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A New Look at the Kennedy Brothers and the World They Helped Make

A New Look at the Kennedy Brothers and the World They Helped Make
The Kennedy brothers, from left, Robert, Edward and U.S. President John F. Kennedy, pose together in Washington in August, 1963.  (AP)

By    |   Tuesday, 16 February 2021 07:08 PM

"The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire," by Lawrence Haas. Potomac Press, 331 pp.

The lives of John F., Robert, and Ted Kennedy played a fundamental role in shaping America’s role in the world over 6 decades. Lawrence J. Haas, a journalist and onetime communications director for Al Gore, has written a well-researched book, titled “The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire.”

At first glance, the title will certainly grab the readers’ attention as the term “empire” likely strikes dissonance in the minds of most Americans. Certainly, the U.S. has remained the predominant global power since World War II. Nevertheless, we do not typically think of our country as an empire in the historical sense.

While the title leads us to consider America as a possible empire, the book does not center on this debate. Instead, it chronicles interesting, yet often overlooked, foreign policy dynamics from the second half of the 20 th century. Taking a biographical lens and examining the interplay among the three brothers, Haas innovatively covers many foreign policy challenges that faced the United States and how the Kennedy family influenced those debates.

He starts with the brothers’ relationship with their father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Before the outbreak of World War II, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Joe Kennedy was well known for his more isolationist views.

Controversially, he famously asserted that “Democracy is finished in England. It may be here [in the U.S.].”

These views did not change when the war ended. He opposed the creation of NATO and the Marshall Plan. John F. Kennedy would break with his father on foreign policy because of JFK’s service in World War II and time abroad.

One of the most striking parts of the book is the extensive travel that all three brothers embarked on from the 1930s to the 1960s. These young, privileged men saw much of the world that too many Americans still have not had the chance to see. Trips to Central Asia, Africa, Latin America and extended trips to Europe gave the Kennedys a very global, cosmopolitan world view, and many trips included meetings with captains of industry and world leaders.

Most poignantly, during his time at Harvard, John F. Kennedy spent many months traveling Europe and speaking with major political actors, forming the basis of his thesis and best-selling book, “Why England Slept.”

Importantly, John F. Kennedy’s travels gave him the insight that great power competition in the Cold War would be fought in the developing world.

He catapulted these issues to center stage as president during his first State of the Union speech:

“We are pledged to work with our sister republics to free the Americas of all such foreign domination and all tyranny, working toward the goal of a free hemisphere of free governments, extending from Cape Horn to the Arctic Circle.”

President Kennedy further elaborated on his views with a speech that was essentially a second State of the Union, called a “Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs.” He championed the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, created the Peace Corps, and supported the establishment of the elite special forces unit known as Green Berets.

If there is any disappointment in this tome, it is that Haas’s book hardly covers the impact of “The Ugly American” on President Kennedy, nor on the other brothers.

The novel provided sharp comment on incompetent American soft power and military might in Asia during the Cold War, and Kennedy had a copy sent to all of his Senate colleagues.

Many argue that “The Ugly American” was the impetus for President Kennedy to dramatically increase American engagement in the developing world, and perhaps, the author felt that this was already detailed in other fora.

On Robert Kennedy, Haas covers his evolving thinking on Latin America and Vietnam after brother Jack’s death. Importantly, this shift in thinking led to the end of the Cold War consensus. Bobby Kennedy shaped a new progressive foreign policy that was skeptical toward US military involvement and emphasized human rights. Through the lens of foreign policy, Haas is also especially strong depicting the intense rivalry between Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Kennedy.

The author adds fascinating context through his portrayal of Bobby Kennedy’s trip to South Africa and the then-famous and now less remembered “Ripple of Hope” speech. The powerful address served as a catalyst for the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and abroad.

After the tragic deaths of his brothers, Ted assumed a unique and influential role in American public life. However, his moral and political authority was irreversibly damaged by the still-discussed incident at Chappaquiddick.

Although backlash was insufficient for Massachusetts voters to remove him from office, it doomed hopes of a Presidential run or formal Senate leadership.

As a senator, Ted Kennedy was an ardent supporter of human rights, democracy, and development policy. He made important yet overlooked contributions in supporting the release of “Refuseniks,” Jewish Soviet dissidents.

Haas’s book does a first-rate job of reviewing changes in American foreign policy through examining the Kennedy brothers’ evolving positions, actions, and influences on each other.

At times, the author reveals a deep nostalgia for the Kennedys. For readers who were not around for John F. Kennedy nor Bobby Kennedy, Haas adeptly captures the powerful responses from the American and global public that the Kennedys elicited. It is unlike anything in American politics in the last 50 years.

The closest we have come is perhaps some of the American and global response to then candidate Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.

The father and the three Kennedy brothers encapsulate much of the spectrum of modern American foreign policy. The brothers tried to understand the hopes and aspirations of other countries, while also trying to be faithful to our values and our national interests. The book also provides perspective for great power competition challenges we face today, where much of the contest with China and Russia will play out in less developed parts of the world. In this respect, looking at the Kennedy brothers’ dealing with the past offers considerable thought for the challenges of the future.

Daniel F. Runde is the Chair of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Assistance

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The lives of John F., Robert, and Ted Kennedy played a fundamental role in shaping America's role in the world over 6 decades and a new book by journalist Lawrence J. Haas, explores...
john kennedy, robert kennedy, teddy kennedy
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2021-08-16
Tuesday, 16 February 2021 07:08 PM
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