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Kerry's World: Father Knows Best

This column from The New Republic was written by Franklin Foer.

By the time John Kerry's father, Richard, published his only book, The Star-Spangled Mirror, in 1990, he should have been a mellow man. Nearly 30 years had passed since his retirement from the Foreign Service, where he'd filled mid-level posts in Washington, Berlin, and Oslo. His central issue, the cold war, had followed him into retirement with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and rise of glasnost in Russia. When the 75-year-old Kerry wasn't working on his book, he could be found building model ships and sailing off Cape Cod. If he had any reasons for professional bitterness, they should have long since faded.

None of these facts, however, becalmed him. His book has a young man's brash, polemical tone. The Star-Spangled Mirror is a critique of moralism in America's foreign policy -- and, more than that, it is a critique of America's national character.

"Americans," he writes, "are inclined to see the world and foreign affairs in black and white." They celebrate their own form of government and denigrate all others, making them guilty of what he calls "ethnocentric accommodation -- everyone ought to be like us." As a result, America has committed the "fatal error" of "propagating democracy" and fallen prey to "the siren's song of promoting human rights," falsely assuming that our values and institutions are a good fit in the Third World. And, just as Americans exaggerate their own goodness, they exaggerate their enemies' badness. The Soviet Union wasn't nearly as imperialistic as American politicians warned, Kerry argues. "Seeing the Soviet Union as the aggressor in every instance, and the U.S. as only reacting defensively, relieves an American observer from the need to see any parallel between our use of military power in distant parts of the world, and the Soviet use of military power outside the Soviet Union," he writes. He further claims that "Third world Marxist movements were autonomous national movements" -- outside Moscow's orbit. The book culminates in a plea for a hardheaded, realist foreign policy that removes any pretense of U.S. moral superiority.

Despite its blunt arguments, The Star-Spangled Mirror received little attention. Foreign Affairs greeted it with a 90-word summation in its review section. But the work of Richard Kerry, who passed away in 2000, will soon experience posthumous reconsideration. It won't be because of the renewed relevance of his arguments (although his book does read like a contemporary brief against neoconservatism). It will be because his son is a leading candidate to run U.S. foreign policy.

According to the conventional telling of John Kerry's biography, largely told by Kerry himself, his foreign policy views were forged in the Mekong Delta. During his disillusioning four-month combat stint on a Navy Swift Boat, the limits of U.S. power were revealed to him. As Newsweek argued in a cover story last month, "Kerry's policy views, as well as his politics, were profoundly shaped by the war." But, for all the neatness this narrative provides, it overlooks an entire chapter in Kerry's intellectual history: his childhood. In fact, Kerry's foreign policy worldview, characterized by a steadfast belief in international institutions and a suspicion of U.S. hard power, had fallen into place long before he ever enlisted. As Kerry's biographer, the historian Douglas Brinkley, told me, "So much of his foreign policy worldview comes straight from Richard Kerry."

Richard Kerry's father, a Czech Jew, fled Europe. The son, by contrast, embraced it. As a law student at Harvard in the late '30s, he read continental philosophers like Kierkegaard and histories about Bismarck and Metternich; he traveled to France, where he took sculpture classes and met his wife. Hoping to parlay his love of Europe into a career, he chose international law as his law school specialty. After World War II, which he spent in the Army Air Corps testing new airplanes at high altitudes, he moved his family to Washington to take a spot in the Department of the Navy's Office of General Counsel, hoping that his proximity to the State Department might help him land a job there.

Two years into his Washington stint, Kerry's relocation paid off. The State Department's Bureau of United Nations Affairs hired him to help work through the thicket created by America's adherence to a new set of postwar international agreements. According to Brinkley, the cosmopolitan Kerry was a true believer in the United Nations and the postwar promise of global government.

But, as much as he believed in the United Nations, it was not his prime passion. A devoted Europeanist, Kerry was more preoccupied with the devastation of Europe and the monumental task of reconstructing it -- a romantic project that enticed a generation of young diplomats, including George Kennan and George Ball. The appeal of the task wasn't just the economic and physical rebuilding of the continent. Kerry and others like him viewed themselves as building a new political order for the continent, a new method for arranging international affairs that would consign war to the dustbin of history. In the early '50s, Kerry became an enthusiast for NATO and the nascent efforts at creating a unified Europe.

In 1954, Kerry received an assignment that put him at ground zero of the cold war. He moved to Berlin to advise former Harvard President James B. Conant, whom Dwight D. Eisenhower had charged with overseeing the rehabilitation of West Germany. Once again, Kerry's job consigned him primarily to lawyerly work. His chief task was to devise answers to the questions created by Berlin's confused status. Martha Mautner, a political officer who served with Kerry in Germany, told me, "There were so many questions about the status of Berlin that the lawyers had to handle. There were Four Powers [the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union] running the city. What was its relationship to the Federal Republic?" But Kerry's interests extended far beyond these matters. During his tenure in Europe, he attended conferences in Paris, London, and The Hague, where he discussed with other mid-level diplomats the future of the transatlantic alliance and the possibilities of a new continental order. According to Brinkley, through these conferences, Kerry established relationships with a group of like-minded government officials, including the famed French planning commissioner (and intellectual architect of the European Union) Jean Monnet.

These conferences reinforced Kerry's belief that the preservation of the Atlantic alliance and the creation of a new Europe should be the overriding priorities of U.S. foreign policy. But the reality of U.S. policy was far different. For most of the Eisenhower administration, America's prime objective was containing communism. And, unlike the administration he served, Kerry believed that cooperation and diplomacy, rather than militarism, should resolve these tensions. In The Star-Spangled Mirror, he condemns the United States for "lecturing" European allies about the horrors of communism and accuses it of "bad manners" and "spoiled behavior." He writes, "At times we expected the allies unquestioningly to follow our leads; sometimes we failed to consult them in advance before reversing policies; at other times we ignored their requests."

