Jack, Bobby and Ted: The untold story of the Kennedy brothers
Joe and Rose Kennedy pushed their sons to care about the world and then shape the US role in it
Kennedy brothers: John, Robert and Ted in Hyannis Port, Massachussets. Photograph: AP
“Ulster is becoming Britain’s Vietnam,” Senator Edward M Kennedy, the youngest of three exceptionally accomplished brothers in the United States’ most famous Irish family, told the US Senate in the autumn of 1971.
This year marks an important anniversary for the Kennedys, the Irish and the world, for it was 50 years ago when Ted Kennedy set his sights on peace in Northern Ireland. And, from that moment to the miracle of Stormont, in 1998, that secured peace, Ted spearheaded the United States’ peace-making efforts. He pushed presidents, worked with key Senate and House members of Irish descent, testified before Congress, delivered speeches, wrote articles, visited the region and met leaders on both sides of the conflict.
Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy were all proudly Irish. They all spoke of the anti-Irish bigotry that had plagued their ancestors in the United States. Jack visited Ireland to trace his roots and, while there as president in 1963, called it “the land for which I hold the greatest affection”. Ted came in 1964 in grief after Jack’s murder, and he spent more time trying to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland than on any other global challenge.
Joe and Rose led discussions about the world with the boys over meals, and Joe invited prominent people, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and media mogul Henry Luce, to dine with them and enrich the conversations
Ted’s peace-making in Northern Ireland, however, reflects far more than the proud Irishness that he shared with his brothers. It also reflects perhaps the most fascinating and consequential story about the Kennedy brothers that hardly anyone knows – a story with important lessons for the United States of today.
Most people know that Joe and Rose Kennedy groomed their sons for success. They started with Joe jnr, who died at war in 1944 at the age of 29, and continued through Jack, Bobby and Ted. What most people don’t know (and what I explore in my new book, The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire) is that, from the time the brothers were little boys, Joe and Rose pushed them not just to succeed but to look beyond the United States’ borders – to learn about the world, care about the world and, once they attained power, shape the United States’ role in the world.
Joe and Rose led discussions about the world with the boys over meals, and Joe invited prominent people, such as the aviator Charles Lindbergh and the media mogul Henry Luce, to dine with them and enrich the conversations. He also wrote to the boys about global events when he or they were away, sent them to travel overseas, arranged meetings for them with the world’s leading figures and secured jobs for them as foreign correspondents so they could position themselves as global thinkers.
All three brothers travelled widely, sometimes with one another but more often with mentors, friends or colleagues. They met kings, prime ministers and diplomats; they visited war zones and discussed conflicts with military officials; they walked the streets, talked to everyday people and observed everyday life; and they developed insights into the world’s different leaders, peoples, cultures and ideologies. Once they assumed power, they applied what they had learned to put a distinct mark on the United States’ empire.
Because they shaped the global role of the world’s greatest power, Jack, Bobby and Ted changed the world itself in profound ways
For more than six decades, one or more of the brothers held public office. Jack was elected to the House in 1946, the Senate in 1952 and the presidency in 1960. Bobby was a Senate staffer in the 1950s, Jack’s attorney general and closest adviser when Jack was president, and a senator from 1965 to 1968. Ted was elected to the Senate in 1962 and served there until his death, in 2009.
During their time, Jack, Bobby and Ted shaped broad issues of war and peace as well as the United States’ response to almost every major global challenge of their times: the Soviet Union and China, the cold war and Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Korea and Vietnam, South Africa and Northern Ireland, and Iraq (twice). And, because they shaped the global role of the world’s greatest power, they changed the world itself in profound ways.
What did they do?
For starters, as they grew from boys to men, they all discarded the isolationism that their father stubbornly promoted throughout his life. They came to believe that the United States must play a prominent role on the world stage, and that it could serve as a beacon for other countries to emulate. They feared war, favoured diplomacy, promoted human rights and worked to control the world’s deadliest weapons.
