Everywhere acclaimed and talked about, An Unfinished Life is the first major, single-volume biography of John F. Kennedy to be written by a historian in nearly four decades. Drawing upon previously unavailable material and never-before-opened archives, the book is packed with revelations both large and small-about JFK's health, his love affairs, RFK's appointment as Attorney General, what Joseph Kennedy did to help his son's election to the presidency, and the path JFK would have taken in the Vietnam entanglement had he survived. AN UNFINISHED LIFE strikes a critical balance-brilliantly exploring JFK's strengths, never shying away from his weaknesses-as it offers up a virtuoso portrait of a bold, brave, complex, heroic, human Kennedy. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (15)
Excellent full-life biography.
Dallek does a very fine job of presenting a balanced look at his subject; he obviously thinks a great deal of Kennedy, but this is no hagiography; when there are mistakes or missed chances by Kennedy, he gives them as much attention as he gives the successes. Those who wish to cannonize Kennedy will be disappointed, as will those who think he is overrated, with the best reputation that his father's money could buy, as well as those intent on believing any and all conspiracy theories about his assassination. But anyone wanting an evenhanded view of the man will find this book a treasure trove of information.
Solid one-volume treatment
The esteemed author of a two-volume biography of LBJtakes a hand at a "comprehensive" bio of JFK, drawing on all that went before, and adding some new research.
A lot went before.More books have been written about JFK than any other presidents except Lincoln and FDR.If you don't want to wade through them all, this is a good one-stop choice.
The main new information comes from Dallek's first-ever access to cartons of unsorted medical records from Dr. Janet Travell, JFK's official in-house physician. These and other records reflect much more, and much more serious, medical problems than was known during JFK's life. In particular, he had severe intestinal problems as a teenager, which were treated with corticosteroids, then a new treatment.The steroids caused osteoporosis of the lower spine and vertebrae, leading to lower back problems as early as 1940.In addition, he suffered from rheumatic fever and, later, prostatitis, urethritis, ulcers, and malaria.
Over his life, he took an astonishing quantity and variety of drugs, including hormones, amphetamines, codeine, cortisone, Lomotil, paregoric, penicillin, procaine, Ritalin, antidepressants, and testosterone.During the campaign, he was followed everywhere by a "black bag" containing his medications.This was once lost, to his distress, lest the severity of his problems be disclosed.
He was medicated during critical times, including the Vienna summit withKhrushchev and the Cuban Missle Crisis.Dallek opines, with expert assistance, that the medications did not impair his performance, and indeed, that he could not have functioned without them.
Dallek also uncovered some five hospitalizations between 1955 and 1957 that were not previously known, raising the implication that there were others, and reconfirming Kennedy's adeptness at cover-up.Dallek's judgment on this is two-pronged: first, that JFK recklessly endangered the country by seeking and accepting the presidency in such fragile health, and was devious in covering it up;second, that he was nevertheless even more heroic than we imagined in coping with it.
Dallek's most publicized revelation was of "Mimi", a nineteen-year-old intern that Kennedy had an eighteen-month affair with ("Kennedy's Monica").The episode is mentioned only in passing in the book, but was the lead story in the press when the book was first out.
On Vietam, Dallek dug up a brief oral statement taped by Kennedy days after the Diem coup in November, 1963 (just weeks before his own assassination).In it, Kennedy refers to the extreme division there had been in his government over whether to support the coup, and the regrettable murkiness of a cable sent to Ambassador Lodge, setting him on a course to which "he was already inclined".He also expressed shock at the death of Diem, and concern about whether the new government would be stable.
Dallek cites this tape as evidence that Kennedy was going to order a pullout of the 16,000 U.S. advisors then in Vietnam, and that he would never have escalated as Johnson did.Other evidence consists of an order to Defense Secretary McNamara to prepare a plan to withdraw "by 1965", an order to the State Department expert on Vietnam to prepare an analsis of "all options, including withdrawal", a statement in a September, 1963 TV interview that "it's their war", and one or two "think-aloud" private remarks.
Dallek is not convincing.The actual record is sparse and ambiguous.Robert Kennedy himself said later that he did not know.Against Dallek's view are Kennedy's commitment to containment of communism, his "bear any burden" rhetoric and mentality, and his professed belief in the domino theory.The one concrete action he took was to order the increase from a few hundred advisors to 16,000 in the first place.And his main advisors--McNamara, Rusk, Taylor, and Bundy--were also LBJ's.
