Arthur Schlesinger Jr., born in 1917, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian and critic. He was special assistant and ‘court historian’ to President Kennedy from 1961 to 1963, and wrote an account of the Kennedy Administration, A Thousand Days. In 1968, he supported the presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination, and later wrote Robert Kennedy and His Times. He died in February 2007.
Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.
At Harvard you were once reported to have said, ‘I love teaching but I hate students.’
I don’t recall ever saying anything like that, nor is it what I feel. On the whole I like students more than I like teaching. I don’t mind teaching and I work hard at it and believe I have done it reasonably well, but there are some people for whom teaching is an organic part of life and for whom deprivation would be equivalent to amputation. I regard teaching as better than ditch digging as a way to support oneself, and I find students quite agreeable, but I’m essentially a writer, and if I could have figured out a way of life that would have removed the necessity for teaching, I would have done it. At present I can’t retire, because if I were to bring home the books that I have in my office to a house already overflowing with books, my wife would throw me or the books or both into the street.
As a celebrated American historian, you have been special adviser to a president of the United States. How did you reconcile the two disciplines: that of distinguished politician and that of political aide?
It’s only in recent times that the two professions have become distinct. For a long time the two were fused in the same person without any sense of incompatibility. After all, Thucydides was an Athenian general and Julius Caesar was a far from dispassionate observer. Gibbon wrote in his memoirs, about his military experience, that the captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire. I think the opportunity to see how worldly decisions are made is as likely to enrich the historian as much as to corrupt him.
In my own case, in the United States, my mother was collaterally descended from George Bancroft, the first great American historian, who wrote a history of the United States in many volumes. George Bancroft was also Jackson’s and Van Buren’s political man in Massachusetts. He was Folk’s secretary of the navy, minister to England and to Germany, and was also a very productive historian.
You have to avoid turning history into political partisanship. Another historian once said of Bancroft that all his volumes voted for Andrew Jackson. One must guard against that. But even in libraries historians are not devoid of prejudice. The problem is that the historian can never escape the egocentric predicament, but he must continue to seek an objectivity he can never attain. At least he should take care to declare his interests.
Advisers to presidents are not elected representatives and some might not consider such appointments to be proper in a democracy. Does that not bring special problems and difficulties to the job?
It need not. A president can’t do everything himself. From the beginning of the republic, presidents have had people to help them. Andrew Jackson formed what was called his ‘kitchen cabinet’ – advisers who were not members of the regular Cabinet but with whom he would discuss politics and choices – and that aroused a certain amount of newspaper and partisan protest, but, as Jackson recognised, criticism was really aimed at him, not at them.
The present White House staff was established in 1939 when FDR secured the passage of the Government Reorganisation Act. That created the position of special assistant to the president, and he was given half a dozen of them. Up to that time, presidents had de facto special assistants, but they were mostly on payrolls of other agencies and were co-opted. The new special assistants were supposed by Roosevelt to be endowed, in the phrase he borrowed from Tom Jones, the friend of Lloyd George, with a passion for anonymity. That passion for anonymity has waned in recent years.
In Britain we recently witnessed the resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the issue of Mrs Thatcher’s personal economic adviser. What was your reading of the situation?
I guess Nigel Lawson had reached the point where he couldn’t take Mrs Thatcher any more. Mrs Thatcher was getting economic advice both from the Chancellor and from her personal economic adviser, Alan Walters, and Lawson found the situation intolerable. I suppose he would have found it tolerable if his advice had been taken more often. I assume it was the culmination of various frustrations. Working with Mrs Thatcher, I would judge, is not always the easiest thing in the world.
We have a similar situation structurally in the United States. The president has a department of the Treasury, but he also has a Council of Economic Advisers, both established by statute. The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the Secretary of the Treasury often bring in conflicting advice. There is a third figure, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which is an independent agency. Appointments to the Federal Reserve are made by the president with the consent of the Senate, but the agency itself is not accountable to the president. So you have a triad arguing over the economy.
Since economics is far from an exact science, I don’t think it does any harm for the president to hear two or three positions. In the end the president makes the decisions. The American cabinet does not enjoy the authority that, theoretically, a British cabinet enjoys. The president has the monopoly over decision, whereas theoretically, if not always practically, decisions in British government are collegial; all members of the cabinet are implicated. A quarter of a century or more ago, Dick Crossman pointed out that cabinet government was giving way to prime ministerial government; in effect to presidential government. Mrs Thatcher has certainly illustrated the point.
In the present administration under Bush, or the previous administration under Reagan, did the advisers have autonomy, or was the president involved in everything?
In Reagan’s case, he was indifferent to most of the business of government and he let people move off on their own, so long as they conformed to his set of laissez-faire principles. Bush is very much interested in foreign policy and probably follows that quite closely. Roosevelt had great intellectual curiosity; so did Kennedy. But Reagan was quite passive. He had no intellectual curiosity.
Who among all the presidents of recent years was the most autocratic?
All presidents are ultimately the boss in the executive branch. The most autocratic by temperament clearly was Nixon, but that was because he was insecure. He feared Congress, hated political opposition. Nixon would like to have been an elective dictator. He did not understand that debate and opposition are the essence of democracy; so he regarded opponents of the administration as disloyal to the country and put them on his enemies list. I am proud to say I was on it. Nixon was certainly the most autocratic by disposition. Roosevelt tended to give people a loose leash, but then to rein them in rather abruptly, and cut them off if he felt they did not justify his confidence. Eisenhower was interested in what he was interested in and indifferent to what he was indifferent to. He was actually a rather tense man within, but there were a lot of things he just didn’t care about.