Through Jack’s death in 1963, they were all cold warriors. But, with what he learned from his travels and his voracious reading, Jack pushed the United States’ cold-war policy in a starkly new direction. He believed that the cold war would be won not in Europe but in the developing world, where hundreds of millions of people were deciding between democracy and loyalty to the United States or communism and loyalty to the Soviet Union. Rather than support right-wing dictators and colonial governments, he wanted the US to build relations with grassroots populations because he thought that was a better way to compete with the Soviets and Chinese over the long term.
As a senator, he ruffled feathers in Washington, DC, and in Europe by urging the Europeans to free their colonies. As president, he created the Alliance for Progress for Latin America and the Peace Corps for the world, showered more foreign aid on the emerging new nations in Africa, and met their leaders.
The more that Vietnam – which began as a cold-war venture for Jack – turned into a horror show, the more Bobby questioned the venture, its relationship to the cold war and his previous support for it
After learning valuable lessons from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Jack peacefully resolved the Cuban missile crisis, secured a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and laid the groundwork for more arms control, which he hoped to pursue. He came to doubt his early decision to “make a stand” against communism in Vietnam and sent strong signals that he would withdraw if he won re-election in 1964. Shortly before his death, he also was rethinking his hardline policies toward China and Cuba.
Up until then, Bobby and Ted also were hard-core cold warriors. In the 1950s, Bobby worked on foreign policy for the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, a close family friend. He travelled across the Soviet Union with the US supreme-court justice William Douglas, another family friend, and returned to criticise Moscow in speeches, interviews and writings over its human-rights abuses and economic backwardness. Also in the 1950s, Ted toured Europe with a friend and travelled across Africa with one of his Harvard instructors. In the early 1960s, he returned to Africa and travelled across Latin America and Europe before winning his Senate seat in 1962 as a cold-war hawk.
But, after Jack died, Lyndon Johnson took over and the world changed, Bobby and Ted changed with it. They evolved from cold-war hawks into leading liberal doves and drove US foreign policy in new directions.
Bobby, in particular, emerged from months of trauma after Jack’s death as very much a new man. The more that Vietnam – which began as a cold-war venture for Jack – turned into a horror show, the more Bobby questioned the venture, its relationship to the cold war and his previous support for it. He was no less a critic of communism, but he now viewed Vietnam as a much bigger problem for the United States than the cold war.
Like Bobby, Ted also had been a cold warrior. But, unlike Bobby, he was a savvy lawmaker. To an uncommon degree, he knew how to work the system, build coalitions and achieve results on foreign policy even when he was opposed by the president, who is always the United States’ most powerful figure on foreign policy.
The Kennedys showed that, in a dangerous world, the United States must play a leading role on the international stage to protect its interests, defend its allies, and promote freedom and democracy
Among his many accomplishments, he spearheaded the successful efforts to sanction South Africa over apartheid, end proxy wars with the Soviets in Latin America and make peace in Northern Ireland. And, in his behind-the-scenes efforts that haven’t received nearly the attention they deserve, he convinced Soviet and Chinese leaders to free scores of political prisoners. Even though Jack and Bobby reached greater heights of power, Ted remade the US empire more over the long term than either of them.
All told, the Kennedys showed that, in a dangerous world, the US must play a leading role on the international stage to protect its interests, defend its allies and promote freedom and democracy.
Their example is particularly important now, with Freedom House reporting that freedom – political rights and civil liberties – around the world declined in 2020 for the 15th straight year. China, Russia and other nations are challenging the US and the West by promoting their authoritarian forms of government as better alternatives to the messiness of US-led freedom and democracy.
After Trump’s “America First” isolationism and, before that, President Obama’s reticence to promote freedom and democracy, the United States needs to restore its moral voice. That’s because a freer, more democratic world will be a safer, more prosperous world from which the United States can benefit.
The Kennedy brothers understood that, and so should we.
Lawrence J Haas, former communications director for US vice-president Al Gore, is the author of The Kennedys in the World: How Jack, Bobby, and Ted Remade America’s Empire, new from Potomac Books