Air University Review, March-April 1967

Kennedy and Defense
The formative years

Dr. Jean Edward Smith

John F. Kennedy’s concern with military affairs is well known. His early exposure to wartime diplomacy in England, his Harvard thesis on England’s unpreparedness (later published as Why England Slept), and his European tour on the outbreak of World War II are matters of common knowledge. His Navy career in the South Pacific is familiar to every schoolboy. His subsequent labors as a foreign correspondent, his interest in history, his fondness for martial trinkets, even the decor of his personal office attest to a continuing concern in things military. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, John Kennedy was at home with the military.1 Problems of national security attracted and excited him. Much of his campaign for the Presidency focused on America’s position in world affairs. When he became President, it is not surprising that defense and diplomacy occupied the major portion of his time.2

But to say that one is interested in national security says little about the nature of that interest. General Curtis LeMay and Bertrand Russell are also interested in national security—and there the similarity ends. President Kennedy’s interest differed from both theirs. As a Harvard undergraduate he had seen the price England paid for its unpreparedness. As a newsman covering the San Francisco and Potsdam conferences he recognized the difficulties in reaching a great-power accord. And as a veteran of the Pacific conflict, he experienced the hardship of war. These lessons were seminal for John Kennedy: preparedness, international cooperation, and the avoidance of war. Each figured prominently in his subsequent career.

Kennedy’s discussion of England’s unpreparedness is revealing. It was not a benighted Chamberlain to blame; it was the entire fabric of English society. As a leader, Chamberlain had failed to lead; but equally serious, the public had been unready to follow.3 The real question, according to Kennedy, was not faulty diplomacy but faulty armaments. While one group in England thought that the way to deal with Hitler was by showing strength, the other felt that the way to peace was by removing the causes of war. And rearmament, he insisted, was integral to both policies.

Because of her unpreparedness, Kennedy was reluctant to criticize England’s appeasement policy. For while that policy was partly based on the belief that a basis for peace could be built, it was “also formulated on the realization that Britain’s defense program, due to its tardiness in getting started, would not come to harvest until 1939.” That Kennedy was influenced by the views of his father, then U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, appears obvious. But the conclusion he drew differed markedly.4 For Joseph P. Kennedy, the lesson was peace at any price. For his son, preparedness at any cost. 5

As for Munich, it was simply the outgrowth of a policy of too little and too late.

In the debate that followed the agreement, especially in America, to be pro-Munich was to be pro-Hitler and pro-Fascism. To be anti-Munich was to be pro-liberal and pro-democracy. Upon few other topics did the ordinary man, as well as the expert, have such intense opinions. Americans simplified the issue, compared it to a game of poker, and decided that Chamberlain had played his cards badly and been outbluffed. A nation of poker players, therefore, had little respect for the English leader or for his policy. But they did not examine the cards he held. This would have shown that the British Prime Minister had little on which to gamble the existence of a great empire.6

When he returned from the war in February 1945, John Kennedy turned his consideration to the question of peace. Stung by a strong preparedness plea that Harry Hopkins had written in the American Magazine,7 Kennedy composed a rejoinder: “Let’s Try an Experiment in Peace.” Still unpublished, the article suggested an arms control agreement among the Big Three—Britain, Russia, and the United States. What Kennedy said was scarcely original, but in terms of his own development the essay had profound significance. For the author of Why England Slept now recognized another dimension to peace: preparedness itself was not enough.

Indeed, it was the preparedness argument which most distressed Kennedy. To suggest that America should be the strongest nation on earth, he said, was “a plan for superarmament.”

At the end of this war we shall have only three countries—the USSR, Britain, and the United States—in a position to wage total war. . . . There will, of course, have to be a strong growth of mutual trust between these countries before any comprehensive plan can be worked out. There are many people in this country, for example, who feel that Russia’s unilateral settlement of the problems of Eastern Europe precludes any workable postwar agreements being worked out with the Soviet. . . . These people have much evidence on which to base their suspicions, and there will have to be a radical change in the Soviet attitude before the people in this country would agree to work out arms limitations with the Russians.

Likewise, we will have to demonstrate to the Soviet our willingness to try to work out European problems on equitable lines before the Russians will put any real confidence in our protestations of friendship. The Russian memory is long, and many of the leaders of the present government remember the years after the last war when they fought in the Red Armies against the invading troops of many nations, including Britain and the United States.

If armaments could not be controlled, said Kennedy, the prospects for peace were dubious. “Science will always overtake caution with new terrors against which defense cannot be anticipated. . . . Into the orthodox picture of classical warfare, comes the ‘V’ bomb, which raises a spectre of destruction almost beyond the human mind to grasp. . . . It is not an exaggeration to expect these missiles will be developed to a point where theoretically any spot on the globe can send to any community in the world, with pinpoint accuracy, a silent but frightful message of death and destruction. . . . Detection of their source may be difficult. One does not have to be a Jules Verne to visualize the death of the human race, a victim of science and moral degeneracy.”

Two months later John Kennedy was in San Francisco covering the organizational meeting of the United Nations. The task was to draft a charter for the new organization, and Kennedy was to see at first hand the ephemeral nature of Big Three cooperation. Writing “from a GI viewpoint” for the Hearst chain of newspapers, Kennedy blended postwar idealism with a strong sense of reality. On the whole he was sympathetic to the new effort in international cooperation, and his initial article decried the extensive buildup which the conference had received. People were expecting too much, he wrote.

The stormy sessions of the first week confirmed his opinion that

we have a long way to go before Russia will entrust her safety to any organization other than the Red Army. The Russians may have forgiven, but they haven’t forgotten, and they remember very clearly those years before the war when Russia was only looking in the kitchen window. . . . There is a heritage of 25 years of distrust between Russia and the rest of the world that cannot be overcome completely for a good many years.

Kennedy left San Francisco partially disheartened. But to his earlier injunction on preparedness he had added valuable insights. First, preparedness in itself was sterile and disruptive. Absolute security for one nation, or one group of nations, meant absolute insecurity for the remainder. The most likely result was an unbridled arms race. The second conclusion that Kennedy drew was that Big Three cooperation would not come easy. Indeed, the road was likely to get worse before it got better. But the underlying necessity was clear: without a modicum of great-power agreement—of agreement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—there could be no lasting peace.

To a PT-boat friend who inquired about the conference, Kennedy (as quoted by. Schlesinger) was eminently realistic:

It would be very easy to write a letter to you that was angry. . . . When I think how much this war has cost us, of the deaths of Cy and Peter and Orv and Gil and Demi and Joe and Billy and all those thousands and millions who have died with them—when I think of all those gallant acts that I have seen or anyone has seen who has been to the war—it would be a very easy thing to feel disappointed and somewhat betrayed. . . . You have seen battlefields where sacrifice was the order of the day and to compare that sacrifice to the timidity and selfishness of the nations gathered at San Francisco must inevitably be disillusioning.

Nevertheless, said Kennedy, a decision could not be forced from the top. The World Federalists had an answer, but things were not that easy. The idea of sovereignty was still too strong. “We must face the truth that the people have not been horrified by war to a sufficient extent to force them to go to any extent rather than have another war. . . . War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.” What the conference had done, he concluded, was not to make war impossible—which was clearly beyond its powers—but to make it more difficult. “A truly just solution,” he confided to his notebook, “will leave every nation somewhat disappointed. There is no cure all.”