Like Johnson, Kennedy obscured the U.S. role from the public.By the time he died, the issue had not yet come onto the general public's radar screen.Even viewing his actions cynically, he was too much the politician to simply abandon Vietnam to the communists.
The truth probably is that Kennedy was conflicted, that the increase in advisors was a "buy time, split the baby" measure, and that he had in fact not yet decided what to do.In all things, he was more of a reactor and improviser than a large strategic thinker.
Like the LBJ books, this one is written in plain English rather than that dreadful academese that many professional historians are captives of.Apart from the disclosures above, there is little that is new.It is mainly a distillation and re-presentation of the vast prior literature.As such, it is an admirable job, worth a solid B+ if turned in by a graduate student.
"Pay any price, bear any burden..."
What you will like about this book:
1) The apt title: it's a nice little turn of phrase which both recalls and overturns the biographical genre. Also, it reminds us that JFK's life was unfinished in two respects: he died young, and he died without completing his term in office.
2) The sober treatment of the subject. Dalleck neither sensationalises JFK nor does he excoriate him. There is an admirable even-handedness in his assessment of JFK's achievements and fiascos.
3) The slow, patient accumulation of facts upon facts, which might make for a long book, but which help to build up a thorough picture of what exactly happened. Especially useful if this is you first Kennedy biography or if your knowledge of this era is a little hazy.
4) The sheer drama of the events that unfold. Kennedy's tenure was brief but the crises he had to deal with were of monumental proportions. Especially engrossing are his confrontations with Kruschev during the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
What you may not like about this book:
1) I never thought I'd be tempted to put away a book about Kennedy, but I almost did. The first 200 pages were especially hard going. Most exasperating were the overlong, involved discussions about Kennedy's medical problems. Of course these are relevant to his life-story, but they are interesting only up to a point. Then they become tiresome and spoil the pacing of the narrative. One can safely skip these parts and move on to the "story".
2) Dalleck's writing style: Now don't get me wrong...Mr Dalleck is a fine writer and his expositions are very clear and sometimes brilliant. I thought the epilogue was especially well-written. But his style is too deadpan to generate any excitement in the reader. I think a life as colourful and portentous as Kennedy's deserves a narrative with more panache and perhaps a little flamboyance.
3) Whatever happened to Kennedy's private life ? There is adequate treatment of his growing up years and of his relationship with elder brother Joe. But his relations with women, with his wife and children, what he did when he was not being "political", all this gets only cursory treatment.The omission is especially glaring after Kennedy assumes the presidency. From then on the book is almost entirely political. This means that it falls short of being a complete biography.
4) As an old hand at reading biographies -I've recently read books on Mao, Hitler, Gandhi, Lincoln, Napolean, Indira Gandhi, Darwin, Einstein--I know that one of the most effective things a biographer can do is to provide a sort of leitmotif, a common thread running through the book and at various lifestages, that helps to explain and understand the character. Without such a device, the reader doesn't get a satisfying grasp of the protagonist. The only recurring theme is Kennedy's medical problems and how these might explain his actions. There are others, but they are not explicitly stated. Dalleck tries to do this by rounding things up in the epilogue, but it's a case of too little, too late.
Useful but Not Spectacular.
This is the first full-fledged biography that I've read about JFK, and it certainly was informative and educational. Robert Dallek's access to the official medical records provided for an extremely enlightening tome. Certainly we gain appreciation for the intense physical torment which Mr. Kennedy must have felt while he was in office, and also the way that his back must have plagued him on the campaign trail. My one fault with the narrative is that I think Dallek gave short-shrift to Kennedy's affairs and sexual conquests. I do not bring this up due to a need on my part for more "juicy" details but due to the realization that his assignations were a political liability--such as when they were possibly used against him in the selection of his Vice President. It's hard to know what ever happened beyond closed doors but his relations with so many women undoubtedly jeopardized his ability to lead (due to blackmail concerns). I also felt that Mr. Dallek was rather naÃ¯ve in regards to the 35th President's motivations. Did he have an overwhelming need to serve the public? Perhaps, but this, assuredly, was secondary to his need for power and status. We see here, in retrospect, how absurdly ambitious this young man was and how much his drive offended some of his contemporaries. One Senator said, "Why not show a little less profile and a little more courage?" Indeed. If he wanted to only to serve the public then he could have done so by less flamboyant means. At any rate, I still admired JFK after reading this biography, but the factual accounting of any person always tarnishes their veneer. That is inevitable as we are all human.
