Robert Dallek on “Power and the Presidency”

The presidential historian reflects on the expansion of power in the Oval Office from Kennedy to Obama

Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek is best known as the author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Lars Lönninge

Historian Robert Dallek has been studying the American presidency for decades. He is the author of Nixon and Kissinger, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; An Unfinished Life, about John F. Kennedy; and several other books, including his latest The Lost Peace, looking at leadership around the globe from 1945 to 1953. Now, fifty years after Kennedy’s inauguration, Dallek reflects on how presidential power has expanded.

The president’s growing control of foreign policy goes back before Kennedy to Teddy Roosevelt. But what made the 1960s a real turning point?
What made it a turning point was the fact that the Cold War was really at a crest. The question was whether we were going to be able to deal with the Soviet Union and the communist competition without getting into a full-blown war, which Kennedy and happily Khrushchev on his side understood was impermissible. With both nations being armed with nuclear weapons, it was likely to be an act of mutual suicide or what they call M.A.D., mutually assured destruction. Of course, we did have a significant advantage over the Soviets. That’s in part what forced Khrushchev to back away from this missile crisis. But that’s what had, in part, induced him in the first place to put those missiles in Cuba. He wanted to right the balance between the United States and the Soviet Union since they really didn’t have the sort of intercontinental ballistic missiles or the submarine missiles that we had, which could reach and destroy the Soviet Union. The turning point is that Kennedy really launched the détente policy. Once they resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was able to move on and negotiate the Test Ban Treaty to bar the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. I see a direct line between Kennedy and Richard Nixon and the opening to China and the détente with the Soviet Union. If he had a second term, I think we would have seen advances along those lines.

How do you personally feel about the initiative for foreign policy and war being in the president’s hands?
I think there is a certain overkill here now. I’ve just published a book called The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953, and the thrust of that book is the extent to which there were miscalculations by leaders around the world. I quoted the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said, “Convictions are greater enemies of the truth than lies.” It is really pretty daunting when you consider that not just presidents, but prime ministers, chancellors, leaders of these other countries, have this power to do such destructive things. Of course, we saw that out of World War II with the Nazis and the fascists and the Japanese militarists unleashing a war that killed off perhaps as many as 50 million people. So executive authority around the globe has so expanded and become so much more dangerous.

Where do you see things going in the future? 
I think that for the time being there is continuing control of foreign policy by presidents. We remain the premier superpower in the world. It’s not just America, it’s lives and fortunes and people around the globe that are influenced by presidential authority. So as long as we remain a superpower, which I think we will for the foreseeable future despite our economic problems, presidents need to be critically studied and analyzed.

What makes now a good time to talk about the expansion of presidential power?
It’s always a good time to write about this. The way I’ve gone about this in the past is as documents open to a presidential administration, I plunge into the research. I did this with Franklin Roosevelt in the 1970s. I did it with John Kennedy and with Lyndon Johnson. I wrote a book on Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, which was published in 2007. I had 20,000 pages of Henry Kissinger’s telephone transcripts, which had just come to hand, so it allowed me to get insights into the conduct of foreign policy in that Nixon-Kissinger administration to an extent that students of that presidency had not been able to see before. That’s very important for us. It takes usually 30 to 35 years. We still don’t have records of the Reagan presidency to the extent that historians will want to see them if they are going to produce significant scholarship on Reagan’s administrations.

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