EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Foreign Policy Under the Kennedys: Lessons for President Biden
DATE: 3pm, 16 March 2021
SPEAKERS: Lawrence Haas, Richard Aldous, Nancy Soderberg, Dr Alan Mendoza
EVENT MODERATOR: Dr Alan Mendoza
Dr Alan Mendoza 00:01
Hey, let’s get started. Good afternoon. Good morning or good evening, depending on where you are in the world. Welcome to another Henry Jackson Society virtual event. I’m Alan Mendoza the executive director of HGS. And it’s my pleasure to introduce our event today on foreign policy under the Kennedys, lessons for President Biden. I think, as the name suggests, obviously, what we’re going to try and do in the next hour is investigate a little bit through the paradigm of the of the Kennedy family, cyclicals Jack, Bobby and Ted to see lessons from their time. And if if any replicable firstly to current day times, and what can be learned from them. And in order for us to do that, as we’ve got three excellent speakers for you. First, I’ll introduce them in the order they will speak. First up we have Lawrence Haas now Lawrence’s reason we’re having this event actually, because he is the the author of a new book, “The Kennedys in the world, how Jack, Bobby, and Ted remade America’s Empire.” And that, of course, is available to purchase every good bookstore and Larry’s just told us that to The Guardian, we believe we’ll be carrying a probably a review of some kind very shortly if you want to learn a bit more if he hasn’t convinced in this event. But Larry, of course, has a distinguished career. He’s a former White House official. He was communications director the Vice President Gore was at the Office of Management and Budget, and is of course currently a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council where we can find all manner of events and happenings in print and broadcast media. Next up, we have Ambassador Nancy Soderbergh. Now, Nancy has served on four presidential campaigns in the US Senate in the White House and at the United Nations. She is perhaps most famous to us here in the UK, on account of her work in Northern Ireland, and she authorized President Clinton on policies towards China, Russia, the Balkans and a variety of conflicts in Africa, and was indeed, given Ambassador rank as the alternate representative to the UN as a presidential appointee. She’s also of course for the National Security Council. The purpose of today’s discussion, though she of course, was the senior foreign policy advisor to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. So welcome, Ambassador Soderbergh. And last but not least, we have Professor Richard Aldous, who is of course a well known historian in not only these parts, but the US where he is today he’s historian, transatlantic politics, diplomacy and business. And his 11 books as an author and editor include “Schlesinger, the Imperial Historian,” and, of course, an enduring topic of interest for us, Reagan Thatcher, The Difficult Relationship.” And he’s currently writing a book on Douglas Dillon, the treasury secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, we look forward to hearing his comments as well. And he of course, teaches at Bard College, where he holds a Eugene Meyer chair. So welcome to our panelists, what we’re going to do is open up to Larry, Nancy, and then Richard, to give us some opening comments and thoughts. At the same time, I’d encourage you watching at home on your offices to come up with some questions you would like to ask because as usual, we will open up the floor to you a little later in the discussion for you to ask questions of our panelists so get thinking and of course, to ask the question you simply submit it in the in the q&a function, and we will then pick and call upon you to come on screen and talk and give your question. But for now, let me pass over to Larry, Larry, would you like to give us your opening thoughts? Thank you.
Lawrence Haas 03:36
Well, thank you very much. Thank you, Alan. Thank you, Sean Earley, and Jamila Mammadova for all thinking this was a good idea and having the event for us and Henry Jackson Society, of course. And I want to thank my fellow panelists for joining me. I’m going to let’s say give you two minutes of grounding in the book because it sets the stage for the topics that I want to talk about today, the issues, Kennedy foreign policy, how they relate to Biden, and all the rest. I will take one moment of shameless self promotion, and hold the book up the “Kennedys in the World.” And if you find yourself interested in and after listening to me, it’s actually listed on the Lawrence Haas Lawrence Haas. And it’s available now and I hope you’ll check it out. As you can imagine. So in a nutshell, here’s what the books about. Everybody knows that Joe Kennedy a ruthless and demanding father and Rose Kennedy is cold and standoffish wife raised the Kennedy boys for success. But what almost nobody knows is that it was a certain kind of success that they groomed them for. They specifically educated the boys to look abroad, to learn about the world to care about the world and once they attained power to actually shape America’s role in the world. And through that the world itself, they held conversations with the boys over meals, breakfast and dinner, most notably, Joe Kennedy sent the boys to travel overseas all over the world when they were old enough, he wrote to them when he was away, or they were away about global events, he set up meetings for them with the world’s leading figures, presidents and czars and military officials and all the rest. And, and what almost nobody knows is that all three of them, at some point in their travels served as foreign correspondents, writing long articles about the world back home and positioning themselves as global thinkers, from 1947. When jack was elected to the House until 2009, when Ted died of brain cancer as a senator, at least one Kennedy held public office that’s for more than 60 straight years. And over the course of that time, the three brothers shaped broad issues of war and peace, as well as virtually every major global challenge that the United States faced on their