Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, beginning with his historic inaugural address. Liberals remember the inaugural for the famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” To the progressive mind, it’s a call for government service, an exhortation to give back to the federal government what the federal government, in its benevolence, has given you.
Much less remarked upon was Kennedy’s defense of individual rights, freedom, a hawkish foreign policy, and resistance of atheistic communism. The quite brief inaugural didn’t shy from faith, quoting Scripture, with timeless affirmations like “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” Kennedy issued a remarkably hawkish pledge: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe [emphasis original], to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
The address was an unashamed expression of American exceptionalism. The newly minted president proclaimed that in the long history of the world, only a few generations were granted the awesome role of “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” And he, as an American, welcomed that role: “I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.” In a very Reagan-like, “Shining City” sentiment, Kennedy claimed that the energy, faith, and devotion brought to that historic endeavor “will light our country,” and “the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Alas, the concluding sentence in the inaugural asserted: “[L]et us go forth … asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
It’s crucial to bear in mind that this was hardly atypical of Kennedy, or his family, for that matter, most of whom were, among other things, intense anti-communists who despised the Soviet Union. Even RFK, remembered as a liberal, had once worked as staff counsel for Joe McCarthy. In fact, McCarthy was godfather to one of RFK’s daughters. No kidding, look it up — and tell that one to your favorite liberal.
Beyond the inaugural, on other occasions, JFK warned of America’s “atheistic foe.” The “fanaticism and fury” of Soviet communism and the “communist conspiracy,” said Kennedy with foreboding, “represents a final enslavement.” In language indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Kennedy claimed: “The enemy is the communist system itself — implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination…. This [is] a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.”
We see in these early Cold War years the Democrat consensus that communism was evil. The scorching anti-communist rhetoric of Democrats like JFK and Harry Truman, and even a liberal like Adlai Stevenson, was the norm, and differed vastly from Democrats today or even during the Reagan era.
In that respect, JFK’s unyielding anti-communism is a sign of more than just the man himself. It’s a sign of the demise of a once great political party. Consider two brief contrasts, both from the Northeast of all places: Senator Ted Kennedy vs. his brother, Senator John Kennedy, and Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) vs. his father, Senator Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.).
It is impossible to picture Ted Kennedy in the 1980s invoking the words of his late brother, alerting America to the perils of the “godless” “communist conspiracy.” Ted instead torched presidents like Ronald Reagan, who sounded more like Ted’s brother than Ted did. In fact, as I’ve written at length elsewhere (click here and here), Ted Kennedy’s private, back-channel overture to Soviet despot Yuri Andropov, intended to undermine President Reagan’s defense policies and even re-election prospects, were scandalous, and have never received the attention and condemnation they merit.
Likewise, Ted’s pal and Senate colleague, Chris Dodd, would have never chastised his fellow liberals as “deluded” “innocents,” as “unwitting” and “muddle-headed” “naïve sentimentalists,” saddled with “confusion” over communism and “communist political warfare” — as had Dodd’s father. In fact, Chris’s dad served on the Senate Judiciary Committee that summoned shady characters such as Obama mentor and secret Communist Party member, Frank Marshall Davis (click here), to testify on his numerous communist associations. How’s that for a contrast?
For modern liberals like Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy, the apple fell far from the tree.
Then there were Cold Warriors like Scoop Jackson, Sam Nunn, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Eastland, Francis Walter, Edwin Willis, Richard Russell, union leaders like Lane Kirkland, savvy intellectuals like Lionel Trilling. None of these Democrats were dupes. Some led America in intense Cold War showdowns.
And here’s a shocker for modern progressives and conservatives alike: The first pursuers of American communists were Democrats Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer. For all his faults, Wilson understood the dangers of Bolshevism.
Wilson was followed by a long line of anti-communist Democrats who headed the Congressional committees that liberals have demonized, from the first to final chair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities: Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), Rep. Francis Walter (D-PA), Rep. Richard Ichord (D-MO). In the Senate, James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Thomas Dodd were pillars on the Judiciary Committee and chair and vice chair of the Subcommittee on Internal Security, the latter of which did the best Senate work in pursuit of domestic communists loyal to the USSR.
In sum, this is not your grandfather’s Democratic Party. The 2011 Democrat from the Northeast is not the 1961 Democrat from the Northeast. The party of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama is not the party of JFK, Truman, and Scoop Jackson. Today, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inaugural, is a poignant reminder of the Democrats’ demise.