42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Even though Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House is billed as a look inside the Kennedy White House, the majority of the book is taken up by the two principle international affairs matters that occupied Kennedy during his brief presidency: Cuba and Vietnam. If one is looking for a discussion of Kennedy's domestic political debates then you'd be better served to look elsewhere as civil rights is often placed firmly in the background of Kennedy's international relations.
On the bright side, I thought that Robert Dallek did a really good job of reconstructing the problem of Cuban relations from the lead up to the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis to the perhaps less publicized aftermath. With every page, the reader can almost feel the tension between Kennedy's civilian advisors and the military men. Adding a wrinkle to the conflict was the diversity of opinions that existed between the civilian advisors and military men themselves. I really appreciated the depth of the Cuba portion.
The Vietnam section just didn't have the same bite for me. Perhaps it was because it was intertwined with the Cuba conflict in sections or if it just devolved into a mass of conflicting opinions so much that it was hard to keep up with who thought what about action x in Vietnam. At the end of the day, I'm not sure that its' breaking news that presidential administrations are rife with personal feuds. Those types of things have been going on since this country was founded.
The bottom line is that Camelot's Court is a worthy addition to a library on US Presidents with a good Cuba portion, but it makes it sound like domestic issues meant nothing to Kennedy and the Vietnam section may be difficult for readers to follow.
34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
This is Dallek's thirteenth book and the second to deal specifically with the Kennedy presidency. The dust jacket describes it as "an insider's look at [JFK's] brain trust," what Ted Sorenson labeled the "ministry of talent," The book is a detailed analysis of the policy discussions that took place between president and advisors over the course of Kennedy's Thousand Days. This focus allows Dallek to zero in on the complicated, frustrating process of decision-making in a time when no one answer was clear and unequivocal and the consequences of a wrong decision frequently seemed dire.
Dallek judges Kennedy "an astute judge of character and reasoned policy . . . .a quick learner," echoing political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's observation after meeting Kennedy that the president was the best listener he had met in many meetings with world leaders. The president, Dallek makes clear, spent as much and frequently more effort in selecting the men who would advise him as he did in his Cabinet selections. (As important a selection as Robert McNamara for the post of Secretary of Defense was made with little prior knowledge of, or communication with, McNamara, because Kennedy intended to be his own determiner of military policy.)
From the start, the president encouraged discussion among his advisors. "The last thing I want around here is a mutual admiration society," he told press secretary Pierre Salinger early in his presidency. "When you people stop arguing, I'll start worrying." But it wasn't just expert advice he sought. He had read and absorbed Richard Neustadt's book on presidential power and taken to heart his analysis of how FDR kept power: FDR had sought advice from multiple sources, never letting one proposed solution dominate. As a result, only he decided the issues, instead of having to play catch up behind the runaway actions of his subordinates.
Foreign policy dominated discussion in the Kennedy presidency. (Kennedy famously said, "Domestic politics can unseat you, but foreign dangers can kill you.") The Cold War was going through a particularly dangerous phase with Castro newly seated in Cuba and Khruschev again making noises about sealing off access to Berlin. Nor, given the narrowness of his victory in the presidential race, could Kennedy ignore the hawks in Congress and the military. (Air Force general Curtis LeMay was the model for the character of Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 farce, Dr. Strangelove: How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) He could not let his administration appear "soft" on communism.
The result was the poorly conceived and executed Bay of Pigs landing. Kennedy had followed the urgings of his more hawkish advisors and gone ahead with it against his own misgivings. Its failure made him question the value of "expert" advice, especially from the military. (He once commented, "The first thing I'm going to tell my successor is to watch the generals.") The Bay of Pigs fiasco put the president in an awkward position. It encouraged Khruschev to see him as weak and inexperienced and it lost him maneuvering room with his critics at home.
The Cuban missile crisis, and concomitant with it, the U.S. military's escalating involvement in Vietnam, indicated the limitations of even so well thought out a system of advising as Kennedy's, because in truth, most of his advisors didn't have a clue what to do or how to do it, and most, at one point or another, indulged in "auto-intoxication," their expert advising becoming little more than an exercise in guessing. Kennedy disdained Dean Rusk's State Department: "they never have any ideas over there, never come up with something new." As to the military and the CIA, his assessment of them at the time of the Cuban missile crisis was crushing: "If we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."
