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Senator John F. Kennedy: Anti-Imperialism and Utopian Deficit



Opinions of John F. Kennedy differ but it is commonly agreed that he was an impatient man and easily bored (though when he was laid up lengthily in a hospital bed, which happened not infrequently, his stoicism and patience were nothing short of astonishing). It stands to reason, then, that one of the things that bored him in the 1950s was the cold war, by then solidified into a dogmatic and rigid system.1 It is the ideological nature of that boredom, or discomfort, its dilemmas and limits, that interest me here. My double wager is that if one pursues Kennedy's idiosyncrasies on this score without reading him backwards from the unflinching coldwar policies he actually launched, apparently, in his presidency, then one will learn something both about the cold war at the time and about Kennedy himself.

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1 When used as an attribute, the cold war is rendered “coldwar”; and the noun itself is never capitalized. Here I am following the rule laid down for me in no uncertain terms by the late and lamented Craig Owens, who, among many things, was a stellar editor when he was at Art in America. I have followed the same procedure with “the third world.”

2 Thus he could never have gone as far as George F. Kennan, alleged “architect of containment,” who did in fact became an apostate in the 1950s, confronting directly the whole coldwar axiomatic. Kennedy read Kennan but prudently kept him at a distance, fobbing him off in 1961 with the ambassadorship to Tito's Yugoslavia.

3 Kennedy said little systemically about the cold war, in part because there was no gain in doing so, partly because of the genuine difficulties, both conceptual and political. One intriguing “dialectical” remark he made is reported by Harris Wofford: “The key thing for the country is a new foreign policy that will break out of the confines of the cold war. Then we can build a decent relationship with the developing nations and begin to respond to their needs. We can stop the vicious circle of the arms race and promote diversity and peaceful change within the Soviet bloc.” Wofford was an adviser in the 1960 campaign, a specialist on civil rights and also part of organizing the Peace Corps. See Wofford, Harris, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980), 3637. The quotation is indirectly rendered but rings quite true. We need to end “the frozen, belligerent brink-of-war phase of the long Cold War,” as he also said. The phase, but not the war? one might ask. See his speech at Rochester, 1 Oct. 1959, reprinted in Kennedy, John F., Strategy for Peace, ed. Nevins, Allan (New York: Popular Library, 1960), 37. Around 1960, too, he would sometimes refer in an offhanded manner to Arnold Toynbee's notion that the cold war might turn into the kind of long-term truce and acceptance that eventually came to mark the relationship between Islam and Christianity, two other all-or-nothing positions analogous to the contemporary East–West antagonism. See e.g. his speech at South Eugene, OR, 22 April 1960, at A large number of his speeches from 1960 have been digitized by the John F. Kennedy Library (henceforth JFKL), far fewer for the preceding years.

4 For reasons of space, references to the vast secondary literature will be kept to a minimum. Of the standard, sympathetic accounts, I have found especially useful Sorensen, Ted, Kennedy (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009; first published 1965); and Dallek, Robert, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (New York: Back Bay Books, 2004). The classic debunking text, centering on Vietnam, is of course Halberstam, David, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972), a book that should be reread periodically by all; and similarly Hersh, Seymour M., The Dark Side of Camelot (New York: Back Bay, 1998). On the earlier period, see Hamilton, Nigel's JFK: Reckless Youth (New York: Random House, 1993), excessive but fun to read. Rabe, Stephen, The Most Dangerous Area on Earth: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) remains a devastating indictment. A recent, typically judicious synthesis is Brinkley, Alan, John F. Kennedy (New York: Times Books, 2012).

5 Thus Dallek in his authoritative and informative Life of 800 pages spends only a few paragraphs on the Algerian speech. Vietnam, because of what happened afterwards, has been more widely explored but the Algerian intervention in 1957 was more controversial and strongly pitched. See, first, the pioneering effort by Nurse, Ronald J., “Critic of Colonialism: JFK and Algerian Independence,” The Historian, 39, 2 (1970), 307–26; later Lefebvre, Jeffrey A., “Kennedy's Algerian Dilemma: Containment, Alliance Politics and the ‘Rebel Dialogue’,” Middle Eastern Studies, 35, 2 (1999), 6182; and Romahn, Theresa, “Colonialism and the Campaign Trail: On Kennedy's Algerian Speech and His Bid for the 1960 Democratic Nomination,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 10, 2 (2009).

