This week I threw it to the friends in my Facebook community (join us!) for requests about what I should write about for the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, which falls this Friday. I got a massive response—scores of questions. All this week I’ll be addressing the most popular and interesting ones.
The very first reply that came in was this: “I can never hear enough about how a liberal Massachusetts Democrat used intelligence and creative intelligence and creative diplomacy to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and saved us all from nuclear annihilation.” With all due respect to the questioner, a smart and experienced liberal activist, plus the five folks who gave the question a thumbs-up on Facebook, I wondered initially whether his question wasn’t meant as snark—that he might be referring to Garry Wills’s very convincing argument that the Cuban Missile Crisis was all Kennedy’s fault. As it happens, I agree with Wills: I don’t think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis is something we should celebrate at all.
Wills made the case in the final section of his 1982 book The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Early in his term Kennedy fell in love with a plan, left over from Eisenhower’s administration, to send exiles to invade and overthrow Castro via a landing at the Bahía de Cochinos—the Bay of Pigs. He liked it so much because it was Kennedyesque: “A James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs.” A failed invasion, his fault; then, despite the conventional wisdom that he learned from the failure, rather than leave well enough alone, Kennedy’s CIA kept on proliferating increasingly knuckle-headed schemes (exploding cigars!) to assassinate Castro, some using Mafia operatives. One set of plans on the drawing boards: “Operation Northwoods,” which proposed, among other ideas, creating the pretext for another American invasion. James Bamford wrote that the goal of the project was “for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro.”
We sometimes hear the argument that Kennedy never knew how about the depths to which such madcap plotting sunk, which were indeed always devised to protect the president via maximal “plausible deniability”—but what is undeniable is that the ultimate aim, overthrowing Castro, came straight from the top. The American people didn’t know about any of this, but the Cuban government did. So no wonder they wanted nukes. But there are also outstanding arguments that JFK’s admittedly outstanding and mature diplomacy once the missiles were placed in Cuba did not save us from nuclear annihilation at all. The logic of deterrence rendered those missiles virtually useless. For if a Communist first strike was launched from the Soviet Union, America could destroy the Cuban missiles before they could be used during this long time window; if the missiles from Cuba struck first, the president would have time to push the proverbial button and annihilate the Soviet Union. The only thing those Cuban missiles were useful for, in fact, was preventing America from illegally overthrowing the Castro government. So if you think that’s a splendid thing, yes, celebrate Kennedy for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise: not so impressive.
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Next up! “I’d love to read your take on Ira Stoll’s book arguing that JFK was actually a conservative.”
The book is JFK, Conservative. Here’s the blurb: “[B]y the standards of both his time and our own, John F. Kennedy was a conservative. His two great causes were anticommunism and economic growth. His tax cuts, which spurred one of the greatest economic booms in our history, were fiercely opposed by his more liberal advisers. He fought against unions. He pushed for free trade and a strong dollar. And above all, he pushed for a military buildup and an aggressive anticommunism around the world…. Not every Republican is a true heir to Kennedy, but hardly any Democrats deserve that mantle.”
I have, of course, heard such claims for ages. What to make of them? Granted, I haven’t read the book, and maybe Stoll’s supporting arguments are so subtly brilliant that he’s suddenly rendered them convincing. But he’d have to be smarter than Einstein to do so. It’s not a great start that the blurb advertising his book contains a basic logical error. One can’t be a conservative “by the standards of both his time and our own,” the space in between being some fifty years filled with massive social changes on virtually every front, any more than something can be simultaneously matter and anti-matter. What is considered “conservative,” and what is considered “liberal,” changes in any given era. Calling tax cuts “conservative,” as such, is shockingly historically ignorant: the idea of tax-cutting as a signature conservative gesture dates only to the late 1970s and the arguments of supply-siders like Jude Wanniski. When Wanniski made his arguments to Ronald Reagan’s very conservative adviser Peter Hannaford in 1976, Hannaford looked at Wanniski like he was crazy and walked away; the previous year, liberal Democrats were the ones pushing a $29.2 billion permanent tax cut as against President Ford’s wish for $16 billion in temporary tax cuts.