John Kennedy arrived in Washington in January 1947, a freshman congressman of twenty-nine. Friends and critics generally agree that he was little prepared.8 But this is much truer of his legislative perspective than it is of his conception of foreign affairs and national security. To measure Kennedy’s stature as a legislator, one must compare him to his fellow freshmen of 1946. The roster is impressive, including Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York, Richard Nixon of California, George Smathers of Florida, Carl Albert of Oklahoma, and 97 others. Yet who of them had seen as much of the world as Kennedy, had committed so many of his thoughts to paper, or had studied the world situation at such length?

“Politics,” as Arthur Schlesinger has suggested, “perhaps attracted him less as a means of saving this world than of keeping it from getting worse.”

Kennedy’s committee assignments reflected his junior status: Education and Labor (along with Richard Nixon), and District of Columbia. Making a virtue of necessity, Kennedy concentrated on domestic affairs—and usually on the parochial domestic affairs which are a freshman congressman’s bread and butter. His subsequent attempts to secure a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee9 were pigeonholed by the Democratic leadership, in strict conformity with the custom of the House. To get along, one must go along, Sam Rayburn said, and Kennedy was much too independent.

Kennedy’s House record was basically internationalist, although as his freshman term wore on, advocacy of international peace and great-power cooperation yielded increasingly to a revived concern for security. There was ample reason. It seemed that Communism was on the offensive everywhere. The Balkans became a Soviet appendage, Czechoslovakia fell to a Communist coup, and in Berlin the blockade dramatized the apparently implacable nature of Russian demands. In this context, the message seemed clear: only America could stem the tide; to do so she must be strong.

Kennedy supported aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, and the dispatch of U.S. ground forces to Europe. The best summary of his views during this period occurs in a March 1947 address to the Carolina Political Union at the University of North Carolina. The subject was President Truman’s proposal for aid to Greece and Turkey, and JFK endorsed it warmly:

We have only to look at the map to see what might happen if Greece and Turkey fell into the Communist orbit. The road to the Middle East would be flung open. The traditional goal of the Russian foreign policy, an opening to the Mediterranean, with all of its strategic implications, would be gained. If we give way and Greece and Turkey succumb it would have tremendous strategic and ideological repercussions throughout the world. . . . The barriers would be down and the Red tide would flow across the face of Europe and through Asia with new power and vigor.

War with Russia remained a distinct possibility, he said. Such a war might arise in two ways. The greatest danger would arise from deliberate decision of the Red leaders 25 to 35 years in the future.

At that time, Russia will have a greater population than all the rest of Europe. . . . She will have the atomic bomb, the planes, the ports, and the ships to wage aggressive war outside her borders. Such a conflict would truly mean the end of the world and all our diplomacy and prayers must be exerted to avoid it.

The second danger stemmed from miscalculation. Russia may “stumble” into a war which she may not want.

The Russian information and intelligence services are, I believe, among the poorest in the world despite all the glamorous nonsense which seems to be written about them. The reports which these services supply to the Kremlin cannot be checked against any independent sources of information. . . . The Kremlin’s view of world affairs, therefore, is bound to be limited.

Kennedy’s faith in the United Nations continued. Many people, he said, feel that the U.N. has been slighted.

I think the feeling arises from some confusion as to what the United Nations can do. It is not equipped to deal with every problem in international affairs nor is there anything in the concept of the United Nations which precludes one nation from asking another for assistance as Greece has asked the United States.

Moreover, we must remember that the whole concept of the United Nations is that of the evolution of law backed up by force utilized under the guidance and restraint of the Security Council.

The United Nations is the great hope for the future. . . . It would, however, mean an early collapse of the United Nations organization if we were to place on its infant shoulders a burden which it cannot yet bear and with which it was, in fact, never intended it should deal.

The central theme of American foreign policy, said Kennedy, was “the prevention of Russian domination of Europe and Asia. This is the foreign policy that I support most vigorously. Upon it depends our security, and I believe the best hope of peace.”

As the Eightieth Congress continued, Kennedy drifted further from the Administration position. Doubtless, some of this drift reflected a change of attitude on his part. Some also reflected an adjustment to his new surroundings, for the Eightieth Congress was overwhelmingly Republican and anti-Truman. Much more, however, seems due to Kennedy’s inability to “find himself” as a freshman congressman, to his feeling of insignificance, and to his marginal involvement in the affairs of the House. It was difficult for someone not deeply committed to the Democratic Party organization to support the interim Administration of Harry Truman in 1948, particularly when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams.10

In his votes, JFK supported European recovery, foreign aid, and the peacetime draft.11 But offstage, the rumblings of his dissatisfaction grew louder.12 For alongside Kennedy’s revived interest in security traveled a new companion: a vigorous anti-Communism with strong nationalist (some might say isolationist) overtones. Doubtless, much of this reflects the tenor of the times. When the 81st Congress convened (Kennedy had been unopposed in both the primary and general elections), the situation in China approached catastrophe. The armies of Mao Tse-tung swept southward, and in late January Chiang Kai-shek gave up the fight and fled to Formosa. With greater feeling than logic, Kennedy found the Truman Administration guilty of Chiang Kai-shek’s collapse. “The responsibility for this failure of our foreign policy in the Far East,” said Kennedy, “rests squarely with the White House and the Department of State.”13

With the attack on Korea, Kennedy’s interest in national security intensified.14 He criticized the tardiness of U.S. rearmament, condemned Defense Secretary Louis Johnson’s retrenchment policies, and supported a 70-group Air Force rather than the 55 groups requested by the Administration. Much of this was the conventional response in a Congress caught off guard: a Congress that had applauded the Truman economy moves when they were made, yet drew back in anger when danger threatened.

Kennedy also advocated greater American effort in Europe, including the use of U.S. troops, if necessary. “If we are going to successfully meet our obligations under the Atlantic Pact,” he told the House, “if we still feel it is essential to our security that Western Europe remain free—then we must mobilize our manpower to a far greater degree than we have as yet planned.”

We must be able to put sufficient American divisions in the field in that area to demonstrate to the Europeans that we believe Western Europe can be held.

The plain truth, and we all must know it, is that the forces that we now have and that we are planning to raise do not begin to meet the commitments that have been made.15

Kennedy’s support for troops in Europe placed him at odds with his father. Less than four months after his son’s remarks in the House, Joseph P. Kennedy vigorously condemned U.S. foreign policy in a speech at the University of Virginia. The foreign policy of the Truman Administration, the elder Kennedy said, “is politically and morally a bankrupt policy.” The U.S. should pull out in Korea “and any other place in Asia where we cannot hold our defenses.” But most important, he advocated disengagement in Europe. “What have we gained by staying in Berlin?” he asked. “Everyone knows we can be pushed out the moment the Russians choose to push us out. Isn’t it better to get out now?” He criticized the Truman Doctrine of aid to Greece and Turkey, the British loan, and reliance on the United Nations. Instead, he urged the fortification of Canada and Latin America.

Doubtless challenged by his father’s views, Representative Kennedy spent six weeks in Europe after Congress adjourned. When he returned in mid-February, he delivered a radio report to his Massachusetts constituents. The situation, he said, was critical, and the next few months would be decisive. Nevertheless, Kennedy hesitated to give the Administration complete support. What was important was to work out a proper relationship with Western Europe. “That. . . [relationship] cannot be the product of one man’s thought or that of a small group. It is this nation acting through the Congress and the Executive that must fashion that program and coordinate it with our own defense.” Apparently, Kennedy’s trip confirmed his fears of the previous summer: without U.S. strength physically deployed on the Continent, Western Europe might not pull through.

