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Profiles in Courage, which won John F. Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, is a series of brief sketches describing important decisions in the lives of eight United States senators. Although the work is not intended to be an extensive historical work or a complete biography of its subjects, Kennedy does begin each set of profiles with a section entitled “The Time and the Place.” These introductory essays provide the reader with essential information about the period in which each senator lived and summarize the major political issues of that day. In the profiles themselves, Kennedy avoids general biographical details and prefers to focus upon his central topic: the courageous decisions that proved to be turning points in the lives and careers of these eight individuals.
Kennedy hoped to demonstrate in Profiles in Courage that no single era, region of the United States, or political party held a monopoly on courage. The individuals profiled in the book were thus carefully selected to include early figures such as John Quincy Adams and more recent figures such as Robert A. Taft, Westerners such as Sam Houston and Easterners such as Daniel Webster, Democrats such as Thomas Hart Benton and Republicans such as George Norris. Indeed, Kennedy made a singular effort in Profiles in Courage to be both bipartisan and broadly national. Although himself a Democrat from Massachusetts, Kennedy devoted the entire second half of his book to praising Republican senators from Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Ohio. Moreover, he selected his subjects from among both the famous and the obscure, those whom history had vindicated and those whom history had condemned. A number of his subjects, including Adams, Webster, and Houston, are among the most notable of Americans; others are important only for the single act of courage that Kennedy describes in his book. For example, the author himself describes Edmund G. Ross as “a United States Senator whose name no one recalls” but whose refusal to convict President Andrew Johnson had an unalterable effect upon the rest of American history.
Since its first appearance, Profiles in Courage has attracted a heated debate concerning the extent of Kennedy’s own contributions to the work. Until his death, Kennedy maintained, at times angrily, that the book was entirely his own creation and had been written during a period of convalescence for back surgery in late 1954. More skeptical critics, such as the biographer Herbert S. Parmet, in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980), and the historian Thomas C. Reeves, in A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991), have argued that the book was largely researched and written by Jules Davids and Theodore Sorensen. In the preface to Profiles in Courage, Kennedy did note that his “research associate, Theodore C. Sorensen” provided “invaluable assistance in the assembly and preparation upon which this book is based” and that “Professor Jules Davids of Georgetown University assisted materially in the preparation of several chapters.” More than this, however, Kennedy was unwilling to admit.
No one has ever disputed Kennedy’s important contribution to this book in terms of its original idea, central focus, and general plan. Thus, while it remains unclear whether Davids and Sorensen should be regarded as Kennedy’s collaborators or merely as his assistants, it is appropriate to admire Kennedy for providing Profiles in Courage with its inspiration, design, and many of its most memorable passages.
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Cold War After the United States ended World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, the frightening reality of atomic weaponry was undeniable. Americans believed that a strong government could only remain strong...
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if it was backed by a strong military defense. A strong anti-communist sentiment ran through the public consciousness in the early 1950s, and the knowledge that communist nations were building up their nuclear armaments (the Soviet Union had its first successful atomic bomb test in 1949) led the United States to continue building up its own nuclear weapons stores. This effort was not only supported, but demanded, by the public, whose fear of communism was reaching hysteria. The demand for high-tech weapons was so intense, in fact, that many private companies were able to go into business making missiles and bombs. Such companies often hired retired military officers as their top executives.
As the East and the West built up their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the ‘‘arms race’’ escalated. Each side, fearful of being attacked and overtaken by the other, steadily built more and more weapons of mass destruction. This created an atmosphere of dread and panic, and many Americans began building fallout shelters in which they would retreat in the event of a nuclear war.
As a result of the fear of communism in the United States, Senator Joseph McCarthy further whipped public emotions into a frenzy by making accusations that members of the United States government were communists. McCarthy’s accusations led to the destruction of many innocent people’s careers, not only in politics but in entertainment and virtually every other industry at the time.
At a time of emotional and political excess, it was natural for Kennedy to seek out and spotlight past leaders who had remained steady and true to their principles in similarly emotional times.
Patriotism of the 1950s Having emerged victorious and powerful from World War II, Americans enjoyed a strong sense of patriotism in the early 1950s. The country was a dominant force in world politics, the economy was booming, and people were enjoying affluence and the amenities that came with it. The middle class was growing, and more and more families found themselves able to purchase cars, televisions, appliances, and other luxuries.