watch. All over the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the rest, okay, in terms of issues and lessons that I’m going to try to squeeze in my allotted time. The first one I want to talk about is internationalism engagement. I’ve already told you about their background in terms of their focus on the world abroad. And through the conversations and the travels and the writings. They came as young men all to discard the isolationism that their famous father who as you know, served as the US ambassador to London in the late 1930s, held this isolationism that he held really throughout his life. They came to see that America needed to play an active role in the world, and in fact, beyond that, that there were certain things that only America with its power and influence could do. And I would suggest to you that in recent years, the world has been somewhat adrift on major issues. Because the United States has not played that traditional role. We have not had a unified global effort of the kind that we might have had with us leadership, to address COVID to address the broad economic crisis that much of the world has suffered. And obviously, the United States has walked away and left the world adrift, when it comes to, you know, major issues like climate change, and the rest, other transnational issues. This, obviously, was a problem that was particularly acute, under President Trump with his America First-ism and his isolation ism that was part of the America first approach, and all the rest. It was selective isolationism. Of course, it wasn’t broad isolationism, but it resulted in ruffled feathers with our traditional allies, and a whole variety of other problems around the world. But to be fair, it began before Trump, President Obama had stepped back a little bit himself and suggested that the United States play less of a leading role. And I don’t think that that policy left the world in a better place, either. So this is beyond President Trump. It it taps into the broad kind of rising isolationism of the United States at a grassroots level. But I think it’s something that Joe Biden’s doing a lot to reverse. He’s off to a pretty good start. He’s obviously re engaging with the allies. And he’s seeking unity on the major threats that we share, from COVID, to climate, to China, to Russia, to Iran, and beyond. Second thing I want to talk about is American leadership, which is not exactly the same thing as engagement, although it’s obviously related to it. In fact, it’s a kind of part of engagement I would suggest to you. With regard to leadership. All three of the Kennedys thought that United States needed to lead the free world. All three of them thought that it was important for the United States to promote freedom and democracy. All three of themwere Fierce anti communists throughout their lives. And while we associate a lot of that, with Jack Kennedy, and with the early years of Bobby Kennedy, it is something that Bobby really never gave up through his dying days. And I would suggest you and Nancy might have more to say about this. Ted Kennedy himself was not naive about the nature of the Soviet Union, or the nature of Communist China, or the nature of communism itself. So I think they will saw the world with very clear eyes and understood the distinction between freedom and authoritarianism. And they all drew distinctions in their public speeches, and, and in their writings between democracy and communism. We remember, obviously, some of these landmark moments, JFK at the Berlin Wall, Bobby on a month long global tour that he took as attorney general in 1962. And Ted Kennedy, whether he was travelling across Africa in 1956, or Latin America in the early 1960s. Or, you know, meeting Soviet leaders in the Kremlin or Chinese leaders in Beijing, in later decades. This is something that I think is particularly important for the United States to get back to now. And that’s because freedom around the world is under great challenge and duress. In fact, freedom and democracy are on their heels. This is not dissimilar to the way the world was when we lived in a bifurcated world of the Cold War, with the United States leading freedom and the Soviets leading communism. It’s important now because as some of you may know, Freedom House, the nonprofit that tracks political rights and civil liberties just reported that 2020 was the 15th straight year, that freedom has declined around the world the longest stretch in recent decades. The United States has obviously, not been the reason for this, but it has contributed to this in its reluctance, it would seem to me to promote freedom and democracy. In recent years, we have given a little bit more running room to the autocrats and we have given a lot less moral support to would be democrats around the world. And I don’t think that it’s any coincidence, that as President George W, Bush’s freedom agenda lost steam at around 2006 to 2007. And then through the Obama years in which President Obama did not promote freedom and democracy consistently, and then the last four years of Trump, in which he didn’t seem to even understand the difference between a free and an authoritarian country, we see a decline in freedom around the world. We are not the only reason. But we have been a contributing factor. Here too, I think that President Biden is off to a good start. He has spoken out against Chinese treatment of Hong Kong and the Muslim Uyghurs he has criticized Vladimir Putin over his arrest of Alexei Navalny and over the Moscow treatment of the ongoing protests. He has spoken out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. This is complicated. This is complicated, because promoting freedom and democracy is not the only thing that the United States does around the world. And it can come into conflict with our other, you know, global and regional interests. So the challenge is for President Biden to articulate, articulate the cause of freedom and democracy consistently, even in places where we’re trying to cut deals with governments, like, for instance, in Iran, which has a periphery human rights record, but where we seem to be heading back towards negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. So we’ll have to see how he does. I think he’s off to a good start. But I would just suggest this cautiously because it’s this is hard work. And I suggest that he needs to do it not only consistently, but I would make one other point. He needs to I think more articulately. explain the difference between free and authoritarian countries. The Kennedys were very very good at that and the United States its people need to know better, really what’s at stake. Okay, my third point, diplomacy, all three brothers favored diplomacy and feared war and a lot of that came from, you know, family experiences. They lost the older son Joe Jr. in a dangerous bombing mission over Germany in 1944, jack saw the horror of war up close. It was not just his heroic efforts on the PT 109 that we all know about. But it was the fact that he saw a real shooting and real killing and wrote pretty graphic letters back to his parents. While he was out in the in the Asian seas. Bobby Kennedy enlisted in in the military, though he didn’t see much action. And Ted Kennedy was not naive about the horror of war himself. They all had incidents where they were in very important issues favoring diplomacy over the rush to war. And Jack, I will say learned a lot from the misbegotten Bay of Pigs fiasco, where we did sponsor an invasion to try to topple a dictator. And obviously, that didn’t go well. And as a result, Jack realized that he had a different a foreign policy, and the mechanics of it and the risks of it a lot more seriously. It convinced him not to send troops to Laos, as his military advisors were recommending he do in early 1961. And, and most importantly, it convinced him to withstand the pressures of his military chiefs in late 1962, not to take military action during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to resolve it peacefully. Bobby was kind of ahead of the game in Vietnam when he was, you know, favoring negotiations even with the Vietcong before most of the country was there. And Ted Kennedy, as Nancy knows, all too well, was ahead of the game when it came to us policy with Iraq. He opposed both us led invasions, 1991 and 2003. And while the 1991 invasion went pretty well, for the United States, the latter one did not. And in the end, Ted Kennedy looked like a prophet. I’m here to I think Biden is trying to engage a lot more than we’ve been engaging in recent years. He’s spoken to the Chinese leaders Xi Jinping by phone this Thursday, sr, us and Chinese officials are going to be meeting in Alaska. The President is trying to reengage with Iran in the aftermath of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. This too, is complicated work. We have serious challenges. And sometimes you have to know when to stop talking and when to try something else. And we’ll have to see. And I’m not prognosticating that, that President Biden’s doing anything particularly wrong at the moment, but we face very serious challenges when it comes to Chinese aggression, not just in its region, but far beyond when it comes to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. And when it comes to the North Korean nuclear program. Okay, my final point has to do with the Kennedys and the developing world. All three of the Kennedys, from their travels from their writings from their conversations, had a great interest in the developing world and thought that really our approach to the developing world on their watch, was quite misplaced. Jack in particular, saw it and did rewrite America’s Cold War strategy, taking the focus off of Europe and moving it towards the developing world because he thought that’s really where the Cold War was going to be won because that’s where the United States was competing for influence around the world. With the Soviet Union, all three of the brothers thought the United States should assume colonialism and build ties to restless populations. I already mentioned that jack rewrote America’s Cold War strategy along those lines. It also shaped his Civil War strat as civil rights excuse me strategy, because he thought the United States was getting a black eye around the world with nations of color due to the violence of our civil rights movement, and it pushed him to promote civil rights at home more than he otherwise would have done. Um, Bobby had similar concerns, which he also developed through his travels, traveled to Asia with Jack in 1951 went to the Middle East and Asia in 1948. These long periods of time, it convinced him to talk his brother jack out of appointing William Fulbright as Secretary of State because he was currently concerned about the the reaction in the the developing world because William Fulbright had a terrible civil rights record. And finally, with regard to Ted, he had similar thoughts about Latin America, about Africa, about Vietnam, in the post Jack and post Bobby period. And it very much shaped his opposition to Iraq, as he said, and wrote later. He did not think that the United States should impose a colonial footprint with a big military action in that part of the world. And finally, I’ll say with regard to Biden, this is another high stakes issue. I mentioned that China is challenging the United States much the way the Soviet Union challenged the United States years ago, in the developing world, China’s branching out far beyond Asia, it is seeking much more influence in the Middle East through its recent agreement with Iran. It’s making major investments in Africa. Iran is challenging the United States across Latin America. And the United States needs an effective pushback of some kind, to build relations with people on the ground, and to reassert its influence. Because this is important, a free a more democratic world is a better, safer, more prosperous world, both for the world as well as for the United States. So on that note, I will stop and turn it back over to I suppose over to Nancy.
Dr Alan Mendoza 21:35
Well, thank you, Larry, for framing, that say, well, in sort of different points and different facets. Fascinating. Let’s move over Nancy, to get to hear your thoughts on what Larry said, and also what you’d like to have as well.