Already the question of sending troops to Europe had precipitated a major Senate debate. The debate focused on a resolution introduced by Senator Kenneth Wherry (R., Neb.) that would have barred the President from sending troops abroad in peacetime without Congressional approval. Hearings on the resolution were held jointly by the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. Because of his recent European visit, Representative Kennedy was invited to testify.

In his statement to the committee, Kennedy indicated the need for additional U.S. divisions in Western Europe. Europe was important to the United States because of its resources, its manpower, and its strategic location. But to the dismay of Administration supporters (and the delight of Senator Wherry), Kennedy qualified his endorsement by suggesting a strict ratio of U.S. to European forces, America should not shoulder the burden alone; for each division the U.S. committed, our allies should commit six. And because the Administration probably would not enforce such a requirement, the Congress should supervise its implementation.

Senator Wayne Morse (R., Ore.) was appalled. We were involved in Europe, he said, “because we recognize the loss of Europe to Russia would be a threat to America’s security. And if that is why we are going in there, then why should we limit ourselves in advance. . . ?”

“I am not advocating a ratio system in order to limit our contribution to Western Europe,” Kennedy replied. “It is not a backhanded way of trying to pull out. . . . I am in favor of the ratio system in order to make the Europeans do more. . . .”

Senator Morse: Do you think that there is any danger. . . in respect to European public opinion in adopting a ratio system that would be interpreted. . . as an indication. . . that we questioned their good faith unless we make them sign on the dotted line. . . ? Don’t you think that would have a rather undesirable effect both on their morale and on our relations with them?

Mr. Kennedy: Well, they are not going to be happy about it, obviously, but after all, we are sending six divisions; we are going to equip these countries and I think we have a right to insist that they do a proportionate share.

But, Morse persisted, would not Congressional supervision intrude on the constitutional right of the Executive as Commander in Chief? Kennedy equivocated: it was a constitutional issue, he said, which Morse could probably answer. “I wish I could,” the Senator from Oregon charitably replied.16

Senator Tom Connally, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was also dubious.

Chairman Connally: I am sorry, Mr. Kennedy, but I was not here at the beginning of your testimony. I think you testified awhile ago that you thought Western Europe was our first line of defense. Did you say that?

            Mr. Kennedy: Yes, sir.

            *                    *                    *                    *                    *                 

Chairman Connally: If that is true, are you not in favor of strengthening Western Europe all that we can?

Mr. Kennedy: I am in favor of sending these troops that we are talking about to Western Europe.

Chairman Connally: These four divisions?

Mr. Kennedy: Yes, sir.

Chairman Connally: You said something about the rest of the nations might not go along, might not provide what is expected of them. As I recall the testimony of General Eisenhower, he said he was going to constantly insist on these other governments doing their part, and if they don’t we can probably withdraw.

Mr. Kennedy: General Eisenhower, in the speech made before Congress, said he would like to have brought back comparable statistics so he could give us some idea of the effort these European countries were making. But he said he could not do so. I feel that these statistics would have told a revealing story about the degree of effort that these European countries are making, and in not bringing them back, General Eisenhower was not completely frank with Congress. . . .

 *                    *                    *                    *                    *               

Chairman Connally: Do you think that all of the troops over there, and what they do, should be controlled by Congress?

Mr. Kennedy: I think the ratio should be controlled by Congress, that this plan of setting up a ratio of 6 to I will have to be put through by the Congress. I think that otherwise it will not be done.

Chairman Connally: Are you a lawyer?

Mr. Kennedy : No, I am not.

Chairman Connally: You are aware. . . of the constitutional provisions that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy and so on, are you not?

Mr. Kennedy: Yes.

Chairman Connally: Do you want the control of the Army turned over to Congress?

Mr. Kennedy: I would want the Congress to set the policy of six European divisions for everyone we sent there. I would put no limit on the number of American divisions we send so long as this ratio system was in effect. I am not trying to limit the American effort. I am trying to bring the European effort up to match it, considering that we have responsibilities elsewhere and that most of their equipment is going to come from the United States, I do not think that is unreasonable.

For the remainder of his service in the House, Kennedy held to the position that Europe must do its share. But at the same time, his support for NATO and the mutual assistance program was unswerving. His concern was for haste—to do it now, before it was too late. And because of his declining confidence in the Truman Administration, he felt that Congress could accelerate the program.

From the author of Why England Slept, Kennedy’s position on European rearmament seems clear. His concern with security was of long standing, as was his awareness of public indifference. Unlike his father, he interpreted U.S. security interests broadly and favored increasing our European commitment. His concern—and it was to prove a continuing one—was that our efforts be reciprocated.

Two further aspects of Mr. Kennedy’s Congressional career deserve comment: his growing hostility to things Communist, and his increasing impatience with colonialism. Kennedy’s hostility to Communism—the handmaiden of his concern for security-led him at times to embrace virtually any ally. Support for Chiang was clear from the beginning, as perhaps was Kennedy’s acceptance of the belief that the U.S. contributed to his defeat.17 Equally determined was his support for Franco. He pleaded vigorously for Spain’s inclusion in the Mutual Security Act of 1950; in fact he offered an amendment awarding Spain $75 million in military assistance.18 On his return from Europe in early 1951, JFK repeated his plea for Spain. Acknowledging that he had found “considerable distrust and distaste” for Franco in Britain and France, he nevertheless insisted that Spain, with “an army willing to fight and as a base of operations, as a source of power, and because of its strategic position straddling the Mediterranean can no longer be ignored.”

Shortly afterwards Kennedy introduced a bill to curb commercial traffic with Communist China. Not only would U.S. trade be affected but also that of any other nation receiving financial aid from the United States.  The bill was aimed primarily at Great Britain, and under its terms all financial assistance would be terminated if the trade continued. Hong Kong too was included in the ban. “I hope,” Kennedy remarked, “that this House will take speedy and favorable action on this bill. I believe its passage would prove to the world, that while Americans may have different ideas as to U.S. policy in the Far East, all of us are united in Our determination to stop the ‘trade in blood’ that has been going on.”

By late summer, Kennedy’s concern for U.S. security veered sharply toward the narrow nationalism so characteristic of certain segments of the Republican Party. For the first (and only) time in his Congressional career he voted to cut economic assistance funds for Europe. “The Europeans,” he said, “have been unwilling to make sufficient sacrifices to build up their own strength. . . . I think it is foolish to cut the military assistance, but I do not think there is any doubt but what the economic assistance can be cut.”19 His ax sharpened, Kennedy offered amendments cutting economic aid to Africa and the Near East from $175 to $140 million 20 and cutting military assistance to Latin America from $40 million to $20 million.21

Following an inspection trip to Asia that autumn, Kennedy excoriated the whole concept of foreign aid as “utopian.” Said Kennedy to the Boston Chamber of Commerce:

We cannot reform the world. . . . Uncle Sugar is as dangerous a role for us to play as Uncle Shylock. . . . The thirty billions of dollars we are spending in Europe have yet to prove that they have made for self-defense in that area; but whatever is true there, to repeat such a procedure in Asia or the South Pacific is impossible.

