In his youth, John F. Kennedy took a more global — and, in some ways, a more progressive — approach than would be apparent until much later. That was only one of the revelations uncovered by historian Fredrik Logevall, whose recent book, “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917‒1956,” covers the president’s early years.
Our 35th president “was a more serious student of history and international affairs at an earlier point than I thought,” said Logevall, Kennedy School professor of history and international relations. “I’d thought from previous books and my earliest research that he was frankly a bit of a slacker.”
In conversation Monday with fellow historian Jon Meacham in an online Institute of Politics Forum, Logevall discussed his findings and offered some hints as to what is to come in the second volume.
Kennedy’s early interest in a global approach was in stark contrast to his father’s noted isolationist stance, said the historian. Although Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was a “towering figure” in his son’s life, the two differed early on. The elder Kennedy, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.K. from 1938 through 1940, was “committed to appeasement,” said Logevall. “Right through Pearl Harbor, he thought we should make a deal with Hitler.”
His son disagreed. Growing up in the Great Depression and very aware of the threat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, “This is a young man who is thinking a lot about the challenges to democracy in ways that will continue throughout his life,” Logevall said.
Logevall credits the Kennedy matriarch, Rose, for nurturing this approach. In part, he noted, Kennedy’s bouts of illness as a youth made him more of a reader than many in his family, and, “Rose encouraged the bookish side of her son.” In addition, Logevall pointed out that the influence of professors at both Choate and Harvard as well as the young Kennedy’s extensive travels helped broaden his perspective.
“He spent several months in Europe, and this and other trips are of profound importance in terms of making him see a complete world, making him comfortable with a complex world in a way that his father never was,” said Logevall.
“I do give Joe the credit for allowing the kids to chart their own path,” he added. “Even though he had this powerful persona, he never insisted that they follow his views.”
Family connections did influence some of Kennedy’s other positions, however. Logevall explained the future president’s muted response to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s attacks on suspected Communists by pointing out that the Kennedy family had had a close relationship with the demagogic senator, and McCarthy even dated several of the Kennedy sisters.