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Book cover of Letters to Kennedy

Letters to Kennedy

by John Kenneth Galbraith, James Goodman

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Pages: 168
Hardcover
ISBN: 9780674528376






Available to Buy

Overview of Letters to Kennedy

A unique document in the history of the Kennedy years, these letters give us a firsthand look at the working relationship between a president and one of his close advisers, John Kenneth Galbraith. In an early letter, Galbraith mentions his "ambition to be the most reticent adviser in modern political history." But as a respected intellectual and author of the celebrated The Affluent Society, he was not to be positioned so lightly, and his letters are replete with valuable advice about economics, public policy, and the federal bureaucracy. As the United States' ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963, Galbraith made use of his position to counsel the President on foreign policy, especially as it bore on the Asian subcontinent and, ultimately, Vietnam.

Written with verve and wit, his letters were relished by a president who had little patience for foolish ideas or bad prose. They stand out today as a vibrant chronicle of some of the most subtle and critical moments in the days of the Kennedy administration—and a fascinating record of the counsel that Galbraith offered President Kennedy. Ranging from a pithy commentary on Kennedy's speech accepting the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination (and inaugurating the "New Frontier") to reflections on critical matters of state such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of Communism in Indochina, Letters to Kennedypresents a rare, intimate picture of the lives and minds of a political intellectual and an intellectual politician during a particularly bright moment in American history.

Synopsis of Letters to Kennedy

A unique document in the history of the Kennedy years, these letters give us a firsthand look at the working relationship between a president and one of his close advisers, John Kenneth Galbraith. In an early letter, Galbraith mentions his "ambition to be the most reticent adviser in modern political history." But as a respected intellectual and author of the celebrated The Affluent Society, he was not to be positioned so lightly, and his letters are replete with valuable advice about economics, public policy, and the federal bureaucracy. As the United States' ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963, Galbraith made use of his position to counsel the President on foreign policy, especially as it bore on the Asian subcontinent and, ultimately, Vietnam.

Written with verve and wit, his letters were relished by a president who had little patience for foolish ideas or bad prose. They stand out today as a vibrant chronicle of some of the most subtle and critical moments in the days of the Kennedy administration—and a fascinating record of the counsel that Galbraith offered President Kennedy. Ranging from a pithy commentary on Kennedy's speech accepting the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination (and inaugurating the "New Frontier") to reflections on critical matters of state such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of Communism in Indochina, Letters to Kennedypresents a rare, intimate picture of the lives and minds of a political intellectual and an intellectual politician during a particularly bright moment in American history.

Publishers Weekly

This title is quite honest: although there are a half dozen or so letters from JFK, everything else is from Harvard economist Galbraith, JFK's friend, adviser and his ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. The book is broken into three sections: Politics, Economics and Foreign Affairs. Much of the Politics section is given over to such mundane things as civil defense and a Department of Defense pamphlet on home bomb shelters, which Galbraith describes as designed "for saving Republicans and sacrificing Democrats." There is also pedestrian economic advice to candidate Kennedy and comments on Nixon's book, Six Crises, describing ways "one could shove him over" the edge. The section on Economics is eye-glazing at best, with policy chats about gold prices, tax cuts and unemployment that have been forgotten for nearly 40 years. Things pick up, however, in Foreign Affairs. Here, Galbraith offers candid evaluations of the dangers of Vietnam ("drop Diem" and do not import troops); of old New Dealers such as Dean Acheson ("he will be a source of trouble for he wants the policy that serves his ego not your needs"); and of the women in various countries"the more under-developed the country the more over-developed the women" he says of India, while reporting that Saigon's women are "tall with long legs, high breasts." They are, he reports, "very compelling," but "an Ambassadorship is the greatest inducement to celibacy since the chastity belt." Ultimately this is a slim, dated volume that may be of most interest to scholars of the New Frontier. (May)

About the Author, John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith was Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Harvard University. James Goodman is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University.

Reviews of Letters to Kennedy

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Editorials

Boston Globe

[This] book is a goldmine for political sophisticates...In one letter to Kennedy in 1961...Galbraith warned Kennedy that the situation in 'South Vietnam is exceedingly bad...Unless I am mistaken, Diem has alienated his people to a far greater extent than we allow ourselves to know. This is our old mistake. We take the ruler's word and that of our own people who have become committed to him...But I fear that we have one more government which, on present form, no one will support.' It would be 14 years, and 55,000 American soldiers dead, and a million Vietnamese lives wasted in war, before that letter's gloomy forecast was apparent to Washington. Then, as now, Galbraith's was a voice worth heeding.
— David Nyhan

Globe and Mail [Toronto]

Venerable Canadian-born economist Galbraith was one of John F. Kennedy's closest advisers, and U.S. ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. These letters—polished, witty, thoughtful—offer advice on matters from speeches (Galbraith contributed the memorable 'Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.') to economics and public policy.