I'm not sure there's much new in this narrative but it makes you admire Kennedy for not being pushed further than his innate caution allowed him to go. We could have done a lot worse than JFK in such an uncertain time.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
"Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." That's a famous quote of JFK's and Mr. Dallek invokes it early on in this book to set the table for the emphasis on foreign policy herein. All the smart, spirited and patriotic men who advised the President on Vietnam, Cuba, Krushchev and DeGaulle are here. What comes out is that the decisions the President made were ultimately his, and he owned them. There's not only much to learn about the early 1960s and the Cold War and Vietnam, there's also a lot about leadership. It's an interesting and relevant book today as we look back on recent Presidential decisions on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq, as well as ahead to Syria.
Dallek knows his subject cold -- not surprising when you realize he's also done well-respected books about other major players in Vietnam saga (Kissinger and LBJ and Nixon).
It's nice to read a serious, balanced book about JFK that focuses on what he did as President, not on the gossip about his personal life, and not about the grisly details of 11/22/63. However, I subtracted two stars because at times it was quite a slog. I felt that the author's earlier book on Kennedy, An Unfinished Life : John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 was more readable. If you're more interested in Kennedy than you are in the Cold War, you might enjoy the earlier book more.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
After winning the extremely close election of 1960, JFK was faced with the challenge of all new presidents - transitioning from campaigning to governing - the first task, naming a cabinet and forming a team of advisors. Camelot's Court premise/goal is to provide the reader a detailed view into the workings of the Kennedy White House - the personalities, discussions, differences of opinions and ultimately the decisions made, (or not made), and thus policy. If there was any doubt in your mind, this book will confirm how difficult it is being President - even with a bunch of smart and intelligent people around to help.
The good news is that what is covered here - JFK's foreign policy - is done fairly well. And foreign policy in the early 1960's meant the Cold War - the USSR and Khrushchev, Cuba and Castro, Berlin and of course, Vietnam. On the flip-side the narrative concerning US domestic policy during JFK's 1000 days is at best cursory; topics such as Civil Rights or the US economy minimally covered. (And because of this it's unclear to this reader as to why this book simply wasn't "positioned" as a JFK foreign policy/Cold War book.)
Back on the plus side of the ledger, Dallek, as usual, does a very good job of bringing these historical figures/players to life by utilizing a combination of biographical info, quotes, analysis and context; all without impeding the narrative. (As an aside, McGeorge Bundy does not fare well here.) If you are familiar with this period of history Camelot's Court is a nice "refresher", i.e. nothing really new here. Conversely if you are new to the subject matter, this is a great place to start.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Until this book, I didn't know that much about "Camelot's Court." Better known stories include how Kennedy got to the White House and the fact that it ended in tragedy. This book shows how Kennedy learned the lesson to not trust experts too much and how we know he truly "got it."
This is an instructive book about the value of policy experts. Kennedy selected some of the wisest men in the "kingdom" to advise him. That seemed auspicious. They led Kennedy through errors and stumbles, the most significant being the Bay of Pigs.
We know Kennedy had learned the powerful lesson to not trust experts too much because of the way he handled the Joint Chiefs of Staff after that. He didn't get steamrolled often anymore.
Another story is about the great trust J.F. Kennedy had in his brother Bobby. Bobby proved to be trustworthy and tough.
It's difficult now to imagine such a president. Kennedy had an 85% approval rating and was not considered a disappointment. The author shows that Kennedy was highly unlikely to get entrenched in Vietnam as did Johnson.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
We seem to have this utter fascination with the presidency of John Kennedy...so much so that here we are again detailing events that we never seem to stop talking about.
Robert Dallek's presentation on the inter-workings of the 35th President doesn't seem to bring anything new to the table. Instead, he seems to take the best of the known (and suggested) facts of JFK and re-introduce them to a new generation. Dallek's summation of the principle's of Kennedy's cabinet,for example (Robert Kennedy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamera, Ted Sorenson, et al), doesn't really tell us anything new that David Halberstam's outstanding book, the Best and the Brightest and published in 1973, hasn't already told us. Details regarding Kennedy's reluctance to invade Cuba and his concerns regarding Vietnam have all been previously documented in multiple books, some by Dallek himself in his previous book on JFK.