There’s been a historical revisionism about Eisenhower, and now counter-revisionism is setting in. For a time there was a theory that Eisenhower, underneath his grin and his apparent indifference and his fractured syntax, was really a very strong president. And it is evident that he played much more of a role in foreign affairs than we understood at the time. Eisenhower was a crafty man, a good politician, a selfish man. He used Dulles in what we call a good cop/bad cop routine. Dulles would do the unpleasant things and Eisenhower would be the man of peace. On the other hand, Elsenhower’s instincts were good. For example, he was very sceptical about the missile gap. Having been a general, he didn’t take the Pentagon very seriously. He was constantly saying – in private – that we were building too many nuclear weapons. In his farewell address, he talked about the dangers of the military-industrial complex.
Yet he did very little about these things. He complained about over-targetting by the Pentagon, but would not stop it. The military-industrial complex was really created during his presidency. One of the worst things he did was to use the CIA as the president’s private army. He was sceptical about the regular army, so he never used it, and instead started the bad presidental habit of using covert action and clandestine means to achieve ends which, in a democracy, ought to be approved by the legislature, by public opinion.
Kennedy tended to get more involved in the processes of decision making than most presidents. He did not hesitate to call the man at the desk in the State Department or the Agriculture Department and so on if he wanted to find out what the situation really was. He would bypass the Cabinet minister in charge, which irritated cabinet ministers but exhilarated the people at the desk who received the presidential calls. Kennedy was very accessible. We could get him quite quickly by telephone, and late in the afternoon, if the door between his office and the office of his secretary was open, it meant that his special assistants could stick their heads in. He’d be reading or talking on the phone and would say, ‘Come on in.’ Sometimes he would just like to chat.
I find it hard to recognise the swollen White House staffs of the present time. During the Depression, Roosevelt had a smaller staff than the wife of the president has today, and he fought the Second World War with a smaller staff than the vice-president has today. Our White House staffs now are bloated. Many presidential assistants rarely see the president and have to make appointments days or weeks in advance. The great inflation of the White House staff came with Nixon, and every president since has carried it on. They all begin by saying they are going to reduce the size of the White House staff, but they never do.
As special assistant to Kennedy, your responsibilities ranged from speech writing so general advice on major issues. To what extent was it a position of real power and influence?
It was not a position of real power at all. But for an historian it was a fascinating experience to be around when decisions were made. I don’t think my presence made any difference to anything, except to me, but it was very enjoyable. Working with Kennedy was exhilarating. I learned a great deal, and perhaps I was able to play a marginal role on some matters.
Did he take your advice?
I was opposed to the Bay of Pigs. I was part of the group involved in planning it, and I thought it a bad idea. I talked to Kennedy about it, and he wasn’t very enthusiastic himself, but it was an expedition he had inherited from the previous administration. He was trapped because, here he was, a naval lieutenant from the Second World War, and if he were to disband a project that the great General Eisenhower had approved, people would have been critical of him, and the word would have gone around that Eisenhower had been prepared to overthrow Castro and that Kennedy refused to follow through. Then there was what Alan Dulles of the CIA called the disposal problem: what to do with 1,200 Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala. Kennedy couldn’t quite see how to disband them without disturbing political consequences; so rather reluctantly he let the expedition go ahead.
He was a man of great intellectual curiosity and high intelligence. He liked to hear varying viewpoints. I suppose I was one base he liked to touch, probably just to see what a professional liberal, so to speak, would think about this or that issue. One thing on which I may have helped was the question of the centre left in Italy. The Eisenhower administration had said that the United States would not countenance the entry of the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) into an Italian government. The US veto struck all of us as outrageous, and at a very early point I talked to Kennedy about it. I went to Italy and, when I came back, strongly recommended that he indicate we would have no objection to the socialists entering the government, which he did when Fanfani made his visit in 1961. The State Department continued to try to preserve the Eisenhower veto, but the PSI had long since abandoned its fellow-travelling inclinations of a decade earlier. Still it wasn’t really until Averell Harriman became under-secretary for political affairs that we were able to turn the State Department around. Eventually the socialists entered the government, and nothing much changed one way or t’other.
You have often been called an American liberal. Is that with a capital ‘L’?
‘Liberal’ means something very different in Europe. In Italy the Liberal party is a rather conservative party, and through most of the Continent liberal is understood to mean Manchester laissez-faire nineteenth-century liberalism with an admixture of anticlericalism. In Britain the Liberal party has come to mean the party of good-hearted, somewhat eccentric people. American liberalism is really the liberalism which Lloyd George and Churchill embraced before the First World War and it could, I suppose, be called social liberalism rather than classic liberalism.
What it means essentially is the intervention of the government to enlarge opportunity for those who are poor or handicapped one way or another in life. It means the interventionist state, provision of basic levels of welfare and so on. It does not mean the command economy, or centralised planning. It’s Keynesian liberalism, the market working according to rules of the game with sufficient regulation in the public interest to prevent greed from undermining and subverting the system.
Reagan represented the reaction against all that, and greed took over in the United States in the 1980s. Greed brings out the worst impulses of capitalism. The solution in my view is to do what Roosevelt did: to rescue capitalism from the capitalists. If you’re going to have individual freedom, you have to have mixed ownership. Private property is essential for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of political opposition and the like. But capitalists don’t understand the virtues of their own system. If they have the money, they don’t have to have political power too. I believe those capitalist states are best that are run by people who are not over-impressed by the wisdom of the business community.
In 1959, you said that the biggest issue between Democrats and Republicans was the allocation of resources between the public and private sectors. What do you see as the biggest issue today?
The biggest issue is the role of government. The view of the Reagan administration was that government is not the solution; government is the problem; if only we could get government ‘off our backs’, then our problems would solve themselves; or the processes of the market would solve them.
I would say that is manifestly not the case. Getting government off our backs means putting business on our backs. Deregulation has largely been a disaster. One reason I was a little late for our interview is that I’ve been calling the telephone company to get the phone fixed. We used to have a regulated monopoly. If the phone didn’t work, they would send someone to fix it. Now the monopoly is broken up in the interests of deregulation, so you call one place and they say, ‘Well, we’re not responsible for that,’ and you have to call another place, a separate company, and so it goes on. The idea of deregulation was to bring competition into, say, the airlines. But competition did not last long. Where is Freddie Laker now? Where is People’s Airline in the United States now? Competition has resulted in much more consolidation than existed under regulation.
