Kennedy: a kaleidoscopic view; A Hero for Our Times: An Intimate Story of the Kennedy Years, by Ralph G. Martin. New York: Macmillan. 512 pp. $19.95.
Though his abbreviated administration failed to achieve its lofty goals, the fascination with John Fitzgerald Kennedy persists. Hence Ralph Martin's remembrance of the former President will command a considerable audience - even though its anecdotal approach reveals little that is new to anyone remotely familiar with the Kennedy literatures.
In fact, the author cannot seem to make up his mind whether to cast JFK as hero or antihero. The book contains an array of previous allegations concerning the President's checkered past that borders upon the boorish. Yet no sooner does Martin depict the seamier side of his subject than he recalls the blithe spirit of a brilliant politician, whose unerring instincts and inner strength seemed to set him apart from the pack.
What finally emerges is a kaleidoscopic view of John Kennedy that comes to no conclusion - save that here was a man whose promise exceeded his performance. Thus we are left to wonder whether he intended to withdraw US forces from Vietnam in the second term. The indications are that he would have done so, once his reelection was assured. But George Ball has suggested that JFK's reluctance to cut and run before a Communist intrusion could have sucked him into the Southeast Asian quagmire as it did his successor.cho As for JFK's relationship with Lyndon Johnson, Martin stresses that President Kennedy would not tolerate any staff slight toward his running mate. And yet Kennedy isolated himself as much as possible from his loquacious vice-president.end cho
But this was a paradoxical President. How else to explain his reluctance to push his domestic program for fear that his ''slender mandate'' was insufficient? Yet he risked the wrath of Wall Street by forcing Roger Blough to back down and rescind his steel price hike. This same leader who dared launch a Peace Corps and endure the taunts concerning ''Kennedy's Kiddie Korps'' vacillated over civil rights to the point where he was finally forced to act by a burgeoning black movement that would tolerate no further delay. Though sometimes slow to move, Kennedy was a quick study - as witness his use of federal marshals to ensure the integration of the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi. And the President's nationwide speech scoring the shame of segregation was surely one of his finest.
Even more impressive was his foreign-policy apprenticeship that saw him field the Bay of Pigs fiasco with an uncommon grace, ultimately raising his stock in the eyes of a sympathetic US public. This debacle, however, combined with the subsequent meeting in Vienna, convinced Khrushchev that he was dealing with a weakling. Thus the Soviet strongman threatened to drive the US from Berlin and, when that failed, he built the infamous wall. He then resumed atomic testing and eventually tried to sneak offensive missiles into Cuba.
JFK's handling of the 1962 missile crisis is cited by many as his finest hour. Unlike the earlier Cuban confrontation, Kennedy was in complete control. He carefully chose a naval blockade over the surgical air strike and invasion options advanced by a disparate group of advisers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dean Acheson, and Sen. J. William Fulbright. Martin's account, though sketchy, leaves no doubt that the Commander in Chief's grace under pressure meant the crucial difference between peace and war. A respectful Lyndon Johnson later recalled that ''Throughout the deliberations, President Kennedy was the coolest man in the room.'' JFK's coolness convinced Khrushchev that the American leader was a worthy adversary. Thereafter, the two men corresponded, and thus arose the genesis of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which may have been the President's most significant foreign-policy accomplishment.
It certainly produced one of his most memorable addresses. Speaking before an American University audience, JFK remarked that ''Enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever.'' He concluded that ''If we cannot end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet, we all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.''
The message eventually moved Khrushchev to the conference table and a nuclear accord. It also established John F. Kennedy as a serious statesman who deserves better biographers than those who concentrate upon his peccadilloes at the expense of his presidency.