In 1952, war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president at the age of sixty-two. He became a president everyone looked to as a sort of father figure, but also as one who had helped defeat the Nazis and protect the American way of life. Eisenhower had a kind face and gentle smile, and enjoyed playing golf. His personality seemed to reflect the pleasant lifestyle and commitment to military strength that characterized public sentiment. The patriotism of the time, and the public’s generally favorable opinion of political leaders, may have added to the popular success of Kennedy’s book, which holds up political leaders as heroes.
Civil Rights The 1950s saw the beginnings of the civil rights movement that would gain momentum and make great strides in the 1960s. The movement began with efforts at desegregation. There were inconsistencies in American society that became too obvious to ignore. For example, major league baseball teams had African-American players, yet schools were still not open to both races. As rock and roll became popular with teenagers, they realized that much of the music they enjoyed came from African-American singers and writers. Parents were uncomfortable seeing their teenagers dancing to this music, yet when white singers performed the same songs, they were at ease. African Americans refused to accept such double standards, and they began to organize their efforts to receive equal treatment.
The demand for equal rights was motivated by both social and economic factors. Not only did African Americans want to be welcome in public schools and restaurants, but they also wanted to have the same work opportunities enjoyed by white citizens. Although progress was slow, and efforts were often met with violence, the foundation laid in the 1950s paved the way for the great strides made in the next decade.
In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy shows readers time after time in history when Americans were sharply divided yet found ways to resolve their conflicts and come together as a nation again. More specifically, some of the men Kennedy profiles achieved greatness in the context of resolving bitter divides over slavery and racial issues.
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Historical Survey In writing Profiles in Courage, Kennedy’s intention was to make a specific case about the importance of courage, and to do so within a straightforward historical context. He does not set out to produce a piece of biased propaganda in which the stories are dramatized for effect, but rather to provide an honest look at nine individuals. His presentation of facts has the feel of a textbook, and the author makes a point of including some comments about the people’s flaws as well as their virtues. As a result, the reader has a better sense of what kind of person each senator was and sees that his human frailties did not impede his courageous intentions.
Another way in which Kennedy gives his book a sense of history is through the inclusion of context for each section. At the beginning of part one, he describes the political climate of the time before introducing the story of John Quincy Adams. Similarly, at the beginning of part two, he explains the state of the country as it edged nearer to civil war over the issue of slavery. This explanation provides a necessary context for understanding the passion with which Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, and Sam Houston fought for keeping the Union intact. By presenting these historical contexts at the beginning of each section, Kennedy helps the reader understand the pressures faced by each senator and how political courage emerged under each set of circumstances.
Within each profile, Kennedy keeps his story focused, avoiding bringing in too many specific pieces of legislation. Kennedy concentrates on a few key events and bills so that the reader understands what was at stake with each one, and how some of the stories overlap. Kennedy introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, for example, in the discussion of Thomas Hart Benton and again in the discussion of Sam Houston. After reading these two profiles, the reader not only understands that particular bill, but also how it affected the lives and decisions of political figures of the time. Had Kennedy piled each chapter with numerous events, bills, letters, and interactions, readers would become confused and lose sight of the basic premise of the book. Instead, the author teaches a history lesson while clearly portraying an act of courage.
Inspirational Tone Kennedy’s skill as a public speaker is reflected in Profiles in Courage, and the tone often becomes inspirational. His sense of timing is well suited for this book, as the narrative never becomes heavyhanded. In praising the courageous, he writes in chapter one, ‘‘And only the very courageous will be able to keep alive the spirit of individualism and dissent which gave birth to this nation, nourished it as an infant, and carried it through its severest tests upon the attainment of its maturity.’’ Statements like this serve to pull the reader into the reality of courage, reminding him or her that courage is not limited to those in public office. The author makes the reader feel proud to be an American, part of a country with a noble tradition. In chapter four, Kennedy describes the seeming failures of Thomas Hart Benton: ‘‘But even in death and defeat, Thomas Hart Benton was victorious. For his voice from the past on behalf of the Union was one of the deciding factors that prevented Missouri from yielding to all the desperate efforts to drive her into secession along with her sister slave states.’’ Kennedy seems to remind the reader that what often seems like defeat is actually victory, and that victory does not always come with a grand gesture but rather in simple results.
