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Where was John F. Kennedy on the ideological spectrum?

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Reading this provocative and compelling analysis of John F. Kennedy’s political vision, I could not help but think of the reaction Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had when his colleague John P. Diggins told him he was writing a book favorable to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “Please,” Schlesinger said, “don’t make him look too good.” If Schlesinger were still alive and able to read Stoll’s new account, he would undoubtedly turn purple. One thing is certain: Ira Stoll’s Kennedy is not the same as Arthur Schlesinger’s. 

JFK

For a long time, the writers who evaluated the brief Kennedy presidency have discussed him as the epitome of liberalism, as a president who carried out the liberal agenda and paved the way for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and its dramatic increase of the welfare state from New Deal days. 

What Ira Stoll has accomplished is the first real challenge to this consensus view, which has been widely shared by both historians and journalists. Stoll argues that Kennedy’s politics and programs, rather than being liberal in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, were closer to those of Ronald Reagan than to anyone else. Stoll argues, and presents evidence to back up his claim, that Kennedy was a conservative by both the standards of his own day and ours. 

As president, Kennedy increased military spending; but in other areas, he sought to drastically reduce government expenditures. He sought to obtain economic growth not through deficits but through tax cuts that, he believed, would promote a healthy economy and eventually increase government revenue—without having to impose new taxes to build the government’s monetary well-being. When Reagan was president and promoted his own program of cutting tax rates, he accurately cited Kennedy’s precedent and said that he was following in JFK’s footsteps.  

In a number of speeches, Reagan, quoting Kennedy’s own words, argued for what he called “a cut in tax rates across the board.” And JFK, Reagan said, “was proven right.” Those Kennedy tax cuts, Reagan told fellow Republicans, produced more revenue for the government by stimulating the economy, which led to more people getting jobs and being productive. Reagan’s own proposed cuts, he declared, were “based on the same principle.” And those cuts, he said in 1982, were “the first decent tax program since John Kennedy’s tax cut nearly 20 years ago.”

We should not forget that, at the time, liberal Democrats were aghast at Kennedy’s policies. John Kenneth Galbraith complained that they were wrong and urged Kennedy, instead, to increase government spending.  Friend, adviser, and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen called Kennedy’s speech advocating tax cuts “the worst” he ever gave. When Kennedy asked Senator Albert Gore Sr. what he thought he should do about a tax cut, Gore answered, “Forget it.” Gore thought that money should be put into the public sector, not the private one. Kennedy sought, without success, to persuade Gore to the contrary—and he stood firm in opposition to Gore’s standard liberal views about tax policy.

On other issues of the day, Stoll shows, Kennedy can be seen to have favored policies regularly endorsed by conservatives, then and now. In foreign policy, Kennedy adhered to hawkish policies opposed by those who sought what they believed to be a more nuanced, less confrontational attitude towards the Soviet Union and America’s other enemies. In one of his 1960 debates with Richard Nixon, Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon on the issue of what to do about Fidel Castro’s increasingly Communist revolution, stating that he favored American support for Castro’s opponents, which Nixon believed to be a violation of the U.N. Charter.  

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy sought ways to prevent nuclear war, but opposed suggestions from administration liberals to avoid a quarantine or blockade. That kind of provocation, they believed, might well lead to war. Kennedy’s goal, however, was not just to avoid war but to avoid it through what Stoll calls a “skillful use of American military power” in conjunction with the quarantine, which, along with diplomacy, eventually forced Nikita Khrushchev to back down. 

Stoll reveals that historians dealing with Kennedy’s famous 1963 speech at American University—in which he called for the United States to “reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union”—have taken the speech out of context in order to suggest that it was Kennedy’s defining approach to world affairs. Left out are other lines in which Kennedy said, for example, that “as Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity.”