May 2022. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed Fredrik Logevall, Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University, on President Kennedy, the Russia-Ukraine War, and Afghanistan. | Click here for more interviews like this one.
- JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 (Penguin Random House, 2020)
- America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity (with Campbell Craig), 2nd edition (Harvard University Press, 2020)
- Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History)
GrowthPolicy: You are a biographer and historian on the life of President Kennedy. We recently read the first of two projected volumes on his life: JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956. I’m curious about the book’s subtitle: “Coming of Age in the American Century.” What critical insights into Kennedy’s presidency, and perhaps his foreign policies, may we glean from the influences of his early years?
Fredrik Logevall: The subtitle is meant to convey that, in addition to being a biography, this is a work of history. Indeed, the conceit of work is that a deeply contextual look at John F. Kennedy’s life helps us better understand key American and world developments in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century.
Thus, for example, in this first volume, the pointed debate between so-called “isolationists” and “interventionists” in the years before Pearl Harbor; the maelstrom of World War II, through which the U.S. emerged as a global hegemon; the outbreak and escalation of the Cold War; the Second Red Scare and the domestic politics of anti-Communism; the growth of television’s influence on politics—each of these events and developments can be understood more clearly through the lens of Kennedy’s life and career.
The same will hold true for the second volume, which I’m working on now: here we can consider the civil rights struggle; the arms race and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon; the revival of affirmative government as a precursor to the Great Society; the U.S. descent into Vietnam; and the space program. If I’m right about this, there’s a kind of double payoff to my approach, as I write in the preface: “Situating Kennedy within the wider setting of the era and the world helps us better comprehend not only his rise, but his country’s rise, first to great-power status and then to superpower status.”
In terms of the insights into Kennedy’s presidency that we can glean from the early years, one must be careful. Any serious attempt to recreate Kennedy’s world as he experienced it requires suspending as much as possible the knowledge of how it all turned out, resisting the urge to see in this undergraduate essay or that travel diary entry a president in the making.
Still, certain themes emerge that I believe help us better understand the latter-day Kennedy. One is his pronounced international sensibility, which was evident from an early age and was encouraged by his parents, especially his mother. From his college years onward, he was a man of the world, deeply curious about other political systems and cultures, comfortable with competing conceptions of national interest. From the time he entered Congress in 1947 until his death in 1963, foreign policy was his primary interest, with important implications for his administration.
I argue that he possessed from an early point an appreciation for the limits of American power, and a skepticism about the utility of military force in solving problems that were at their root political; these perspectives too he would carry with him into the White House. Finally, we can see in the early JFK aspects of his persona that would fuel his political rise and shape popular perceptions of him, both during and after his presidency: his calm self-possession; his capacity for hard work; his self-deprecating wit; his ability to connect with voters through his idealistic speechmaking.
GrowthPolicy: One of President Kennedy’s most important speeches on the Cold War is his commencement address at American University in June 1963. In what ways was President Kennedy perceptive, even prescient, about the global order of the future? In what ways are we living in the geopolitical reality the New York Times described recently as “a new Cold War”?
Fredrik Logevall: The American University speech is rightly known as one of Kennedy’s landmark speeches. It should be required reading (or viewing, on YouTube) for all American political candidates, and not merely for its elegant structure and rhetorical power. JFK engaged here in a reexamination of the Cold War and called for a new Soviet-American relationship, one based on détente and a “strategy of peace.”
Soviet leader Khrushchev was among those who came away impressed; he realized that Kennedy genuinely sought better relations, and he ordered that the text of the speech be widely disseminated in the Soviet Union. Ordinary people around the world could read Kennedy’s immortal words: “[I]f we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.”
One notable thing about the speech is that core themes in it were not new. Already in his Congressional years Kennedy had warned of the dangers of great-power conflict in a nuclear age; already then, he argued for the importance of diplomacy, of good-faith bargaining, including with adversaries. In his first year as president, in a speech in Seattle, he urged his audience to “face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world's population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.” That remains as true today as when he said it.
You ask if we’re now in Cold War 2. I’m skeptical, though there’s something to the notion that for Vladimir Putin, Cold War I never really ended—he is still waging it. But the Cold War had numerous characteristics that I think are lacking today. If we decapitalized it and said we are in a lower-case cold war, I could agree, but it’s not the Cold War Redux.
