Hardcover ☆ John F Kennedy eBook ☆ John F PDF or

Hardcover ☆ John F Kennedy eBook ☆ John F PDF or

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10 thoughts on “John F Kennedy

  1. Andrew Smith Andrew Smith says:

    I’m too young (though not by much) to remember, real time, JFK’s assassination, but I’ve been all too aware of the whodunit debate that’s raged ever since his tragic and untimely death. That said, I really didn’t know very much about the man until I read this book. It’s a thoughtful and thoroughly researched piece of work that draws on the input of many people who served with Kennedy and tapes of White House conversations, by virtue of a recording system instigated by JFK himself.

    The son of a pushy father, born to a rich, political family, JFK’s elder brother was always meant to be the one who made president. But, as everyone knows, the family has been cursed by early deaths and JFK became the eldest surviving son following the wartime death of Joe junior. The book tracks his early life and shows how Jack Kennedy progressed through Congress and Senate positions to become President. Observations and accounts seem well balanced with reflections on the man’s failures and weaknesses as well as his strengths and successes. It amazed me to realise that during his scant 1000 days in power he was called upon to address some of the weightiest problems of the 20th century, notably Cuba (particularly the missile crisis that took us closer to planetary extinction than any other single event), the rise of Communism which led to the conflict in Vietnam and the resulting Cold War and the emerging unrest concerning civil rights. He also kick started the space race which ultimately brought about the historic 1969 moon landing.

    Most surprising facts:

    -The extent to which he struggled with poor health throughout pretty much his entire life, to the extent that records were hidden, to prevent his ability to serve at the highest level being challenged, and later destroyed.
    -If he hadn’t worn a back brace (due to chronic back problems) that kept him erect in his seat, the fatal shot, which followed the hit to his neck, would have missed him.

    Most significant achievements:

    -Finding a resolution to the Cuban missile crisis – albeit a crisis he arguably spawned by benefit of his policies and actions as he attempted to remove Castro from power.
    -Negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty with Khrushchev at a time many of his political enemies and the military leaders (and even some of his advisers!) were arguing against such an agreement.


    -He was a serial womaniser – to an extent it seems unthinkable he’d have survived in modern political life. This might have left him open to claims that he was distracted from his job and inattentive to both local and international issues, but the author goes to some lengths to dispel this accusation.
    -Despite his vocal support for the campaigners for civil rights, he failed to pass any significant legislation to address the core issues. In fact, his overall record in passing weighty legislation was poor.

    There’s no doubt his family money and connections provided him with the opportunity to achieve such high office, but it’s also very clear that JFK was a very smart man, a war hero (if a somewhat lucky one) and above all a leader who was willing to be considered indecisive rather than make a mistake he’d later regret. This latter trait seemed to be born from his observations of decisions made by military leaders during his naval service (he always mistrusted this group thereafter) and his early misjudgements as President concerning Cuba and Vietnam. Nevertheless, it served him well in his later dealings vis-à-vis Castro and Khrushchev.

    Despite his short service in the ‘hot seat’, in polls he’s regularly voted one of the most important Presidents ever to serve. This may be attributed to his achievements or his premature death or maybe it was his good looks, his (apparent) health and youthful vitality and his ability to connect with his audience in the new television age. Whatever the reason JFK’s star continues to shine.

  2. Dan Dan says:

    A cradle to grave biography of JFK that was well researched and made judicious use of JFK’s own words often showcasing his wry humor.

    Overall an even handed book that fairly portrays JFK as a relentless womanizer and though a graduate of Harvard, a student with middling grades and only above average intellect. But despite these two deficiencies, Kennedy had genuine leadership skills and charisma, a bonafide passion about politics both globally and domestically, and the Kennedy drive. He even won a Pulitzer prize for Profiles in Courage in 1957.

    Kennedy was also fortunate to have lived in era of early TV where he leveraged his charisma but in an era absent of the muckraking TV journalism of today that would have easily discovered and reported the secrets around his health, amphetamine addiction, elicit liaisons and tawdry affairs.

    A single volume book is going to provide some cursory coverage and the author chose to minimize discussion on policies, campaigning and his relationship with his young family.

    The book has been faulted for not covering much new ground on JFK and for discussing his medical issues too much but the book is also lauded by the NYT as the go to biography on JFK. I think all of these opinions are correct. The section on the Cuban Missile crisis was really informative.

