John F. Kennedy: Conservative?
This November 22 will be the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He was admired, respected, and considered a martyr by a wide range of Americans. In 2010, a Gallup Poll gave JFK an astonishing 85% approval rating, evidence that nearly all Americans respected him as a president, regardless of political ideology, walk of life, race, sex, or religion. While examining some of his administration's fiscal and foreign policies, it becomes apparent that President Kennedy leaned towards conservatism -- and that he might even have been labeled a conservative had he lived in the present day.
One part of JFK's persona that can be respected by any conservative is his admirable quality of taking responsibility for his decisions. High marks have to be given for his statements following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Unlike the current president, who blames anything and everyone but himself, Kennedy never blamed the Eisenhower administration, who came up with the Bay of Pigs plan, nor any of the advisors. The press release made it clear to the media and public that Kennedy was the one accountable and that it was he who made the final decision: "President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as President he bears sole responsibility[.] ... [T]he President is strongly opposed to anyone within or without the administration accepting to shift the responsibility." In a press conference, he made the now famous statement: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan," and to his staff, "I am the president; I did not have to do what all of you recommended. I am responsible."
Looking at both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the subsequent Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Americans saw an attitude of peace through strength. Ira Stoll in his book, JFK, Conservative, noted that Kennedy rejected the liberal argument to just leave the missiles in Cuba. Stoll is upset that "people never hear that side -- only the thoughts of the so called war-mongers. Yes, Kennedy showed restraint, but his decision was not based on pacifism. Something else no one ever talks about, which I do in my book, is how Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in their bestselling books edited out lines when talking about Kennedy's 1963 American University speech defending the test ban treaty. They rewrote history. The lines they removed were 'As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. We shall be prepared if others wish it [i.e., for war]. We shall be alert to try to stop it.' They distorted history, and my hope is people will realize that this image portraying Kennedy as a liberal is undermined."
Painting Kennedy as an anti-Cold Warrior still occurs today with recent books such as Jeff Greenfields If Kennedy Lived: An Alternate History. In the book, the author attempts to show Kennedy changing his attitude and becoming a non-Cold Warrior by citing speeches given in the last year of his life. Renowned historian Robert Dallek disagrees with this attitude. He told American Thinker that his series of books on Kennedy, his latest being Camelot's Court: Inside The Kennedy White House, is based upon documents and records, "not skewed oral histories. It is important to present both sides. I don't want to proselytize or convert anyone to a certain point of view. I want my readers to think, analyze, and raise questions."
In answering the question, "was Kennedy a Cold Warrior?" Dallek unequivocally believes that "Kennedy was not a pacifist. He was determined to avoid a nuclear war, but so was President Reagan. Both understood what horrible weapons they were, and both were absolutely focused on preserving the security of the U.S. in a rational and sensible manner. The notion that JFK was ready to embrace the Soviet Union without qualification is nonsense. Kennedy was a tough-minded Cold Warrior and was never a patsy when dealing with the Soviet Union. Just look at his policy in Latin America, and even Viet Nam. He saw the Communists in those areas as aggressors. He did not want to lose Viet Nam to the Communists but was against using massive ground forces."
Two other 1963 speeches also show that Kennedy was not going to capitulate to the Russians, was strong on national security, and understood that America was fighting a cold war. Unlike the current president, Kennedy went to a foreign country but never apologized for America's greatness. Instead, in the famous Berlin Speech, he emphasized:
There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.
James Swanson, in his latest book, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, includes the speech Kennedy was to give in Dallas, showing how the president recognized the aggressive nature of the Communists:
... voices preaching doctrines wholly unsuited to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons...our adversaties have not abanodned their ambitions, our dangers have not diministhed, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom...that we may exercise our strength with widom and restraint.
President Kennedy was also a fiscal conservative, as he argued to substantially reduce the debt, to reduce the tax rates from 91% to 65%, to reduce the capital gains tax to 19%, and balance the budget. Stoll commented to American Thinker that liberals denounced these ideas, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, who called Kennedy's economic speech "the most Republican speech since McKinley," and Al Gore, Sr., who said it was "a bonanza for fat cats."
Reading Kennedy's defense of his economic speech, people would think that it was uttered by one of today's Republicans:
The reason the government is in deficit is because you've got more than four million people unemployed and because the last five years you've had rather a sluggish growth. I am in favor of a tax cut because I'm concerned that we are going to have an increase in unemployement and that we may move into a period of economic downturn. I think this tax cut can give the stimulus to our economy over the next two to three years. I think it will provide for greater national wealth... I think it is in the best economic interests of this country, unless this country just wants to drag along, have five or six million people unemployed, have profits reduced, not have economic prospects, and have our budget unbalanced by a much larger proportion.
Swanson and Stoll feel that conservatives should embrace JFK. They argue that for the past hundred years, liberals have tried to hijack the legacy of Lincoln, stating that today he would never have been a Republican. The authors feel that conservatives should taker a closer look at Kennedy, understanding that many of the issues he believed in had a conservative leaning. It is about time Kennedy was seen as a patriot who believed that America was a great nation and intiated policies that would continue to make America stronger and greater.
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.