Deregulation produced the leveraged buy-out scandals, the savings and loans scandals, the housing scandals. Regulation in the public interest is a requirement in any advanced industrial society. So is a measure of government intervention to help the poor and the disadvantaged. Democrats stand for affirmative government as against the Republican faith in negative government.
It sometimes seems that the politician who is able to give the best performance on television wins the day. Is that a cynical view, or has the stature of presidents and politicians diminished?
Television has had considerable impact on politics, but more on the party structure than on the character of politicians. In the United States the theory was that, once television became dominant, all successful politicians would have to meet standards of histrionic skill and personal pulchritude. Ronald Reagan came along in apparent vindication of this view. But actually Ronald Reagan succeeded because the country was entering a conservative phase in the political cycle. He would have been as effective in the age of radio, as was Roosevelt, or in the age of newsreels, as was Warren G. Harding, or in the age of the penny press, as was Franklin Pierce. I don’t think he was a unique creation of television.
Indeed, he’s almost alone in meeting those anticipated standards. If you look at the rest of the people who have run for president in the television age since Kennedy, none has been any good on television. Lyndon Johnson was a disaster. So was Barry Goldwater in 1964. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were both disasters. George McGovern and Nixon; Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford; Carter again against Reagan; Mondale, Dukakis and Bush – none has been any good, except for Kennedy and Reagan. The television age, in short, has produced few politicians conspicuously good at television. I think that effect has been much overrated. Indeed, consider two people who were very effective on television, handsome, telegenic, well-spoken, and possessed in addition of substantial political records. One was John Lindsay, who used to be mayor of New York, the other was John Connolly of Texas. Both tried for the presidency, and in spite of the fact that they were much better on television than their opponents, they did very badly.
Where television has had a potent effect, however, is in weakening, enfeebling and perhaps eventually destroying the political parties. Television and the public opinion polls have deprived the political party of two of its most vital functions. In the old days, politics was a three-tiered operation. You had the politician, and you had the voter, and in between you had the party. The party would interpret the voters to the politician and the politician to the voter. The party was the great mediatorial agency. When the politician wanted to find out what public opinion was like in his constituency, he would ask the head of the local party organisation. When the voter wanted to know how to vote, he’d listen to the head of the party organisation.
The electronic era has ended all that. When the politician wants to know what public opinion is, he no longer calls up the political leader; he takes a poll. When the voter wants to find out who to vote for, he doesn’t listen to the local political leader; he watches the tiny screen and makes his own judgement on what he sees. The parties are left to wither on the vine. During elections there used to be bumper stickers, buttons, torchlight processions, parades, volunteers. None of that any more. It’s all done on television. I think the weakening of the party structure is a much more potent effect of television than any change in the character of candidates.
Many have the impression that people of great talent tend not to enter politics and that consequently our lives are ruled and shaped by, some would say, the best of the mediocre.
That assumption would certainly seem verified by the experience of the United States in the last eight or ten years, but it’s a chronic, not a permanent, condition. It’s a condition we’ve been through before, and I think that people who are turned off politics by the fact that it’s too rough or too inquisitive or too political probably wouldn’t be much good in government anyway. In a democracy, to be effective in governing you have to be effective in persuading. Democracy is government by consent, and I’m always sceptical when people say so-and-so would make a great president, but he won’t submit himself to the rough and tumble. Unless he submits himself to the rough and tumble, he’s not going to make a great president.
It’s not a new complaint. You can find it in Bryce’s The American Commonwealth, which was written a century ago. Bryce said that he kept hearing in America how a reckless and abusive press kept ‘the best people’ out of parties, but, ‘I could not learn the name of any able and high-minded man of whom it could be truly said that through this cause his gifts and virtues had been reserved for private life.’ It’s a recurrent theme, and perhaps it’s more an alibi than the real cause of abstention.
I’ve argued elsewhere that there’s cyclical rhythm in our politics. We alternate between periods of liberalism and periods of conservatism. The conservative periods generally tend to attract rather mediocre people. In this century, for example, the Reagan years, the 1980s, were a re-enactment of the Eisenhower 1950s, which were a re-enactment of the Harding/Coolidge/Hoover 1920s. In conservative periods personal gain is the dominant impulse. Similarly, at thirty-year intervals, you get periods when public purpose dominated: Theodore Roosevelt, ushering in the Progressive Era of 1901; thirty years after that, Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal; thirty years after that, Kennedy and the New Frontier. If the rhythm holds, the 1990s should be much more like the Progressive Era and the New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson years.
There’s nothing mystical about the thirty-year periodicity. Thirty years is the span of a generation. People tend to be formed politically by the ideals that prevail when they come of age politically. Those who grew up during the Progressive Era – young people like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman – carried forward thirty years later the ideas they absorbed when young. Similarly, young people who grew up when Roosevelt was setting the nation’s course – people like John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy – carried forward those ideals when this generation’s turn came thirty years later. In the same way, Kennedy touched and formed a generation. If the rhythm holds, the Kennedy generation’s time will come in the 1990s. Government is attractive when it’s innovative, when it tries to meet problems, when it’s idealistic. Then good people rush to join. When it’s run by a Warren G. Harding or a Reagan, you get crooks and hustlers.
Talking of Truman, was he a strong president?
Yes, he was a strong president, a man of good instincts – emphatic, more decisive probably in appearance than he was internally. He was a very attractive man, a lower-case democrat in the strongest sense. He had absolutely no front, no pretence, no pomposity. He could work with a large variety of people. He came out of the Middle West, had a limited education and so on, but from the start he was an avid reader, and he knew quite a lot of American history. He made some mistakes but he was a good man and a good president.
