|Cover of the 2008 edition of A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy.|
|President John F. Kennedy in Ireland, June 1963.|
When he was a young man, John F. Kennedy had dreams of being a writer. The second son of Joe and Rose Kennedy, he was not the golden boy his older brother, Joe Jr., was. Joe Jr. was hale and robust, while Jack, as John was known to his friends and family, was frail and sickly, plagued by a bad back and constant stomach problems. After Jack wrote his senior thesis, his father helped him get it published in 1940. Titled Why England Slept, it was an examination of the policy of appeasement under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s administration. Why England Slept became a surprise best-seller, and by the middle of 1941, sales totaled 80,000 copies. Not bad for a senior thesis.
After Joe Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1944, Jack was thrust into the limelight. He picked up Joe Jr.’s nascent political career, running for the House of Representatives in 1946. But Jack still had literary ambitions. His second, and most famous book, Profiles in Courage, was released in 1956 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, which added to Kennedy’s prestige and his rising national profile. From the moment Profiles in Courage appeared there were allegations that Kennedy himself didn’t write the book, and it’s now widely accepted by most historians that the book was largely the work of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen.
Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants is quite obscure compared to Profiles in Courage. I consider myself to be a fairly well-informed Kennedy buff, and I didn’t know about A Nation of Immigrants until just recently. I decided that 2017 seemed like an opportune time to read the book, given the current political climate.
A Nation of Immigrants was originally published by the Anti-Defamation League in 1959, when Kennedy was still a Senator. During his Presidency, Kennedy pushed for immigration reform, wanting to change the outdated quota system, and he also planned to expand and revise A Nation of Immigrants. He was assassinated before the revisions were completed, and the book was republished in 1964, with an introduction by Bobby Kennedy. The immigration reform bill that Kennedy had proposed to Congress in 1963 was eventually passed in 1965.
A Nation of Immigrants is a slim volume; there are just 51 pages of text by Kennedy, plus a generous photo section and a chronology of American immigration bringing it up to 85 pages in the updated 2008 edition. However, the book still makes an impact, as it is very clear that immigration was an issue of great importance to John F. Kennedy.
This is one of my favorite passages in the book:
“Another way of indicating the importance of immigration to America is to point out that every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.” (p.2) This simple truth bears repeating, especially at this time in our history.
In Kennedy’s proposal to liberalize immigration status, he said, “Our investments in new citizens has always been a valuable source of our strength.” (p.81) This is quite true, as new groups add richness to the texture of America.
Another of my favorite quotes came from a Chattanooga Times editorial, written just after Kennedy’s proposal was announced in 1963: “The time to worry about immigration is when people stop wanting to come to this country.” (p.85) My thoughts exactly.
A Nation of Immigrants is not often discussed by Kennedy scholars. Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life, doesn’t even mention the book at all. However, Thurston Clarke, in his 2013 book JFK’s Last Hundred Days, writes of A Nation of Immigrants “it is possibly the most passionate, bitter, and controversial book ever written by a serious presidential candidate.” (p.156) That judgement might need to be revised in the age of Donald Trump. I don’t know enough about all of the books written by presidents, or presidential candidates, to pass perfect judgement on Clarke’s claim. But certainly A Nation of Immigrants took a bold stance on an issue that was not always popular in Kennedy’s time, and is still a volatile issue in politics today.