Home/Daniel Larison/No, J.F.K. Wasn’t a Conservative (II)

No, J.F.K. Wasn’t a Conservative (II)

Gene Healy reviews Ira Stoll’s JFK: Conservative, and is appropriately withering in his criticism:

If our 35th president—fiscally profligate, contemptuous of civil liberties, and criminally reckless abroad—is a paragon of modern conservatism, conservatism is in even worse shape than I thought.

Healy is nearly as puzzled as I was as to why someone would write a book a like this. It is not the first time that someone has engaged in ideologically-driven revisionism to appropriate a famous person for his cause. Nonetheless, of all the presidents that one might posthumously claim for conservatism, why choose Kennedy? Unless the purpose is to insult conservatism, or to turn it into a caricature of itself, I really have no idea. Healy ably dissects Stoll’s claims, and adds this in Stoll’s treatment of Kennedy’s foreign policy:

It’s a strange view that favors confrontation and foreign-policy “toughness” as ends in themselves, even at the risk of nuclear annihilation. But then Stoll has a lot of strange views on foreign policy. On Vietnam, where JFK had deployed some 16,000 troops by 1963, Stoll writes, “President Kennedy and the national security team he brought into office have been faulted for leading the country into the Vietnam War without clear objectives … a formal declaration of war [or] an exit strategy”; however, “that criticism should be discounted [bold mine-DL] for [sic] the fact that South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam only in April of 1975.”

The standard excuse that Kennedy’s admirers make on Vietnam is that he wouldn’t have escalated the war had he lived, but that has always been little more than wishful thinking in order to separate Kennedy’s reputation from the disastrous foreign war that his policies set in motion. Stoll apparently doesn’t attempt this, and he places so much importance on Kennedy’s anticommunism as proof of his conservatism that I doubt he would want to try. Treating his anticommunism as proof of conservatism is mistaken for obvious reasons that I’ve mentioned before, and that anticommunism led Kennedy to make a number of serious foreign policy errors that cost the U.S. and the other countries involved grievously over the decade that followed. In the end, it was what defined his record, and marked him as one of the worst postwar presidents. Kennedy wasn’t a conservative, but even if he had been conservatives should want to disown him.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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