STARRED REVIEW
August 19, 2014

Friends in high places

By Christopher Sandford
Review by
When 43-year-old John F. Kennedy assumed the U.S. presidency in January 1961, he appeared to have little in common with 66-year-old British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The latter, son of an American mother and a British father, was a publisher, conservative politician and statesman and a wounded hero of World War I. Despite many personal differences, the two leaders shared a love of books and reading. Christopher Sandford writes engagingly of their close relationship during some of the most important years of the Cold War in Harold and Jack: The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy, a fascinating glimpse into the role of personal relationships in diplomacy.
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When 43-year-old John F. Kennedy assumed the U.S. presidency in January 1961, he appeared to have little in common with 66-year-old British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The latter, son of an American mother and a British father, was a publisher, conservative politician and statesman and a wounded hero of World War I. Despite many personal differences, the two leaders shared a love of books and reading. In 1915, when he was seriously wounded on the Western front, Macmillan was found on the battlefield reading Prometheus in Greek. In later life, in moments of crisis he could be found sitting quietly and reading from Jane Austen. But during the 33 months that the two leaders, both pragmatists, worked together they came to deeply appreciate each other. Macmillan initiated their relationship with a “Dear Friend” letter, using the same appellation he had used with President Eisenhower, whom he had known for many years and worked with during World War II. As JFK pointed out in an interview: “I feel at home with him because I can share my loneliness with him. The others are all foreigners to me.” Christopher Sandford writes engagingly of their close relationship during some of the most important years of the Cold War in Harold and Jack: The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy, a fascinating glimpse into the role of personal relationships in diplomacy.

In 1962, Kennedy estimated that 80 percent of his first year in office had been spent dealing with foreign policy. During their overlapping years in high office, he and Macmillan shared involvement in crises that included the building of the Berlin Wall by the Soviet Union, the Cuban missile crisis and numerous regional clashes. Above all was the issue of nuclear arms control. Macmillan believed that his supreme challenge in life was to avert a nuclear holocaust.

When he was 18, Kennedy studied for a year at the London School of Economics, and several years later was with his parents in the House of Commons when Neville Chamberlain explained his country’s decision to declare war on Nazi Germany. The future president’s book on Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, Why England Slept, published in 1940, was a bestseller. During his time in England, Kennedy began a lifelong fascination with that country’s social and cultural elite.

Sandford covers a lot of ground in Harold and Jack, in particular the two most significant shared achievements of the two men. First, Macmillan was instrumental in keeping the NATO and Commonwealth leaders supportive of Kennedy’s decisions during the Cuban missile crisis. Robert Kennedy wrote that without Macmillan’s support, “our position would have been seriously undermined.” JFK himself told the British ambassador that “with the exception of Bobby, the Prime Minister was (the) one I felt the most connection to” during that fateful week of October 22, 1961. Secondly, in July 1963, three-way negotiations with the U.S.S.R. resulted in the limited nuclear test-ban agreement. The treaty barred tests underwater, in the atmosphere, and in space and allowed up to seven annual on-site inspections by each side and was acclaimed around the world. It was, in a sense, the beginning of the end of the Cold War. JFK wrote to Macmillan: “No one can doubt the importance in all this of your own persistent pursuit of a solution. . . . [M]ore than once your initiative is what got things started again.” Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger said the treaty “would not have come about with the intense personal commitment of Kennedy and Macmillan.”

On January 31, 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy sent Macmillan a deeply personal, eight-page letter concerning her husband’s life and legacy. She referred to her husband and Macmillan as the “two greatest men of our time.” It was the beginning of a long correspondence, affectionate and sometimes touchingly intimate, that ended only with Macmillan’s death in 1986.

Sandford’s book is a fascinating look at the mix of the personal and the public in high stakes foreign affairs.

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Harold and Jack

Harold and Jack

By Christopher Sandford
Prometheus
ISBN 9781616149352

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