Home Book Review “I Want to Improve the Human Condition”

“I Want to Improve the Human Condition”

Book by: Lawrence J. Haas
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Spring 2021

Some books are actually two books. You can read them twice, or buy two copies, or take two sets of notes. The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire by historian Lawrence J. Haas is one of those. Both books are excellent, but one takes a LOT of patience.

Haas, a former senior White House official and award-winning journalist, is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of six books, including the outstanding Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership that Created the Free World, a 2016 Wall Street Journal top ten non-fiction book, reviewed in the Summer 2016 issue of inFOCUS Quarterly. 

The Kennedys is, first, the biography of Jack, Bobby, and Ted (Haas’s use of nicknames saves us from multiple Senator Kennedys). Not a full biography – Haas doesn’t care about their love lives, personal peccadillos, or assassinations. Jack is dispatched at the end of one section and Bobby at the end of the next. That’s fine. Mary Jo Kopechne gets a single mention, which is less fine, but it is in keeping with the principle that what counts is how they were raised and how it impacted public policy. That’s public policy.

A demanding father and distant mother set the stage. Standards for academics, current events, and sports. “Poor little rich boy” stories about how Rose didn’t visit Jack when he was in the hospital at Choate, and no suggestion that aviator and eldest brother Joseph Kennedy, Jr. might have been the preferred son. 

And, suddenly, the Kennedy boys are men, where Haas has a strong preference for Ted.

Jack doesn’t fare too well. War hero and Cold Warrior, Jack offloaded blame – the generals were to blame for the Bay of Pigs, Bobby was sent to meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis so Jack could disavow knowledge, and he was, apparently, preparing to blame the generals again for the escalation of U.S. military activity in Vietnam. He had a close relationship with Bobby, but when Ted offered to be helpful to the President, Jack said, “Go run for Congress.” Bobby was the interim figure, changing his view of the Vietnam War and promoting social change in South America as the antidote to communist revolutionaries. Ted’s was a full-blown revolutionary – mostly for others. 

If at that point you thought you didn’t need another Kennedy biography, even a well-written and interesting one, you’d be right. However, this is where the second book starts.

Dylan’s Foreign Policy

The 1960s were for American foreign policy exactly what they were for social policy – a test bed of new, interesting, and sometimes, ultimately unsupportable policies. They were Camelot, broadly speaking, where idealism was coin of the realm (we’ll get to COIN later). Bob Dylan wrote the outline: 

And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see? 

People should be free, but are not, and other people are turning away from the oppression. How can you look at oppression without doing anything about it? And what should you do about it? Especially when the song admonishes:

Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?


Yes, and how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows
That too many people have died? 

That last one is really ambiguous because he doesn’t mention whether the “too many” deaths are the people of oppressed places or the soldiers who have stopped turning away from them and are trying to make the oppressed free. Were there “too many” deaths at Omaha Beach or Iwo Jima?

A conflicting mishmash of platitudes and hopes are fine for Dylan, but more is required of presidents and senators. This is why the reader needs patience – there is head-banging between here and the end. 

The Kennedys were not oblivious to the suffering of people trapped behind the Iron Curtain – all three brothers made pilgrimages to Eastern Europe – but their efforts (after Cuba) were directed more toward Soviet machinations in Asia, and later South America than toward undoing the oppression 70 million people under communist occupation. 

Ted, in fact, “argued that Soviet control over Eastern Europe had largely ended… ‘Today, with the exception of East Germany, Russia has no more satellites.’” Shortly before the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps they thought their best strategy was to prevent communism from taking hold in new places, rather than rolling it back. The book is unclear. Cold Warrior Jack was firm on the importance of Vietnam. He was less firm about the need to couple the troops and arms – which he was willing to authorize – with aid and pressure for political change in Saigon. It didn’t take long for him to become ambivalent and was considering withdrawal when he died.

It should be noted that when wars end for some people, they don’t end for others. Haas writes, “As the war (Vietnam) wound down, Ted geared up to address global challenges of a different nature…” The war did not “wind down” for the Vietnamese, which is a source of head-banging for the reader. 


The 60s produced COIN – counter-insurgency operations – which haunts American military and foreign policy makers to this day. COIN says you don’t have to conquer territory – don’t have to stand in a capital and accept surrender papers. You can defeat enemies by supporting a local faction to kill the communist factions while you offer money and food to those who might support the communists – to induce them to support the U.S. as well. At Caltech, Bobby called for:

…better training for “foreign national to defend themselves against communist terrorism and guerrilla penetration,” but more importantly, for “progressive political programs which wipe out the poverty, misery, and discontent on which [communism] thrives.”