Excellent overview of JFK
This was required reading for a graduate course in American history.
Robert Dallek chose to write this book for many of the same reasons that I and, undoubtedly, many other readers, chose to read it. In many ways, the legacy of John F. (Jack) Kennedy looms larger than life. is "Camelot" persona, youth, and televised image, combined with his fashion plate wife and ubiquitous family form the images seared in my mind. His dramatic assassination and its undiminished controversy, combined with the Baby Boomer generation's recollections of "where they were when he died," add to the mystery and legend of this man. I was eager to understand the substance behind the man's style, and the accomplishments and failures of his brief administration. In the preface, Dallek mirrors my interests by declaring that his goal of writing the book was to "penetrate the veneer of glamour and charm to reconstruct the real man or as close to it as possible" (ix). His purpose in writing the lengthy biography (838 pages inclusive of footnotes and sources) is to analyze the influences on Jack's character and, ultimately, his policies and administration.
Dallek divides the book into four parts: Jack's 'Growing Up' years from childhood to his Navy service; his 'Public Service' as Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts; the question of 'Can a Catholic Become President?' that shadowed his nomination and; and 'The President and
his struggles with domestic frustrations and foreign policy crises. In Growing Up, Dallek details the merging of two of Boston's prominent families in the marriage of Jack's parents, the growth of Joe and Rose's own, wealth and family and the strains that ensued; Jack's privileged life of summers at Hyannis Port, preparatory school at Choate and college at Harvard, Jack's budding interest in foreign policy, and Jack's heroic rescue of his crew after a Japanese destroyer sank his PT boat. In Public Service, Dallek details Jack's decision to enter politics and the influence of his father and his brother's death on that decision, his reconnection with his younger siblings during his campaigning, and his rise as Congressman and Senator. Dallek also cites Jack's criticism of
President Eisenhower's defense budget reduction, his response to the French-Indochina crises, and his decision to not vote to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy, which plagued Jack throughout his political career. In Cana Catholic Become President?, Dallek describes the 1960 nomination and the challenge of balancing the diverse demands of liberals,* Southern senators, and civil rights advocates. He discusses Jack's growing public speaking ability, his physical endurance of the demanding campaign schedule and his artful mastery of televised debates. In The President, Dallek notes high points such as Jack's compelling Inaugural address and high public opinion polls, his formation of the Peace Corps and the Green Berets, his restrained response during the Berlin crisis, his performance during the Cuban Missile crisis, his opposition to nuclear proliferation, and his New Frontier-inspired intent to land a man on the moon. Dallek also notes the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the tense negotiations with Khrushchev, the troubles in British Guiana, the deepened rift with civil rights advocates from the Freedom Riders incident, and his failure to pass major domestic legislation in his administration.
Many interrelated themes emerge in the first part of the book and are revisited throughout the well-sourced text. One theme is Jack's personal health and his family's tragedies, and the role they had in shaping both his somewhat hedonistic outlook on life and his desire to make his mark
on the world. Jack suffered the deaths of his older brother, Joe Jr.in World War II, of his beloved older sister Kathleen in a plane accident, and of his premature son, Patrick. His persistent health problems, from failed back surgery (196), to spastic colitis and urinary track infections, to Addison's disease, plagued him constantly. He spent much time in and out of hospitals and on mediation, survived a coma (196) and was twice almost administered last rites (153). His ordeals instilled in him a belief that he was "... slated for an early demise, making him almost manic about packing as much pleasure into his life as he could in the possibly short time remaining to him" (78). Furthermore, his personal realization of how close the world was to nuclear war increased his hedonistic attitude (475). This attitude manifested itself, more negatively, in his womanizing behavior (153) and, more positively, in his drive to become a politician and make an impact on the lives of people (158).
