For more than a month the press has been reporting that Caroline Kennedy is going to be appointed by President Obama as Ambassador to Japan. Nothing has happened officially yet, so perhaps a snag has developed, but I must say that I scratched my head when I heard the news and haven't been able to get it out of my mind ever since. It's not that I have anything against Caroline Kennedy at all, on the contrary. I once met her at a Kennedy Library event and she was as gracious and charming as she could be. She has had an emotionally difficult life, however privileged it might have been in some respects, and she played an important role in 2008 in getting Barack Obama the Democratic nomination. But if she is indeed appointed, it will be yet another piece of evidence of the enormous changes in the business of governing in the fifty years since her father was President.
John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960 arguing that the United States was in a worldwide Cold War with the Soviets and Communism, one involving both the older great powers of Europe and Asia and the new emerging nations. America's representatives in those nations, he believed, could be critical assets or liabilities in that struggle. He also enjoyed bringing contemporaries with experience in public service into the government. He put Chester Bowles, himself a former and future Ambassador to India, in charge of picking new Ambassadors. His non-career appointments were different than most Presidents', as I have particular reason to know, because they had nothing to do with financial contributions to his campaign. Instead, he and Bowles looked for smart, articulate men from journalism, the academy, and other forms of government service to sell the New Frontier. To serve as Ambassador to India he picked the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who obviously knew a great deal about economic development. To France he sent retired General James Gavin, who had worked with foreign military leaders as the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in the Second World War. He brought George F. Kennan, whom John Foster Dulles had fired from the State Department, out of retirement to become Ambassador to Yugoslavia, which under Marshall Tito had declared its independence from the Soviet bloc. My own father, Philip M. Kaiser, who had represented the United States in Geneva at meetings of the International Labor Organization for about five years, became Ambassador to Senegal, where he could put his knowledge of French to good use. Guinea, down the coast, was a particularly sensitive nation because it had a leftist leader, Sekou Toure, and Kennedy sent William Attwood, another francophone and the Foreign Editor of Look Magazine, to Guinea. And for Japan he chose Edwin Reischauer, a Harvard Professor who was probably the country's leading expert in Japanese politics. Carl Rowan, one of the country's leading Negro journalists (to use the contemporary term), became Ambassador to neutral Finland. Mercer Cook, a black professor of French at Howard University, became Ambassador to Niger and eventually succeeded my father in Senegal. Those are the ones I remember, but I know they are not the only non-career people Kennedy appointed.
It occurred to me the other day, winding up my Williams College class on Vietnam and trying to summarize the war's impact, that the Cold War had in a weird way been good for the US government and for government all over the world. The new nations were going to need governments and might follow the US or the Soviet model. That gave the American President a keen interest in helping them develop and making sure that they were constantly exposed to impressive and effective US representatives. It also, of course, gave us an incentive to make our own system work which we lost when Communism collapsed. The Congo was another battleground in 1960 and the US spent years establishing a stable government there. That government, under Joseph Mobutu, rapidly turned into a corrupt dictatorship, but it was a government. The Congo has now been in a state of chaos for over a decade, but since there is no longer a Cold War in progress, no one in the wider world seems to care very much. Governments of all kinds are much weaker than they were in my youth, and I fear they may have become much too weak for the good of the citizenry.
Japan is a major economic power, on the doorstep of worrisome North Korea,. and with steadily worsening relations with China. It needs an Ambassador who speaks Japanese and knows the history and politics of the country, and who also enjoys the confidence of Secretary Kerry and the President. Caroline Kennedy will undoubtedly rely upon her professional staff if she is chosen, and I hope she does well. But I can't honesty think that her knowledge or experience particularly qualifies her for a very important diplomatic role.