Was he right to remove General MacArthur when he did?
He was absolutely right. He should have done it some weeks earlier. I believe he was right, too, in the decision to drop the atomic bomb, terrible as that decision was. I believe he was wrong, however, to enter the Korean War without the Congressional authorisation he could have gotten.
But as a liberal would you, in his shoes, have dropped the atomic bomb?
Yes. I was in the army at that period. I was in Europe, facing redeployment to the Far East. Naturally I was grateful for the end of the war. But there are deeper reasons to accept Truman’s decision as a tragic necessity. Even after the second atomic bomb was dropped, opposition to Japan’s leaving the war was so intense that there was an attempted coup against the emperor. A group of Japanese historians wrote a book a few years ago called The Longest Day describing the events of the day after the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. The emperor managed to get on radio and succeeded in quietening things down. There was always the prospect of fanatical resistance that would have resulted in the deaths of many Americans and many Japanese. God knows what would have happened to the poor British prisoners of war. I was in England once when the decision to drop the bomb was under attack, and the letter columns of the Times and Telegraph were filled with letters from men who had been in POW camps. They said that if the war hadn’t come to an end, they would have certainly died. It was a tragic decision to drop the bomb, but the Japanese should have thought more carefully before they bombed Pearl Harbour.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that America should speak quietly and carry a big stick. Did Kennedy subscribe to the idea of America as global policeman?
I wouldn’t say that Theodore Roosevelt implied that America should be a global policeman. He just said that in foreign policy you should be prepared for any contingency but shouldn’t go around provoking trouble. Roosevelt did occasionally employ the big stick, as when, fee example, he fomented a revolt in Panama in order to build the canal. But although he played an active role in the taking of the Philippines, he later regretted it and felt that in that case the United States was getting involved beyond its own vital interests. He wasn’t a globalist. But he was perfectly willing to use American power where he thought American vital interests were concerned.
Kennedy was definitely not a globalist. He had a very acute sense of the limitations of American power. In 1961 he said, ‘We-must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only 6 per cent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 per cent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.’ Wilson said we must make the world safe for democracy, and in a deliberate modification of that line, Kennedy in his American University speech in 1963 said we must make the world safe for diversity. That was his abiding view. He had no illusions about a pax Americana.
Kennedy’s great triumph was surely the Cuban Missile Crisis and there must have been tremendous pressure on him at the time. Was he surrounded by advisers, or did he really have to think it out for himself?
He listened carefully to conflicting advice. It was essentially an argument between those, on the one side, like Dean Atcheson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who believed that the missile bases should be taken out by surprise attack, and those on the other, like his brother Robert Kennedy, McNamara, the secretary of defence, and George Ball in the State Department, who felt that the missiles should be negotiated out. There’s no question in my mind where Kennedy stood from the beginning, and that was that they should be negotiated out. In effect, that was what we did. We traded. It was not known at the time, but a deal was made by which we removed the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and the Russians removed their missiles from Cuba.
To those on the outside it looked as if we were close to a third world war. How close were we?
Well, we all thought we were close at the time. In retrospect, I wouldn’t say we were. The United States had a vast superiority in nuclear striking power, and also vast local superiority in the Caribbean. Khrushchev, I dunk, was a gambler, but he wasn’t bent on suicide, and he had no intention of pushing the issue to the point of military conflict. The great danger, as Kennedy felt most keenly, was not that Khrushchev would go to war through deliberate decision, but that something would go badly wrong down the line – something, somebody, somewhere, some crazy general on one side or the other, an accident which the other side would misinterpret. That’s why he was so insistent throughout the crisis on maintaining very tight control of every ship in the blockade of Cuba and of every plane near the Soviet Union. One of the crises came when an American U-2 suddenly strayed over Soviet soil. That was completely wrong, and Kennedy was every much concerned that the Russians might misinterpret it. The fear of war was not a fear of a deliberate decision but a fear of an accident spinning events out of control.
Might Kennedy have actually ordered troops into Cuba if the Russians hadn’t backed down?
In the end he might have done. There were two messages that arrived from Khrushchev, one rather reasonable, the other much tougher. The first was far more personal, and it was Robert Kennedy’s suggestion that they ignore the second and respond to the first, which was what they did. Following that, Robert Kennedy was sent to see Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, and it was then that the question of the Turkish missiles was raised. Robert Kennedy said in effect, they will be out in six months, you have my private assurance, but this is a totally separate issue. If you ever publicly say a deal was made, we will repudiate it. The reason for that was that Turkey was in NATO, and certain people, including Harold Macmillan, were very concerned that a decision involving the security of a NATO country might be taken without consultation. The deal was not known for fifteen years. I found out about it in Robert Kennedy’s papers and wrote the first account in my book on him.
We now know further that Kennedy called in Dean Rusk and asked him, if this didn’t work, to prepare an appeal to U Thant asking the UN to take a more active role, which U Thant was prepared to do. Dean Rusk produced the document last year. Kennedy wanted to avoid military action except as a last resort. Had there been no other way to get rid of the missiles, Kennedy would have sent the troops in, but he was prepared to exhaust every other avenue.
Was Kennedy in any significant way different from presidents before him? Others had faced crises, but Kennedy had literally the prospect of Armageddon if he made too grave a mistake. Did he grow into that sort of authority or was it native to him?
He certainly grew in the presidency. On the other hand, I would say that among my contemporaries he was already the best qualified, the best equipped of those I knew, to be president. He had a combination of natural authority and natural detachment. He saw issues and saw himself with considerable objectivity, which is quite rare in politics. He felt very strongly the weight of responsibility created by the inventions of nuclear weapons. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both Kennedy and Khrushchev had looked down into the nuclear abyss, Kennedy cam? out absolutely determined to move as fast as he could toward some restraint in the nuclear arms race. His first objective was a test-ban treaty, and in this he was enormously encouraged by David Harleca. David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador in Washington, and by Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was very good on the dangers of a nuclear arms race, and Ormsby-Gore had been UK representative at the UN on disarmament commissions. He was very hot on that subject with Macmillan he fortified Kennedy’s determination to do something about it. Had Kennedy lived, I think he and Khrushchev would proceeded beyond the test-ban treaty much further down the road to détente.