6 On Kennedy Sr. see Nasaw, David, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph. R. Kennedy (New York: Penguin, 2012). Empirically sound, Nasaw's book still has some difficulty with Kennedy as a character. Joseph, unlike his second son, was a materialist of reductionist persuasion: interests, mostly of a fairly crude kind, govern the world. Hence his oddly naive view that the Nazis could be bought off in 1938–39. After 1946, he kept a low political profile so as not to jeopardize John's career. His speech at Robert's law school (Virginia) in December 1950 was an exception – worth a read for its unflinching attack on coldwar policies in the name of a retooled notion of “Fortress America.” As he asked rhetorically, “what business is is it of ours to support French colonial policy in Indo-China or to achieve Mr. Syngman Rhee's concepts of democracy in Korea?” See Kennedy, Joseph P., “Present Policy Is Politically and Morally Bankrupt,” Vital Speeches of the Day, 17, 6 (1951), 170–73.

7 Kennedy, while hailing the Irish nation for obvious reasons, never romanticized (unduly) Irish resistance, even at “Irish” occasions. See e.g. his remarks at the Irish Institute, New York, 12 Jan. 1957, at With clear reference to recent events in Hungary, he pointed out that in the 17th century “the Irish people were brutally slaughtered and enslaved by a ruthless and relentless Cromwell,” following which the population declined by 50%. The punchline – that the Irish eventually gained freedom as the Hungarians no doubt would – did not disguise the Cromwellian lesson of his remark. In the Senate debate on Poland in August 1957, indeed, he said that it had taken the Irish 700 years of disastrous rebellions to get to their goal, which was not a good recipe for the Poles. See Congressional Record, Senate, 103, 11 (21 Aug. 1957), 15540.

8 Couve de Murville, who knew Kennedy at the time in Washington before he returned to France to become de Gaulle's foreign minister, called him retroactively “an intellectual,” by which he meant “a man who reads, who thinks, and who believes that life is more complicated than it generally appears.” See Maurice Couve de Murville, Oral History Interview – 5/20/1964, JFKL, at Given that laconic but expansive notion (intriguing in itself), I would agree he was an intellectual; but he did not fit the mould in any stricter sense. He was not interested in intellectual inquiry for its own sake.

9 Kennedy, John F., Profiles in Courage (New York: Perennial, 2004; first published 1956). He says, disapprovingly, by way of preface that the cold war had generated “rigid ideological unity and orthodox patterns of thought” (17).

10 For better or worse: Johnson the bone-crushing deal-maker proved far bolder and more “activist” on domestic policy (witness the epochal reform year of 1965) than Kennedy, who was inclined to see limits and problems. Inversely, Johnson had none of Kennedy's confidence and knowledge about foreign policy. When push came to shove, Johnson was stuck in the shibboleths of the 1950s. On the spectre of Vietnam, all I indicate in this essay is that there is no set answer and we might as well give that game up; though if I were pressed up against the wall for an answer, I would have to say that the idea of Kennedy sending half a million troops to Vietnam seems really far-fetched.

11 I have stated this view on many occasions, in fully fledged form most recently in Stephanson, Anders, “Cold War Degree Zero,” in Isaac, Joel and Bell, Duncan, eds., Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

12 No single document expresses this in full but NSC-68 of April 1950 comes close. Written by a committee of the Policy Planning Staff (and not as is often said by Paul Nitze, the presiding spirit), it remains the most ideologically charged condensation of the US position on the early cold war: true in its exaggeration.

13 Kennedy, the young Democratic congressman, chimed in with some trite babble here in early 1949, blaming the State Department and the White House for the “disaster” in China and for relying on advice from “the Lattimores and the Fairbanks.” Congressional Record, House, 95, 1 (25 Jan. 1949), 532–33.

14 This is not to say that nothing was ever done by way of “attacking” the Soviet Union and auxiliary regimes: the extent of the “psy-war” – including all manner of actions far beyond “the psychological” – was both varied and sustained. It is merely to say that the decisive aspect was always the globalist agenda with regard to the “free world.”

15 He stated this to various degrees on many occasions. His speeches (and Senate interventions) are more incisive, not surprisingly, than his career-enhancing efforts in the mainstream media which tend to the bland, predictable and overly calculated. For synthetic statements in 1957, see his “A Democrat Says the Party Must Lead – Or Get Left,” Life, 15 March 1957, 164–77 (Kennedy was on the cover); and “A Democrat Looks at Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, 36, 1 (Oct. 1957), 44–59. “Leadership” was a tactically useful theme but also essential to Kennedy's outlook, the substance of process, so to speak.