    I would give the writing 3.5 stars, the insights and research into JFK 5 stars, and the pace of the read 4.5 stars.

    So in summary, this is a solid 4 star biography. Not at the level of a Robert Caro or David McCullough bio but I am happy to have read it.

  3. Mara Mara says:

    Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. - James Ellroy, American Tabloid

    Mitigating circumstances: This is the ninth among my presidential bio(ish) reads over the past month and change. I’ve been concurrently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which is an amazing book about an amazing president. As a result, I'm not really sure that this qualifies as a book review per se.

    Having accounted for said circumstances, let me just say that I’m seriously underwhelmed when it comes to JFK. The book itself was well-researched and even-handed. In fact, I’m no Kennedy expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYT was right in assessing An Unfinished Life as the best single-volume Kennedy biography. I’m just not all that impressed when it comes to Jack Kennedy the man, especially given all the hoopla around him. Maybe I’m not giving him sufficient credit given that he was only in office for 1,000 days, but the word overrated definitely comes to mind. (See also: James Ellroy’s take in American Tabloid.)

    Assorted bitchings and/or moanings:

    We get it - being president makes you sick! Nixon, Eisenhower, Ford and JFK bios all go on about how “behind the scenes” doctors were juicing our heads of state to get them through their respective terms in office. It’s pretty much safe to assume from here on out that every POTUS is using PEDs (Presidential Enhancing Drugs). That being said, the whole Addison’s Disease thing is pretty interesting and Dallek would be doing a disservice to the reading public were he to skip out on the trials and tribulations of keeping the JFK machine up and in service. It also turns out that Dallek got unprecedented access to Kennedy's medical files, so I guess that's kind of a big deal.

    I’d take things a step further re. James Ellroy's Bill Clinton comparison. With Clinton we all have our suspicions, but most people can only count on one hand the names of women who he took to the Lincoln bedroom (or whatever bedroom, or the oval office - you get my point). If the press can give a list of ladies with whom you’ve gone for a roll in the hay that stretches from here to Hanoi, you’re not Clinton-esque, you’re a veritable poonhound. I don’t particularly count this against Kennedy, I'm just saying that he could have given Carlos Danger a run for his money.

    Not Dallek’s fault but definitely true:
    There are few events in modern American history that get more air time than JFK's assassination. There’s this overwhelming sense that the good times would have rolled in ways we can’t even comprehend had Kennedy not taken that fateful trip to Dallas. I’m no timespace continuum wizard, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that Kennedy would have had some disappointments up his sleeve along with a trick of two he may have turned. I didn’t come away from this book disliking the guy, but I can't help but feel that he's kind of overhyped. And yeah, I am holding him up next to Lincoln which might not be fair, but (as Dallek points out) the American public consistently rated him above Lincoln in their polls of greatest presidents, so the comparison bears mentioning. Guess what American public? You’re wrong. I can’t even tell you how wrong. You know what? Go read Team of Rivals. Right now! Then, when you’re done and have realized how awesome Lincoln was you can think about what you’ve done. Then, if you want to read a good biography about JFK, you should probably check this book out.

  4. Peter Beck Peter Beck says:

    I can’t decide if I am more disappointed with JFK’s “unfinished” presidency or with Robert Dallek’s pedestrian account of his tragic life. I must have set my expectations too high. Historians rank Kennedy as one of the ten best and “An Unfinished Life” is the highest rated single-volume biography of America’s 35th president.

    Dallek does a solid job of chronicling Kennedy’s early life. Like TR and FDR, Jack trod a path of Northeastern wealth and privilege that led to Harvard. Like both Roosevelts, he would have to overcome formidable health challenges. Dallek speculates that Jack’s father Joe most likely pulled some strings to allow his ailing son to see action in the South Pacific as the captain of PT-109. This was when I began to struggle with Dallek’s narrative. Dallek allows his access to newly obtained medical records to overshadow Kennedy’s wartime exploits in Ch. 3. After wading through all the medical diagnoses and treatments, I had a good sense of the sinking of Jack’s boat and his heroic rescue of his men, but Dallek subsequently relates, “And for the next six weeks he got in a lot of fighting and, to his satisfaction, inflicted some damage on the enemy” (p. 100). What fighting? What damage?