Nancy Soderbergh 21:49
Sure, well, first of all, thanks to the Henry Jackson Society for hosting this event. And I’m delighted to participate. And I certainly enjoyed speaking to Larry for this book, and commended to everyone. I’ll also hold it up for you, Larry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I know from our discussions, it’s extremely well researched. And Alan, thanks for the great moderation. And we look forward to hearing from Professor Richard all this shortly. I had the privilege of working for senator Ted Kennedy from 1985 to 1992. And travelled the world with him and saw firsthand the principles developed in Larry’s book over the years. I also stayed in touch with them. Once I left, and particularly in the White House during the Northern Ireland peace process in the early 90s. I was with him at the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he walked around with Willy Brandt, and it was just you could see history unfolding. And all of the family history with leading up to that day was was something I’ll never, I’ll never forget. And I think the strength of the family is well detailed in Richards book is that the family wanted to change the world. And they were raised to use their power and influence to do that. And I think what I’d like to do is just draw out four lessons for today’s challenges off of some of the stories that Larry’s alleged, Larry tells that can be applied to today, as Larry and I discussed when he was writing the book, I was on a long plane trip years ago with Senator Kennedy. And I said, What’s it like to be in the Senate for 40 years? Do you feel sometimes that you haven’t made a difference? And he laughed, and he said he I see history as a river. And over the years I have changed that course of that river. And they laughed and said, Of course to the left. But I really think that’s what presidents and senators can do. And I think it’s the challenge of Joe Biden of which way does he want to bend the arc of history? I think Joe Biden recognizes he has to do it quickly. We don’t know what will happen in the 2022 midterm elections. But history would imply that he may well lose control of one if not both of the houses. So he’s under a lot of pressure, not to mention the many challenges that he faces. So I was just going to draw out and hopefully we can go into these more in discussion. Four lessons that I saw firsthand, Senator Ted Kennedy, using based on his family histories and his 40-50 plus years in the in the Senate. First is just be honest, be honest about the cost of war. Let the American people know and decide they have a right to know we’re a government of democracy and yet time and time people try and bend the facts to justify a narrative that never necessarily will Last, and Senator Kennedy stood up for the Kent students who were peacefully protesting at their university. He talked truth to power about Vietnam War using both his backchannels with Henry Kissinger, but also his public forum is the Senate Judiciary Chair of the Subcommittee on refugees to highlight the human toll of these things. I helped draft the speech in 1991, opposing the war in Iraq. And then I remember him calling me in 2002, to say, Hey, can we just recycle that? That was that speech he wrote, because the casualties that we predicted actually did end up coming true in 2002. And this was this was something he felt personally a human connection to those war. And I think, looking honestly, at what our challenges today are faced is an important lesson from the Kennedy legacy. What are the challenges on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen today, the biggest humanitarian crisis, let’s what is the human toll not just in terms of American lives, but also in the civilian citizenry? And let’s bring those home and have a real debate about it. I think. I feel like we forgotten some of these longest wars to declare Afghanistan. Secondly, Senator Kennedy always stood up for the individual, it was always personal with him he loved people get to know them meet, call them on the phone, he’d have them over to dinner at his home, he’d go to their homes. And as Larry mentioned, we’re in the 15th year of democracy’s decline as as tracked by Freedom House. And I think we’re Senator Kennedy alive today or any of the Kennedys, they would have reached out as much of they did over the histories. I was Larry talks about in his book, the trip to the return to democracy in Chile of Patricio Aylwin. And I was privileged to be on that trip and remembers Senator Kennedy telling the people of Chile that we could now breathe the free air of Chile at last and how important that whole ceremony was. And he made a point of going to see political prisoners went to a church or the activists, the Italia and Moffatt family who had been murdered by the regime on their way to see Senator Kennedy and others in Congress, their family members were there, he never forgot the person in all this. And I think today in our challenges, we need to make it about the individual people that can then start a floodgate of change when people see the story of the Uighurs. There Rohingya Today, the tea gray that’s now under threat, those political prisoners, those jailed journalists, make it personal and bring the people to life because it could happen to you. And I think that that power of the Kennedy family in the power of America, doing that can save lives and change narratives. Third use backchannels. The Kennedy brothers or the whole family really were raised in salons of King, princes, foreign ministers, artists, they knew how to connect with people and use the power of those back channels. So I saw it firsthand was trying to get the Gorbachev to release refuseniks we worked hard to get Natan Sharansky out, I’ll never forget his wife coming regularly into our offices and political prisoners around the world would come for get off the plane in DC and come straight to the office of Senator Kennedy to thank him for that. And it matters, you can make a huge difference just by using those back channels, whether it’s an arms control agreement, or getting people out of prison. And lastly, I would just say think big. Since Senator Kennedy died, I often miss that hearty laugh and that strong voice, he certainly would have been all over this COVID and making sure that we had health care, he would have been all over the need to revamp our refugee situation and the big challenges of climate change. And in the end, don’t be afraid to try and change that arc of history because we all are part of that. And those in power, need to also speak truth to those in power. And with that, let me turn it back to Alan and thanks again for being part of this discussion and look forward to the questions.
Dr Alan Mendoza 29:33
Hey, I can see we’re gonna have several hours of conversation after after the speaker segment here. Fascinating topics ever opening up. Thank you, Nancy, for bringing these four lessons from the ted kennedy portion. Richard, over to you.
