Joseph P. Kennedy, center, links arms with his sons, John F. Kennedy, left, and Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (AP Photo)

As we head toward the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination later this year, a new book has revealed the striking differences between JFK and his father, Joe Kennedy, on the bedrock fact of American politics during that era: the Cold War. JFK’s declaration in his famous inaugural address is well known: the US should “pay any price, bear any burden” to fight communism everywhere in the world. Virtually unknown, until now, is the fact that a decade earlier his father had declared the entire Cold War “politically and morally” bankrupt.

This story is told in the new book The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by my friend David Nasaw. The New York Times named it one of the ten best books of 2012, but reviewers have barely mentioned Kennedy’s Cold War critique, focusing instead on his isolationist arguments at the outset of WWII.

Joe Kennedy’s position on the Cold War was simple: Communist rule of Russia and Eastern Europe, and also China and Korea, was terrible for the people who lived there, but not a threat to American security—and thus the US should not prepare to fight in all those places. Instead, American wealth and energy should be focused on developing the domestic economy.

Kennedy had been American ambassador to Britain before and during WWII and had been discredited and disgraced by his support for appeasement of Hitler. But with the beginning of the Cold War, he returned to public eye. 

On March 12, 1947, Truman asked Congress to provide military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey—which, he said, where threatened by Soviet aggression and subversion. “The free peoples of the world look to us for support,” Truman said. Historians regard that speech as the opening shot of the Cold War, proclaiming the doctrine of containment, the commitment of the US to challenge the USSR everywhere in the world outside the borders settled on at the end of WWII.

The very day Truman addressed Congress, Joe Kennedy was featured in a New York Times column (by Arthur Krock) where Kennedy argued that the US should focus not on fighting communism abroad but rather on restoring its peacetime economy, which, he felt, could easily slip back into depression. He said the US should  “permit communism outside the Soviet Union  to have its trial”—a statement that today seems amazing. “In most of these countries,” Joe Kennedy said, “a few years will demonstrate the inability of communism to achieve its promises.” 

The column “thrust Kennedy into the center of the national debate,” Nasaw writes. “His recommendations were immediately and universally condemned in editorial pages across the country as ‘the new appeasement.’”  The only public support for Joe Kennedy in The New York Times was a letter to the editor from A.J. Muste, the pacifist and leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

A month later The New York Times gave Kennedy space on the front page of the business section to defend his position. He argued there that spending millions to fight communism abroad should be opposed on economic grounds alone. The proposed Cold War military budgets, he argued, “will seriously affect the economic well-being of our country.”

Later that year he explained his position in a speech in Cambridge, Massachusetts: “I do not think it is the spread of Communism that is dangerous,” he said. People were embracing Communism because “they are discontented, insecure and unsettled and they embrace anything that looks like it might be better than what they have to endure.”

When the Korean War began in 1950, Joe Kennedy renewed his critique of the Cold War, calling Truman’s policies “suicidal” and “politically and morally” bankrupt. “He challenged every central tenet of the Cold War consensus,” Nasaw writes. The Soviets, Kennedy argued, were not committed to expanding their empire; Moscow did not control Communist parties and regimes everywhere in the world; negotiations with the Soviets would not be seen as weakness, and would not stimulate them to take aggressive actions.

What to do? “A first step…is to get out of Korea,” he declared, adding that the US should also “get out at every point in Asia we do not plan realistically to hold in our own defense”—that meant ending support for Chiang Kai-Shek in Formosa and for the French in Indo-China. And that was only the beginning: the next step was “to apply the same principle in Europe.” It was not the responsibility of the US to keep Asia, or for that matter Europe, from going communist. 

When it came to domestic politics, however, Joe Kennedy was hardly “soft on communism.” He was a big supporter of Joe McCarthy, and he sent flattering letters to J. Edgar Hoover, urging him to run for president. His purpose, Nasaw points out, was not to fight the Reds, but to gain Hoover’s assistance when he needed it.

Joe Kennedy’s fears that Cold War military spending and foreign aid would push the US economy back into Depression turned out to be erroneous. Especially in places like Southern California, the aerospace industry brought an economic golden age. But in the long run, Nasaw rightly suggests, Kennedy was not wrong. Spending on the military did divert investment from infrastructure, public education, industrial modernization and social programs. 

And some of Joe Kennedy’s predictions proved to be truly prescient. Joe argued in 1950 that “Mao in China is not likely to take his orders too long from Stalin”—and indeed the Sino-Soviet split came in 1960. Korea was a disaster and a defeat for the US, and of course Vietnam turned out to be far worse.  Eventually the US did have to give up on the Nationalists in Formosa. And in the longer run, Joe Kennedy was also right about the biggest issue of all: the USSR did collapse on its own.

FX's new show, The Americans, revisits the Cold War. Read Jon Wiener's analysis