A member of the public inquired of the NFLL about the degree of influence Jacqueline Kennedy may have had on President Kennedy’s foreign policy, and asked for specific secondary sources to begin research on the subject.
by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
At present, much of what we know regarding the rather substantial extent to which Jacqueline Kennedy was not only kept appraised of international issues and crises of her husband’s presidency but often weighed in with her own opinions or was participatory in discussions over the matters derives from interviews and oral histories of the principal figures, most of which seem to have been conducted for full-length biographies of her.
For example, the recollections of her deliberations on U.S.-Soviet relations stem from David Ormsby-Gore, known as “Lord Harlech,” the British Ambassador and close friend to both John and Jacqueline Kennedy. He gave an extensive interview on the matter with biographer David Heymann for his biography of the former First Lady in the late 1980’s. While the Heymann book makes what historians tend to consider some dubious claims regarding her personal life, it is also quite likely that the Harlech interview material would have been vigorously denied or eroded over time, especially since Mrs. Onassis was alive at the time it was published.
My own oral history biography of her, As We Remember Her, relied heavily in this area on interviews with former Defense Undersecretary Roswell Giltpatrick, whom I interviewed at his law office in 1995, presidential advisors Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorenson, also interviewed in that time period, then-astronaut and future U.S. Senator John Glenn, Senator Edward Kennedy, and John Kenneth Galbraith, economic advisor and U.S. Ambassador to India under JFK.
Along these lines, further material may be found if there are oral history transcripts at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library that have been opened to the public since my own research there in 1995 and 1996. I seem to recall that they have some fairly good finding aids which may now even be online and I was able to locate references to Jacqueline Kennedy in those oral histories that had been made by government officials, foreign heads of state or other diplomatic figures and which were then opened.
Also look at my two-volume history First Ladies, most especially the first few chapters of volume two, which cover the Kennedy years. Since publication I disclosed that Mrs. Onassis provided me with much of that material (in fact, she acted as an editor, though she requested no material be deleted). There are also references to her interest in foreign relations prior to her marriage in volume one. While I did another book, The Kennedy White House, I did not focus quite so intently on this aspect of her White House years.
Another good book which will illustrate Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal relationship with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is The Other Side of Mrs. Kennedy. The documentation in this book presents a good example of one bit of difficulty encountered in seeking primary source documentation. Quite often, as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy would hand write letters directly to heads of state and circumvent the State Department or other officials for any clearance: this was especially true of those with whom she’d developed a personal rapport, such as India’s Nehru and France’s DeGaulle.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the famous letter she wrote to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on her last night in the White House, addressing the issue of nuclear proliferation and her fear that it would not be the more responsible larger nations like the U.S. or U.S.S.R. which would resort to the use of mass destruction weaponry but rather smaller rouge nations.
There was no copy of this handwritten letter made and it was not released until many years later. It was first released in an edited version, in his memoirs.