William G. Carleton: Kennedy in History
John F. Kennedy was surely one of the most gifted and attractive men ever to occupy the presidency. He appealed to all types of Americans, but intellectuals were especially drawn to him. He had written a book and was reliably reported to enjoy reading them; he had a wry wit and a touch of genial cynicism; his wife led him to become a patron of the arts. But not long after he and his bright young associates on the New Frontier came to Washington, full of determination to break free of the ponderous language and tired ideas of the Eisenhower years, intellectuals began a criticism of Kennedy which resembled that leveled against earlier liberal Presidents. As of Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, it was said of Kennedy that behind his charm and the appearance of new ideas and remedies, he was a conservative who would bring changes only of style, not of substance. The critical view of Kennedy seems to have spread even wider now that his magnetic personality is no longer present to strengthen the case for his defense.
In the following essay, written just after Kennedy's death, William Carleton offers an evaluation which, while generally appreciative, contains much that is critical. Carleton notes in particular Kennedy's "meager legislative performance." The President made many important legislative requests of Congress, including a War on Poverty, medical care for the aged, new civil rights laws, aid to education, and tax reform. But he was able to get only the minor portions of his program enacted -- an increase in housing funds in 1961, a manpower retraining program, and an increase in the minimum wage in 1962. Carleton is also critical of Kennedy's tendency, in his first two years in office, to intensify the emotions of the Cold War rather than resolve them. He notes the belligerent, hard-line tone in Kennedy's speeches -- especially in his Inaugural Address and in the speech in West Berlin -- and also his alarmist requests for increased defense spending to close a "missile gap" which did not exist. Other writers have made criticisms of Kennedy that Carleton does not develop -- of his decision to forego tax reform, his long delay (from January, 1961to June, 1963) in asking for the civil rights legislation he had promised in his campaign, his conduct of the Cuban missile crisis (which Carleton approves of, but which others have thought an example of brinksmanship beyond even Dulles's adventurous performances). Perhaps the most frequent and comprehensive criticism of Kennedy holds that the liberal idealism of his administration channeled itself primarily into a global activism which brought us to the edge of war in Cuba and Vietnam and heightened the international tensions of the 1950s, leaving the difficult, unspectacular tasks of urban and environmental and racial amelioration to be undertaken in some future term of office.
Notwithstanding the disappointments which Kennedy himself admitted, many writers have written of his administration with sympathy and even
William G. Carleton, "Kennedy in History: An Early Appraisal," The Antioch Review, XXIV, No. 3 ( 1964), pp. 277-299. Reprinted by permission of The Antioch Review.