Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World. By Robert B. Rakove. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 291 pp.
Fifty-some years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy remains an enigma. Was he the brash and impulsive president who brought the world to the brink of World War III with the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or was he the brave challenger of the American military-industrial complex who would have prevented the Vietnam War? Various studies portray him as a Cold War liberal, or a liberal Cold Warrior, or come up with pithy phrases to summarize the man and his foreign policy.
Robert B. Rakove's book jumps into the murky waters of this passionate historiography. Instead of focusing on crises such as the Bay of Pigs, he examines lesser-known aspects of Kennedy's diplomacy (the Indian seizure of Goa, settlement of the Western New Guinea impasse) to illustrate what he refers to as "a foreign policy without an official name that, even so, profoundly shaped the modern history of United States foreign relations" (xxi). Rakove christens this important policy "engagement" and argues that Kennedy himself was its primary intellectual force. Backing away from the John Foster Dulles view of "neutralism" as something that was dangerous and "immoral," Kennedy sought to engage with the leaders of the nonaligned world. Utilizing the famed "Kennedy charm," he often met one on one with important leaders from Asia and Africa and demonstrated an understanding of their reluctance to choose sides in the Cold War. Kennedy also used foreign aid as a crucial tool, not necessarily to pull the nonaligned nations into the American sphere of influence but to ensure that "simply by remaining independent of the communist bloc," such nations would eventually understand the "intrinsic advantage" of closer relations with the West (xxi). With Kennedy's death in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, abandoned engagement, instead pursuing "an inexorable collision course with the nations and governments his predecessor had done so much to court" (55). Unlike Kennedy, Johnson felt that mollifying strong American allies--who, not coincidentally, were also the strongest colonial powers--was more important than trying to pacify nonaligned leaders whose commitment to the United States seemed tenuous.
While Rakove is to be congratulated for producing a tight and readable summary of U.S. policy toward nonaligned nations during the Kennedy--Johnson years, the argument that...