Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot

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Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Sure to become the definitive book on the Kennedy years, Brothers concentrates on what is important rather than the merely sensational. It's highly recommended for students of history or even those who just want a good story.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847370822

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Jack Kennedy was assassinated the day before my college interview and afterwards I could remember little of what had been said. Rather than feeling that a door was opening I felt that a light had been snuffed out. The man who offered promise of a better world had been brutally murdered by a loan gunman. Nearly five years later I had a young baby and Senator Robert Kennedy seemed about to offer a light at the end of the dark tunnel of the Johnson Presidency with all the horrors of Vietnam, when he too was shot in the head. The world looked to Senator Edward Kennedy and sighed.

Nearly forty years have passed and much has been written about the lives and deaths of the Kennedy brothers. A lot of it has been pure sensationalism and some of the rest has sought to ruin the Kennedy reputation. Far from wishing not to speak ill of the dead it's seemed that all sorts of problems could be dropped on their toes with impunity. Add to this the fact that believing there was a conspiracy to murder either Kennedy invited scorn and placed you in the same ranks as those who doubted the moon landing and it was beginning to seem that the Kennedys would be doomed to a minor place in history. What was missing was a definitive look at the Kennedy Presidency, the assassination and the response of Bobby Kennedy to his brother's murder. Brothers fills that gap perfectly.

I'll start by saying what the book isn't. If you're looking for a sensational account of Jack Kennedy's philandering then this isn't the book for you. Marilyn Monroe doesn't even merit a mention in the index and Judith Campbell Exner is mentioned only in passing and not as Kennedy's mistress. At the beginning of Brothers I did wonder if it was going to be pure hagiography, but there's no attempt to deny Jack Kennedy's sexual proclivities. They're mentioned when they're relevant to what happened but not otherwise.

David Talbot takes an analytical look at the period from the Kennedy inauguration in January 1961 to the assassination in November 1963 and then at the period up to Bobby Kennedy's death. It's a wide-ranging book with source notes to back up the assertions Talbot makes and there's a substantial bibliography. Events such as the Bay of Pigs, the race riots at the University of Mississippi and the Cuban Missile Crisis are looked at in detail from the international perspective and also to consider the enemies the brothers made through their actions.

What's particularly well documented is Kennedy's growing realisation that his enemies were not the Russians - he got on particularly well with Khrushchev - or even Fidel Castro, but parts of his own government - the military, the FBI and the CIA - or the anti-Castro Cuban émigrés and the Mafia. They'd been used by Joe Kennedy to get his son elected and then pursued relentlessly by Bobby Kennedy as Attorney General. It's a miracle either brother lived as long as he did. Talbot also captures Jack Kennedy's political development well, sensing the change in Kennedy as he moved from an intellectual agreement that integration and equal rights for all were necessary to actually feeling an emotional involvement with the cause. His telling of the development of Robert Kennedy from being 'Bobby' in Jack's shadow to Senator Robert Kennedy about to receive the Democratic Party nomination is worth the cover price of the book on its own. Had I not known what was going to happen I would have wept as I read.

The book reads as an excellent and compelling story. Many a fiction writer would do well to read Talbot to see how a story should be told. If you want to read without looking at the source notes you will still have a meaty book, but I found the sources as compelling as the story. Talbot draws on published sources and has conducted numerous interviews. He's not averse to quoting people who don't support his view of what happened.

And what did happen? Well, after reading the book I'm convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald may well have been in the Texas Book Depository with a rifle from which shots were fired but I think he was the fall-guy for a group of conspirators some of whom were within the government. I suspect that Lyndon Johnson knew who they were as did Robert Kennedy. The fact that Robert Kennedy said that he would reopen the investigation into his brother's assassination may well have been the cause of his own death.

One part of the book did reduce me to tears. Speaking to a Mormon Tabernacle assembly in Salt Lake City just two months before his death Jack Kennedy said that America must learn to live in "a world of diversity" where no power would dominate the world. "We must first of all recognize that we cannot remake the world simply by our own command." He then added "When we cannot even bring all of our own people into full citizenship without acts of violence, we can understand how much harder it is to control events beyond our borders." It does seem that the messages of history are easily read but never learned.

I'd like to thank the publishers, Simon and Schuster, for sending me this wonderful book. It's one to treasure and reread.

If this period of American history interests you then you might also enjoy reading Simon Junger's A Death in Belmont.

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Buy Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot at

Booklists.jpg Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years by David Talbot is in the Top Ten Books on President John F Kennedy.


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Jeannine Baker said:

What is Talbot's position on the Kennedy years? Is he a supporter of the Kennedy's or is he on the other side of the fence? I am asking for a particular reason, that being, in the past decade or so, a number of books have come out exposing the Kennedy . This one is written in a postive note.

Sue replied:

Talbot is definitely a Kennedy supporter and the book is written sympathetically but not sycophantically. Weaknesses are acknowledged but not dwelt on and there is no hint of sensationalism.

Richard Phillips said:

As mentioned in your review, David Talbot did the exact same thing, totally ignored Marilyn Monroe, in his book about the CIA Chief Allen Dulles, “The Devils Chessboard.” I can assure you, the CIA and FBI had a large file on the Kennedys and Monroe. Richard Phillips