JFK, Conservative

JFK, Conservative

by Ira Stoll


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"America, meet the real John F. Kennedy." -- Washington Times

John F. Kennedy is lionized by liberals. He inspired Lyndon Johnson to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. His New Frontier promised increased spending on education and medical care for the elderly. He inspired Bill Clinton to go into politics. His champions insist he would have done great liberal things had he not been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.

But what if we've been looking at him all wrong? Indeed, JFK had more in common with Ronald Reagan than with LBJ. After all, JFK's two great causes were anticommunism and tax cuts. His tax cuts, domestic spending restraint, military buildup, pro-growth economic policy, emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom -- all make him, by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative. This widely debated book is must reading for conservatives and liberals alike.

"Provocative and compelling . . . Ira Stoll has succeeded in changing our very perception of Kennedy as one of liberalism's heroes." -- Weekly Standard

"An informative analysis of the ways in which JFK did indeed evince his conservative side -- he was very religious, open to a free market unencumbered by governmental interference, and staunchly anti-Communist." -- Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544334540
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Pages: 290
Sales rank: 589,462
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

IRA STOLL is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com, and the author of Samuel Adams: A Life. From 2002 to 2008 he was vice president and managing editor of The New York Sun. Previously, he served as Washington correspondent and managing editor of The Forward, as North American editor of the Jerusalem Post, and as president of the Harvard Crimson.

Read an Excerpt


PT 109

We, in this country, must be willing to do battle for old ideas that have proved their value with the same enthusiasm that people do for new ideas and creeds.

— JOHN F. KENNEDY, congressional campaign speech, 1946

The Solomon Islands

SWIMMING FOR THREE MILES, a body gets in a rhythm — reach, pull, kick, breathe. When the swim is a matter of life and death, it is both a mental challenge and a supremely physical one.

John F. Kennedy did not leave a record of what he thought about on the afternoon of August 2, 1943, when he swam in the waters of the Blackett Strait in the South Pacific. But he proved he had a great deal of mental and physical capacity.

He had been born with plenty of privilege, of the sort that does not always produce mental and physical toughness. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, one of the richest men in America, had served President Franklin Roosevelt as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and as ambassador to Great Britain. A father like that could help in many ways, and had in the past, but there in the water, John Kennedy was on his own. His mother, Rose, who liked to travel, had done some of the delegating that is inescapable when raising nine children, sending her son John off to boarding school in the fall of 1930, when he was thirteen and a half. First it was a Catholic school, Canterbury, in New Milford, Connecticut, where students attended morning and evening chapel. Then Choate, in Wallingford, Connecticut, where Kennedy left the campus every Sunday to go to Mass, and also was something of a prank-loving rascal, once filling up a neighboring boy's room entirely with pillows. Through it all he had a series of illnesses, so that after his death his widow described him to the journalist Theodore White as "this lonely sick boy ... this little boy in bed so much of the time."

Illness had also interrupted Kennedy's first semester at Princeton, where he began college. He started again at Harvard, his father's alma mater, where his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., was two years ahead of him. There Jack "consistently" attended Sunday Mass and for four years belonged to St. Paul's Catholic Club. He had joked to a friend who had borrowed his hat and had neglected to return it, "You are getting a certain carefree communistic attitude + a share the wealth attitude that is rather worrying to we who are wealthy."

Kennedy's father would have smiled to read that. While he had campaigned with and for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, he had tried to restrain some of the New Deal's overreaches, opposing the Wealth Tax of 1935, which raised the top income tax rate to above 75 percent, and FDR's effort to eliminate utility holding companies. Joseph Kennedy would soon be giving speeches warning of the loss of independence that could result from what he called "Santa Claus" government: "If the state is to dominate the individual, sustaining him in slavish dependence ... then the winning of the second World War will have proved a hollow victory."

Rose Kennedy might have smiled, too. When Joseph Jr. had returned from study abroad in England favoring redistribution of wealth, Rose suggested pointedly, as she later recalled, "that in that case he should give up his boat and just fish off the pier or play baseball or do other things that most people do for recreation."

Not that Jack did whatever his parents told him to do. He was already, consciously or unconsciously, doing what all children do, but especially children of powerful parents — figuring out both what to emulate and what to do differently. Joseph Kennedy had spent World War I in the relative safety of a Massachusetts shipyard. On the eve of World War II, the ambassador had called for "good relations" between democracies and dictatorships, reasoning that "we have to live together in the same world." For this he was widely criticized as an appeaser. But John Kennedy had enlisted and sought a combat assignment.

Now, he had to reach Plum Pudding Island. From the point where Kennedy and his crew abandoned the sinking remnant of PT 109's hull, the island at first was a distant speck on the horizon, growing slowly larger as he approached. There at least he would be safe from sharks, which were so common in the Solomons that back at the Navy base on Rendova, men would go swimming off their patrol torpedo boats only if someone else was standing guard on deck with a rifle.