As for Kennedy’s tax cut specifically (which was actually Johnson’s tax cut: it went through early in 1964, and are conservatives now claiming Johnson as one of their own?), the historian David Greenberg niftily put paid to that in a piece Stoll must have missed when it came out ten years ago. Yes, the law that passed ended up lowering the top marginal tax rate from 91 to 70 percent, and if Stoll is willing to join the Kennedy-Johnson bandwagon by bringing back that top rate, I’m glad to join him. But the blunt fact of the matter was that the tax cut was designed to create a deficit, and designed to mostly put money into poorer consumers’ pockets: it was explicitly Kenyesian, through and through—the opposite of Reaganite “supply-side” thinking. Businessmen—conservatives—mostly hated it. Because, back then, it was “conservative” to favor fiscal probity even if it took higher taxes to do it.
OK: “He fought against unions.” Um, he fought against union corruption. If Stoll thinks liberals prefer corrupt unions, I don’t know what to say to him. That’s generally the conservative line. As Barry Goldwater said during the hearings Kennedy helped run in the late 1950s that took on Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters, “I’d rather have Jimmy Hoffa stealing my money than Walter Reuther stealing my freedom.”
What about Kennedy’s anticommunism? Was that “conservative”? Sure, if you’re stupid beyond stupid. Anticommunism in its modern form was invented by liberals like Harry Truman, the architect of the national security state. The proportion of the voting population that was not anticommunist in 1961 was miniscule. Here’s another, related, question from one of my Facebook friends, another five-thumbs-up popular favorite: “I’d love a perspective on his brand of liberal anticommunism and how it fit in to the era.” What did it mean to be a conservative anticommunist during that time? Mostly, it meant being idiotic. Barry Goldwater’s 1962 book on the subject, Why Not Victory?, built on the argument in the last chapter of Conscience of a Conservative that it should be America’s foreign policy to blithely welcome nuclear war if that was what it took to “advance the cause of freedom.” Yes, literally.
Conservatives like Goldwater (not to mention conservatives in the John Birch Society, who believed the most important thing to know about Communism was that its denizens had infiltrated the federal government all the way to the top, but maybe Ira Stoll agrees?) also believed it was futile to negotiate with the Soviet Union about anything. Why was this especially idiotic? Because historically, relaxation in tensions between the US and the USSR had always been the variable most likely to weaken the hold of totalitarianism with the Soviet Union, opening space for the dissidents whose courage eventually brought down the system. (Conservatives habitually travesty both historical fact and the courageous legacy of these dissidents when they argue otherwise.)
Now, as I noted above, Kennedy’s anticommunism could be stupid, too. But it was most stupid when it was most conservative—see above.
So why is it accurate to say that Kennedy was affirmatively liberal—if too often, as we’ll examine next time, a timid one? For one, because he said he was, out and proud, for instance in this most useful of utterances: “If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad—if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.”
The proof was in the pudding. His first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, remembered now because Kennedy looked hale and ruddy and Nixon looked sweaty and haggard, should also be remembered for Kennedy’s central policy argument: free medical care for the aged, what would later come to pass as Medicare, as an affirmation and extension of the New Deal legacy:
“I want the individuals to meet their responsibilities. And I want the states to meet their responsibilities. But I think there is also a national responsibility. The argument has been used against every piece of social legislation in the last twenty-five years. The people of the United States individually could not have developed the Tennessee Valley; collectively they could have. A cotton farmer in Georgia or a peanut farmer or a dairy farmer in Wisconsin and Minnesota, he cannot protect himself against the forces of supply and demand in the market place; but working together in effective governmental programs he can do so. Seventeen million Americans, who live over sixty-five on an average Social Security check of about seventy-eight dollars a month, they’re not able to sustain themselves individually, but they can sustain themselves through the social security system.”
Kennedy went on, slapping Ira Stoll down from beyond the grave:
“[W]hat is the party record that we lead? I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I’ve discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last twenty-five years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?”
That’s why John F. Kennedy was a liberal, which happens to be why I am a liberal too.
Wendell Berry commemorates the assassination of JFK in his poem “The Light of all His Last Days.”