How do you think the world would have been different had Kennedy not been assassinated?
Kennedy and Khrushchev would have pursued detente, and I think, too, that Khrushchev might have lasted longer. Castro thinks Kennedy helped to save Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly if Khrushchev had been able to show some results in the international realm, then it might have helped him a bit. However, Kennedy’s intention in his second term was to concentrate much more on domestic affairs. He felt he had to spend too much time on international matters where, as he said, there was a new crisis every week. I think he felt he hadn’t paid enough attention at home. He was much concerned about racial justice, about the war on poverty, about economic growth without inflation. The Great Society programme that Kennedy prepared and Johnson brought to enactment would have been the centrepiece of his second term.
Would you agree that President Kennedy was more popular abroad than he was in the United States?
No, he was popular in the United States, but I think probably there was less opposition to him abroad. A lot of people in the United States disliked him, as they had disliked Franklin Roosevelt. Conservatives, people in the business community, felt he was not their friend. Then his strong stance on civil rights and racial justice in 1963 turned a lot of people against him, especially in the South. But even at the nadir of his popularity, after the civil rights fight in the summer of 1963, he was only down to something like 60 per cent in the polls, which wasn’t bad.
After his death, it became fairly common knowledge that Kennedy had been something of a womanizer. Would it have affected his political status had it been known at the time?
I don’t know. I may say that, working in the White House, I was not aware of anything undue going on. If you went to the Kennedys’ for dinner, there were always pretty girls, but I’m all in favour of that. So, I understand, are you. But it wasn’t a conspicuous feature of the Kennedy administration. I think it is much exaggerated. No doubt things happened, but in that Kennedy was like Lloyd George, Martin Luther King, and other eminent political leaders. It seems to me we’ve got the whole thing out of proportion. Martin Luther King was indeed an incurable womanizer and notoriously unfaithful to his wife, yet he was also a fine man who did great things for his race, and great things for his nation. Pol Pot of Cambodia, on the other hand, was splendidly faithful to his wife, never looked at another woman, and all he did was to murder a million of his countrymen. I’m not sure that the adultery test is particularly relevant to statesmanship.
In Kennedy’s case, you say it was all common knowledge, but I don’t know how common common knowledge was. There had always been a lot of gossip about Kennedy, before the presidency, but during the presidency I don’t think there was so much. As for those around him
shielding him, I didn’t see much to shield. He worked very hard at the presidency.
There must surely have been a lot of nervousness about Jackie Kennedy. What would she have done had she known?
I’ve absolutely no idea.
In contrast with his brother, Robert Kennedy inspired perhaps as much hate as love. Why did lie produce those extreme reactions?
John Kennedy was a man of reason, Robert Kennedy a man of passion. John Kennedy looked at something, such as the treatment of the black minority, and he thought it was irrational for a society to act that way. Robert Kennedy thought it intolerable. They couldn’t have been closer, but they were quite different in this regard. John Kennedy was a realist disguised as a romantic, Robert Kennedy a romantic disguised as a realist. Robert Kennedy did the tough, the unpleasant things. During political campaigns, he would be his brother’s son of a bitch, tell people off, fire them and that sort of stuff, but he was in a way a far more vulnerable figure than his brother. John Kennedy gave a sense of invulnerability. He was a reserved man, always in control, always poised, always filled with imperturbable self-possession. You felt he was equal to any circumstance. John Kennedy liked his friends, but Robert Kennedy needed his friends. This vulnerability was one reason that so many people – in the press, for example – found him so attractive; that and his humour. He was very influential with his brother, but not infallibly so. Sometimes John would listen to Robert, and disagree and not do what Robert Kennedy thought he should.
At least one reviewer of your biography of Robert Kennedy – I think it was Anthony Howard in the Observer – talked of your transparent romanticism in your view of your subject.
It’s impossible to write with complete objectivity about anything. That’s why I made clear in the Foreword how I felt about Robert Kennedy, but subjectivity need not disqualify a biographer. You don’t have to hate the subject of your biography to write it.
Robert Kennedy became attorney general of the United States without ever having appeared in a state or federal court. Shouldn’t an attorney general have had more experience?
Many people felt that. The New York Times wrote a leader strongly criticizing the appointment, as did many other newspapers. Alexander Bickel, who was a distinguished professor of law at Yale, attacked the appointment. It was a risky appointment to have made. In fact it turned out very well, and by 1968 Bickel was a strong supporter of Robert Kennedy for president. Robert Kennedy knew the problems. He surrounded himself with first-class people in the Department of Justice and is generally agreed to have been the best attorney general we’ve had since Francis Biddle in the Roosevelt administration. But there was great criticism at the start, and understandably so.
It is said that, had Robert Kennedy ever become president, he would have been a disaster because he was to tough, using very strong tactics and so on. Would you agree?
No. I think he would have been a very successful president. He combined the qualities of an idealist with those of a realist. In other words, he had that capacity which his brother had, which Roosevelt had, which Wilson had: to tap the latent idealism of the American people; and he did it very successfully. At the same time, he was an astute and practical politician, so that he could mobilize the means to attain his objectives. The liberal tide of the 1960s was still running strong and in 1968 Nixon was elected president almost accidentally. He got barely 40 per cent of the vote. Had Robert Kennedy lived, he would have been the Democratic candidate and I think he would have been elected. There was a third candidate in George Wallace, who got about 12 per cent of the vote. Many of those who voted for Wallace were white working-class people who probably would have voted for Robert Kennedy. As I say, the liberal tide was still running strong, so that many things such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and so on were produced by Congress even in the Nixon years. That tide would have enabled Robert Kennedy to move much farther along the path of reform. And by 1968, though a lot of people hated him, he was predominantly a very popular man. I think he would have become a very effective president.
