Ira Stoll’s “JFK: Conservative” is a deep dive into the true political beliefs of a president who is often lionized by the Democratic Party as an icon of the Left. In his book, Stoll highlights President Kennedy’s commitment to keeping taxes low and advocating for free trade, stopping the spread of communism, and promoting a strong military and American presence in space.
In the book’s seventh chapter, “Tax Cutter,” Stoll writes of Kennedy’s State of the Union address on Jan. 11, 1962, in which the president spoke of a “wholly new approach” to U.S. trade policy. Kennedy went on to describe a “new five-year Trade Expansion Action, far-reaching in scope but designed with great care to make certain that its benefits to our people far outweigh any risks.” Kennedy outlined a few specifics of his proposal, including a “gradual elimination of tariffs” that would allow for “our major industries to compete with their counterparts in Western Europe for access to European consumers.” This regulation-cutting attitude is classically conservative and has been a go-to talking point in conservative politics for decades, making it really hard to believe the idea that President Kennedy would be in favor of binding American corporations with red tape, as today’s prominent Democrats advocate for on a regular basis. Our current head of state, President Joe Biden, has hailed a “rising China,” America’s primary economic rival, as a “positive, positive development not only for China but for America and the world.” It seems that President Kennedy, a clear champion of capitalism who sought to give American business a boost against foreign counterparts, might not have seen eye-to-eye with his party’s current leadership.
On the spread of communism, Kennedy found himself even more of an anticommunist hardliner than his 1960 opponent for the presidency, Richard Nixon. In his first debate against Nixon, Kennedy took aim at labor union corruption, a large federal government, and communist supporters and sympathizers both domestically and abroad. Nixon, on the other hand, touted policies we often associate with modern Leftism, as Stoll writes in chapter four, “Presidential Campaign,” including public housing, public healthcare, and raising wages for government employees. Nixon also advocated raising salaries for public employees and using federal tax dollars to build public schools. Today, this may sound like a debate between Ben Shapiro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren or between Gov. Ron DeSantis and AOC. Kennedy attacked communism and labor unions while Nixon promoted public healthcare and housing? And today’s Democratic Party props JFK up as a hero of the Left? Sounds a little ironic to me.
President Kennedy also advocated for a powerful American military and the Space Race against the United States’ communist counterparts. At the height of the Cold War, Kennedy found himself standing up to Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1962, when Kruschev began building missile facilities in Cuba, Kennedy deployed American naval forces to blockade the Soviet vessels from delivering missiles to their intended destination. Nearly a month before, Stoll writes, the president gave a press conference at which he issued the following warning to Kruschev and the communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro:
“Let me make this clear once again: If at any time the Communist buildup in Cuba were to endanger or interfere with our security in any way, including our base at Guantanamo, our passage to the Panama Canal, our missile and space activities at Cape Canaveral, or the lives of American citizens in this country, or if Cuba should ever attempt to export its aggressive purposes by force or the threat of force against any nation in this hemisphere, or become an offensive military base of significant capacity for the Soviet Union, then this country will do whatever must be done to protect its own security and that of its allies.”
Kennedy also saw the space program not only as necessary to continue the American tradition of a pioneering spirit but also necessary to keep up with the Soviet Union. As Stoll writes in chapter six, “Domestic Policy: The New Frontier,” Kennedy had a conversation with NASA director James Webb in which the director asked for $400 million to “understand the environment” and “the laws of nature.” The president declined, pointing out that the space program, at least at that moment, was primarily for competing with the Soviets’ space program. Kennedy’s commitment to defending the homeland from the Soviet Union’s expansion into the Western Hemisphere and competing with their expansion into space seems to be highly contradictory to the current president’s foot-dragging response to China sending spyware across the continental U.S., including extremely close to American nuclear silos, in the form of weather balloons. Compared to that of the current Democratic leadership, Kennedy’s defense policy seems like it would be in lockstep with the Republican agenda.
All points considered, Ira Stoll’s argument that Kennedy was actually not the liberal icon that the Democratic Left makes him out to be is an incredibly compelling one. While conservatives find ourselves at odds with the Democratic Party of today on nearly every issue, Stoll’s work reveals that we have much more in common with President Kennedy than some of his Democratic successors might. The ideas reflected in “JFK: Conservative” certainly merit a modern reevaluation of JFK’s legacy.