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The Letters of John F. Kennedy


A man of letters and much more
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, February 28, 2014 18:08
Tags : The Letters of John F. Kennedy | Martin W. Sandler |

There is scarcely a world leader whose life and times have been under such a global scanner than the assassinated US President, John F Kennedy. With the exception of, most probably, Adolf Hitler. A colourful man in every sense, JFK has evoked extreme feelings among the Americans. However, he was probably the only one among his peers who commanded some sort of respect in the opposition base as well. And that speaks a lot.

Nevertheless, it is also true that his and his family’s, continuous presence in the spotlight was also more to do with their antics outside of the political sphere. His bedroom remained the talk of the world till his very tragic death. Naturally, such person spawns many books on himself. And when it comes to book and films, JFK outdid everybody else. Volumes of biographies, case reports, investigations and pure conspiracy theories have adorned libraries across the world (One study says, over 40,000 books have been written by now). When, after may be a year or two of lull, one starts to think that it is all over for good; bang comes a book to put it back to square one.

Under the circumstances, The Letters of John F. Kennedy edited by Martin W. Sandler did disturb me at first. However, since there have not been many international volumes dedicated to his letters (quite surprisingly), it was not pure agony. What was inside the book is a completely different matter.

The letters are arranged mostly in chronological order with those starting from his childhood at the beginning and those written at the days around his death at the end. The letters have been divided in five chapters where every chapter has sort of introduction or short biography in the beginning followed by the letters. And what makes it more readable is that it also has letters addressed to JFK and not merely by him.

Make no mistake, this volume is meant to project sympathetic picture of the president and so scandalous letters dealing with his affairs have been ignored. However that is not to suggest that the volume contains only mundane sounding political letters. Far from that. JFK was one of the most literate presidents in the history of United States, and I am using “one of the most” just because as a journalist I am supposed to avoid complete superlatives. His command on the language, wit, eloquence and way with words were more British in nature than American and he put them to good use. Naturally, you will find volume of letters addressed to political opponents, supporters, common folks and children. Some of his letters to children about Santa Clause are just plain brilliant.

So much water has passed under the proverbial bridge that only few remember that he won Pulitzer for his book Profiles in Courage. And the critics and supporters alike maintain that it was not rigged. And it should not come as a surprise to anyone because JFK remains one of the very few world leaders who made the national cut through a book; in this case Why England Slept.

Naturally then, the letters that bring his personality out are the ones addressed to civil right leaders including Roy Wilkins, James Farmer and of course Martin Luther King Jr. The exchange of letters with Dr King is a live example of patience, political acumen, measured tone and his own solid conscience.

However, nothing comes even close to his exchange with Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. JFK was considered as a novice and a light weight by Khrushchev and Cuban Missile Crisis gave the opportunity to JFK to show him otherwise. The terse language of that exchange, barely hidden by the diplomatic niceties, is a delight to read. Take for example this retort by Khrushchev when Kennedy gives him a poorly veiled threat. “ presenting us with these conditions, you, Mr. President, have flung a challenge at us. Who asked you to do this? By what right did you do this? Our ties with the Republic of Cuba, like our relations with other states, regardless of what kind of states they may be, concern only the two countries between which these relations exist. And if we now speak of the quarantine to which your letter refers, a quarantine may be established, according to accepted international practice, only by agreement of states between themselves, and not by, some third party. Quarantines exist, for example, on agricultural goods and products. But in this case the question in no way one of quarantine, but rather of far more serious things, and you yourself understand this.” That is what I call, scorch earth.       

There is almost nothing wrong with this volume. It is just that one wanted to read more of his scandalous letters. It was said that his language was colourful, his tone salacious. But anyways, buy this book. As much for yourself as for the library.

Author: Martin W. Sandler

Edition: Hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-4088-3045-1

Pages: 386

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher: Bloomsbury

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017