Richard Aldous 29:47
Thank you very much, Alan, and plain key to you and the Henry Jackson Society for hosting this event. Congratulations as well, to Larry. I mean, the book really is absolutely terrific. I would certainly urge everyone to go out and buy it. And what a pleasure it is as well to be on this panel with Nancy. I lived in Dublin for 15 years. So I well know the contribution that she made to the Anglo-Irish, to the, to the peace, to the peace deal, and so on. So I think that one of the things that I find so interesting about this book is the way in which it prompts us to think about the Kennedys in the world, but also their worldview and the importance of character. And I think there are three obvious points of connection with President Biden, the first is really connected to temperament as commander in chief, and that is a question of resilience. President Biden was often described as the luckiest and on luckiest man alive that we know that he’s been through great personal tragedy himself through the death of his wife and child and the early death of another child. The the aneurism that he had in self near death came near death, but also politically, the the humiliations that he’s been through, but also the spectacular successes that he’s been through. And I think that proximity to death in particular, is clearly something that he shares with John F. Kennedy. JFK was ill all his life, almost died from scarlet fever as a baby, severe colitis as a child in and out of hospital, the diagnosis with Addison’s disease, the severe back pain, he had the he was given the last rites on four separate occasions, and this developed in him a kind of a resilience, which applies in his own life, but also in Policymaking, as well. Larry mentioned the, the PT 109 incident during the Pacific. Yeah, he is on that occasion, when his boat was sliced in half. He then swam three and a half miles, with a man strapped to his back now, no amount of entitlements, no amount of money, no amount of privilege, his father’s influence, was going to get him from that boat to that island with that man, on his back there were reserves of character that he was able to with to draw on. And as I say, I think that resilience in the face of failures of challenges, both physical, and then subsequently political, is something that he shares with President Biden. The second thing is more spiritual, and that clearly is Catholicism. That I often think that we actually underestimate the importance of Catholicism to President Kennedy, that because he had to spend so much time, proving that he wouldn’t somehow be beholden to the Vatican, and the famous speech that he made in Houston, during the 1960 presidential election campaign. But first of all, he was genuinely a regular, everyday conventional Catholic, he went to mass regularly on the day that he died, he had a rosary in his pocket, but it also underpinned his philosophy, as well, and the way in which he saw the world. And you see that in a lot of the speeches that he made earlier, in his career before he was running for president, for example, in 1955, in a commencement address at assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he based it around the Newman’s idea of the stern encounter, to come when real and living principles simple and entire and consistent. Newman says one in the church and the other out of it, length rush upon one another. And he used that to frame his own worldview, which he he actually describes as being one of good versus evil, right versus wrong. Larry touched on this earlier, and talks about the dangers of communism, which, when facing communism, that if you strip away faith in God, and only match it with what he describes its cynicism, indifference and secularism, then that is a battle that will be lost. So faith, Catholicism, a worldview that recognizes the spiritual and it has a kind of a moral framework to it. It’s something which is important to President Kennedy, which I’ll be interested to see how that is then reflected for President Biden. And then finally, of course, the other thing that President Biden and John F Kennedy shared was their their connection to Irelan. Kennedy’s. Catholicism was primarily intellectual. He was drawn to French writers to Cardinal Newman, but it was also cultural. Because like President Biden, Irishness was an essential part of his political identity. He often referred to his grandfather’s journey across the Atlantic, from New Ross in Ireland, and they’re kind of striving for liberty, which that involved but that Irishness, and again, I think this is something which is often forgotten, is very much rooted in a transatlantic context that his literary influences, for example, what primarily Anglo Irish that he cited as his favorite books, the Seven Pillars of wisdom by T.E. Lawrence Lawrence of Arabia, Lord David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne who had been Chief Secretary of Ireland, people like John Buchan from the other tradition, Ulster unionist. And of course, Churchill, who’d lived in Dublin as a child when his grandfather was Viceroy of Ireland. The experience of living in London back in the 1930s, had a profound effect. It actually influenced his own first book that when he sat in the House of Commons, and heard Chamberlain explain why Britain was going to war, that became the basis of his Kennedy’s Harvard PhD thesis, and his own first book, was fascinated with the British aristocracy, his sister Kit, married into the family of the Duke of Devon share, that also gave him a connection with Harold Macmillan, who was British Prime Minister when Kennedy was president, and became his closest political relationship and ally. And in case, we forget that these things did bring real connections that were personal, but they also were political that, for example, when Macmillan got Polaris, they Polaris nuclear weapon system for Britain at the National Conference, that was very much done, because of his personal connection that he had with Kennedy, when Richard Niestadt had to do a report on this, it was described as king to king, because the defense to the Department of Defense was so opposed to it. So President Biden doesn’t have that cultural connection with the UK in the way that John F. Kennedy did. But he is an inheritor. It seems to me of that Kennedy atlantic worldview. And of course, this is where the, the verites of the Anglo American relationship, that the nuclear relationship, the intelligence relationship, the naval relationship, begin to kick in the realities of power, Britain as the fifth or sixth, depending how you measure it, biggest economy in the world, the NATO commitment, and so on. So the fact in some ways that we haven’t moved on for a generation by President Biden taking up office, seems to me that there are genuine opportunities in the relationship for Britain, and for Europe more generally, in the same way that there were when President Kennedy took office. Thank you.