Even at the time, Kerry wasn't quiet about his disagreement with the hard-line anti-communists. Although he had initially viewed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as a kindred spirit and cultivated a relationship with him, Kerry felt uncomfortable with his rhetoric about "godless communism." (In his book, Kerry spends several pages arguing against Dulles's "intensely moralistic outlook.") According to Brinkley, Kerry bluntly told Dulles the shortcomings of his increasingly hawkish approach, undermining their relationship in the process. This was typical behavior for Kerry, who had a growing reputation for outspokenness. John Kerry's friend and former aide Jonathan Winer says, "[Richard Kerry] was a dissident in a time of conformity."

For all his impolitic instincts, Kerry's undeniable competence kept propelling his career forward. Following his posting in Berlin, he served as top aide to Georgia Democrat Walter George, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And, in 1958, he took what would be his highest posting in the Foreign Service, as Oslo's chief political officer, where he played a vital role in opening Norway to American spies and weapons. But his competence could get him only so far -- which is to say, it couldn't overcome his maverick reputation and win him a coveted ambassadorship. By the Kennedy administration, Brinkley says, Kerry sensed he had hit a ceiling in the Foreign Service. Kerry told his family, "They seem not to listen to what I have to say, so I'm going to quit." Brinkley adds, "He saw his role as becoming a protester, criticizing the government from the outside in lectures and his book."

Richard Kerry, whose own father committed suicide, was not a very effusive parent. When his twelve-year-old son John lay quarantined with scarlet fever at his Swiss boarding school, Richard Kerry didn't make the trip from Berlin to visit him. But there was at least one subject that fostered easy conversation between the two: foreign policy. "It allowed them to break through an emotional wall," says Brinkley. "They talked about foreign policy the way most fathers and sons talk about football." Well into his Senate career, John Kerry would phone his father to ask his opinion about international issues ranging from arms control to Central America. Watching the conversations, Winer says, "I saw two people talking about policy very seriously with unexpressed affection."

From the start, Richard Kerry turned his oldest son into his foreign policy protégé. As Newsweek's Evan Thomas has written, "The Kerry dinner table was a nightly foreign-policy seminar. While other boys were eating TV dinners in front of the tube, [John] Kerry was discussing George Kennan's doctrine of containment." His father introduced the adolescent boy to such luminaries as Monnet and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Later, when he was at Yale, John Kerry traded letters with Clementine Churchill, Winston's wife.

As early as prep school, John Kerry showed signs that he shared his father's suspicions about America's cold war foreign policy. In a debate at St. Paul's in the late '50s, he argued that the United States should establish relations with Red China. During his junior year at Yale, he won a speech prize for an oration warning, "It is the specter of Western Imperialism that causes more fear among Africans and Asians than communism, and thus it is self-defeating." And, when he was tapped to deliver a graduation speech in 1966, he used the occasion to condemn U.S. involvement in Vietnam, intoning, "What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism."

If Richard and John Kerry were not in perfect political sync, it was because the father, in an inversion of the usual dynamic, was more radical than the son. John Kerry, for instance, had grown enthusiastic about John F. Kennedy and his robust, anti-communist foreign policy. Indeed, it was his fervor for Kennedy's "bear any burden" call to service that largely inspired Kerry to join the Navy. Richard Kerry, by contrast, was more skeptical about New Frontier idealism. In a 1996 interview with The Boston Globe, he groused, "[John's] attitude was gung ho: had to show the flag. He was quite immature in that direction." When John Kerry came back from Vietnam, his father pushed him to be more outspoken in his opposition to the war. "When Kerry refused to speak out against the government [while in uniform], suddenly his father felt like he was being a wimp," says Brinkley. "[So he] encouraged his son to take off the uniform and to become a critic."

John Kerry, of course, did exactly this, first in Vietnam Veterans Against the War and eventually in the U.S. Senate. From the moment he arrived in Washington, Kerry promised that "issues of war and peace" would remain his passion. And, from the start, this meant that he would criticize Ronald Reagan's war against communism, especially when it was fought through proxies in the jungles of Central America. In 1985, he traveled to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandanista government, telling The Washington Post, "I see an enormous haughtiness in the United States trying to tell [the Sandinistas] what to do." Soon after his return, he pressured Congress into investigating the administration's illegal funding of the Contra rebels, opening a trail that culminated in the exposure of the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. And, a few years later, in the late '80s, he repeated this success, launching an investigation that revealed that another of the administration's favorite anti-communists, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, had been deeply enmeshed in drug-trafficking. Kerry was also skeptical enough of U.S. power that he voted against authorizing a popular intervention -- the Gulf war -- and opposed a 1995 resolution that would have allowed the arming of Bosnians.

There are differences, to be sure, between Richard and John Kerry. Over the course of his political career, John Kerry has occasionally endorsed the use of force, as in the cases of Panama and Kosovo, and he has always found a rhetorical place for morality in his foreign policy pronouncements. But, more often than not, even as John Kerry stumps for president, the similarities shine through. Last month, for example, Kerry charged that the administration's "high-handed treatment of our European allies, on everything from Iraq to the Kyoto climate-change treaty, has strained relations nearly to the breaking point." It should be no surprise to hear John Kerry worry about European allies and to strike such liberal internationalist notes. These ideas aren't just deeply felt; they're in his blood.

Franklin Foer is associate editor at TNR.

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