The trick is knowing which foreign nationals only want American money and arms, and which share America’s goals – something we haven’t gotten right yet. Who could have and should have been America’s partners in Iraq? In Syria, the Obama Administration armed and trained the “Free Syrian Army,” claiming it was secular Syrians who wanted to depose Assad. Not exactly. And American help for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) was supposed to keep an alternative to Hezbollah in place to protect the interests of the Lebanese people – as distinct from Hezbollah itself. But the LAF actually shares weapons and training with the terror group that bombed the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983. 

Major head-banging.

Returning to The Kennedys, Latin America was largely a test bed. Ted wrote: 

Here, as in no other continent, the 1970s will determine whether we are right in asserting that fundamental and rapid change can take place without violent, bloody disruption… if we assume that all radical movements are subversive; if we curtail aid to governments because they promise swift change; if we curtail aid to governments because they promise swift change’ if we deprive them of our markets and our resources, we ourselves may force them to look elsewhere.

Consider, for a moment, what we’re asking of “them” – trading local loyalties for economic change; social change; modern education; and electoral politics that presume multiple, fair elections so that if you lose this time, you can win next time; a loyal opposition; and the understanding the coalition building helps. But what if governments are unable to do all of those things? What if they don’t want to? There was enormous disillusionment with the government of South Vietnam for both Jack and Bobby – rather like the disillusionment that came with Egypt after the so-called Arab Spring, or with Iraq after the toppling of Saddam, or the 2011 toppling of Moammar Qaddafi, or with a variety of Afghan governments after the ouster of the Taliban. 

We seriously have to ask, “What if they really can’t do it, and what we push them into is NOT a version of ourselves, but a rift that allows communists, or jihadists, or anarchists or other despots to gain power?”

More head-banging here. Because for all of the good intentions of the Kennedys, and all of the hard work – including championing civil rights in the United States – there are limits to what American idealism can do. There were limits to what the Kennedys could do.

Contrary to Ted’s hope, fundamental and rapid change leads to violent, bloody disruption more often than not. Interestingly, he opposed Reagan’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras and was thrilled when Congress cut off their funding, saying, “This is a historic day, the day the tide was turned against the secret war in Nicaragua.”

Actually, the Contras held on long enough to force a democratic election in 1990. It was monitored by former President Jimmy Carter and won by Violeta Chamorro, a conservative and democratically inclined newspaper publisher, over the communist Sandinistas. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader, ran and lost in democratic elections until he forced changes in electoral law that brought him to power in 2006 with less than 38 percent of the vote. Ortega never looked back.

Ted opposed Reagan’s hard line on the Soviet Union and opposed both the Nixon era ABM systems and Reagans Strategic Defense Initiative. But it was Reagan’s determination to build arms that the Soviets were compelled to acknowledge they could not match, in tandem with his support of the people of Central Europe that allowed for the peaceful uprising and political change the Kennedys hoped for but couldn’t produce. Jack’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” remark, aside from sometimes being translated as “I am a jelly donut,” didn’t have the clout that Reagan’s, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” had decades later. 

Left-wing pacifist head-banging here.

Countries that do not threaten U.S. directly but impose restrictions on the civil rights and human rights of its citizens should be treated the way we treated the Soviet Union – as an abhorrent system of governance. There was no assumption that the U.S. could invade, occupy, or arm and train guerrillas, to make over the USSR in our image. And no likelihood that will do it to save the Uyghurs in China. Maybe because they are really big, with really big armies. The Kennedys generally mucked around in smaller Asian countries and in Latin America where there would be no physical backlash against us. 

On the other hand, our Western heritage – NOT of electoral politics necessarily – but free speech, rule of law, free market economics, independent judiciaries, property rights and tolerance – is precisely responsive to the conditions faced by millions of people around the globe today. It is appalling – and more than a little bit condescending – that where the Kennedy brothers were openly patriotic and admiring of the American political system and Western Civilization, today’s political leaders are running the other way.

Final head-banging here. 


Don’t read this. 

Do, however, buy the book – it is engaging and, if read with the right mind-set and two aspirin, will force you to assess the relationship among American politics, money, and power from the 60s to the current day. The past has something to teach us and Lawrence Haas is a really good teacher.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor, inFOCUS Quarterly.