Jack's struggle with identity is a subtle theme that emerges throughout the text. He strived to form his identity in opposition to the identity afforded to him by his famous family. His desire to 'be his own person' emerged from his earliest childhood competitions with his Joe Jr., who was his father's favorite (36), and his failure to achieve his brother's successes in prep-school football and political life (44). Jack chose to go to Princeton rather than follow Joe Jr. to Harvard (41), although he later matriculated at Harvard. Dallek attributes some of Jack's womanizing to his desire to "be successful at something"(46). Jack also spent most of his pre-presidency political life trying to separate himself from his father's conservative, isolationist outlook. For example, Congressman Kennedy supported the Truman Doctrine's aid to Turkey and Greece as a deterrent to Soviet aggression but also as an opposition to his father's public declaration of isolationist policy toward the Soviets (149). Additionally, his perpetual challenge during the Presidential election was to convince liberals that he was not a substitute for his father, who they denounced as "a robber baron and prewar appeaser of Nazi Germany" (232). Jack's slightly irreverent and rebellious personality, manifested in childhood rebellions against his mother (70), disregard of subjects that he was not interested in (37), and the organizing the Muckers club at Choate (39), served him well into his presidency. In assembling his cabinet and advisors, Jack was determined to surround himself with the right men (307) and maintain control of the administration so that he would not be unduly influenced by single interests. He also harbored a skepticism of the military leaders and experts, which was largely confirmed by their role in failed Bay of Pigs invasion (368). A third theme in the book is Jack's contradictory emotional behavior. Jack's controlled and reserved demeanor contrasted with Bobby's rash, outspoken comport, but there was an affinity that came from being "out of the same womb" (Ribicoff in Dallek, 316). Jack's family primarily masked emotion by teasing (166), yet he was very close to his sister Kathleen (153). Despite an obvious affinity for the company of women, he was a distant lover (151). Despite his reserved demeanor, .he could deeply empathize with strangers. He considered himself to be a fiscal conservative but also could 'put himself in the shoes' of blue-collar workers dependent on government assistance (142). He met with ordinary citizens during a seven-week trip through The Middle East and Asia in 1951 and developed a newfound calling to uphold "the obligations of the advantaged to the disadvantaged" (167). He advocated for federally financed housing as a Congressman (144). He was moved by the suffering he saw in West Virginia during his presidential campaign and promised to assist; later, his federal Area Redevelopment Act helped ease unemployment in that state (378). Though assessment of his Civil Rights support is mixed and Dallek believes that his privileged upbringing rendered Jack unable to grasp the reality of racism in America, Jack delivered a "heartfelt appeal in behalf of amoral cause" by asking Congress to support the largest civil rights bill in history (603).
In the preface, Dallek states that his analysis results in "not a sharply negative portrait but a description of someone with virtues and defects that make him seem both exceptional and ordinary" (x). Dallek illuminates Jack's character flaws, such as his resentment of Jackie's success in Paris (400), and his bitterness toward Adlai Stevenson for not supporting his nomination, and he blames Jack's competitive nature for some of the failure of the Vienna meetings with Khrushchev (409). However, Dallek's portrayal errs overwhelmingly to the positive - he seeks to justify Jack's character flaws and to minimize his policy failures. For example, he dismisses Jack's proven womanizing by attributing it to his desire to live life to its fullest because of his health problems (152) and by couching it in the assertion that many other people were engaging in the same behavior (477). Also, Dallek minimizes Jack's culpability in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by emphasizing the misleading information and false assumptions made by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military chiefs.
Dallek artfully combines old and new sources and, in the process, uncovers new information about the effect that Jack's health had on his administration, his opinion about the military's leadership, and his older brother's death during combat. His contribution to the scholarship on John F. Kennedy is the painstaking comparison of his health records to oral history accounts of his day-to-day presidential schedule. He concludes that Jack made all his political decisions with careful, rational thought and that he was not distracted by his health problems or the medicine he took to cope with the pain (705). Dallek's emphasis on health adds a new dimension to Jack's Naval service and actions during the sinking of his PT Boat by asserting that his heroism was all the more impressive due to his debilitating back and health problems (99).
Ultimately, Dallek praises John F. Kennedy's foreign policy success of preventing nuclear war, his soul-stirring speeches and his visions of a better America.
Recommended reading for anyone interested in American history, foreign policy, Cold War history.
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