Friday, January 14, 2011

Kennedy and Nixon on Communism

This blog generally analyzes internal Russian affairs in the Soviet, and especially early Soviet, period. However, as this blog's opinions necessarily reflect the American biases of its principle author, from time to time we shall endeavor to interrogate the historical perceptions of Americans toward the USSR. The fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, celebrated by a variety of special programs on Comcast's "on demand" offerings, is a perfect opportunity for such an exploration.

What, for instance, do the first two Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates reveal about America's relationship to the Soviet Union in 1960? In the first place, the two men agreed that Communist Russia represented a clear and present danger to the United States. While not specifically referencing Russia's nuclear arsenal, Nixon and Kennedy each explained to their potential audience of 180 million Americans, that Communism was a tyrannical, fanatical philosophy of un-freedom espoused by a determined enemy of the United States. Khrushchev, the leader of this morally bankrupt regime, had just threatened to "bury" his capitalist opponents and banged on the table at the United Nations. Nixon, unimpressed, called the man a "butcher of thousands," in a gross understatement of the historical record, and said that he would raise taxes "without hesitation" to combat the international threat of Communism. Kennedy, eager to show his own impeccable credentials as a leader in the fight against the encroachments of the Soviet Union, said that he and other Democratic leaders in the Congress had tried to spend more than Eisenhower had put forth in his military budget.

The two men also agreed that the domestic situation in the United States was directly related to the international contest with Russia and its allies. If African-Americans were disenfranchised, or the economy stagnated, Russia would be the direct beneficiary, both in terms of its relative power and its reputation abroad.

The two men disagreed on one essential aspect of the Cold War: which side was winning? Nixon, understandably, claimed that the Eisenhower administration had stabilized the situation after Truman had lost China. The economy of the USSR, he said, represented only forty-four percent of the United States' GNP.

Kennedy demurred with Nixon's optimistic assessment, arguing that the tide of history threatened to change course and that Eisenhower had failed to keep the Communist menace at bay. Why hadn't the previous administration done more to win hearts and minds in Africa, Asia, and, most importantly, Latin America? Why hadn't Eisenhower sent more students and specialists overseas? Why had Nixon failed to criticize the dictator, Batista, in order to avert a radical as opposed to a democratic revolution in the country? Why had America been forced to lie about the downing of its U2 spy plane in Russian air space?

Kennedy asserted that the country had great cause to be dissatisfied with the government's "vigor." Even if the USSR's economy lagged behind that of America's, it was gaining ground quickly. It was educating more scientists and engineers than America. It was discovering and exploiting new natural resources faster than we were.

Who was right? Was America winning or losing the Cold War in 1960? In hide-sight, it's hard to credit Kennedy's assertion that America was on the verge of losing out to Khrushchev's Russia, which would soon enter into a long period of stagnation before eventually collapsing under the weight of its own military spending and economic inefficiency. After all, many Russians were already noticing very real flaws in their country's economic and intellectual life. On the the other hand, the world was in flux. In the last few years, Americans had watched as China became communist and gained diplomatic recognition, the Russians invaded Hungary, Khrushchev behaved more and more erratically by cancelling summits and issuing threats, the Soviet Union scored important scientific victories in the space race, Berlin grew more vulnerable, and a complex and ever-shifting post-colonial landscape emerged in three different continents.

Who won the first two presidential debates? Historians tells us that audience members who heard the debates on the radio thought that Nixon had carried the day. Certainly he appeared to be a moderate, civilized, experienced, and thoughtful champion of conservative values such as limited government and entrepreneurialism. But historians also say that people who saw the debates on television believed that the charismatic Kennedy had triumphed.

In the end, the relatively inexperienced Kennedy has to be seen as the victor. He stood toe-to-toe with a much more experienced man, and managed to present himself as more opposed to communism than a man with much better established anti-communist bona fides. The rhetorical strength of Kennedy's approach to change and reform was to link his ideas about Civil Rights progress, education, and anti-poverty, to an overall concern for America's competitiveness in the Cold War.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought it was strange that the Democrats were more hawkish in the late 50s than the Republicans, at least as far as the nuclear race was concerned. It kind of points out how irrelevant a lot of the current historical comparisons you hear are--like Eisenhower wouldn't find a place in the current Republican party. But the only Democrat with anything like the aggressive instincts of Kennedy is maybe Joe Lieberman.