    Dallek makes it clear that for all his charisma, quick wits and eloquent speeches, Kennedy accomplished little during his 12 years in Congress, with his father playing a crucial role at every turn. Kennedy’s most notable (and controversial) action was to not vote to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his Communist witch hunt. Kennedy did become a celebrity and launched his presidential run with the publication of “Profiles in Courage,” but as one of his colleagues put it, “Why not show a little less profile and a little more courage?” (p. 217). Even though JFK’s election in 1960 was every bit as close as Truman’s in 1948, Dallek’s account lacks the drama or verve of David McCullough’s “Truman.”

    JFK was in the poorest health of anyone to become president. He was always taking at least ten different drugs, including pain killers, to treat a range of ailments, led by Addison’s disease and a bad back. As one doctor reviewing his medical files put it, Kennedy was “doped up” (p. 471). This makes it all the more amazing that JFK was competing with LBJ to be the most promiscuous president. Indeed, Dallek spends more time discussing Jack’s affairs, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to a White House intern (thinking of you, Bill!), than he does Jackie Kennedy and his two children.

    Foreign affairs-wise, Kennedy is best known for approving the CIA’s botched invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Dallek is strongest in relating these two events, but he fails to convey the public’s widespread fear that the world was on the precipice of a cataclysmic nuclear war. Dallek and most analysts have praised Kennedy for standing up to Khrushchev's dispatch of nuclear weapons to Cuba, but what if the mercurial Soviet leader hadn’t turned back his ships once Kennedy imposed the blockade? Yes, the missiles violated vague notions of the Monroe Doctrine, but did they qualitatively change the nuclear threat posed to the U.S.? No. Besides, Soviet troops remained even after the nukes were removed.

    American also became a little bit pregnant in its military commitment to Vietnam on Kennedy’s watch. I would pinpoint the moment of conception as 15 November 1961 when Kennedy announced a tripling of the number of military “advisers” in Vietnam. Dallek does not provide the figures, but according to militaryfactory.com, more American soldiers died during Kennedy’s first year in office (16) than during the previous five years under Ike. The U.S. went from having several hundred to 16,000 troops dispatched when Kennedy died. Based on my reading of Ambrose's Eisenhower, Ike saw Vietnam as a fool's errand. Kennedy also failed to listen to his policy coordinator at the State Department. Kennedy's failure to reject the hawks and conventional wisdom showed poor judgement and a lack of leadership on the critical issue of the decade--just as W, Hillary and Biden would do the same 40 years later.

    Dallek does make a strong argument that JFK would not have escalated like LBJ did in 1965 because he was more skeptical and would not be facing reelection. Still, Kennedy started America down a disastrous track that LBJ failed and even Nixon would struggle to take America off of.

    Kennedy’s unambiguous accomplishments were more modest. He did sign the first nuclear arms control agreement with the Soviets and pledged to take Americans to the moon by the end of the decade. Amazingly, Dallek doesn’t even mention Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech at Rice University in September 1962. My favorite accomplishment? Kennedy created the Peace Corps. I wanted to join when I was at U.C. Berkeley, but when I discovered they had pulled out of South Korea several years earlier, I chose a different path. Kennedy’s ambitious domestic agenda, particularly expanding civil rights and social welfare, would have to be accomplished by his successor. To my great surprise, Dallek provides only a cursory account of Kennedy’s assassination, devoting only a few sentences to the event itself.

    Reading about JFK made me realize that I have had the good fortune of meeting three of the most important people from Kennedy’s inner circle. Chief speechwriter Ted Sorensen gave a talk to my fellow interns at the World Affairs Council in SF when I was a senior. Ten years later, I made a point of introducing myself to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara at a conference in Washington, D.C. because we both went to Cal. And I interviewed key adviser Arthur Schlessinger for a Korean newspaper a few years after that. How I wish I had asked them about Jack!

    This review makes me realize that I am more disappointed with Dallek than JFK because I still want to read much more about Kennedy and those around him. To his credit, Dallek mentions his favorite previous biographies of Kennedy, especially those by Richard Reeves and Seymour Hersh. I was surprised that Kennedy relied heavily on advice from Dean Acheson, which moves him up my supporting roles reading list. One of the joys of reading about so many presidents is discerning the thru-stories of folks who serve multiple presidents, like like Lincoln's John Hay and FDR's Henry Stimson. I had planned to read “Profiles in Courage” until I learned it was written primarily by Sorensen. First I plan to read Chris Matthews’ “Bobby Kennedy” (2017). Bobby was Jack’s closest friend by far. Next will be McNamara’s “In Retrospect” (1997) as much to better understand the Vietnam tragedy. That means I should also read Max Hastings’ “Vietnam” (2018).

