An Economist in Camelot

January 31, 2005

IN THE FALL OF 1961, John F. Kennedy was under intense pressure to ramp up the U.S. presence in Vietnam from a few thousand military "advisers" to a full combat force of more than 200,000 troops. The proposal came from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. But the president was skeptical and turned to his ambassador to India, the Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith, for another perspective. Dispatched to Saigon, Galbraith sent back memos urging Kennedy to seek a more cautious path. He suggested feeling out the Russians, who were backing North Vietnam against U.S.-allied South Vietnam, on the chances of negotiations. And he laced his advice with the wit that the war-makers feared had won him special influence with Kennedy. "Incidentally," Galbraith asked, "who is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to have his name and address and ask him what is so important about this real estate in the Space Age?"

Galbraith's bid to persuade Kennedy not to get more deeply embroiled in Vietnam is a standard feature in histories of the JFK presidency. But in a monumental new biography, John Kenneth Galbraith, His Life, His Politics, His Economics, Richard Parker tells the story in more depth and detail. He builds a powerful case, based on declassified government documents and access to Galbraith and his papers, that the economist was a more potent influence than previous accounts have suggested. Parker shows him using all his charm and incisive intelligence to counterbalance those trying to push JFK toward full-scale war. One new piece of evidence Parker marshals to show how much Kennedy valued Galbraith's views: the president offered to make him ambassador to the Soviet Union, an appointment Galbraith turned down in favour of going back to his job as an economics professor at Harvard University. "That was an audacious thing for Kennedy to do," Parker said in an interview, given the way Galbraith had clashed with the cold warriors in the administration.

In Parker's thorough 787-page account of Galbraith's remarkable life, the chapters on his place in Kennedy's Camelot are perhaps the most gripping. Part of the reason is the enduring fascination with the tragic presidency itself. But another aspect is the way Galbraith's status in JFK's circle stands as a high point in his career as a public intellectual. By the time Kennedy tapped him for a stint as a diplomat, Galbraith had already cut his teeth in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, held a key economic post in FDR's Second World War administration, and gone on to Harvard and worldwide fame as the bestselling author of such books as 1958's The Affluent Society. Galbraith remained a compelling voice long after Kennedy's assassination -- he's now 96, and published a short book only last year on corporate greed and bureaucracy -- but his brand of smart liberalism would never again seem so closely linked to the apex of American political power.

The glamour of Kennedy's Washington might seem a long way from Iona Station, Ont., where Galbraith was born into a farming family of Scottish descent in 1908. Yet Parker's biography makes them seem not entirely disconnected. Galbraith's father, Archie, was a powerful Liberal organizer with a reformist bent, and Parker says he "set his son a model in his public service." In retrospect, Galbraith's start in higher education at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph looks inauspicious. But it led him to study agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and that took him to Harvard, and a job in farm policy in Roosevelt's administration -- where he absorbed lasting lessons in a losing battle to implement policies meant to help poor Southern sharecroppers hit hard by the Depression. He carried that concern for the power imbalance between the affluent and the impoverished into the books that would later make him America's best-known economist by the time Kennedy became president.

Kennedy had met him long before, back in the 1930s when JFK was a Harvard undergraduate and Galbraith a tutor. But it wasn't until 1957 that Kennedy began seeking out his views. Parker situates Galbraith as "part of JFK's inner circle, just outside the veteran 'Irish Mafia' that formed its political core." Being sent to New Delhi after Kennedy won the 1960 election might appear to have sidelined Galbraith, but Parker shows this wasn't the case. There was a steady stream of letters and memos, often dealing with Vietnam. (As well, Jacqueline Kennedy visited India in 1962 for a tour Galbraith later wrote about in terms that, Parker notes, "hover on the edge of rhapsodic") And Parker details how frustrated Defense, State and CIA officials trying to win JFK's support for more troops in Vietnam found themselves having to counter Galbraith's pointed, private messages.

Kennedy's assassination changed everything. On the day after, Galbraith had a chance encounter with Lyndon B.Johnson. He took the opportunity to warn the incoming president about Indochina, but got no response. Johnson soon launched the escalation Galbraith had advised Kennedy against. Many historians believe that had Kennedy lived he would have avoided full-scale war. But whether they will accept Parker's case for Galbraith's key role in shaping Kennedy's view of Vietnam is another matter. "It's hard to know how much impact any person had on Kennedy," says Robert Dallek, author of the 2003 Kennedy biography An Unfinished Life. He notes that Kennedy was acutely aware of examples of foreign adventures gone wrong, like Britain's Boer War and the U.S. experience in Korea. "These were telling examples for him," Dallek says, "so when he heard from people like Galbraith, it reinforced his own prejudice."

Galbraith's place in the story of JFK is only one chapter in his long run as a public intellectual. Parker, who teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and is an unabashed fan of Galbraith, devotes much of the biography to arguing for his place as a major economist -- a status conservatives have tried to deny this icon of liberalism. Still, Parker fully expects the Kennedy years to draw special attention. And that, for all of Galbraith's accomplishments, turns this into a life story with a strong, sad undercurrent of what might have been.

Copyright 2005 Rodgers Publishing Ltd.

by John Geddes, Maclean's