Harvard History professor Fredrik Logevall presented his research on the political development of former President John F. Kennedy ’40 while he was a student at Harvard College at a virtual Harvard Kennedy School forum Tuesday.
Tuesday's conversation, which was moderated by Pulitzer-prize winning historian and biographer Jon E. Meacham, centered around Logevall's recent book “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956," which recounts the early life of Kennedy, who was a former Crimson editor.
The Institute of Politics, which hosted the event, was founded as a memorial to Kennedy, who is also the namesake of the school.
Logevall spoke about Kennedy’s increasing interest in politics as a student at the College. Though other scholars have depicted Kennedy as a “slacker” during his time as an undergraduate, Logevall said he was surprised to learn that Kennedy was an earnest student of international affairs and history.
Logevall also said Kennedy disagreed with his father Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who graduated from the College in 1912, over whether the United States should intervene in World War II.
“[John Kennedy] concludes, as a student here, a junior and a senior, that isolationism is probably untenable for the United States that we have to probably at some point intervene, we certainly need to prepare for intervention,” he said.
This view differed not only from his father, but also from many of his classmates at Harvard.
“One of the surprising things in my research was that the student body here was staunchly isolationist, something like 90 to 95 percent,” Logevall said. “When the Harvard Crimson would do surveys, a huge majority said we want nothing to do with this European war.”
Logevall said Kennedy’s “internationalist sensibility” stemmed from his bedridden childhood and influences from his mother and Harvard professors.
“I present a flawed figure, a gifted and flawed figure, but I do think he had greatness within him,” Logevall added.
Logevall gave advice to President Joseph Biden based on Kennedy’s life.
"Follow your instinct, which I think is to argue for the things that bring Americans together more than what sets them apart,” he said. “And I also believe, though it can seem quaint and naive, in our current age, that Kennedy's emphasis on bargaining in good faith with members of the opposing party, ultimately, I think our democracy is going to need that.”
—Staff writer Isabel Skomro can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @isabelskomro