On the other hand, Dallek is an expert on a man many consider (rightly or wrongly) as one of our greatest presidents, and it is interesting to get an updated perspective on how Kennedy and his entourage shifted America's focus from a country leaving two massive wars and the leadership of an older generation reflected by Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower.
Perhaps Dallek's major accomplishment in the book is showing how Kennedy approached a new model of management to the presidency by pitting both liberal and conservative viewpoints against one another to provide him with multiple options. By selecting younger, highly educated, professionally successful men (there were no women in his cabinet) as his advisers, we sense from Dallek that Kennedy truly reflected a new generation of thought and process in his White House. This approach actually reflected the future corporation business model and is likely due to his large collection of Ivy League (particularly Harvard) graduates to his inner circle.
Dallek also focuses on Kennedy's early insistence that national issues supercede domestic ones. Although recognizing that integration, poverty , employment and medical care for all were important policy issues, Dallek contends that the president ultimately expected to have to deal with possible nuclear war that would eradicate mankind, an issue he felt necessary to deal with while leaving local concerns to a second term. To Kennedy, Communism dared to capture the world and spreading the American ideal was paramount to him. This is certain reflective in his instance on developing the Peace Corps and other programs abroad. Just as his Catholic faith spread the gospel by infiltrating communities, Kennedy foresaw a similar presentation of American doctrine by young students abroad.
Kennedy enthusiasts are not likely to discover shocking revelations that haven't been reported before; but for a new generation or for those wanting a refresher on John Kennedy's White House years, this book is worth reading.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2013
If you lived through the Cuban Missle Crisis/Vietnam era, and are interested in learning more about what went on in the White House regarding those issues, this book is for you. This book gave me fantastic information and understanding of the two events I lived through as a child. It is told in depth and is just excellent. Highly recommended.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Mr Dallek is a fantastic writer and presidential historian. I've read several of his books and enjoyed them all. His approach is logical and non biased. he presents his subjects warts and all. I have read a lot about the Kennedys from all angles and if you know nothing about the history of the adminstration, his 3 years in office, this is a really good place to start. While there is nothing new, the material is very fresh and enjoyable. The book arrived 3 days ago and I could not put it down. Excellent. This is the way to learn history!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A better subtitle for this book might be "Inside the Kennedy White House's Anti-Communist Policies," because the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Vietnam are the only real subjects of this solid but sometimes repetitive account. Dallek writes at least partly in response to Kennedy's substantial present-day reputation, which he considers out of proportion to the administration's achievements, perhaps because to the Camelot mystique. And yet Dallek is somewhat susceptible to that mystique himself, as he works hard to blame the manifest failings of the administration on bad advisers, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders. It's generally true that the military's counsel seems overly hawkish in retrospect (though in the buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis they were right and the politicians were wrong), but Dallek seizes on every ambiguity or hesitation in Kennedy's recorded statements as evidence of superior judgment, even though his policies consistently gave ground to hawks. It's not a matter of whitewashing-- Dallek is critical of Kennedy for those flawed policies, and acknowledges that concern with his domestic political image often drove foreign policy decisions-- but there is a disconnect between the man Dallek evidently admires and the president who actually governed. That aside, the book is generally readable, though the first hundred pages are hampered by an excess of potted biographies (JFK, RFK, then the advisers), and the decision to ignore domestic policy to the greatest extent possible creates an air of sameness: pages and pages on meetings and cables and arguments that come down to "No one knew what to do about Cuba" and "No one knew what to do about Vietnam." Occasional anecdotes about Kennedy's combative nature and sense of humor liven things up a bit, but the advisers remain names and biographies rather than people. Readers unfamiliar with the period and the players will probably get the most out of this general history of a short, often-mythologized administration.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The subtitle to this should be "The Nine Appendices Robert Dallek Wished He Had Written For His JFK Biography," because just about everything in this book is subject matter any Dallek reader has visited before, albeit presented here with somewhat more detail. Maybe Dallek planned to write a scholarly monograph, but all of the details concerning the JFK Brain Trust cause the article to swell to an unmanageable size. Who knows, but in any case, this feels more like a supplement to the JFK biography than a book which can stand by itself based on its contribution to the JFK historical canon.
That having all been said --- I love Dallek's writing, and this book was still enjoyable and easy to read. Someone approaching the subject of JFK's foreign policy for the first time could do worse than to read this book. But for anyone else, this is just old wine in new bottles.