We cannot abolish the poverty and want that for centuries have characterized this area. There is just not enough money in the world to relieve the poverty of all the millions of this world who may be threatened by Communism. We should not attempt to buy their freedom from this threat. All we can do is help them achieve that freedom if they really wish to do so.

Our resources are not limitless. We must make no broad unlimited grant to any government. Aid and help in the matter of techniques is a different thing. But as some of our recent experiences demonstrate, mere grants of money are debilitating and wasteful. Moreover, we ought to know that more expenditures bring no lasting results—people who are with us merely because of the things they get from us are weak reeds to lean upon.

The vision of a bottle of milk for every Hottentot is a nice one, but it not only is beyond our grasp, but is not only beyond our reach. Because of naive belief that the export of dollars would solve the world’s ills, the United States has failed to realize the possibilities that lie in encouraging the export of techniques.22

Kennedy’s nationalist fervor subsided as rapidly as it arose. The following summer, in a moving mea culpa, he recanted completely. 23  The reasons for the sudden about-face are as elusive as those for his economy binge. Kennedy himself attributed the change to his autumn tour of Southeast Asia. Yet it was immediately following this very trip that he lectured the Boston Chamber of Commerce about “Uncle Shylock” and “Uncle Sugar.” Doubtless other considerations intervened, including the forthcoming race against Henry Cabot Lodge. But regardless of its source, Kennedy’s change of heart appears genuine.

One thing his trip to Asia unmistakably did was to sharpen Kennedy’s hostility to colonialism, to French colonialism in particular. His visit to Saigon convinced him of the folly of France’s policy in Indochina, and he voiced this criticism in a radio broadcast to his constituents. In Indochina, Kennedy said, “we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire.” In Iran, “our intervention in behalf of England’s oil investments [is] directed more at the preservation of interests outside Iran than at Iran’s own development.” And our close alliance with the French and British intensified resentment of the U.S.

“Our prestige was high at one time due to the liberation of the Philippines and to the large part we played in the liberation of Indonesia. However, matters have gone steadily down hill since then. We’ve lost that prestige.”

To Ralph Blagden of The Reporter, Kennedy was explicit. “He told me with a rather sour grimace,” wrote Blagden, “that we are now so deeply extended in Europe that we might as well continue our present policy. British and French colonialism worry Kennedy considerably. Yet his vigorous support of Franco’s Spain raises the question of whether he is concerned so much about the enslaved as over the identity of the enslaver.”

“Somehow,” said Blagden, “such retreats and advances, such reservations and contradictions suggest that Kennedy has not yet achieved very solid convictions. Is he a parvenu in world thinking who will find sure footing, or will he develop into a ‘reservationist’ whose reservations could represent the margin of failure?”24

Elected to the Senate in 1952, John Kennedy pursued his concern for national security. At first, this concern focused on three areas: the war in Indochina, the underdeveloped world, and the Dulles doctrine of massive retaliation. Kennedy’s interest in Indochina led to subsequent concern with Algeria. And both were outgrowths of his continuing impatience with colonialism; an impatience which caused him to focus increasingly on the problems of the underdeveloped world as his Senatorial career progressed. His criticism of massive retaliation drew his attention to alternative national strategies, and by 1960 he was widely regarded as a leading spokesman for increased defense expenditures, expanded missile development, and improved conventional capabilities.

Kennedy’s concern with Indochina sprang from his visit in 1951. Already dubious of French efforts to pacify the area, his apprehension increased as the war progressed. France seemed unable to win the war alone and unwilling to grant the Vietnamese the independence which might rally them. For Kennedy the message was clear. Without independence, the Associated States of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam would not fight. And without their assistance, the war could not be won. The French were regarded by many in Vietnam as oppressors; the rebel forces, as liberators. The majority of the population, as Kennedy told the Senate in 1953, “appears to be in sympathy with the Communist movement of Ho Chi Minh,”25 Kennedy supported whatever was necessary to win in Indochina, including the possible commitment of U.S. manpower. But victory would be impossible, he insisted, without popular support. 26

Much the same was true in Algeria, although there the issue was less clouded by Communism. As Kennedy saw it, the struggle was between colonialism and independence; and the United States, if it was to retain its credentials as a champion of freedom, had no choice but to encourage independence. That France was America’s ally complicated the problem but did not relieve the United States of its obligation. Much more was at stake than just Algeria: America’s relation to the entire uncommitted world was involved, and the U.S. could ill-afford to be identified with the remnants of colonialism.27

Kennedy’s Algerian speech, when it was delivered in 1957, caused a momentary sensation. In Washington, Paris, and Algiers, officials were appalled, and even Kennedy later allowed that the word “independence” might have been too precise. Nevertheless, the burden of the speech, that the West must reshape its relation to the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, was as prophetic as it was sound. From 1957 onward, it was the reshaping of this relation that occupied a substantial portion of Kennedy’s time.

Appointed to the Foreign Relations Committee in January 1957, Kennedy soon became chairman of the Subcommittee on African Affairs. In that capacity he labored diligently to promote Africa’s economic development and for the speedy removal of the remnants of colonialism. The future of Africa, he contended, would seriously affect the future of the United States.

The role of India and the Middle East also loomed large in the affairs of the free world, and Kennedy repeatedly sought to insure U.S. assistance for their peaceful development. Although he supported the Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East, he did so reluctantly, stressing the need for something more than a military response. Participation in the Military Committee of the Bagdad Pact, he suggested, would make sense only if it were part of a comprehensive policy for the Middle East: “a policy which had purposes and effects that could be understood and accepted by all nations in that area—a policy which attacked all of the major problems of the Middle East with consistency and foresight, instead of rushing, in helter-skelter fashion, from one crisis to another, alarming our friends, antagonizing those whom we want to be Our friends, and thoroughly confusing the American people in the process.”

Kennedy’s concern for India was late blooming, but as with many converts, the ardor of his affection eclipsed the tardiness of his resolve. Beginning in 1958 he led Congressional efforts to accelerate India’s economic development. For him, India was of cardinal importance. The subcontinent represented over 40 percent of the population of the uncommitted world. It stood in direct antithesis to the ideological and economic forces of Red China. The alternatives to India’s failure were unthinkable. Yet in 1958 the outcome was far from clear. Were India to fail, were democracy not to pass the test there, the course of that vast area “from Casablanca to the Celebes” would be largely determined.

In his concern for the underdeveloped world, Kennedy recognized that conditions there often precluded liberal, democratic solutions. Self-determination, independence, and financial aid on the order of the Marshall Plan frequently were insufficient in an environment empty of positive democratic purpose. America must be patient, must come to terms with the new and virulent strains of nationalism, and must not “interpret their meanings too much against the backdrop of our own historic experience.”

On military policy Kennedy’s views remained fixed: the United States should maintain forces in being to deter and defeat aggression at any point on the spectrum of violence. The doctrine of massive retaliation elicited his immediate skepticism. As announced by Secretary Dulles in 1954, “the way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with the means of its own choosing.” Translated into military potential, this implied primary reliance on nuclear weaponry. Lesser incursions would be thwarted by the threat of instant retaliation against the aggressor’s homeland.