GrowthPolicy: You’ve written extensively on twentieth-century imperial history, and histories on the French and U.S. wars in Vietnam. What is your prediction about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both in terms of the military outcome for Russia and also the changed geopolitical balances of power in Europe and the United States? In what ways does Russia’s current invasion resemble, or differ from, the Soviet Union’s past interventions into Europe in the twentieth century?
Fredrik Logevall: Well, we historians generally shy away from making predictions, as we’re not very good at the task. (Social scientists are no better, I might add!) Still, it does seem to me that Russia, even should it ultimately win militarily, will emerge from this struggle weakened in important ways.
Putin clearly blundered, which gets us to your second question. Soviet-era leaders generally behaved more cautiously, I would say. Nikita Khrushchev, notwithstanding his gambler’s instinct and his tendency toward bluster, generally stepped back from the brink at the critical moments—not least during his confrontation with Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. One reason he pulled back in that instance is because the Kremlin leadership was to a degree collective—Khrushchev, though very much the main man, consulted with the other members of the Presidium; he had to keep consider their views in making his decisions. The same was true of his successors, right down to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.
Putin, by contrast, is more isolated, partly because of the pandemic; he’s more of a solo operator, with a few yes-men around him. Add to that the fact that he’s been in power a long time and one can see why mistakes might creep in. Two miscalculations in particular stand out for me. First, he hoped that, as had been the case with some of his other interventions, the U.S. and the rest of NATO would tacitly swallow his aggression against Ukraine. A unified Western response was not something he expected, and now it looks like the alliance will expand, as the Finns and my fellow Swedes seem set to join. Second, since in his mind Russia and Ukraine was really one nation, he appears to have genuinely believed that Russian forces would be welcomed with hugs and flowers. With his vision of Russian-Ukrainian unity, he didn’t grasp how his bullying would deeply and irrevocably alienate a great many Ukrainians.
GrowthPolicy. I’d like you to talk about Afghanistan—more specifically, America’s twenty-year intervention that came to a precipitous end in July-August 2021. How will future historians, perhaps with the perspicacity that comes with time, judge the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan? Similarly, for U.S. policy makers studying Afghanistan, say, a century in the future: what useful policy lessons in statecraft would they derive from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan?
Fredrik Logevall: It's hard to say how history will view the war—as you rightly note, historians write with a detachment that only time brings. But we already know a good deal about U.S. policymaking between 2001 and 2021, thanks in part to the release of the so-called “Afghanistan Papers,” high-level documents that span many years.
These materials show that American officials, after achieving swift success in toppling the Taliban government in the fall of 2001, struggled to define their objectives in Afghanistan. They opted for an aggressive counterterrorism strategy that alienated many ordinary Afghans and led former Taliban to resort again to violence. They tolerated repressive actions by the Kabul government and failed to clamp down on official corruption. Yet year after year, they insisted publicly—and against the evidence—that the signs pointed in the right direction, that victory would come in due course.
One hears the echoes of Vietnam. And as in that earlier war, the very presence of the United States created a monumental problem for the host government—it could never escape being tainted by its association with a foreign occupying power. Massive U.S. assistance, necessary to have any chance of winning, scuttled any chance of securing broad popular backing. Hence one of the core lessons of both interventions: wars must be won politically if they are to be won at all.
GrowthPolicy: My final question is on the craft of the historian. You are a historian who is an expert in international relations as well as the narrative genre of the biography. For present and future scholars reading this, what would you say are the challenges, and perhaps the rewards, of conducting historical research across disciplines and genres?
Fredrik Logevall: I’m a newcomer to this biography thing, and what I bring to the endeavor is my training as a historian. And it’s interesting that among many academic historians, biography is viewed with skepticism. As these scholars see it, biography too often distorts the role of human agency by looking at an individual’s role in isolation from the political, economic, and social structures in which he or she operated.
But need this be the case? I think not. There’s a way to bring these genres together that can make for a more satisfactory whole. Moreover, works that offer structural, impersonal explanations tend toward a deterministic assessment of the past, giving the impression that it was all predetermined, that what happened had to happen. This conceals the openness of the past and, to my mind, often lacks explanatory power. Certainly, it would be hard to look at the Ukraine crisis and not conclude that individual leaders matter greatly—Vladimir Putin, of course, but also Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
I love Karl Marx’s classic formulation, in the preface to his 1852 essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Exactly right. Marx tells us here that individual initiative matters, but also that even the most powerful human beings operate within constraints. Or as Herbert Spencer put in in 1896, in describing the role of the “great man” in public affairs: “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”