Kennedy's Foreign Policy: Activism versus Pragmatism
Kenneth W. Thompson
Historians point to a tension lying at the heart of the foreign policy problems of nearly every administration, a contradiction often between two seemingly irreconcilable principles. Ultimately, such tensions imperil the success of strong presidencies and turn history's judgment against them. For Woodrow Wilson, national self-determination conflicted with the Wilsonian vision of a wider community of states. Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to reconcile the goal of getting along with the Russians with an effective international security system capable of preserving the status quo. The Reagan administration has not balanced the largest peacetime defense buildup in U.S. history with an effective negotiating posture.
From its beginnings, the Kennedy administration suffered from its own internal tensions, and was not immune to the crippling effects of a basic contradiction. For Kennedy, that tension was inherent in conflicting approaches, in the clash between activism and pragmatism. Nowhere was the tension greater than in foreign policy.
The sources of Kennedy's activism were both philosophical and personal. Philosophically, he proclaimed his activism in his Inaugural Address. We have it on the authority of his special counsel, Theodore C. Sorensen, that "the principal architect of the Inaugural Address was John Fitzgerald Kennedy."1 Yet we know that drafts for the address were solicited from strong activists such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Chester Bowles. How are we to disentangle their strain of activism from Kennedy's? Who can say that Kennedy's biographer and master draftsman may not have added to the young president's activism? But