Like many, Kennedy was incredulous. At what point, he asked, would the threat of atomic weapons be used in the struggles in Southeast Asia? And what about other areas where the “aggression” was mounted by native insurgents? Would the United States employ its weapons of massive destruction against the Soviet Union in such a circumstance? For Kennedy, massive retaliation was a policy four- years too late. Like many diplomatic schemes, it was designed to prevent the last war, not the next one. And while it may have been effective in preventing another Korea, it was singularly unsuitable to meet the more frequent challenges of lesser intensity.

Thus Kennedy resisted all efforts by the Eisenhower Administration to retailor U.S. forces along the lines of the “New Look.” He opposed reduction of Army ground forces from nineteen divisions in 1954 and warned against extending our commitments around the world at the very time when we were reducing our capacity to meet those commitments. During the various crises over Quemoy and Matsu, for instance, Kennedy sided vehemently with the Army Chief of Staff, General Ridgway, against additional U.S. involvement. 28 As the size of the active Army shrank during the lean years of the Fifties, Kennedy’s was a voice in the wilderness (though often joined by Senators Symington, Jackson, and Johnson) demanding greater conventional preparedness.

It was also Kennedy who dramatized what Lieutenant General James A. Gavin and others labeled the “missile gap”: a period, in Gavin’s words, “in which our own offensive and defensive missile capabilities will lag so far behind those of the Soviets as to place us in a position of great peril.” The cause for the impending gap, as Kennedy saw it, was national complacency and “our willingness to place fiscal security ahead of national security. We tailored our strategy and military requirements to fit our budget—instead of fitting our budget to our military requirements and strategy. . . . We have been passing through a period aptly described. . . as ‘the years the locusts have eaten.’ “29

While the approaching missile gap was the most startling, Kennedy found similar inadequacies in virtually every category of the American arsenal. In 1953, said Kennedy, both the Russians and the United States adopted a “new look” policy de-emphasizing ground forces. “Generals Zhukov and Ridgway both opposed these cuts in their respective countries; and in 1955, Zhukov with Khrushchev’s help, won the battle which Ridgway lost. Khrushchev expanded, reorganized and, more importantly, modernized and made more mobile Soviet ground forces and conventional weapons. New tactical nuclear weapons and tanks were added to the arsenal. A whole new naval fleet was developed, including the world’s largest submarine fleet—much of it equipped with missiles.”

To meet this threat U.S. retaliatory power was not enough. It could not deter limited Communist encroachments—along the access arteries to Berlin, for example—nor could it protect the uncommitted nations against guerrilla wars of “national liberation.” Small atomic weapons were not the answer because even the smallest atomic weapon would unleash 100 times the destructive power of World War II’s largest conventional bomb. And because these so-called tactical nuclear weapons produced radioactive fallout, the people in the area “would not regard. . . the resulting holocaust a very limited war.” Kennedy’s solution was threefold: an airborne alert for SAC (“as long as it is our chief deterrent”); an accelerated missile program “in order to hasten the day when a full, mobile missile force becomes our chief deterrent”; and increased emphasis on conventional forces, including the necessary airlift and sealift capacity to deploy them wherever necessary.

As 1960 approached, the question of U.S. security loomed large on the electoral horizon. The missile gap, massive retaliation, the “New Look,” and the continuing conflict between fiscal mandates and defense requirements occupied a prominent place in the discussions of both parties. John F. Kennedy was a major participant in that debate well before his nomination as the Democratic candidate for President. Throughout the Fifties he had championed larger defense budgets, had opposed the initial cut in Army ground strength in 1953, and had criticized the massive retaliation straitjacket into which the defense establishment had been thrust. Recognizing the inherent rigidity of massive retaliation, he sympathized with the pleas of the Army for greater emphasis on conventional weaponry as an alternative between nuclear holocaust and piecemeal surrender. He was intimately familiar with the writings of the Army generals (Ridgway, Taylor, Gavin, Medaris) forced into retirement because of their inability to support the impending atrophy of U.S. ground forces. 30 He followed closely the critical reports of the Killian Committee on the missile gap (1955); the Gaither Committee in 1957: “A nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power”; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1958: “The United States is rapidly losing its lead over the USSR in the military race”; former Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett: “We are doing something short of our best”; and, of course, the flood of critical books and articles from America’s academic community.31

The difficulty with our defense effort, according to Kennedy, was that reliance on massive retaliation had stultified the development of any alternative. The United States, he charged, had developed a Maginot Line mentality by concentrating on a strategy which may never be used, which may collapse in crisis and which dooms us either to inaction or the acceptance of inevitable defeat.

We have extended our commitments around the world, without regard to the sufficiency of our military posture to fulfil those commitments. Changes in our defense status are rarely reflected in our diplomatic policies, pronouncements and planning. The State and Defense Departments negotiate with each other at arm’s length, like so many Venetian envoys, without decisive leadership to break through the excess of bureaucratic committees, competition, and complacency. We think of diplomacy and force as alternatives to each other—the one to be used where the other fails—as though such absolute distinctions were still possible.

In recent years, said Kennedy, the U.S. has heard a good deal about an alleged quotation from Lenin that the destruction of the capitalist world would result from overspending on armaments. “I would say that has probably been the most valuable quotation the Communists have had other than ‘Workers of the World, Unite.’” As a result the United States emphasized economic security instead of military security, and “this policy will bring us into great danger within the next few years.”

“For the next President of the United States, whoever he may be, will find that he has considerably more to do than ‘stand up to Khrushchev,’ balance the budget, and mouth popular slogans, if he is to restore our Nation’s relative strength and leadership.” Unless immediate steps are taken, the failure to maintain our relative power of retaliation will “expose the United States to a nuclear missile attack.” Until our new solid-fuel missiles are available in sufficient quantities, we will be compelled to make do with an inferior weapon system. There are no Polaris submarines on station for an emergency, no hardened missile sites, and no adequate air defense. “Our missile early warning system. . . is not yet completed. Our IRBM bases—soft, immobile, and undispersed—invite surprise attack. And our capability for conventional war is in sufficient to avoid the hopeless dilemma of choosing between launching a nuclear attack and watching aggressors make piecemeal conquests.”

“The hour is late, but the agenda is long,” Kennedy said. “First, we must make invulnerable a nuclear retaliatory power second to none—by making possible now a stopgap air alert and base-dispersal program—and by stepping up our development and production of the ultimate missiles that can close the gap and will not be wiped out in a surprise attack—Polaris, Minutemen, and long-range air-to-ground [Skybolt] missiles—meanwhile increasing our production of Atlas missiles, hardening bur bases, and improving our continental defense and warning systems. . . .

“Second, we must regain the ability to intervene effectively and swiftly in any limited war anywhere in the world, augmenting, modernizing, and providing increased mobility and versatility for the conventional forces and weapons of our Army and Marine Corps. So long as those forces lack the necessary airlift and sealift capacity and versatility of firepower, we cannot protect our commitments around the globe—resist nonnuclear aggression or be certain of having enough time to decide on the use of our nuclear power.

“Third, we must rebuild NATO into a viable and consolidated military force capable of deterring any kind of attack, unified in weaponry and responsibility.”

Fourth, we must improve our capability for antisubmarine warfare; restore our merchant marine; expand our space and military research; and institute a realistic fallout shelter program.

