Voices from the Past: John F. Kennedy on What It Means to be a Liberal

JohnFKennedy_ResizeThrough much of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the U.S. was in a state of fear. The memories of the Great Depression and W.W. II were still fresh, but now Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was replacing Fascism as the next great threat. The Korean War was fought in 1950 through July 1953, highlighting the rise of Communist China. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went on trial in 1951, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They were executed in 1953 in what many regarded as a legalized lynching. Shortly thereafter, a prominent member of the Rosenberg’s prosecution team, Roy Cohn, was appointed chief counsel to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and, working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, helped lead the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 which further whipped the nation into a near frenzy of fear and suspicion. It was a low point when American liberties were tested, a time in which it was a de facto crime simply to associate with known “Communists”.

In those dark days, a little known junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, published a book in 1957, Profiles in Courage, which came through as a ray of sunshine.   Indeed, times were changing. The economy was improving and Americans were emerging from the shadows of the post-war period into a new era of optimism and hope. Kennedy’s book, which profiled senators down through history who stood up and fought for what they believed irrespective of the consequences, captured that new spirit and helped catapult Kennedy to the Presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960.

It is worth revisiting some of Kennedy’s words in Profiles In Courage (and later repeated in a 1960 speech) as we enter a moment in American history when fear and suspicion again seem to be triumphing over the American spirit of optimism and hope:

“If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.”

Kennedy was not perfect. As if forgetting his own words, as President he took the country to the near brink of war over the Cuban missile crisis. And there were accusations that much of Profiles In Courage was ghost written. But there is no denying that Kennedy helped usher in a new, more optimistic period in American history, and that may be his greatest legacy and one worth remembering in times of crisis.

Kennedy’s words remind us that “liberalism” is not a dirty word, as some would have us believe, but a way of viewing the world that is inherently optimistic; that rejects fear mongering and embraces the role of government in serving the needs of people.