"In an Atmosphere of National Peril": The Development of John F. Kennedy's World View

Article excerpt

It is customarily recognized that President John F. Kennedy was more interested in foreign than domestic policy,(1) determined to be practical instead of idealistic,(2) and, as some scholars have suggested, displayed weaknesses in character.(3) As much as we know about the nation's thirty-fifth president it is striking how little we understand about his world view. In the classic study of presidential psychology, James David Barber defined world view as "a President's primary, politically relevant beliefs, particularly his conceptions of social causality, human nature, and the central moral conflicts of the time."(4) World view, says Barber, "is his way of seeing." What was John Fitzgerald Kennedy's way of seeing."(5) This article examines that question. In so doing it adopts an approach not typically taken by Kennedy scholars.(6) Instead of looking solely at his interest in international relations, this study centers on Kennedy's training in political theory, a source of inspiration for his notion of political courage (his world view). The latter forms the main theme of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage. Kennedy's definition of political courage incorporates the belief that political leaders should use fear as a tactic to convince the public to support unpopular, though necessary, programs. These ideas, first embraced by Kennedy as a Harvard undergraduate, influenced his actions as president.

John F. Kennedy as a Democratic Theorist

At Harvard, John Kennedy was a political science major, concentrating in international relations*and political theory. His father's appointment as United States Ambassador to Great Britain contributed to his interest in international affairs. Moreover, as a congressman and senator from Massachusetts he was fascinated with foreign policy. However, while his interest in international relations is common knowledge, his concentration in political theory is less well known, and even less understood. Yet there is evidence that he studied Western political theory, and that his theory background played a role in the development of his definition of political courage. Kennedy biographer James MacGregor Burns writes that, "[h]e read extensively in political theory--nationalism, fascism, and colonialism."(7) Nigel Hamilton concurs that, "Jack's intensive courses in twentieth century isms--capitalism, communism, fascism, imperialism, militarism, nationalism--were probably the most concentrated academic study he would ever undertake."(8) I Indeed, while at Harvard he took theory courses under the direction of Payson S. Wild. According to Wild, Kennedy "really did have ability to think deeply and in theoretical terms."(9) In fact, the young JFK read many of the classics of the Western tradition.

Jack had a very thorough dose of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes,

Locke, and Rousseau. He wrote some essays about these

individuals. He had a very thorough grounding of political

theory.(10)

A research paper written by young JFK confirms Wild's observations. Focusing on Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kennedy emphasized Rousseau's analysis of the corrosive effects of luxury on society. Kennedy found Rousseau's opposition to luxury a praiseworthy attribute. He said, "I think his idea that material progress in the arts and sciences, in which he terms them corruptions of society, has some truth."(11) Indeed, Kennedy's interpretation of Rousseau seems to dwell upon the Rousseaulan notion of corruption and a "corrupt society." In his discussion of Rousseau's Emile he said that "Rousseau believes that children should be taught from infancy by means of experience, observance of nature and her actions, not from books which are the products of a corrupt society."(12) The theme of corruption is an important element of Why England Slept. Henry Luce, who wrote the foreword, noted that, "[while] Kennedy is committed to the long-range merits of democracy, he is deeply and properly perturbed by its short-term defects. …