Fifth, “we must reorganize our Defense Department—allocations, roles and missions—in accordance with the logic of modern weapons systems and technology, transforming the Joints Chiefs of Staff into a defense level staff rather than the representatives of the three services, creating an authority which will be directly responsible for stimulating scientific research and discovery and eliminating the duplication of function which has resulted in 39 separate civilian status offices in the Pentagon.”32

Sixth, we must “reexamine the farflung overseas base structure on which much of our present retaliatory strength is based. We must contribute to the political and economic stability of the nations in which our vital bases are located—and develop alternative plans for positions which may become untenable.”33

Impressive as this agenda was, it would be incorrect to paint John Kennedy as an intransigent cold warrior. For during his Senatorial career the strains of international cooperation, disarmament, and peace had nurtured and flourished. When he was elected to the Senate in 1952, Kennedy was still an unformed man in many respects. He had eschewed his youthful idealism, so dominant at San Francisco, and had embraced a considerably more militant nationalism and anti-Communism. To be sure, these crested in 1949 and 1950 with Kennedy’s denunciation of the State Department and his votes against development aid, but even in 1952 the traces of neo-isolationism remained strong.

The reasons for Kennedy’s return to his earlier liberalism and internationalism were manifold. Doubtless his severe illness in 1954 played an important role. Like Roosevelt’s polio, Kennedy’s nearly fatal operations probably accelerated a crisis of identity from which he emerged more focused, more purposeful, and more formidable. His Pulitzer Prize account of Senatorial courage34 clearly contributed, for it emancipated him from the narrow conception of a politician’s responsibilities to his district. It reopened the vista of political leaders willing to defy public opinion when the cause they stood for demanded it—a theme that had once been so familiar to the author of Why England Slept.

His baptism in national politics at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1956 further removed him from the parochial influences of his Massachusetts constituency. His subsequent campaign for the Presidency, his concern with the larger issues of the day, his expanding audience, and his need to appeal to voters in all regions of the nation widened his horizon further, for what could be so universal to the American electorate as questions of foreign policy and survival? His frequent trips throughout the country and abroad also helped. As he climbed the political ladder, Kennedy also ascended the intellectual ladder. Always an avid reader, his selections—if we are to believe his many biographers—became more purposeful and pointed.

His election to the Harvard Board of Overseers in 1956 brought him into immediate contact with the Cambridge academic community. His Senate speeches drew on the collective expertise of Harvard and M.LT.: Galbraith, Schlesinger, Cox, Kissinger, and Rostow. Interest, necessity, and old acquaintances introduced him to the leaders of the national press corps: Krock, Lippmann, Reston, and the Alsops. And perhaps most important, at a time when Kennedy had been unsure, when he was grappling for a place to stand, Theodore Sorensen became a member of his Senate staff. The year was 1953, and Kennedy was in transition. That he would have traveled the course he did, regardless, is likely; but Sorensen’s presence no doubt accelerated and reinforced the movement. 35

That Kennedy moved decisively after the early Fifties is clear. The purpose of our military policy, he told the Senate in 1960, is peace, not war. The heart of the debate on national security was peace, not politics. “We arm—to parley,” he quoted Churchill as saying. For our real goal is “an end to war, an end to the arms race, an end to these vast military departments and expenditures. We want to show our greatness in peace, not in war. We want to demonstrate the strength of our ideas, not our arms.” The sentiment had been that of John Kennedy in 1945, but it was now tempered with a new and deeper awareness of what peace involved.

In certain areas Kennedy was explicit. In Berlin, for example, he said we must plan a long-range solution. “We must show no uncertainty over our determination to defend Berlin and meet our commitments—but we must realize that a solution to the problems of that beleaguered city is only possible. . . in the context of a solution to the problems of Germany and, indeed, the problems of all Europe.”

Quemoy and Matsu were something else again. A way must be found to reduce tension in the Formosa Strait without involving the United States in a major war. As he was later to chide Vice President Nixon during the campaign: “He [Nixon] wants us committed to the defense of every rock and island around the world, but he is unwilling to admit that this may involve American boys in an unnecessary or futile war.”36 Clearly, Kennedy was not going to become engaged in any war—if he could avoid it.

As for the underdeveloped areas, we must greatly increase the flow of capital—”frustrating the Communist hopes for chaos in those nations—enabling emerging nations to achieve economic as well as political independence and closing the dangerous gap that is now widening between our living standards and theirs.” We must reconstruct our relations with Latin America; we must formulate, with both imagination and restraint, a new approach to the Middle East; and we must greatly increase our efforts to encourage the newly emerging nations of the vast continent of Africa. 37

These were the ideas with which John Kennedy approached the Presidency in 1960, and they were the ideas which would guide his subsequent tenure as President. Some were successful, and some decidedly less so. But for the New Frontier they constituted a call to battle.

Toronto, Ontario


1. And like both Churchill and Roosevelt, Kennedy was skeptical of military rank. “He was unawed,” writes Ted Sorensen, “by generals and admirals (even more so once he was President) and had grave doubts about military indoctrination. When still hospitalized by the Navy in 1944, he had written to a friend concerning the super-human ability of the Navy to screw up everything they touch. ‘Even the simple delivery of a letter frequently overburdens this heaving puffing war machine of ours. God save this country of ours from those patriots whose war cry is “What this country needs is to be run with military efficiency.”‘” Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 18. For an earlier and more sympathetic view, compare John F. Kennedy, Why England Slept (New York: Funk, 1940), pp. 222-31.

2. For an impression of Kennedy’s Harvard years, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), pp. 77-85. The Harvard thesis was titled: “Appeasement at Munich: The Inevitable Result of the Slowness of the British Democracy to Change from a Disarmament Policy.” James MacGregor Burns, John Kennedy: A Political Profile (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1959) remains the best Source for Kennedy’s early years. For an insightful political commentary, see Selig Harrison, “Kennedy as President,” New Republic, 27 June 1960. Opponents have their day in Victor Lasky’s JFK: The Man and the Myth (New York: Macmillan, 1963), pp. 24-69. For Kennedy’s wartime service, see Robert J. Donovan, PT-I09: John Kennedy in World War II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961); and John Hersey, “Survival: Lieut. J. F. Kennedy, a P.T. Skipper in the Solomons,” New Yorker, 17 June 1944, p. 31 ff. Of Kennedy’s White House office, William Manchester writes: “Every detail of the office is clear: the naval paintings on the gently curving wall, the framed union jack, Commodore John Barry’s sword, the ship model on the mantel. . . .” in Portrait of a President (Boston: Little-Brown, 1962), p. 197. For a description of Kennedy’s similarly decorated Senate office, see Burns, pp. 201-2. Also see Theodore H. White, The Making of the President: 1960 (New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 371.

3. Said Kennedy, “I feel that Chamberlain is to be condemned more as a member of the Baldwin cabinet, which had done so little to wake up the country, or for his own pre-Munich and post-Munich failure to bring to the country the realization of the great dangers with which it was faced, than for the part he played at Munich.” Why England Slept, p. 193.

4. The most detailed survey of Ambassador Kennedy’s views appears in Richard J. Whalen, The Founding Father (New York: New American Library, 1964), pp. 225-351. As for his own position, John Kennedy is quoted as follows: “The subject interested me ever since I was over there to see the results of the Chamberlain thing. I wouldn’t say that my father got me interested in it. They were things that I saw for myself. No, the book didn’t contain anything that differed with my father’s opinions at the time except perhaps in the final part. There was the Chamberlain episode in Munich and all that resentment in America about Munich and I didn’t think that it was justified on our part in view of the fact that we weren’t prepared to get involved. What right did we have to criticize or be resentful? Then you remember all those fake wooden gun emplacements, decoys and all that? You could see that they weren’t prepared.” Ralph G. Martin and Ed Plant, Front Runner, Dark Horse (Garden City: Doubleday, 1960). pp. 127-28.