16 On Eastern Europe, see reference below, note 31. For the quotations on decolonization and nationalism see his strong speech at the Los Angeles World Council, 21 Sept. 1956, See also “A Democrat Looks at Foreign Policy”; and his speech at the University of Pennsylvania, “The New Dimensions of American Foreign Policy,” 1 Nov. 1957, On the irony of “neutrality” see his speech at Easter Oregon University, 9 Nov. 1959, in Strategy for Peace, 140.

17 Speech at Los Angeles, 21 Sept. 1956; speech at Irish Fellowship Club, Chicago, 17 March 1956,

18 I am simplifying, of course, and beneath the official surface even John Foster Dulles had a fairly clear idea of where the colonial question was heading. Nonetheless, the logic of the cold war did determine in the last instance. See the nuanced discussion in Robert B. Rakove, “A Genuine Departure: Kennedy, Johnson and the Non-Aligned World,” unpublished dissertation, University of Virginia, 2009, chapter 1. Typically, the Basic National Security Policy statement of 1956 dictated support for “constructive” nationalist movements and “orderly evolution of political arrangements toward self-determination” (quoted in ibid., 25); but the Eisenhower policy of pacts and alliances, in a larger sense anticommunism, gave priority to more important things than “self-determination.”

19 The notes I have seen specifically on Vietnam are not extensive but give an indication. There was dinner (no notes) with Bao Dai, the would-be “emperor,” and a good deal of interaction with the French. Kennedy flew over the Hanoi Delta, fiercely fought over, with the French commander, Marshall de Lattre, whom he greatly respected. Kennedy grasped that Ho Chi Minh controlled most of the countryside and he also believed as “many Americans” in the area that the French could have avoided the overall problem by giving Indochina its independence after World War II. He also thought Asian “leadership” here would recast the conflict from one “between native communists and western imperialists, between the white and the yellow man,” to “a struggle to preserve Asiatic democracy and the independence of native governments against the new imperialism of the communists.” His conclusion was clear: “The support of the legitimate aspirations of the people of this area against all who seek to dominate them – from whatever quarter they may come.” JFKL, Pre-presidential Papers, Box 011, Boston Office Files, Speech Files 46–52, “Far Eastern Trip, 1951.” Throughout this trip, he met important individuals (from Ben-Gurion to Nehru). Curiously, in view of the times, the Indian foreign minister told him that the Chinese, being indepdendent-minded, would part ways with Moscow, but not if there was continued, compact resistance to them from everyone else. What prevented any opening (Kennedy reflected) was, however, the required Western concessions: recognition, of course, and a series of other measures that were essentially a gamble and exceedingly difficult. See

20 Kennedy's chief statement on Indochina, 30 June 1953, will be found in Congressional Record, Senate, 99, 6 (1953), 7622–25. See also the debate 1 July 1953, ibid., 7780–84.

21 For Kennedy's varying statements on the emerging and intensifying crisis from March to May 1954 see Congressional Record, Senate, 100, 3 (1954), 2904; ibid., 100, 6, 4671–81 (quotation at 4673); speech at Cook County Democratic Dinner, 20 April 1954,; speech at Princeton University, 11 May 1954,; speech at St. Michael's College, VT, 16 May 1954,

22 See his panglossian address to the “Friends of Vietnam,” the organized lobby, on 1 June 1956: Kennedy complained wrongly that Vietnam after the dramatic turn for the better had disappeared from US media – it was actually covered, if not extensively, the New York Times reporting censorship and arrests at the same time as it editorially expressed support for the Diem regime and US aid (see 15 Feb., 11 March, 11 April, and, after Kennedy's speech, 2 July 1956). Kennedy then issued a truly appalling ode to Diem and his regime. “Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dyke … Where once a playboy emperor ruled from a distant shore, a constitutent assembly has been elected. Social and economic reforms have likewise been remarkable. The living conditions of the peasants have been vastly improved, the wastelands have been cultivated, and a wider ownership of the land is gradually being encouraged. Farm cooperatives and farmer loans have modernized an outmoded agricultural economy; and a tremendous dam in the center of the country has made possible the irrigation of a vast area previously uncultivated. Legislation for better labor relations, health protection, working conditions and wages has been completed under the leadership of president Diem.” He knew better. Ironically, he also noted that, historically, the Vietnamese had resisted and stopped Chinese expansion in the region; so, presumably, he would not have been surprised in 1979 when the two communist powers went to war.

