From Kennedy's Cold War to the War on Terror: Gareth Jenkins Looks for Continuities in American Foreign Policy from the 1960s to the 2000s

By Jenkins, Gareth | History Today, June 2006 | Go to article overview

From Kennedy's Cold War to the War on Terror: Gareth Jenkins Looks for Continuities in American Foreign Policy from the 1960s to the 2000s


Jenkins, Gareth, History Today


'THE UNITED STATES IS IN THE EARLY YEARS of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War. The 20th century witnessed the triumph of freedom over the threats of fascism and communism. Yet a new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud religion.' US National Security Strategt, March 2006

The US invasion of Iraq of 2003 is viewed by many as a historical watershed, as ushering in a new era in which the world's only superpower feels unconstrained in resorting to pre-emptive military action to achieve its strategic goals. For the first time in more than half a century the term imperialism has regained common currency, and there is renewed interest in understanding the European scramble for colonies in the late nineteenth century.

No doubt the period we are entering does in many ways mark a new historical phase. Global power relations are accommodating rapidly to new economic realities--the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the rise of China and India and the emergence of structural weaknesses in the US economy. Nevertheless, as George Bush recently reminded us, there are many continuities with the past half century of the American exercise of power.

There have been continual assaults on the sovereignty of Third World countries, backed by covert and overt military interventions, throughout the period since the Cold War was launched. The disappearance of the Soviet Union left Washington policy-makers disorientated, and in the early nineties attempts were made to find an international opponent to justify US foreign policy activism. The 'clash of civilizations' was floated as a rationale for US policy in the Middle East, though it was too vague an idea to attract much support prior to 9/11.

In 1961, when John F. Kennedy assumed the US presidency, the rest of the world was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War. Kennedy won the presidency with a reputation as a Cold Warrior intent on maintaining the United States' global advantages. He greatly exaggerated the military capacity of the Soviet Union in his speeches so as to outflank the Eisenhower administration and frighten the American people into support for the greatest arms build-up in peace time ever.

Kennedy was groomed from youth as a member of the US foreign policy elite. His father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., ambassador to the Court of St. James at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, endeavoured to keep America out of the war and in the process earned Churchill's undying contempt. He even made secret attempts in 1940 to negotiate with Marshall Petain, the head of the collaborationist government of Nazi-occupied Vichy France, and Hitler, without consulting with President Roosevelt.

Accounts of the young John F. Kennedy tend to argue that the son, still an undergraduate at Harvard at the time Roosevelt recalled Joe Kennedy to the United States, began to distance himself from his father and struck out on his own course. Like most of his generation, he embraced US entry into the war, and served with the US Navy in the Pacific. But the father continued to influence the son, pouring huge sums of money into JFK's political campaigns and controlling the most minute details of campaign strategy.

Joe Sr. was not a complete maverick. In the thirties his foreign policy views coincided with the dominant views in the State Department, where Nazi Germany was regarded as the main bulwark against the Soviet Union extending its influence into Western Europe, and Hitler was appreciated as the man who could save German capitalism. As the war in Europe was ending, Joe Sr. arranged for JFK to travel with US Navy Secretary James Forrestal on a visit to a devastated Germany, where the Potsdam Peace Conference was about to lay down the ground rules for the new world order of the Cold War.

Forrestal, later to become President Truman's Defense Secretary--and architect of the 'military-industrial complex' that President Eisenhower warned of in his final speech before leaving office--was former president of Dillon, Read merchant bank which had specialized in loans to Germany. …

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