You were a bitter critic of America’s policy of escalation in Vietnam and what you saw as America’s obsession with political victory. Do you believe the lessons have been adequately learned?
No, I do not think so. I cite the American enthusiasm for our glorious victories in Grenada and Panama as examples. Panama would seem to me to raise three issues. I do not believe that the United States should undertake unilateral military intervention in Latin America except in cases of extreme emergency. I do not believe that an American president should go to war without congressional consent, except in cases of extreme emergency. And I do not believe that super-powers should launch sneak attacks on small countries, except in cases of extreme emergency. Noriega was a thug and a squalid, vicious fellow, but he was not a threat to the national security of the United States and his regime did not create an extreme emergency. I regret that kind of intervention, even as I felt that the invasion of Grenada was unjustified. I believe that the long-term interests of the United States lie in the world of law – movement toward a world of law – and not m the United States imitating the old Soviet Union by becoming a law unto itself. What we did in Panama violates everything from the Rio Treaty to the Montevideo Convention and the UN Charter.
In one sense, though, we may have learned a lesson from Vietnam. We are no longer attacking people our own size. We attack countries like Grenada with no army, navy or air force. When Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour, FDR called it a date that will live in infamy. Why? Because it was a sneak attack. But at least the Japanese were picking on someone their own size. We launch sneak attacks against Grenada and Panama and Libya, and most Americans seem to
be proud of it. I would say there’s been something of a decline in American moral sensibility in recent years. Robert Kennedy opposed the sneak attack on Cuba during the missile crisis on the ground that it would be a Pearl Harbour in reverse. For 175 years, he said, we have not been that kind of nation. We seem to have become one in recent years, and I regret it.
Is America still trying to punish Vietnam?
No. I think it would be quite popular in the United States if we restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam. American Vietnam veterans have gone to Vietnam and had amiable meetings with their Vietnamese counterparts. Just as it turned out to be popular to restore relations with China, so it would turn out to be mildly popular to restore relations with Vietnam. I don’t understand – well, I do understand – why we’re not doing so. The reason is that the Chinese wouldn’t like it, and George Bush feels it very important not to alienate the Chinese. That is why he and previous administrations, beginning with Carter, have continued to give the Pol Pot government, the most vicious government of modern times, the Cambodian seat in the United Nations; why, to this day, we are seeming to support the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge in the new Cambodian government, whereas the sensible thing would be to make a deal with prime minister Hun Sen and promote a government around aim. But the Chinese are opposed to that because of their traditional hatred of Vietnam. That, I believe, is why we have not restored relations with Vietnam, rather than any desire to punish.
One of the things that puzzles and depresses Europeans about American foreign policy is the treatment of Central and South America. No degree of violence or repression seems enough to cut off American aid. Priests are killed, nuns are raped and still money pours in. Or so it seems to the outside world.
Well, it puzzles many Americans too, I can say. At no point, according to the polls, did a majority of Americans favour aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. The majority has always been opposed to such aid. Nicaragua became a personal obsession for Reagan, and an inherited concern for Bush.
Why, if most Americans did not demand aggressive policies in Central America, were presidents able to pursue such policies? Bush’s obsession was Noriega of Panama. Presidents have power with Congress when they request something they claim as essential to the security of the United States. Congressmen, even though they may disagree with the request, often feel under pressure to vote affirmatively, on the ground that otherwise their opponents at the next election will call them soft on Communism, soft on the Sandinistas. Legislators permit themselves to be intimidated into going along with something of which they really disapprove.
The case of Noriega was more complicated because Noriega was a thug and involved in the drug trade. Even people like Senator Dodd of Connecticut, who has been very restrained on Central America and was himself in the Peace Corps there, knows the area and speaks excellent Spanish, supported the invasion of Panama. But why this obsession with tinhorn dictators like Noriega and Ortega? The population of Nicaragua is under three million, less than the population of Brooklyn. The notion that this country is a threat to the security of the United States is ridiculous. The Noriega intervention was very popular in Panama, but not elsewhere in Latin America, and I think Bush is going to have mend fences. Bush is a moderate man, and I hope he will take it easy in Latin America for a while.
Will it ever be possible to control the import of drugs into the United States, bearing in mind the trouble over quite a small-scale gangster like Noriega?
Getting rid of Noriega will have no effect on the drug problem in the United States. The drug problem is essentially a demand rather than a supply problem. As long as the demand exists, it will be supplied one way or another. If we were to cut off all the import of drugs, thee laboratories would spring up all over the United States to manufacture the drugs to meet demand.
Is the ‘special relationship’ that has been said to exist between Britain and the United States a fact or a myth today?
It’s a cultural fact, and it’s become a political myth, but the cultural reality remains. The common heritage means that Americans are going to feel closer to Britain than they are to anyone else. The Bush administration appears more inclined to regard Germany as its ally, and I take it that the Bush relationship with Mrs Thatcher isn’t as chummy as the-Reagan-Thatcher relationship. Actually the European statesman whom Bush seems to get” along best with personally is Mitterrand.
As for myself, my ties with Britain are long and strong. I first went: to England in 1934 when my father was giving a series of lectures at the University of London and I was sixteen years old. Then, in 1938-9 I spent a year at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where I met many people who remained close through the years, like Charles Wintour and Noel Annan, Eric Hobsbawm and Aubrey Eban. Then I was in London in the spring of ’44 and was there until November when I went on EC France. There I got to know Nye Bevan well. He was an enchanting man. After the war I met a lot of people among the young socialists in that period, so my political associations were mostly on the left. I gee
to know Hugh Gaitskell, and in the 1950s, of course, we became firm friends. Roy Jenkins, Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland – I knew all that generation of Labour people. In the 1960s my dear friend Pamela Berry exposed me to many Tories.