  5. Erin Erin says:

    4.5 Stars

    An Unfinished Life is different from the usual Kennedy biographies I like to read. I usually prefer to read gossipy more tawdry books about the Kennedy's because they're more fun. I like to read about sex, the mafia, and murder coverups.


    An Unfinished Life is a serious look at the life and presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Robert Dallek doesn't spend much time on gossip or rumors, he prefers to stick to the facts. I couldn't tell if Robert Dallek liked or disliked JFK, I never felt like he was trying to sway my opinion of JFK. Dallek simply laid out the facts and tried to contextualize way he made the decisions he made.

    A lot of our opinions on JFK are based on myths and distortions but through Dallek we get a more complex view of the life of the 35th president.

    This book spends a whole lot of time focusing on the policies of the Kennedy administration and I'll be honest sometimes its a rather boring read. I found myself skimming some of the sections on tax reform, Robert Dallek is a superb writer but not even he could make taxes an interesting read.

    An Unfinished Life is a deeply engrossing read that gave me a better understanding of who John Kennedy the man and the President were.

    A Must Read!

  6. Jim Jim says:

    This is an extraordinarily clear and detailed biography of the legendary yet all too human American president, John F. Kennedy. Robert Dallek, author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, has found, remarkably, untapped sources to bring additional life and light to Kennedy's story. Chief among these new resources are vast elements of Kennedy's medical records, which indicate both the excruciating pain and personal contortions JFK went through in an effort to serve well as president while also keeping his disturbing medical conditions from the public. Kennedy emerges from this book as not a great or epic president but as a very human being whose reach often exceeded his grasp and who sometimes did not reach far nor fast enough. The picture the reader is left with is of an admirable, physically brave and stalwart man, who had a genius for the subtleties of politics and an occasional, unfortunate penchant for learning from his mistakes only after making large ones. It is a fine book about a remarkable man.

  7. Diane Diane says:

    In a New York Times Book Review article on the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Dallek's book was described as the best biography about the president. Dallek, who spent five years researching and writing, has a deep appreciation of Kennedy's operatic story. The book has rich detail about the president's persistent and serious health problems, which serve to make the life seem genuinely heroic as well as swaddled in troubling cover-ups.

  8. Steve Steve says:


    When it was published in 2003, Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 was the first full-scale, single-volume biography of JFK in over three decades. Dallek is a presidential historian and former professor of history at Boston University, Columbia University and UCLA. He is the author of nearly two-dozen books including a two-volume series on LBJ and Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.

    Dallek's book benefits enormously from his having been granted almost unprecedented access to Kennedy family documents including newly-revealed information relating to JFK's seemingly endless array of medical ailments. He also convinced a former Kennedy administration press aide to release new information concerning an affair between JFK and a White House intern.

    Some of this fresh primary source material underpins the book's earliest chapters which describe Kennedy's youth: his fascinating family lineage, his privileged childhood, his persistent medical issues and his unwavering penchant for womanizing. But readers seeking a sensational JFK exposé are likely to be disappointed.

    While the early narrative provides a devastating indictment of Kennedy's ill-formed moral core, Dallek is predisposed to focusing on politics over prurient predilections. This biography is long on hard history and avoids allowing Kennedy's indiscretions to hijack the narrative. The author's skillful dissection of JFK's complex medical situation, however, does pervade the text.

    Once Kennedy begins his political career in 1946, the spotlight shines brightest on his public rather than private life; his family recedes into the background and there is surprisingly little coverage even of Jackie. More than half the book is reserved for Kennedy's 1,036-day presidency and Dallek's style is consistently serious, sober-minded and impressively objective.

    Not surprisingly, discussion of Kennedy's presidency is dominated by US-Soviet relations, Cuba and Southeast Asia. With the exception of civil rights (where the author is often critical of Kennedy's leadership failures), domestic issues receive significantly less focus. But this is reflective of Kennedy's own interests and emphasis.

    The most interesting chapters are those dealing with Kennedy's relationship with Nikita Khrushchev (their meeting at the Vienna Summit, in particular) and the Bay of Pigs debacle. The book ends with an interesting Epilogue considering Kennedy's reputation, assessing his legacy and briefly pondering what might have been.

    While the biography is almost always engaging there are occasions during Kennedy's presidency when the narrative bogs down and becomes tedious. But this is generally the fault of cumbersome foreign policy issues facing Kennedy at the time rather than with the author's writing style.

