John F Kennedy

1957 Books – Award-Winning Biographies

1957 was a banner year for biographers. Of the eighteen books honored with National Book Awards for non-fiction, nine volumes told the tale of lives lived in dramatic and historic ways.

American readers were interested in leaders. United States Presidents and Senators, and one English King were profiled in six books. Science was also a topic of interest. Two multi-talented men – a physicist and a naturalist – penned autobiographies. Finally, the only female biographer memorialized the only female subject – a nun.

The Presidents? Franklin D. Roosevelt – who the public still revered – two volumes. John Quincy Adams – one volume. The Senators – one volume exclusively dedicated to Thomas Hart Benton, and another volume covering a selection of eight iconoclastic legislators who defied their parties in memorable ways (including then-Senator John Quincy Adams and Thomas Hart Benton). The King? The embattled, possibly deformed “Son of York” – Richard III.

Physicist Arthur H. Compton recounted his contribution to the Manhattan Project. Naturalist Edwin W. Teale took readers on a cross-country autumn jaunt.

And Kathryn Hulme shared the early experiences of Belgian-born Sister Luke, still alive at the time The Nun’s Story was published. Hulme met Sister Xaverine (Marie Louise Habets’ real religious name) when they were both serving in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration after World War II. Sister Luke’s story was also made into a 1959 popular movie, starring Audrey Hepburn.

Americans were not only interested in leaders as subjects of biography, they were also interested in leaders as biographers. Then-Senator and future President John F. Kennedy penned the senatorial collection, Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer prize for biography in 1957. Profiles in Courage is also one of only two awarded volumes still in print. Professor Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III (still considered the academic standard biography) is the other.

The list of award finalists (in alphabetical order by author):

  • John Quincy Adams and the Union, by Samuel F. Bemis
  • Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, by James MacGregor Burns
  • Old Bullion Benton, by William Chambers
  • The Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative, by Arthur H. Compton
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph, by Frank Freidel
  • The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme
  • Richard III, by Paul Murray Kendall
  • Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy
  • Autumn Across America, by Edwin W. Teale

Image Credits: Alfred A. Knopf; Harcourt, Brace & Co; Little, Brown & Co; Oxford University Press; Allen & Unwin; Harper & Brothers; Dodd, Mead & Co/


July 2, 1957 – Sen. John F Kennedy’s Controversial Speech: “Imperialism – The Enemy of Freedom”

John F Kennedy Speech

Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts

On July 2, 1957, John F Kennedy, the very junior United States senator from Massachusetts, upset almost everyone in the Washington, DC power elite – including his own Democratic party – with a speech to the assembled Senate on the folly of modern-day imperialism.  The immediate context for his speech, “Imperialism – The Enemy of Freedom,” was France’s ongoing repression of revolutionary forces in their colony of Algeria.  But Kennedy looked beyond North Africa to the Middle East and the Arab world.  How, he asked, could the United States best promote change and prevent Communism in this region?  Not with military force and a Cold War “us against them” mentality, he maintained.  He proposed that advocates for freedom in the Arab world would likely be as opposed to Western military interventions as to Communist takeovers.  He began his speech with the following statement:

“Mr. President, the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb not the guided missile – it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent.  The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called, for want of a more precise term, imperialism – and today that means Soviet imperialism and, whether we like it or not, and though they are not to be equated, Western imperialism.

“Thus the single most important test of American policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man’s desire to be free.   On this test more than any other, this Nation shall be ethically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa, and anxiously watched by the still hopeful lovers of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.  If we fail to meet the challenge of either Soviet or Western imperialism, then no amount of foreign aid, no aggrandizement of armaments, no new pacts or doctrines or high-level conferences can prevent further setbacks to our course and to our security.”

Kennedy pointed out that the Western nations’ stated policies of commitment to freedom clashed with our actions repressing Algerian desire for self-rule.  Our hypocritical stance, he believed, has “furnished powerful ammunition to anti-Western propagandists throughout Asia and the Middle East.”  He reminded the Senate of our nation’s revolutionary beginnings, and our dependence on French foreign aid to champion our cause with the British.  He contrasted terrorism and political revolution in this way:

” Terrorism must be combated, not condoned, it is said; it is not right to ‘negotiate with murderers’ . . . . The fever chart of every successful revolution . . . reveals a rising temperature of terrorism and counterterrorism; but this does not of itself invalidate the legitimate goals that fired the original revolution.  Most political revolutions – including our own – have been buoyed by outside aid in men, weapons, and ideas.  Instead of abandoning African nationalism to the anti-Western agitators and Soviet agents who hope to capture its leadership, the United States, a product of political revolution, must redouble its efforts to earn the respect and friendship of nationalist leaders.”