Kennedy would still have to worry about Japanese bombers. He had already had three close calls. On April 7, 1943, a landing ship he was aboard, approaching Guadalcanal, was attacked. After Americans shot down the Japanese plane, Kennedy noticed its pilot swimming while keeping one hand underwater. As the Americans tried to rescue the airman from the sea, the enemy pilot opened fire on them with a revolver he had been hiding. On July 19, shrapnel from a Japanese bomb drew blood from two of PT 109's crew members, who had to be hospitalized. And on August 1, before Kennedy and PT 109 left for their nighttime patrol, twenty-five Japanese planes attacked the Americans' harbor, blew up one PT boat, sank another, and killed two American sailors.

There was one thing we can be sure Kennedy was thinking about: the badly burned thirty-seven-year-old enlisted man he was pulling behind him — really, on top of him — Patrick "Pappy" McMahon, who had been in the engine room when the steel of the Japanese destroyer sliced through PT 109's eighty-foot plywood hull. McMahon was floating face-up, his back to Kennedy's, as Kennedy swam the breaststroke. Kennedy had a strap of McMahon's life jacket clenched between his teeth, and that was how he towed his crewmate for four or five hours, swallowing salt water along the way.

McMahon was luckier than the two sailors who were missing after the crash. Harold Marney was nineteen, a motor machinist's mate from Springfield, Massachusetts, who had enlisted at age seventeen, a month before Pearl Harbor. Andrew Jackson Kirksey, a torpedoman, was twenty-five and had a wife and a ten-month-old son back home in Georgia.

Kennedy's life experiences, privileged as they were, had provided a kind of mental toughness that separated him from some of his family members. He had spent part of March 1939 with his father in Rome, at the coronation of Pope Pius XII. He wrote to a friend afterward that the pope "gave Dad and I communion with Eunice [JFK's sister] at the same time at a private mass and all in all it was very impressive." In July of 1939, Kennedy traveled with a Rhodes scholar named Byron White to Berlin, Munich, Danzig, Budapest, and Italy. The same year, he visited the Soviet Union, which he found "a crude, backward, hopelessly bureaucratic country."

In the fall, he wrote an unsigned editorial in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, urging American leaders to negotiate a peace between Britain and Germany that would disarm Hitler. Once the war in Europe began in earnest, though, he urged American preparedness, seeing Britain's unpreparedness as having put that country at risk. The president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, had taken a similar line in a May 29, 1940, nationwide radio speech calling for immediate American aid to the Allies, stating, "I believe the United States should take every action possible to insure the defeat of Hitler," and declaring that the "fear of war is no basis for a national policy." Kennedy made his case in a June 9, 1940, letter to the editor of the Crimson:

In an editorial on Friday, May 31, attacking President Conant's speech you stated that "there is no surer way to war, and a terribly destructive one, than to arm as we are doing." This point of view seems to overlook the very valuable lesson of England's experience during the last decade. In no other country was this idea that armaments are the prime cause of war more firmly held. Lord Grey's statement in 1914 — "the enormous growth of armaments in Europe, the sense of insecurity and fear caused by them, it was these that made war inevitable" — was quoted again and again by the successful opponents of British rearmament. Senator Borah expressed the equivalent American opinion, in voting against the naval appropriations bill of 1928 when he said, "One nation putting out a program, another putting out a program to meet the program, and soon there is war."

If anyone should ask why Britain is so badly prepared for this war or why America's defenses were found to be in such shocking condition in the May investigations, this attitude toward armaments is a substantial answer. The failure to build up her armaments has not saved England from a war, and may cost her one. Are we in America to let that lesson go unlearned?.

Kennedy had even turned his Harvard senior thesis on the topic into a book, Why England Slept, published in 1940. It was the "poor condition of British armaments" that made the "surrender" at Munich "inevitable," Kennedy wrote. He regretted that welfare advocates and farm interests were stronger than weapons proponents. "There is no lobby for armaments as there is for relief or for agriculture ... The lobbies of agriculture and relief will oppose it, as it would mean taking money from their cause." And he offered some advice: "We must always keep our armaments equal to our commitments. Munich should teach us that; we must realize that any bluff will be called. We cannot tell anyone to keep out of our hemisphere unless our armaments and the people behind those armaments 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 be automatic: if we debate, if we hesitate, if we question, it will be too late."

Once inducted into the Navy, Kennedy had the chance to explain to new recruits in his own words what he thought the war was about. He did this in a speech delivered on July 4, 1942, in Charleston, South Carolina, titled "For What We Fight." It praised the signers of the Declaration for their "great courage" and "an even greater faith": "Today, 166 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we, in America, are faced with a similar decision. We must decide whether the allegiance which we profess to the principles upon which this government is based is mere lip service, or whether we truly believe in them to the extent that we are ready to die for them."

Kennedy also acknowledged that America may have sometimes fallen short of its principles. "Some may argue that the ideals for which we fight now ... are likewise impossible to achieve. Indeed, some men argue that Christianity itself has failed. They point to a world aflame with war, and say that the principles that Christ taught are too high, that men will never live their lives according to his precepts," he said. "But that does not mean we should throw these principles aside. They represent ideals and goals worth working for — worth fighting for. A world which casts away all morality and principle — all hopeless idealism, if you will, — is not a world worth living in."