    In addition, JFK's assassination is described in just a single paragraph with no lens on the transition of power to LBJ. The ensuing pages consider the impact of Kennedy's death on his family and on the country but, for many readers, history will seem to stop too abruptly at the moment of Kennedy's death.

    Overall, Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 proves an excellent introduction to the life and death of the thirty-fifth president. Some readers will find discussion of Kennedy's medical afflictions strangely pervasive; others will be surprised not to read more of his lewd behavior. But, in general, Dallek's biography covers John F. Kennedy's life thoroughly, thoughtfully and with extraordinary balance and objectivity.

    Overall rating: 4¼ stars

  9. James Thane James Thane says:

    This is a very good biography of JFK, focusing principally on his presidency. Dallek obviously admires Kennedy, but that does not prevent him from being critical of his subject when he believes that the criticism is warranted.

    Dallek's principal contribution is to document more thoroughly than any previous biographer Kennedy's many medical problems, the treatment he received and the extent to which the President, his family, his doctors and others conspired to conceal those problems from public view. In the end, Dallek concludes that, although he was often in pain, Kennedy managed his afflictions well and they did not adversely affect his ability to function as president. Dalleck also speculates, however, that in the modern age it would be impossible for a presidential candidate to conceal such problems as effectively as Kennedy did. He also assumes that someone with Kennedy's medical history could almost certainly not be elected to the office today.

    Dalleck details Kennedy's extensive womanizing, both before and after he married Jackie, and which continued unabated during his presidency. Dalleck speculates that perhaps this compulsion resulted from the example that JFK's father had set and from Kennedy's fears about his own mortality because of his medical problems. Again, Dallek concludes that his womanizing did not distract Kennedy from the larger tasks that confronted him and so did not prevent him from being an effective president. Though many reporters and others knew or speculated about Kennedy's philandering, as quaint as it now seems, the press still believed that a president's private life was off limits. Dallek also points out that many of the journalists and editors who covered the Kennedy administration had extra-marital affairs of their own and so did not want to cast the first stone. Dalleck again assumes though, that no candidate with Kennedy's record in this department could be elected today.

    Otherwise, Dallek's account is a fairy familiar one. He admits that Kennedy made mistakes early on in his administration, the Bay of Pigs fiasco principal among them. He also concedes that Kennedy came slowly to the cause of civil rights and tempered his actions by calculating the political consequences, which is hardly surprising. He also insists, though, that Kennedy learned from his mistakes and grew to be a better president as a result.

    Dallek gives Kennedy very high marks for his handling of the Cuban missile crisis, and reading his account one realizes how perilously close we came to the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Kennedy was determined to give diplomacy every chance to work, even against the advice of military figures and others who argued for an attack on the missile sites and an invasion of the island. Considering some of the trigger-happy people who have occupied the office since 1963, one reads these chapters and becomes enormously grateful for the fact that this crisis fell to JFK and not to some of his successors.

    Probably the greatest argument left from the Kennedy administration is the question of what JFK would have done with respect to Vietnam. Dallek covers in great detail Kennedy's handling of the problem and, based in part on new evidence, concludes that, had he lived, Kennedy almost certainly would not have enlarged the war. Dallek also concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of the President.

    This is a rich, compelling book and may be the best biography of Kennedy that we now have. Reading it, one can only regret that, even for all his faults, JFK did not live long enough to serve a second term as president.

  10. Dana Dana says:

    I understand that one can debate whether JFK was an effective President, but can't most of us agree that he led one of the most fascinating lives of any 20th century American? Robert Dallek's biography also believes he was an effective President and I have to agree on many issues. Dallek outlines the decisions Kennedy made during his 1000 days along with reasons why.... His first challenge - the Bay of Pigs- was set up during Eisenhower, but Kennedy accepted blame for his incorrect decision to execute the invasion. Then comes the Cuban Missile crisis and it sure seems JFK deserves huge points for avoiding nuclear disaster. Throughout his presidency he (and mostly RFK) confront the issues of civil rights- Dallek's and JFK himself argued he was effective, but there is a successful argument that JFK could have and should have done more. There were many more complicated issues, but the most serious was Vietnam. Dallek states that Kennedy now worried that a defeat in Berlin or over Vietnam,....could be a decisive blow to his Presidency. What would have happened with Vietnam if Kennedy had finished his own life? Dallek's analysis helps us reach our own conclusion.

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