5. “We must always keep our armaments equal to our commitments,” wrote Kennedy. “Munich should teach us that; we must realize that any bluff will be called. We cannot tell anyone to keep out of our hemisphere [italics added] unless our armaments and the people behind these armaments [italics in original] are prepared to back up the command, even to the ultimate point of going to war. There must be no doubt in anyone’s mind, the decision must he automatic: if we debate, if we hesitate, if we question, it will be too late.” (pp. 229-31)

6. Kennedy, pp. xxviii-xxix; also see pp. 185-86.

7. According to Hopkins, “ . . . we did everything possible to prevent war—except prepare for it. We know now that those who labor for peace must implement their desires with force. The strength of peace lovers must be greater than that of gangsters.” Harry L. Hopkins, “Tomorrow’s Army and Your Boy,” American Magazine, March 1945, p. 104.

            Major excerpts of Kennedy’s rejoinder are presented in Selig Harrison, “Kennedy as President,” New Republic, 27 June 1960.

8. According to his campaign biographer, “Kennedy did not arrive in Washington with a full and rounded set of principles. On some issues he was ill-informed; on others he was unsure of his position and would allow events to rule.” Burns, p. 83.

Ted Sorensen concurs: “His performance in the House of Representatives had been considered by most observers to be largely undistinguished—except for a record of absenteeism which had been heightened by indifference as well as ill health and by unofficial as well as official travels.”

“The fact of the matter is,” Sorensen quotes Kennedy as saying, “that I fiddled around at Choate and really didn’t become interested until the end of my sophomore year at Harvard.” Sorensen himself is a harsher judge: “Some might say that he fiddled around as a Congressman and really didn’t become interested until his sophomore year in the Senate.” Sorensen, p. 27. Also see Martin and Plant, pp. 148-55; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Kennedy or Nixon; Does It Make Any Difference (New York: Macmillan, 1960). p. 24; Manchester, p. 189; Whalen, p. 403: Lasky, pp. 107, 137.

9. In addition to Foreign Affairs, Kennedy pursued a seat on the Armed Services Committee. And like many of his Congressional contemporaries, Kennedy kept his splendid war record in the foreground. His cryptic, seven-line autobiographical sketch in the Congressional Directory referred prominently to his military service: “joined Navy in September 1941; served in P.T. boats in Pacific; retired on April 1945; received Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart; . . . .” By 1950, reference to the decorations had been deleted. U.S. Congress, Congressional Directory, 80th Congress, 1st Session, p. 51; 81st Congress, 2d Session, p. 53.

Sorensen says much the same thing:

“Clearly he was proud of his military service; his Purple Heart and his Navy and Marine Corps Medal. As a constant reminder of that brush with death, he kept on his desk preserved in plastic the coconut shell on which he had scratched his message of rescue from that far-off Pacific island. As a young Congressman he had been a leader in postwar efforts of the more progressive veterans’ organizations to secure passage of a Veterans’ Housing Bill. But he was neither a professional warrior nor a professional veteran. He never boasted or even reminisced about his wartime experiences. He never complained about his wounds. When a flippant high school youth asked him, as we walked down a street in Ashland, Wisconsin, in 1959, how he came to be a hero, he gaily replied, ‘It was easy—they sank my boat:’” (pp. 18)

10. Burns explains Kennedy’s independence as follows:

“It was not surprising that Kennedy could ignore the weak party leadership in his district. But how could he dare defy national party leaders like McCormack and Truman, who had the power to help or hurt a young man’s national career? ‘For one thing,’ Kennedy says, ‘we were just worms over in the House—nobody pays much attention to us nationally. And I had come back from the service not as a Democratic wheelhorse who came up through the ranks—I came in sort of sideways. It was never drilled into me that I was responsible to some political boss in the Eleventh District. I can go it the hard way against the politically active people. I never had the feeling I needed Truman.” (pp. 100)

11. During the first session of the 80th Congress, Kennedy voted for Greek-Turkish aid (9 May 1947); against the Colmer-Smith-Mundt amendment to the Relief Aid Bill (H.J.Res. 153) prohibiting funds to Russian-dominated countries—an amendment which carried 324-75 and which was supported by his fellow Massachusetts congressman, Christian A. Herter (30 April 1947); against a cut of $150 million in the European aid program, which carried 205-170 (21 May 1947); and in favor of authorizing legislation (H.R. 3342) for a foreign information service (24 June 1947). During the second session, Kennedy voted in favor of the European Recovery Program (31 March 1948) and the peacetime draft (18 July 1948).

His attendance record, while not perfect, was hardly as bad as one might expect. Of 83 roll call votes during the first session, Kennedy voted “yea” or “nay” on 63 and was paired on 15 others. During the second session, with 162 roll call votes, Kennedy voted on 121 and was paired on 33 others.

12. To an irredentist Polish audience in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in June 1948, he charged the late President Roosevelt with being soft on Communism. According to the Boston Herald: “Kennedy Says Roosevelt Sold Poland to Reds” FDR had done so, Kennedy alleged, “because he did not understand the Russian mind.” Also in June he spoke on the House floor urging the admission of displaced Polish war veterans to the U.S. “The United States,” said Kennedy, “has a real obligation to the valiant Polish soldier. . . . By admitting some of them to the United States we can atone in a small manner for the betrayal of their native country of Poland.” Congressional Record, 11 June 1948.

13. Congressional Record, Vol. 95, Part 1, 25 January 1949, pp. 532-33. At his press conference on 29 November 1961, President Kennedy was asked about his criticism of the Truman Administration’s China policy. His answer was as follows:

“I always have felt that we did not make a determined enough effort in the case of China. Given the problems we now see. I think a more determined effort would have been advisable. I would think that in my speech in ‘49 I placed more emphasis on personalities than I would today.

“And I would say that my view today is more in accordance with the facts than my view in ‘49. But my—I’ve always felt, and I think history will record, that the change of China from being a country friendly to us to a country which is unremittingly hostile affected very strongly the balance of power in the world. And while there were, there is still, of course, room for argument as to whether any United States actions would have changed the course of events there. I think a greater effort would have been wiser. I said it in ‘49, so it isn’t totally hindsight.”

According to Arthur Schlesinger, these early Kennedy speeches “were out of character and remained on Kennedy’s conscience for a long time. As late as 1960 he separately expressed both to Theodore H. White and to me his sorrow that he had ever given them.” A Thousand Days, p. 13 n.

14. Although, curiously, his initial support of President Truman’s action was grudging and qualified. Kennedy’s early skepticism of U.S. involvement in Korea (a sentiment which quickly faded) is understandable on two counts. First, if there was to be a war in Asia he felt it should be fought by the remnants of the Chinese nationalist army under Chiang Kaishek. Second, he feared extended U.S. commitment in Asia would curtail resources urgently needed in Western Europe, and Europe, he felt, was by far the more important. See New York Times, 13 December 1950. Cf. John P. Malian, “Massachusetts: Liberal and Corrupt,” New Republic, 13 October 1953, pp. 10-12.