What about Macmillan? Historians now tend to say he was devious, a great actor who did nothing for Britain but who ruined the economy and so on.
I would have thought that Alistair Home’s two fine volumes would have done something to restore Macmillan’s reputation. I liked Macmillan very much. He was a great performer. The last time I saw him was when he came to New York, I think in 1981, shortly after Reagan became president. Jacqueline Onassis gave a small dinner for him and I said to him, making conversation before dinner, ‘Very odd, isn’t it, to have an actor, Ronald Reagan, as president of the United States?’ I was trying to think whether there had been many others in high politico office who were once actors. I said, ‘After all, Madame Mao Tse-tung was an actress, but I can’t think of any other actors.’ Macmillan looked at me and said: ‘Actors? Actors? Politicians are all actors. We’re all of us actors and Roosevelt and Churchill were the best actors of the lot.’ I liked him, I thought he was great fun. His instincts on several things were very good – on nuclear weapons, on colonial matters, on monetary questions. He was a monetary heretic. He believed in evolving some kind of international monetary system. And he was a Wet. I mean, he was no Thatcherite.
Mrs Thatcher has dominated the political scene in Britain for more than a decade now. How would you evaluate her?
I suppose she did do something to shake up the British economy, though it’s now in trouble again. I suppose her approach may have improved British competitiveness in world markets. She liberated the newspapers from the printers’ unions, which was a good thing. She appreciated Gorbachev quickly and she deserves credit for that, as does Reagan. A lot of the alleged Soviet experts and wiseacres were warning against Gorbachev, saying he was just trying to get the West to relax its guard. Mrs Thatcher said early on that he was somebody the West could do business with, and she was right. I consider that she’s made Britain a colder, crueller nation and that it’s time for someone to come in and sand, to use George Bush’s phrase, for a kinder, gentler Britain. But die worst things she has done have been in the realm of freedom of information. The rewriting of the Official Secrets Act was a travesty.
Take one single example. It now appears that a group within MIS tried to drive Harold Wilson and his government, duly elected by the British people, out of power. David Leigh has written a book about the Wilson affair that makes the most serious charges you can make in a democracy: that a group of people in the Intelligence services tried to defeat and subvert the democratic process. If something like that had happened in the United States – if charges were made that a group within the FBI or the CIA had tried to overthrow an elected president – all hell would have broken loose. There would have been congressional investigations to see whether the charges were valid or not and so on. Roy Jenkins did try to get a parliamentary inquiry, but Mrs Thatcher quashed any hope of such an inquiry. Since you don’t enjoy the benefits of separation of power in Britain, Parliament could do nothing. Worse than that, the press showed little curiosity.
It seemed to me that you’d want to know in Britain whether an MI5 group had in fact done these things. Are these charges fantasy, or did they really do what David Leigh and the Spycatcher man – Peter Wright – said they did? I would think people would be interested in establishing the facts and, if those were the facts, to make sure nothing like it could ever happen again. But the British Parliament and press seemed to regard it all with total indifference. Mrs Thatcher succeeded in hushing the whole thing up, as she would have hushed up Watergate.
Under your system, you can hush up any kind of political scandal. She has fortified the British tendency to sweep everything under the rug and to make information hard to get. Obviously some things have to be kept secret, but, on the whole, most official secrets could be made public with no harm to anybody. You have to fight against a tendency to classify everything as secret, and if Mrs Thatcher has her way, no one, including Parliament, will know what the hell is going on in British government. That seems the most troubling aspect of her stewardship.
Not only from Mrs Thatcher but from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic we have heard a good deal about the need to restore the ideal of family unity as something essential to preserving the social fabric. Can such a movement succeed in modern times?
First, as an historian, I wonder whether the family was always as great an institution as it’s cracked up to be. People look back to the golden age of the unitary family of the nineteenth century when divorce was very difficult. But then you read about those families and the suffocating effects on the children, the paternal tyranny, the child abuse, even in a family as noted as that of Leslie Stephen. My impression is that the family has always been an ambiguous thing. It can be a source of strength; it can also be very crippling. Moreover, the family is bound to change in a society in which divorce is easy, birth control is easy. Abortion is easy. Bonds are not going to be maintained as long, and in some cases that’s bad. Other times maintaining bonds may artificially prolong a marriage that is dead, maybe crippling everyone involved. So it’s important not to sentimentalize or romanticize the historical family.
Still, the total collapse of the family is obviously a source of great trouble for society. We have it in the underclass in this country: families where there is no father and no stability. But, on the whole, restoring the ideal of family unity seems to me partly an exercise in fantasy because I don’t think the family ever played that marvellous stabilizing role which some think it once did.
From our side of the Atlantic, if often seems that American governments are excessively vulnerable to pressure groups like the gun lobby or the pro-Israel faction. Do pressures change with presidents or are they simply pressured relentlessly?
They’re pressured relentlessly, but they may or may not bend to the pressure. The National Rifle Association has had no effect on Democratic presidents, but it’s very powerful with Republican presidents. It has some effect on Democratic legislators, particularly in districts where a lot of hunting goes on. The Zionist lobby has impact on both parties, and it’s only recently that people have become willing even to describe die operations and pressures brought by the Zionist lobby. Pressure groups can distort our policies, as in the case of Israel. Support by the United States for Likud policies was disastrous for Israel and a disaster all around. Jewish Americans have, of course, been very generous contributors to political campaigns. It should be added that, as far as I can
see, the Jewish community in this country is not monolithic, and many Jewish Americans are very much opposed to blank-cheque support of right-wing governments in Israel.
There is nothing new about foreign pressure groups. The Irish lobby had great impact before the establishment of the Irish Free State, and resolutions for Irish independence were constantly being introduced and so on. We’re a polyglot nation – a nation of nations, as Walt Whitman said. That means that the Poles, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians and so on all constitute pressure groups of one sort or another. Black Americans, having long ignored Africa, have suddenly constituted themselves a pressure group for black Africa.