And he reminded the soldiers of "the cause for which our enemies fight": "We say that all men are created equal. They deny it. They believe in the theory of the Master Race, in government by the elite — a government of a chosen few, by a chosen few, for a chosen few. We believe that man has certain inalienable rights. They say that man has no rights — he has duties. Only the state has rights."

The abstractions faded away as the speck of land loomed closer on the horizon. Finally Kennedy stopped swimming and stumbled onto shore. Either from exhaustion or from the seawater he swallowed, he vomited. Then he crawled across the beach to the cover of casuarina trees.

His ordeal had just begun. That night, Kennedy, this time alone, traveled another two or three miles and back, walking along a reef and swimming at times, trying to catch the attention of other PT boats he thought would be patrolling the Ferguson Passage. His idea was to hail one of them to rescue McMahon and the nine other surviving crewmen. But the other PT boats had gone in a different direction.

On the third day, the group swam to a nearby island, Olasana. It had more coconut trees, which were their only source of food. Kennedy again towed McMahon. On the fourth day, Thursday, August 5, Kennedy swam to another island, Naru, where he found a canoe and some fresh water and Japanese candy. The same day, two native scouts working for the British discovered the rest of the American survivors. When Kennedy returned to Olasana, he met the natives. On August 6, Kennedy carved a message into a coconut shell for the scouts to take by canoe to the American base at Rendova, thirty-eight miles away:





On August 7, a group of seven native scouts, sent by an Australian coast watcher who had received Kennedy's message, arrived at Olasana with fish, rice, potatoes, and cigarettes. After midnight on August 8, PT 157 came to rescue the survivors of the August 2 crash.

Was Kennedy lucky to have survived? Or unlucky to have lost his boat and two crewmen? If Kennedy's own thoughts on the matter were mixed, the press portrayed the shipwreck story as nothing short of a miracle. An account of it by John Hersey, whose wife, Frances Ann, was a friend of Kennedy's, ran in the June 17, 1944, New Yorker under the headline "Survival"; it concluded with the rescued sailors mingling on the deck of PT 157 with the natives, who had been educated by Christian missionaries, and who were singing a hymn they all knew:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
A version of the New Yorker article, with the same ending, was reprinted in the August 1944 issue of Reader's Digest, which at the time had a circulation of 8,750,000. Reprints of the Reader's Digest article were mailed to voters in Kennedy's 1946 congressional campaign.

In that campaign, Kennedy spoke to a few veterans' organizations about McMahon's bravery in turning down a medical discharge and remaining in the South Pacific, to work with his painfully burned hands repairing PT boat engines.

Kennedy said in that speech:

The institutions and principles for which we fought will be under a growing fire in the years ahead. We, in this country, must be willing to do battle for old ideas that have proved their value with the same enthusiasm that people do for new ideas and creeds. The tremendous vote in England last year for socialistic collectivism was largely the result of the tremendous enthusiasm that the socialists whipped up with their vigorous propaganda. If you wish to combat a similar move here — because, mark you, you may be sure that there will be such a movement — you must be willing to match your enthusiasm and interest and belief in the old with their interest and enthusiasm and belief in the new and novel.

So the president who coined the phrase "New Frontier" began his career as an advocate of "old ideas." He did not spell out what those old ideas were, but he made it clear enough that they did not include socialism.

If Kennedy's rhetoric changed at times as his political career progressed, PT 109 remained a touchstone. Campaign volunteers distributed gold-colored metal tie clasps in the shape of the lost boat. Some of Kennedy's fellow surviving crew members campaigned with him in 1960, and after the election Kennedy invited them to his inauguration, where part of the inaugural parade was a PT boat painted with the number 109. As president, he read the manuscript of a book on PT 109 written by a newspaper reporter. When the book was made into a Hollywood movie, he screened it at the White House. And on his desk in the Oval Office, President Kennedy kept, preserved in wood and clear plastic, that coconut shell.

It was a symbol of the risks of war, and also of the possibility that, with faith and good fortune, one might survive through perils and hardships and go on to flourish.


Excerpted from "JFK, Conservative"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Ira Stoll.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prelude  ix
Introduction  1
1. PT 109  9
2. Congressman  17
3. Senator Kennedy  38
4. Presidential Campaign  53
5. Transition and Inauguration  80
6. The New Frontier: Domestic Policy  94
7. Tax Cutter  122
8. The Cold War and the Freedom Doctrine  140
9. The Death of a President  181
10. Passing the Torch  197
Acknowledgments  231
Notes  234
Bibliography  257
Index  263

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JFK, Conservative 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ira Stoll offers up some decent insights about the current Republican party. Contrary to what both parties believe, Stoll argued that modern conservatism derived its platform from President Kennedy. Shows strong correlation between the attitude and beliefs of President Kennedy's and President Reagan's terms.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Theory and spectulation and now dated