15. Congressional Record, 25 August 1950. During the 81st Congress, Kennedy voted consistently for foreign aid. On 18 August 1949 he voted against the amendment offered by Representative Richards (Dem., S.C.) to cut arms aid to Western Europe from $635,840,000 to $580,495,000. The amendment carried 209-151. During the second session he voted to include Korea in the Marshall Plan (H.R. 5330), rejected 191-192 (19 January 1950); in favor of Point Four aid (31 March 1950); against a cut of $40 million in aid funds for the Far East (31 March 1950); and in favor of the $1 billion, plus, extension of the Mutual Defense Assistance Act (19 July 1950).

16. U.S. Congress, Senate, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Armed Services, 82d Congress, 1st Session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1951), pp. 434-35.

17. In Kennedy’s words:

“So concerned werp our diplomats and their advisers, the Lattimores and the Fairbanks, with the imperfection of the democratic system in China after 20 years of war and the tales of corruption in high places that they lost sight of our tremendous stake in a non-Communist China.

“Our policy, in the words of the Premier of the National Government, Sun Fo, of vacillation, uncertainty, and confusion has reaped the whirlwind.

“This House must now assume the responsibility of preventing the onrushing tide of Communism from engulfing all of Asia:” Congressional Record, 29 January 1949.

18. “I believe that the armies of Spain could make a substantial contribution to the defense of Western Europe,” said Kennedy, “and thus I believe they should share in the arms and equipment we are distributing abroad.

“I can understand the reluctance of some Members to assist Spain. They have two chief objections as far as I can tell: First, by giving Spain military assistance we are strengthening Franco; second, if we help Spain we will lose the support of some Western Europeans.

“I think the answer to the first question is obvious—Franco has been in power for 12 years and he is as strong as ever. As to the second, the situation is so critical . . . that we can no longer afford the luxury of omitting Spain from our defense plans. . . .

“There should only be one qualification before a country becomes eligible for military assistance, and that is: Are they guilty of aggression against other countries? Spain is not:” Congressional Record, 19 July 1950.

19. Congressional Record, 17 August 1951. By $350 million. Mutual Security Act of 1951 (H.R. 5113), 17 August 1951. The motion was agreed to 186-177.

20. Said Kennedy: “I believe in military assistance to this area and that it is a good thing, but I do not think that we can afford in this country to raise the standard of living of all the people all over the globe who might be subject to the lure of Communism because of a low standard of living: Congressional Record, 17 August 1954.

21. “I do not object to giving them economic assistance, but I see no point in giving them $40 million of military assistance when they are countries not in the line of the Soviet advance. . . . What is the use of tying up $40 million worth of military equipment in Central and South America?” Ibid.

22. Boston Globe, 19 November 1951.

23.”Mr. Chairman, [the House was sitting in Committee of the Whole] last year when the bill was before the House, I offered a motion to cut technical assistance in the Middle East. But, this fall, I had an opportunity to visit that area and Southeast Asia and I think we would be making a tremendous mistake to cut this money out of the bill.

Many of us feel that the United States has concentrated its attention too much on Western Europe. We will spend several billions for Western Europe in this bill. Yet, here is an area, Asia, where the Communists are attempting to seize control, where the money is to be spent among several hundred million people, and where the tide of events has been moving against us. The Communists are now the second largest party in India. The Communists made tremendous strides there in the last election. The gentleman from Montana [Mr. Mansfield] pointed out that the life expectancy of people in India is 26 to 27 years, and they are increasing at the rate of 5 million a year—at a rate much faster than the available food supply.

“The Communists have a chance of seizing all of Asia in the next 5 or 6 years. What weapons do we have that will stop them? The most effective is technical assistance. The gentleman from Michigan [Mr. Crawford] is right, that the amount of money involved here is not sufficient to prevent their being attracted to the Communists, but it gives them some hope, at least, that their problems can be solved without turning to the Communists. We are planning to spend a very large amount of money in this area for military assistance, which is of secondary importance compared to this program. To cut technical assistance when the Communists are concentrating their efforts in this vital area seems to me a costly and great mistake.” Congressional Record, 28 June 1952.

24. Ralph Blagden, “Cabot Lodge’s Toughest Fight,” The Reporter, 30 September 1952.

25. Congressional Record, 1 July 1953. In addressing the 54th Annual Dinner of the Cathedral Club of Brooklyn, N.Y., on 21 January 1954, Kennedy said: “Indochina is probably the only country in the world where many observers believe the Communist-led element would win a free election.” Congressional Record, Appendix, 1 February 1954.

26. Congressional Record, 6 April 1954. Said Kennedy: “I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy of the people.”

27. “If we are to secure the friendship of the Arab, the African and the Asian—and we must, despite what Mr. Dulles says about our not being in a popularity contest—we cannot hope to accomplish it solely by means of billion-dollar aid programs. We cannot win their hearts by making them dependent upon our handouts. Nor can we keep them free by selling them free enterprise, by describing the perils of communism or the prosperity of the United States, or limiting our dealings to military parts. No, the strength of our appeal to these key populations—and it is rightfully our appeal, and not that of the Communists—lies in our traditional and deeply felt philosophy of freedom and independence for all peoples everywhere.” John F. Kennedy, “Algeria,” Congressional Record, 2 July 1957.

28. Congressional Record, 17 June 1959. Also see John F. Kennedy, “A Democrat Looks at Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, October 1957, pp. 44-59; and “General Gavin Speaks His Mind,” The Reporter, 30 October 1958.

29. Congressional Record, 14 August 1958. The description was by Stanley Baldwin to the House of Commons in 1936. See Why England Slept, pp. 140-41. Cf. John F. Kennedy, The Strategy of Peace (New York: Harper and Bros., 1960), Popular Library Edition, p. 235, in which Kennedy curiously attributes the quotation to Winston Churchill.

30. Matthew B. Ridgway, Soldier (New York: Harper and Bros., 1956); Maxwell D. Taylor, The Uncertain Trumpet (New York: Harper and Bros., 1959); James A. Gavin, War and Peace in the Space Age (New York: Harper and Bros., 1958); John Medaris, Countdown for Decision (New York: Putnam, 1960).

31. Especially Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harrer and Bros., 1957); William W. Kauffmann, “Limited Warfare,” in Kauffmann (ed.), Military Policy and National Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956); Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957); and Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959). All cited by Kennedy in his review of James Gavin’s “War and Peace in the Space Age,” The Reporter, 30 October 1958, p. 35.

32. Advance text of address by Kennedy to the American Legion Miami Beach, Florida, 18 October 1960.

33. Missiles and Rockets, 10 October 1960, pp. 12-13.

34. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper and Bros., 1956).

35. See Alan J. Otten, “Theodore Sorensen” in Lester Tanzer ed.), The Kennedy Circle (Washington: Luce, 1960).

36. New York Times, 10 (11?) October 1960.

37. Congressional Record, 14 June 1960.


Dr. Jean Edward Smith (A.B., Princeton University; Ph.D., Columbia University) is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto. He previously taught at Dartmouth College and in 1965-66 was a member of the Institute for Defense Analyses, Arlington, Virginia. Dr. Smith is the author of The Defense of Berlin (1963) and is a frequent contributor to service and professional journals. The present article is part of a larger study now in progress.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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