Pressure groups are a pain in the neck for a lot of presidents. But they have to deal with them one way or another.
If you were an adviser now in the Bush administration, what advice would you give the president with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict?
I’m not an expert on the Middle East. We don’t have much influence with either side, as far as I can see, and I’m not a great believer in meddling in the affairs of other countries. I don’t think we do it very well, I don’t think we have enough knowledge. We tend to become prisoners of our clients, as we did in Vietnam, and they manipulate us more than we manipulate them. Where our vital interests are involved, I’m all in favour of action to defend them, by force if necessary; but where our vital interests are not involved, I’d say let other countries solve their own problems.
America has had quite an unexpected and overwhelming triumph in the way Eastern Europe has begun to embrace democracy. What should happen next?
Once the exhilaration is over, these new governments in East Europe are going to face a lot of tough problems. It’s up to the Western governments to do everything they can to help them meet them. Mitterrand’s proposal of a development bank for Eastern Europe will take a couple of years before it can get started, and meantime the World Bank should be playing a more active role. I might add that policies should come just as much from Europe as from the United States. While I think that the United States is poverty-stricken in ideas, I’m somewhat dismayed that, except for the Mitterrand proposal, more good ideas haven’t come out of West European governments as to how to help Eastern Europe. The model of the Marshall Plan might well be used, and that, as you will recall, called upon the governments of Western Europe to get together and make their own proposals for economic development and the allocation of funds. Just as the governments of Western Europe met in Paris in the spring of 1948 to respond to the Marshall offer, so the governments of Eastern Europe might get together and present joint proposals for their own economic reconstruction.
By and large, I’m hopeful about Eastern Europe but troubled about the Soviet Union. It’s very important that Gorbachev survive. I suppose his strength lies in the fact that the people to his right are afraid that, if he goes, the whole thing will swing farther to the left, while the people on his left are afraid that it will swing farther to the right. Therefore neither has a strong interest in overthrowing him at this point. But events may overthrow him. I’m not sure that the changes he’s made are totally irreversible. Look what happened in China. I can see the army feeling it has to restore order, and then people coming to power who feel that Russia needs a heavy hand. A lot of the freedom of the press, the freedom of the theatre, the freedom of the movies, could easily be
With the prospect of German unification, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of Japan as an economic super-power, do you see American influence in the world as waning?
One certainly begins to wonder who won the last war. Japan is well on its way to attaining its Second World War objective of a Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere. A united Germany is poised to dominate Europe. All these things are troubling. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the year 2000, a united Germany were demanding revision of its eastern frontiers, an Anschluss with Austria, concessions to German-speaking minorities in neighbouring countries. The Allies may retain the legal capacity to impose a treaty, but I doubt that a united Germany, the most dynamic economy and most populous state west of Russia in Europe, is going to respect any limitations we try to impose regarding the inviolability of frontiers or rearmament or nuclear weapons.
I don’t suppose Germany or Japan will ever again become a military threat, because in the age of missiles they’re simply too vulnerable. But they do have dynamic economies, and they have extremely ominous, portentous, mystical, humourless, chauvinistic, nationalistic traditions. Both countries have new generations coming to power that feel no sense of responsibility for or guilt about the Second World War, and may well nurse a desire for vindication, even perhaps for revenge. Germany at least has had forty years of democratic experience and has produced democratic statesmen like Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt and Richard von Weizsacker and even, in his own way, Adenauer. Japan hasn’t produced anyone comparable. It’s been a one-party state, and a crooked and authoritarian one-party state at that.
German historians are beginning to say Hitler wasn’t so bad, that he was only imitating Stalin. Japanese historians are even worse. School text books so gloss over Japanese aggression and atrocity in the Second World War that they’ve provoked official protest from China. Japanese historians who try to write the truth are subject to official persecution. Both countries are filled with a kind of hyper-nationalism and the prospects are troubling.
Is the United States in decline? Not irrevocably. After all, remember that both Japan and Germany suffered from what Paul Kennedy called imperial over-stretch – that is to say, from taking on burdens beyond the capacity of the economy to discharge – and in addition suffered devastating military defeat. Yet they’ve come back. If the United States can pull itself together, it can come back too.
Might the trend towards disarmament in the Soviet Union mean that America would be perceived by some cynics as much the greater threat to world peace in the near future?
I doubt it. I mean, some people may like to say it, but I don’t think the United States will be seriously regarded as a threat to world peace.
You once said that there is no such thing as a correct perspective in history. What then do you see as the historical biographer’s primary function?
Tell the truth as best you can, as best you see it. The historian is constrained by facts, he has to respect facts, and then he arranges the acts. The mere act of selection involves interpretation, so you can’t escape interpretation, and interpretation cannot escape subjectivity. You try to do the best you can and make discounts for your own predilections. For the historian, the important thing is to reconstruct the past as much as possible in its own terms rather than in terms of the present. But you can’t escape the present, and that’s why every generation finds new issues in the past. American historians, for example, discover new pasts as a result of new concerns about racial justice or sexual equality. That’s why Benedetto Croce said all history is contemporary history, why Oscar Wilde said the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.
In your successful and varied career, which period do you feel you enjoyed most?
My career may be varied, but I don’t think of it as particularly successful. I regard it as a study in frustration. I always envied Malcolm Muggeridge’s title for his memoirs, Chronicles of Wasted Time. The part I enjoyed particularly, I suppose, was working with Kennedy, but I’m an historian and a writer, and my great frustration is that I’ve spent so little time doing that which I do best, and there’s been so much time wasted is various virtuous or entertaining projects. Sometimes I feel that my life
has been nibbled away by good causes. What I want to do is finish The Age of Roosevelt. I’d also like to write a novel. I suppose I’d best like to be remembered for my historical writing. I’ve enjoyed politics, politics is a great sport, but essentially I’m an historian.