23 Quotation from speech at St. Michael's College, 16 May 1954; also his Senate speech, 30 June 1953; and his Senate speech on 6 April 1954, Congressional Record, Senate, 100, 4 (1954), 4671–81.

24 On “site-specificity” see among other statements his speech at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, 2 June 1956,; his speech at University of Florida, Gainesville, 18 Oct. 1957,

25 Two sources were Habib Bourguiba Jr. (very briefly) and, above all, Mongi Slim, who served as combined Tunisian ambassador to the US, the UN and Canada. Yet I think Kennedy, helped out on French materials by Jacqueline, always kept an eye on the problem of French colonialism because of the fiasco in Indochina.

26 The specific references to Kennedy and Algeria in note 5 aside, see more generally (from a variety of perspectives) Egya N. Sangmuah, “The United States and the French Empire in North Africa, 1946–1956: Decolonization in the Age of Containment,” unpubl. PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1989; Daniel Byrne, “Adrift in a Sand of Sand: The Search for United States Foreign Policy toward the Decolonization of Algeria, 1942–1962,” unpubl. PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2003; Wall, Irvin, “The United States, Algeria, and the Fall of the Fourth French Republic,” Diplomatic History, 18, 4, 489511; Connolly, Matthew, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria's Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Sangmuah's account is especially clear on the lacklustre result of trying to maintain a favourable view of decolonization in principle while hanging on to a coldwar frame.

27 On the background for Kennedy's support for Israel see Bass, Warren, Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.–Israeli Alliance, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), chapter 1. In 1956, Kennedy gave a couple of pandering speeches, the second on account of Golda Meir's visit right after Suez, where he says blandly that “the complexities of the present turmoil” will not diminish consideration for Israel. When he did address those “complexities” they did not include any reflection on Israel's place in the Suez sequence. See; and his earlier Yankee Stadium address, It is noteworthy that, between these two speeches, he also observed the influence of national lobbies: “The conduct of our policies with respect to Israel, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Poland, and others will be determined more by the political potency of nationality groups in this country than by the stricter requirements of our national interest as a whole.” See his address to the Los Angeles World Council, 21 Sept. 1956,

28 The speech and the debate will be found in Congressional Record, 103, 8 (2 July 1957), 10780–93. This is the best place to read it since it includes the surrounding remarks and the debate. The jolly atmosphere, controversy notwithstanding, is striking. It is (by current standards) remarkable how chummy the senators are across the dividing lines. Kennedy restated his position succinctly in the Jesuit journal America, 5 Oct. 1957, 15–17.

29 See references above in note 5 for various versions of the instrumental reasons. Clearly, it was meant to gain attention and reinforce his stature as a potential candidate but that is hardly surprising. On Nixon, see Byrne, ch. 5; and Matijasic, Thomas D., “It's Personal: Nixon, Liberia and the Development of U. S. African Policy,” White House Studies, 11, 1 (2011), 3955.

30 Dean Acheson rapped him across the knuckles, more or less intimating that he was an immature twit, and so Acheson went on to support Johnson in the early campaign of 1960. “Nothing can be more injudicious than this proposal except making it,” was his characteristic verdict on Kennedy's speech (New York Times, 26 Oct. 1957). The Times (3 July 1957), in more polite language, took pretty much the same view. Time magazine (15 July 1957) ridiculed him in a cartoon as a boy in shorts setting off a fire cracker under the properly attired and diplomatic John Foster Dulles. More surprising was Adlai Stevenson's view. Coming back from a trip to Africa, Stevenson praised France, Britain and even the Belgians (!) for their “great advances in education, industrial and economic developments” (New York Times, 9 July 1957). A little later he excluded North Africa from the frame (ibid., 17 July 1957), though he also said independence would mean chaos (ibid., 30 July 1957). The speech generated a very large response in correspondence, many exceedingly critical, the FLN jubilant. See John F. Kennedy, Pre-presidential Papers, JFKL, Senate Files, “Algerian Speech Files,” Box 919. Kennedy defended himself forcefully. In one interesting passage, he denied that he harboured any “dogmatic faith that nationalism, merely by its proclamation, deserves American support” as there were indeed “retrogressive, reactionary forms of nationalism.” This, then, was a reason to support Algerian independence before it was taken over by either Communist or “reactionary Islamic forces.” Kennedy to John Harriman of the Boston Globe, n.d. (but probably August 1957).