Negative reactions – furor and consternation – followed Kennedy’s speech, along with a flood of mail.  Widely covered by the press, this speech brought more mail to his Senate office than any other Kennedy delivered as a member of that body.  Historians see it as a key event on his road to the presidency.

Image Credit: The Boston Globe

Where Were They Then? – Ben Bradlee

Ben Bradlee at Newsweek's Washington bureau, late 1950s. Photo: Mike Lien, The New York Times-Redux

Ben Bradlee at Newsweek’s Washington bureau, late 1950s. Photo: Mike Lien, The New York Times-Redux

Benjamin Crowninshield “Ben” Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, was a towering figure in American journalism with a rich family history (literally and figuratively) and a broad experience of life and the world. His family relations and close friendships included Old World royalty and New World privilege. He moved among people who made the news and then made sure they were the news. He is best known for giving Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein free rein to follow the slim story of the Watergate Apartments break-in to its damning conclusion, ultimately bringing down President Richard M. Nixon and radically remaking the journalism profession for all who followed. Bradlee not only served his country by pursuing the truth, he also served in the Pacific during World War II as an naval intelligence officer. He participated in numerous operations including the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle ever fought. After the war, Bradlee immediately started on his career as a reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News, Newsweek, and the Washington Post.

Where was Ben in 1957? Through a connection at the Post, Bradlee had been assigned to the United States French embassy in 1951 as a press attaché. There he joined the staff of the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), which produced Pro-American films, magazines, research, speeches, and news items for use by the CIA throughout Europe (propaganda, if you like). Bradlee’s official role with USIE ended in 1953 and he began reporting for Newsweek in 1954.

In 1956, Ben interviewed members of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), or National Liberation Front of Algeria. The FLN was a socialist political party with a revolutionary guerilla arm fighting to liberate colonial Algeria from control by France. The war of liberation lasted from 1954 until 1962, when the French government agreed to a cease-fire, Algerian independence, and mutual cooperation between the two countries.

As a  American resident of France, working as a foreign correspondent, Bradlee’s contact with Algerian forces was not looked upon favorably by the French authorities. His background in intelligence raised red flags – was he really just a reporter for Newsweek, or was something else going on? A biographer of Post publisher Katharine Graham, Deborah Davis, later described Bradlee’s actions in 1956 as having “all the earmarks of an intelligence operation.” “I flew back to Paris, and next morning went to see Ambassador Dillon to let him know what I had been up to in Algeria,” Bradlee wrote in The Good Life: Newspapers and Other Adventures, his 1995 memoir. “When I got back to my office on the Rue de Berri in a taxi, I was suddenly surrounded by cops and black Citroens. Two cops got me by the elbows, lifting me off the pavement, and asked me to come along with them.”

Bradlee’s recent marriage to Antoinette Pinchot added to the suspicion. Toni was closely tied to two CIA figures in France – her brother-in-law Cord Meyer, and James Jesus Angleton, the husband of a good friend. Ben and Toni’s circle of connections seemed to indicate that Bradlee might have been doing more with the FLN than taking notes.

Consequently, Bradlee was no longer welcome in France. He returned to Washington in 1957 and continued working at Newsweek. Ben and Toni bought a house in the prestigious Washington, DC suburb of Georgetown. Very soon after, a new power couple moved in down the street: Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline. “I was on a roll being in the right place at the right time, a luck that stayed with me,” Bradlee wrote in The Good Life. For Bradlee, the year 1957 was the year he put his career on a fast track. Building an intimate friendship with future-President Kennedy would ultimately boost Ben’s professional credentials and provide insights and access into the halls of government.

Four years later, Newsweek was bought by the Washington Post. Bradlee played an instrumental role in the acquisition. Now at the Post, Ben moved up the ladder to become “the most lauded and influential American journalist of his era.”