Dr Alan Mendoza 38:51
Thank you, Richard. And actually, it’s great that you brought brought in that UK connection at the end, because that was gonna be something after you’ve actually sold sold that already. So thank you for bringing those sort of personal connection issues into it. Right, we’re going to move some questions, I’m going to ask a couple just to get started. Anyone else who wants to ask them, please put it into the q&a, don’t do the raise hand thing production q&a, we’ll pick around in a moment. And I’ll get my colleague to reach out to the first three speakers. But what I want to ask to start with all of you is, obviously, all politicians are creatures of their time, essentially. So and the sense of course, Kennedy’s timing was curtailed at least the first two because of assassination. I wonder whether and again, looking at the Democratic Party of 2021, whether certainly, Bobby and Jack would have recognized the Democratic Party of 2021 in terms of its foreign policy views, which I think it’s fair to say, are a little different to say the Democratic Party of 1960 in particular, I say that we’re all conscious as we are the Henry Scoop Jackson society and that’s also you know, an interesting thing to look at in terms of the paradigm of the past and going forwards. So I’d like your thoughts on, you know how how the Democratic Party’s changed how that was reflected within the politics of the Kennedys and how that affects the freedom of maneuver that President Biden who let’s not forget is at a 50 year career in politics, also has to has to look at so I suppose that’s question number one. And question number two, I’m going to take actually a question from an anonymous attendee. He’s put one down here. And it’s actually a good one, actually, about nuclear proliferation. We know that JFK obviously had the issue of nuclear proliferation as president he had to deal with the Soviet nuclear threat. How do you think the Kennedys would have dealt with Iran’s acquisitions North Korea’s acquisitions? And what lessons are there for for President Biden from that? So I’ll throw that open? And I’ll start actually in maybe in reverse order, Richard Jefferson, Nancy and Larry, at the end, take which you don’t have to answer both. By the way, you can take bits and just we can move on.
Richard Aldous 40:55
Yeah, I think I’ll I think I’ll allow Nancy and Larry to talk about the Democratic Party. But the nuclear issue, you’re quite right is a is a very interesting one. Because, you know, when when Kennedy becomes president, it’s right after the the initial Berlin crisis that began in 1958, where Khrushchev was talking about kicking the West out of Berlin. That was he was very consciously raising the threat of whether nuclear weapons might be used. When Kennedy comes in the Paris summit in 1960. Under Eisenhower had collapsed in complete chaos. So these are very real issues that he’s dealing with. And yeah, they’re very much on his mind. This is another example actually, where he’s working with Howard Macmillan, and they’re trying to get the Test Ban Treaty in place during the during Kennedy’s administration, that having to deal with questions around not just whether something like the Cuban Missile Crisis would escalate into some kind of nuclear exchange. But how would they deal with the updating of the technology I, I talked to her just there about Polaris, I’ve the reason why they move to Polaris is because the sky ball missile system had effectively failed, and they’ve moved on to a submarine based nuclear deterrent. So would Britain be part of that? To what extent would the Soviet Union be able to kind of catch up in terms of nuclear technology at this stage? The fear is that the Soviets are actually ahead, Kennedy knew that that was not the case in 1960, when he was campaigning, but he was prepared to use it as an issue. So I think in that, in that kind of context, very much his argument by the time you get to the end of his administration, and that famous speech that he makes at American University, where he’s kind of saying that we all breathe the same air, it would certainly be to try and de escalate tensions, rather than to exacerbate them.
