Review by John M. Handley, Ph.D.
John F. Kennedy, World Leader by Stephen G. Rabe, Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-59797-148-5. 246 pp., $22.50
Stephen Rabe is a professor of history and holds the Arts and Humanities Chair at the University of Texas at Dallas. He previously wrote or edited eight books, including Eisenhower and Latin America, The Foreign Policy of Anticommunism (1988), The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communism in Latin America (1999), and U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (2005).
In this book, Stephen Rabe investigates specifically JFK’s role in foreign affairs during his nearly 1,000 days as president. The book begins with an assessment of JFK in history, drawn largely from the people within his administration who left memoirs and autobiographies, from JFK’s numerous biographers, and from JFK’s many speeches and documents on foreign affairs (some 17 of these documents are included in the appendix). Rabe does not take a position on the greatness, or lack thereof, of President Kennedy, but one comes away with the notion that Kennedy’s stature seems to diminish as the years pass. For all of the problems that beset the Johnson administration, Rabe does not appear convinced Kennedy would have done much better or done anything noticeably different, in a second term as president. In the next chapter, Rabe explains how Kennedy developed his “foreign policy” belief system, how his background contributed to this belief system, and how he was greatly influenced by various people in his life. If nothing else, the reader now views JFK as a dedicated Cold Warrior, convinced that communism, as Ronald Reagan would say, was an evil empire consumed with a desire to bury the West.
Once beyond this two chapter introduction, Rabe addresses in succeeding chapters the issues of JFK’s foreign policies toward the Soviet Union (the missile gap; Nikita Khrushchev, the decision not to sell wheat to the USSR, the Vienna Summit, and the Berlin Wall), Cuba (the Bay of Pigs, numerous Castro assassination attempts, and the Cuban Missile Crisis), Latin America (the Alliance for progress, the Peace Corps, Venezuela, and Brazil), Vietnam (support for the Catholic minority in the south against the atheist communists in the north, development of the US Special Forces; and the overthrow of Diem), Asia (the PRC and India) and a combined chapter on the Middle East (Egypt and Israel)and Africa (Algeria, Angola, and South Africa). In each of these chapters, JFK’s Cold Warrior mentality is evident in the people he trusted for advice, in his reasoning for rejecting what today would be considered sound advice, and in the decisions he made. There is more than a little of the John Foster Dulles “bad faith” model at work here.
It seems striking to this reader to find that JFK’s policies differed little from Nixon or Reagan and yet his decisions do not appear to have shortened the Cold War at all—in fact they probably contributed to its longevity. Few will be impressed with JFK’s role in the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela or with the 163 individual covert operations he personally approved for the CIA to conduct in Latin America which, among other things, brought about the downfall of two democratically elected heads of state.
Dr. John M. Handley, American Diplomacy Publishers’ Vice-President for Outreach, is a Professor of International Relations for Webster University’s Ft. Bragg campus. A retired US Army Colonel, Dr. Handley spent his Army career in military intelligence, including as a Defense Attaché, the Dean of the School of Attaché Training at the Defense Intelligence College, and Deputy, Resource Management, for the Defense Intelligence Agency.