With the example of Edmund G. Ross, Kennedy demonstrates that someone who appears to be the most susceptible to public pressures can turn out to be the most courageous individual. He writes in chapter seven, ‘‘But with no experience in political turmoil, no reputation in the Senate, no independent income and the most radical state in the Union to deal with, Ross was judged to be the most sensitive to criticism and the most certain to be swayed by expert tactics.’’ Kennedy goes on to show that anyone, even someone in as vulnerable a position as Ross, can muster the courage to face down the most intimidating circumstances. This is an inspiring lesson from a personal point of view and from a historical point of view. The reader feels that not only can anyone display great courage when principles are on the line, but also that America is a country where all members of Congress have equal power when it comes to voting.
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1956: Political figures often draw on America’s history for material in their public speeches and writing. Just as Kennedy explores examples of past courage in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, other high-ranking officials often address the American public by quoting past statesmen.
Today: Political figures continue to draw on America’s past when addressing the public. This demonstrates respect for the wisdom of those who served in the past. In his first speech as President-elect, George W. Bush reminds listeners of an election in early American history and then quotes the man elected, Thomas Jefferson.
1956: Two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, dominate the government. This two party system is described by Kennedy at every phase of the U.S. Senate’s history, starting as early as 1800, although the parties have changed.
Today: Today, the Democrats and the Republicans remain the two dominant political parties. Other parties, such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, are garnering more support, but they are still far from representing a real threat to either of the dominant parties.
1956: Communism is on the rise, the Cold War is in full force, and elected officials like Kennedy look to the past to find examples of political courage and integrity. It is an uncertain time in which many Americans feel threatened, and lessons from the past provide wisdom and comfort.
Today: Communism is in decline, the Cold War is over, and the United States has improved relations with countries such as Russia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) and China. Americans do not live in constant fear of nuclear attack or of an internal communist threat.
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A television series based on Kennedy’s book was produced by Robert Saudek Associates in 1964. It won the 1965 Peabody Award, a prize recognizing outstanding achievement in television. The series starred Walter Matthau, Burgess Meredith, and Carroll O’Connor.
In 1989, Caedmon Audio Cassettes released an audio adaptation of Profiles in Courage. The narrator for this audio version was Kennedy’s son John F. Kennedy Jr.
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Sources ‘‘And the Runner-Up Is (Notebook—President John F. Kennedy Wouldn’t Qualify for New Profiles in Courage Award Memorializing Him),’’ in New Republic, Vol. 200, No. 26, June 26, 1989, p. 8.
Gianakaris, C. J., ‘‘Plutarch,’’ in Twayne’s World Authors Series, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Hammer, Dean, ‘‘The Politics of Courage: Kennedy’s Profiles as Political Thought,’’ in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 1999, pp. 65–70.
Kaiser, David, ‘‘The Politician,’’ in New Republic, Vol. 189, November 21, 1983, pp. 15–18.
Review in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 5, p. 52.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., ‘‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy,’’ in Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7: 1961–1965, American Council of Learned Societies, 1981.
Further Reading Hostrop, Richard W., Leeona S. Hostrop, and John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage: Simulations Based on John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize Book (Etc. Simulation, No. 4), Etc. Publications, 1995. This book contains exercises and reenactments to help students better understand the events of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. From the Louisiana Purchase to the New Deal, students delve into controversial decisions and issues of American history.
James, Marquis, The Raven: A Biography of Sam Houston, University of Texas Press, 1988. Nobel Prize-winning author James delves into the life of Sam Houston in an effort to explore his early life and how it affected his actions as a major figure in Texas and United States history. This book won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for biography.
Mayes, Edward, Lucius Q. C. Lamar: His Life, Times, and Speeches, 1825–1893, AMS Press, 1974. In this lengthy book, Mayes provides a general overview of Lamar’s background and political career, including Lamar’s own words as he addressed the American public.
Nagel, Paul C., John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life, Knopf, 1997. Nagel, who has written other books on the Adams family, presents an honest look at the complex personality of John Quincy Adams. He describes Adams’s difficult temperament, his political struggles, and his opposition to slavery.
Norris, George William, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris, University of Nebraska Press, 1992. In his own words, Norris tells the story of his life, with special emphasis on his political beliefs. This book was written with the help of Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger.
Patterson, James T., Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft, Houghton Mifflin, 1972. This lengthy volume is one of the few biographies available of Robert A. Taft. It reviews his early life, demonstrating how Taft grew into an impassioned political figure.
Remini, Robert Vincent, Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time, W. W. Norton & Co., 1997. Remini presents a well-rounded view of Webster as a man who was an eloquent orator, an intelligent statesman, and sometimes a man of questionable morality. Critics praise this book for its complete and honest look at an intriguing figure in early American history.