Nancy Soderbergh 43:25
I would actually say yes, all leaders are a product of their time, but the test of leaders is whether they can be ahead of their times and help shape the narrative and bend the arc of of that river, I think, less so Bobby, but certainly, Jack and and, and Ted Kennedy understood the threat of nuclear weapons, well ahead of their their time. And when President Kennedy was in office, he thought there would be 25 nuclear states instead of the nine that we have now. And immediately launched an effort to pass the Comprehensive Test Ban treating, got a partial one. And the nuclear non proliferation treaty to this day, keeps states out of the nuclear business and it’s under threat. But I think all of them would have been trying to backchannel the Iranians, the North Koreans are a little more difficult. But I think would try and change the debate of the way actually Henry Kissinger led this charge in 2007, in an article in the Wall Street Journal saying maybe we’re less safe with nuclear weapons than we would be if we just got rid of them. And so I think you’d have Senator Kennedy looking and for that. On whether or not the American the democratic foreign policy would be one that a President Kennedy or Rob Kennedy would admire, I would say, yes. We it should have changed. The world is not like it was in 1960, the Soviet era is gone, we have different challenges. But what has not changed is the need for American leadership. And what we need to do is move forward and try and get to the biggest challenges that we have, which is the threat of cyber, the threat of terrorism is still out there and saving the planet from eradication, and trying to lift up the bottom billion around the earth. And I think the Democratic Party is, you know, we like to fight among ourselves, certainly. But I think that all of the Kennedys understood that you have to address the threats of your time. So I think we’re any one of the three still alive would be probably further along in meeting those challenges than we are today just because of the power of their voice and history. But I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Lawrence Haas 46:02
Yeah. So I want to talk also about the this issue of the Democratic Party and foreign policy. And I agree, first of all, with everything that Richard said and answering the other question, and with Nancy, and what she said. You know, one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because I thought that actually, the Kennedys were a wonderful prism through which to really examine America’s role in the world, across the post World War period, they symbolized the evolution of what we see not just the Democratic Party thinking, but really of America’s, you know, evolving views of what it should do around the world. And I mean it in the following sense, from. Well, from the aftermath of World War Two, so late 1940s, up through really Jack’s death, and maybe into 64-65, the United States benefited from what was known as the Cold War consensus, and jack was really the quintessential cold warrior. But Bobby and Ted were also pretty hardcore, cold warriors, up through Jack’s death in 63, as well, and the Cold War consensus was that the United States its leaders and its people basically agreed that the biggest foreign policy challenge for America was containing Soviet led communism, and Soviet expansionism around the world. Vietnam, in essence, breaks apart the Cold War consensus, because it had started as a Cold War adventure. military advisors as opposed to troops, but still a Cold War venture for jack who said, we need to take a stand against communism and Vietnam is where I’m going to do it. And he says it in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, where he fears that Khrushchev thinks that he’s not only weak, but actually stupid. And he tells his advisors, I’ve need to, I need to reassert myself, it’s not going to be Laos, Vietnam is going to be the place we do it. But as Vietnam, as LBJ, militarises, the effort sends in half a million troops, changes the whole nature of it. And Vietnam descends into horror. Bobby, who has emerged as very much a new man in the aftermath of Jack’s death, and many months of trauma eventually leads the effort, the opposition to Vietnam within the Democratic Party, he’s not first, but he is overwhelmingly the most influential by sheer virtue of the fact that he’s Kennedy. And he is eventually aided on this more and more by Ted Kennedy, who is opposition grows more slowly than bodies, but grows through the mid 1960s. And I say in the book that Bobby had more to do with the breakdown of the Cold War consensus in America than anybody else. And then what do we have with Ted in the aftermath of Bobby’s death? We have through Ted and through the larger American activity around the world, a search for a consistent, effective US role in the world. A search that it seems to me continues to this day, and we’ve had presidents who have sort of fluctuated greatly, you know, from left to right, from engagement to retreat, to leadership to you know, taking more of a backseat. We have seen Ronald Reagan tried to resurrect the Cold War consensus something that Ted Kennedy thought was a particularly bad idea. And he led the opposition in Kennedy’s time. And one of the sort of the untold story within the untold story. Ted Kennedy, probably over the course of his more than 40 years in the Senate, had a longer had a greater long term impact on America’s role in the world than either Jack who served as president and Bobby who served as his closest advisor in the White House and also in the Senate. Now, of course, their lives were cut short. But it still does say something about Ted Kennedy’s influence, that he had this enormous impact and never made it to the White House. He did it all from the Senate. And that included, you know, leading the opposition to Reagan’s proxy wars in Latin America with the Soviets, to spearheading sanctions against against South Africa, overriding Reagan’s veto the first override of a president on foreign policy and 11 years, to setting the stage for the opening to China through his speeches and his writings. The opening that Nixon and Carter later pursued to something that I think came up, Nancy mentioned, a great untold story of his work in freeing political prisoners and dissonance and refuseniks from both the Soviet Union and China, the question of sort of where are we now? And would the Kennedys recognize this foreign policy that the Democrats have now? This is something that comes up often not in the context of Ted Kennedy, but always in the context of Jack Kennedy. You know, the hardcore cold warriors sort of ran to the right of Nixon when he ran for president or the rest, Democratic Party? Is it really soft? Is it, you know, something that, you know, Jack couldn’t, get elected? And? Well, it’s tough question. But I think I come out where Nancy does, the Democratic Party changed, but appropriately, because the world changed. We no longer have the Cold War. On the other hand, there are elements of Kennedy ism, that I think are appropriate. And it’s part of what I tried to say at the front in my opening remarks. I mean, we do need to make the case, Joe Biden, I think is the right person to do as as a centrist. But we do need to make the case, just as we did with the Soviet Union, what is at stake with a rising China, with a resurgent Russia with an aggressive Iran when it comes to freedom and democracy and American influence? And what is America going to be and what’s the world going to be? So elements of Kennedy ism still are quite relevant. But I’m with Nancy, in terms of, it shouldn’t just be Kennedy isn’t because we don’t live in the 1940s 50s 60s or 70s anymore.
