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David Talbot : JFK and Foreign Policy

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Here is this Sunday's NYT book review of David Talbot's Brothers. Coming from NYT its about as good as one might expect. Alan Brinkley is a pretty good historian. I think he mischaracterizes Talbot's argument as one sided. Talbot makes it pretty clear that he is trying to correct a one sided labeling of JFK as

"just another Cold Warrior" ; he is trying to balance a view that has already been distorted by Hersh et. al. Hopefully we can post more positive reviews aound the net. I noticed it was rated 122 on Amazon, but Sunday's NYT has it 17th in Nonfiction.

In my view the book's strongest selling point is its analysis of the motive for the assassination. It is not overly reductive, but seems to grow from many different conflicts that JFK had with the National Security State. The National Security State comes off as an overnourished child who had gotten its way with

the only parent it had ever known: the eight years it grew up with very free reign under Eisenhower. This was more than half of its 13 years. Kennedy, must have seemed like an interloper when he took the CIA's charter-- the part about it existing under the control of the President, and that it could not get involved in domestic politics.

Talbot's analysis of motive is refreshingly "big picture". It insists that the assassination is connected to the rest of our history, not a sideshow to be labeled and sent to the Siberia of the small presses.

Note especially Brinkley's remarks about the Warren Commission.


I also think that Brinkley oversimplifies Talbot's argument, when he says that most historians do not see in Kennedy a major radical break with previous foreign policy. That might be so, but Talbot's main accomplishment is to highlight just how strong the hard right was alligned against Kennedy, and in how Kennedy consistently rejected THEIR efforts for a radical break-- a rightward break of the" roleback" ilk.

Talbot makes Seven Days In May seem like a non-fiction bureacratic reality that Kennedy dealt with by using a consistent two-track policy designed to keep the bellicose National Security State off guard, while occasionally tossing them a bone.

By not discussing this very real right wing threat in his book review, Brinkley unfairly diminishes the creativity of JFK's foreign policy.

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Thanks for your comments, Nathaniel, and for kicking off the discussion on my book. Re: the NY Times review. I agree that Alan Brinkley simplified my argument about JFK as a Cold War dove. Kennedy was obviously a man of his times, and he felt compelled to take aggressive action and to use Cold War rhetoric at times, if only to survive politically. But he was clearly, in fits and starts, leading the country in a new, more peaceful direction. And, yes, this did provoke an intense reaction from his national security bureaucracy, many of whom regarded him as an "interloper" (good word, Nathaniel). This dark, explosive tension within the admnistration simply has not been fully acknowledged or analyzed by the history establishment. And though the initial reaction to my historical revisionism about Kennedy from these academic quarters has been critical, I'm at least gratified that the debate about JFK's legacy has been reopened. All in all, I'm pleasantly surprised by the respectful tone of the Times review -- the book could have been handled much more roughly, considering the controversial nature of my book. Brinkley seems to assume we don't know the full story about Dallas yet -- another step forward for mainstream historians.

The companion review of Bugliosi's book, on the other hand, is a puzzler. The Times assigned the review to a Vanity Fair writer who obviously has no expertise in the area, and his review is full of ignorant acclaim for the book and predictable sideswipes at conspiracy theorists. BUT, and it's big BUT in my opinion, the review is such a light-weight treatment of Bugliosi's book -- devoting much of its space to snide gags about the book's impossible length -- that it actually has the effect of diminishing the book's stature. There is no serious consideration of Bugliosi's arguments. In fact, there is nothing in the review to suggest that the critic actually read the book -- at least in its entirety (who can blame him?). I've heard that Bugliosi was irritated by the choice of such a flimsy writer to review his book. After reading the review, I can understand why.

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