Sunday Times [UK]

This book consists of the letters that, for just over two years, the most irreverent member of JFK's personal entourage regularly sent back to Washington...James Goodman, the new book's editor, has performed a useful service in presenting the letters in sequence—while at the same time offering valuable and exhaustive explanatory notes.
— Anthony Howard

The Times [UK]

John Kenneth Galbraith was a friend of, adviser to and an Ambassador to India for John F. Kennedy. He also was—and is—a fine writer and thinker...The letters he wrote to Kennedy between 1959 and 1963...are intrinsically interesting and often extremely amusing...[and] document exchanges about important themes...His warning memorandum in April 1962 about the dangers of deeper involvement in Vietnam holds up remarkably well...There is a sage counsel about the American economy, a wise caution against foreign policy 'adventurism', in the immediate run-up to the Bay of Pigs, and a dissenting view that, in building up the European Common Market against the Soviet Union, the United States was actually building up an economic bloc against itself. This makes interesting reading today, as the euro prepares to challenge the dollar. Most intriguing however, is the picture the letters give of the relationship between older adviser and young President...Clinton could certainly do with such wise and witty advice.
— Timothy Garton Ash

Times Higher Education Supplement

Letters to Kennedy is about as far removed from the familiar tell-all biographies or nutty assassination conspiracies as it is possible to go...The letters confirm Galbraith's skill as a writer, his abiding contempt for the State Department as an institution and Richard Nixon as a politician, and in particular, his prescient opposition to American military involvement in Vietnam, even before it had begun.
— Tim Cornwell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly

This title is quite honest: although there are a half dozen or so letters from JFK, everything else is from Harvard economist Galbraith, JFK's friend, adviser and his ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. The book is broken into three sections: Politics, Economics and Foreign Affairs. Much of the Politics section is given over to such mundane things as civil defense and a Department of Defense pamphlet on home bomb shelters, which Galbraith describes as designed "for saving Republicans and sacrificing Democrats." There is also pedestrian economic advice to candidate Kennedy and comments on Nixon's book, Six Crises, describing ways "one could shove him over" the edge. The section on Economics is eye-glazing at best, with policy chats about gold prices, tax cuts and unemployment that have been forgotten for nearly 40 years. Things pick up, however, in Foreign Affairs. Here, Galbraith offers candid evaluations of the dangers of Vietnam ("drop Diem" and do not import troops); of old New Dealers such as Dean Acheson ("he will be a source of trouble for he wants the policy that serves his ego not your needs"); and of the women in various countries"the more under-developed the country the more over-developed the women" he says of India, while reporting that Saigon's women are "tall with long legs, high breasts." They are, he reports, "very compelling," but "an Ambassadorship is the greatest inducement to celibacy since the chastity belt." Ultimately this is a slim, dated volume that may be of most interest to scholars of the New Frontier. (May)

Kirkus Reviews

Collections of letters are precious when the correspondents are prominent and the content is of enduring value, for example the Adams/Jefferson letters. In this volume the correspondents are certainly important people, but itþs hard to find additional justification for publication. Veteran economist Galbraith's letters to John F. Kennedy, from 1959 through mid-1963, are grouped by editor Goodman (History/Rutgers Univ.) into three sections: politics, economics, and foreign affairs. The last is by far the meatiest; the first two are brief and seemingly padded by trivial notes communicating pleasantries or future intentions and are included only to display a clever phrase in the prose. However, Galbraith's commentary on taxation does provide striking examples both of how things never seem to change and of how thoroughly they can change. On one hand, he notes the existence of "a large part of American conservative and business opinion" that favors tax cuts no matter what the consequences to the budget or the country. On the other hand, in warning against a tax cut, Galbraith claims that "the worst tag of all" is "irresponsibility," a seemingly archaic view now, when irresponsibility on tax cuts (in relation to budget demands) is apparently a requirement for election to public office. The letters relating to foreign affairs are more substantive, reflecting Galbraith's posting as ambassador to India. From this vantage point he felt free to comment on south and southeast Asian affairs in general, and notable among his observations are repeated warnings against relying on Diem in Vietnam, an assessment that proved accurate but went unheeded. Reports on politics in India and amilitary clash with China will be of moderate interest for students of south Asian politics, but ultimately there is little here to capture the attention of the general reader.

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