Dr Alan Mendoza 53:11
Now we’ve got five minutes left. I’m going to normally we bring people in to ask questions. But actually, as we’ve got, we’ve got good questions. And not enough time. I’m going to ask the questions, but I’ll tell you who asked them so I’ve got a question, is that the same emotional link with Africa and development in Africa, in particular, as when I was a believer and had Peace Corps teachers, and what can we expect from a Biden administration today? So that is a question I think maybe for Larry or Richard, I’m going to the next one. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, when Kennedy met Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961, did he give an impression of weakness, which encouraged Khrushchev to install missiles in Cuba? And He then asks, Is this not always a problem for president, the moderates? How can Biden avoid giving an impression of weakness? Richard, I’m going to give that one to you. Then we’re going to give one to Nancy, which is we’re often told that Jack Kennedy learned key lessons from Barbara Tuchman’s “August 1914,” which helped him during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Can the panelists give any examples of books that help the Kennedys change history? So Nancy, interesting, given you a association with Ted Kennedy, what what books he read basically, that maybe changed history in that case? And what might influence President Biden in that regard? And lastly, really a question for anyone who wants to answer it from Margaret Harity. How have you seen US-China relations evolve basically, over the periods in office, from the Kennedys to to Biden, where might we go? There was a big question. But let’s I’m going to throw in I’m going to start Nancy with you. I mean, you can take and the others, but I’m going to start with with the history book question if you’ve got an answer to that, and by all means, throw something in on China.
Nancy Soderbergh 54:54
Sure, I mean, I the whole family of Kennedy’s as a voracious reader and would devour any biography reading they could find any history book then Senator Kennedy loved Seamus Heaney’s poems as well, just Pablo Neruda, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, I mean, just a voracious reader. And I think it also enabled all of them to understand the human impact of decisions that they’re, they have huge impacts on people’s lives. I’ll just briefly touch on Africa as well, I think that we’re we are I wouldn’t call it emotionally tied to Africa so much as it’s clearly in our interest to address the challenges of Africa. And I’ll have to say, I understand we cut right at noon, whether we like it or not, Eastern time. But thank you for all for for having us. And, Larry, thank you for writing this book. And thanks to all those who joined us today for this wonderful discussion. Thanks so much
Dr Alan Mendoza 55:50
Thank you for being brief in your comments, but still insightful. Richard, what about the Khrushchev question?
Richard Aldous 56:00
Wonderful that is asked by Vernon Bogdanor, one of the great constitutional experts and historians. Yeah. And of course, he’s absolutely right, that partly, that’s physical as well that Kennedy really does in his back digging at planting a tree, ceremonial tree before he meets Kennedy, before he meets Khrushchev in Vienna. So he’s in physical agony. He performs very badly, he himself says that he got completely pulverized by Khrushchev. And you have to remember that Khruschev had been used to dealing with Eisenhower this figure who had been Supreme Allied Commander during during the Second World War, and had a kind of a real kind of grizzled or authority about him. And effectively, he thought that JFK was just a boy doing a man’s job. So yes, it did fundamentally, help convince him that Kennedy was someone who was weak, who would buckle under the strain. And he decided that he would do precisely that first in Berlin, of course, and then subsequently in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Dr Alan Mendoza 57:09
Thank you. And lastly, Larry, don’t take the China question quickly. And Nancy. Anyone else? Please do? Yeah.
Lawrence Haas 57:15
Yes. So all three of the brothers were sort of, you know, very hardcore, anti Communist China, through the 40s 50s. And in fact, Jack, you know, was part of the Who Lost China crowd after Mao took over in 49. But they all evolve to their great credit, and Jack was rethinking his hardcore policies in the months before his death. And as I mentioned before, Bobby and Ted, sort of , uh, laid the groundwork in their speeches and writings for the opening to China that came under Nixon and Carter. But I will say this, I think the United States, frankly, in recent decades, has been a little bit too hopeful, because we assumed that there was a Washington Consensus on this, we assumed that with economic progress, there would be political liberalisation in Beijing, and the Chinese Communist Party led by Xi have, are in essence promoting a kind of political authoritarianism, mixed with economic progress. And we are coming to grips with the fact that this is not going to be an evolving and evolving Western nation. This is a resurgent authoritarian country. And we we now have a consensus in Washington that we need to be more united and aggressive in challenging the Chinese. But I do not believe we have a consensus on precisely what we should be doing.
Dr Alan Mendoza 58:49
I’m going to stop there, because time is up. Thank you to our panellists, really, Larry, Nancy, Richard, you’ve given us an enjoyable trip down, you know, history and memory lane, but also, crucially, taking some key lessons, I think that will be in the forefront of the minds of policymakers, and hopefully the Biden administration going forward. So thank you for that. Thank you for joining us at home. Sorry, we couldn’t get to all the questions about a topic like this will always lend to many in that way, particularly with these speakers. So thank you for the speakers once more, and we will see you all again soon for another HGS virtual event.