in southeast Asia.

The argument of the book revolves around certain fundamental questions. Freedman notes that there were sharp crises during the Kennedy period, yet "catastrophe was avoided." Was this, he asks (on p. x), "through good luck or good management?" He notes that the situation in Vietnam was worse at the end of the Kennedy period than it had been at the beginning. Did this mean that American policy under Kennedy, if he had lived, would have taken the same course that it actually did under Lyndon Johnson? Freedman's answer to the second question is that no one can know for sure what Kennedy would have done, but that it "is fair to say" that he, unlike [End Page 143] Johnson, "would have looked hard" for a way to avoid a full-scale military commitment (pp. xii, 413).

On the broader issue Freedman gives Kennedy a good deal of credit. Although Kennedy might not have been the "far-seeing statesman of unusual insight and courageous decision" that some of his admirers made him out to be, he was a serious and thoughtful statesman (p. xi). He had no plan for "winning the cold war," but sought instead to find a way "of consolidating peaceful coexistence" (p.419). In this, Freedman argues, Kennedy was quite successful: "For all his mistakes and misadventures, Kennedy's achievement was that he could be remembered for crises rather than hot wars, and that he left the cold war in a far less dangerous state than he found it" (p.419).

These judgments are based on a sober and intelligent analysis of a broad range of published sources, especially the volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series covering the Kennedy period. Freedman has also made good use of the many books and articles on this subject that have come out in recent years. His basic views about Kennedy are, I think, correct. At any rate, they are in line with my own understanding of American policy during that period. Kennedy clearly did want to stabilize the status quo in Europe, and, as David Kaiser's important new book on the origins of the Vietnam War demonstrates, Kennedy also very much wanted to avoid a full-scale military involvement in southeast Asia.

Freedman is a cautious scholar. He tends not to stray too far from the conventional wisdom, even when (at least as I see it) changes in our understanding of the period are warranted by evidence that has only recently become available. For example, on the question of a possible U.S., or joint U.S.-Soviet, attack on Chinese nuclear weapons facilities, he says that "it has been argued that Kennedy was pushing hard in this direction, but the evidence for this is flimsy" (272). My own judgment, however, is that the evidence on this subject, presented by Gordon Chang and others, is quite substantial. Kennedy, as one senior official recalled in 1964, was eager to have the...