31 See Congressional Record, 103, 11 (21 Aug. 1957), 15446–54. The rubric was in fact “The Anti-imperialist Struggle, Part II.”

32 These concerns come to the fore on numerous occasions, not least in the election campaign speeches of 1960. Here is a representative sample: speech at University of Pennsylvania, 1 Nov. 1957,; speech at National Conference of Jews and Christians, Chicago, 3 Dec. 1957,; speech at Knights of Columbus, South Boston, 12 Jan. 1958,; speech at University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 7 March 1960, Finally, see his speech in the Senate, Congressional Record, 106, 10 (14 June 1960), 12523–29. His “A Democrat Looks at Foreign Policy” in Foreign Affairs describes the inflexibility of John Foster Dulles; his speech at Rochester, 1 Oct. 1959, says that Nikita Khrushchev “is shrewd, he is tough, he is vigorous, well informed, and confident,” and, moreover, “not the prisoner of any ancient dogma or limited vision” (Strategy for Peace, 34). The quotation is from a speech at B'Nai Zio, New York, 9 Feb. 1959, in Strategy for Peace, 156.

33 Speech at University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 7 March 1960, This is perhaps the place to say a word about “modernization.” In a larger sense, this was what Kennedy had in mind and he was, by late 1957, certainly influenced by Max Milliken and Walt Rostow's powerful account of this. Neverthelss, one should be wary of any simple equation here. Kennedy thought the model too economistic (as it were). My own view, slightly discordant, is that he saw fairly clearly that this kind of approach might rather easily become a new dogma, a new ideology of closure. On this generally see Michael Latham's now classic Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation-Building” in the Kennedy Era (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

34 Introduction to Strategy for Peace, 28.

35 Speech at High School Stadium, Alexandra, VA, 24 Aug. 1960, Kennedy brought up the Kitchen Debate on several occasions in a derisory sense – to which one must add that the view imputed to Nixon about consumerism seems to give him the final laugh here.

36 His Senate speech on 14 June 1960 is a good summary. It is also notable for its heavily disguised trial balloon on doing something new with regard to the People's Republic of China. Overall, he seems to have thought about the difference between the Soviet Union and the PRC as a matter of stages: the former had come out of its Stalinist one while the latter was going through it. He also seems to have imagined, but not in any sustained way, an emerging, multipolar world of diversity and heterogeneity. Congressional Record, 106, 10 (14 June 1960), 12523–29.

37 See Walls, Irvin's acerbic “De Gaulle, the ‘Anglo-Saxons,’ and the Algerian War,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 25, 2 (2002), 118–37, for an excellent corrective which reveals de Gaulle's highly malleable position.

38 See e.g. speech at State Capitol at Albany, 29 Sept. 1960, Or, in the same spirit, “There is not a present American statesman who is quoted by any African leaders today.” Speech at Government Square, Cincinnati, 6 Oct. 1960, On occasion, he would refer to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as contrast. By “utopian,” in any case, I mean something along the lines of Fredric Jameson's theorization, not the notion of a readymade plan for an alternative, future society but an intrinsic part of the ideological operation. From that starting point, one might indeed go on in Jameson's spirit to “map” Kennedy's dilemmas and closure by means of the semiotic square that he, in turn relying on Algerdiras Greimas, tends to favour: more work to be done, I think. One place to start would be Jameson, Fredric, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

39 The central article on the gender aspect is Dean, Robert D.'s great “Masculinity as Ideology: John F. Kennedy and the Domestic Politics of Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History, 22, 1 (1998), 2962. The emphasis on the Progressive analogue is more my own.

40 This is where Odd Arne Westad's notion of the cold war in a global context as residing, in intensive form, in the third world comes into new light, and perhaps our disagreement could turn more interesting.

Many thanks to David Fine and Joshua Fattal, who helped with the research; to Marilyn Young for always being a stern and fair critic; to Ann Douglas for interesting conversation; and to Scott Lucas and Bevan Sewall and the British Association for American Studies for inviting me to give the address on which the article is based.


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