Was JFK a classic liberal

USA - history, economy, society

Jörg Nagler

Prof. Dr. Jörg Nagler was a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., director of the Kennedy House in Kiel and has been teaching North American history at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena since 1999. His work focuses on the social and political history of the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, war and society in the USA, history of immigration, German-American cultural transfer and African-American history.

During the Cold War, Soviet communism was to be actively contained, while civil rights and peace movements pointed to internal social conflicts. The economic power of the USA decided the arms race and promoted the collapse of the Soviet Union.

US President Harry S. Truman with the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in August 1945. It is the last summit of the allied victorious powers, which soon afterwards have been hostile to each other in the Cold War for decades. (& copy picture-alliance / akg-images)
As in the First World War, the United States was the real winner of this second global conflict. Although around 400,000 Americans lost their lives, compared to the losses suffered by the other nations involved, this was a relatively small number. Economically and militarily, the country had advanced to become a superpower. It now produced more than 60 percent of the world's manufactured goods and owned two-thirds of the world's gold reserves. The world market has been open to him almost unrivaled since the Bretton Woods Conference in July 1944 set the US dollar as the international reserve currency. The USA still held the nuclear monopoly and possessed a weapon technology that was superior to the rest of the world.

Apart from the Soviet Union, which had also risen to become a world power, there was no longer any serious competitor. However, Soviet-American differences had already become apparent during the war. They related, for example, to the future of Germany, the level of reparations payments and the future fate of Eastern Europe and were now becoming more and more evident. President Roosevelt had hoped that these tensions could be balanced out by a world organization after the peace agreement. The United Nations, founded in San Francisco in June 1945 (later headquartered in New York), - unlike the League of Nations idea after the First World War - received the approval of the US population. However, in view of the looming conflict between the ideological power blocs in the Cold War, this organization could not become an effective organ for maintaining world peace.

The causes of the East-West conflict, which in the second half of the 20th century had a lasting effect on domestic and foreign policy, the economic and also cultural development of all nations, are complex and located between two poles: the Soviet-communist one on the one hand and the American capitalist on the other. The United States responded to Soviet demands for a security zone that extended beyond Eastern Europe with a "containment" strategy designed to prevent any further advance of Soviet communism around the world. The implementation of this strategy required enormous costs, which could only be justified internally by means of a communist threat scenario.

Domestically, Truman was a staunch advocate of an American welfare system. He wanted to continue the tradition of the New Deal in 1948 with the reform program of the Fair Deal, which should include the introduction of a minimum wage, compulsory health insurance and a significant improvement in the education system. The program failed, however, because of a social climate that was critical of reform due to the economic boom that had been going on since 1946 and the permanent rhetoric of anti-communism.
Between 1950 and 1960, the gross national product increased by 77 percent, but not all sections of the population benefited accordingly. African Americans in particular continued to be disadvantaged. In general, the participation of black soldiers in World War II helped to reduce their discrimination and to strengthen their self-esteem; In view of ongoing racist hostility and violence, especially in the southern states, the Afro-American war returnees, now also supported by white supporters, demanded the implementation of the ideals of a democracy without racial segregation and discrimination in their own country. After all, this war had been waged against racism and for democracy. Truman supported these ideas through a commission for the protection of Afro-American civil rights and by appointing African-Americans to important offices in his administration.

Anti-communism and prosperity

After the end of the war, the USA generated 50 percent of the world's gross national product. Millions of war veterans were given college opportunities by law. Tax cuts, high corporate profits and investments created an affluent society, the emergence of which was traced back to the model of capitalism, which was obviously superior to Soviet communism, in which free people could decide their own fate.

In addition to presenting the external threat posed by the Soviet Union and, since 1949, by China, which had become communist, the anti-communist climate in the USA was fueled by the Korean War (1950-53). On this breeding ground the fear of internal ideological disintegration flourished. The Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy put numerous US citizens from politics, administration and culture under suspicion of communism in a kind of "witch hunt" (the German title of a play by the contemporary writer Arthur Miller). Then he dragged her before the tribunal of the Senate Committee on "Un-American Activities", which he headed from 1950 to 1954, whose interrogations were even televised. The result was a poisoning of the domestic political climate, which went too far even for the new Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), previously Commander-in-Chief of the Allies in Europe and first in command of NATO and known for his anti-communist stance. When an investigative committee uncovered irregularities in McCarthy's staff, his career came to an end (see source box).

Source text

Communist fear

[…] "There is very little that individual American can do to expose communist spies in our government. They have to rely entirely on those of us who serve as watchtowers for the nation. What Americans can do, however, is day and night to be vigilant and ensure that communists are not teachers to the sons and daughters of America. " This is how Senator Joseph McCarthy formulated his anti-communist creed.

Anti-communist hysteria had gripped the country even before McCarthy. After the end of the Second World War, the ideologically based East-West conflict broke out over the question of the distribution of power in the world between the two superpowers, the USA and the USSR. In the course of the state-driven creation of the new enemy images "Soviet Union" and "Communism", the right wing of the Republican Party in the USA in particular called for a review of the attitudes of civil servants and the military. It was feared that American society would be infiltrated. Communism became the epitome of all actual or imagined threats to the American way of life - be it external aggression or internal subversion.

As early as 1938 the House of Representatives had set up a committee to investigate un-American activities [...]. In March 1947, Congress provided $ 400 million under the Truman Doctrine to counter the spread of communism in Greece and Turkey. In the same month, the president issued the so-called "Loyalty Order," according to which over three million federal employees were screened and around 3,000 were fired for belonging to one of 78 organizations classified as Communist - including subscription to publications. [...]

In 1952, the McCarren-Walter Act required all communist organizations to register with the Attorney General and to disclose their finances and membership lists. Under this law on homeland security, US citizens could be denied passports and foreigners could be denied entry. In the event of an emergency announced by the President, the Justice Minister was allowed to preventively arrest suspects. The Taft-Hartley Act required an anti-communist attitude from union officials.
"Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" That was the central question before the Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. In 1947 the first public interrogations took place, the aim of which was to drive all left-wing or even liberal-minded filmmakers from Hollywood. Anyone who invoked their right to refuse to testify or the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression was immediately found guilty and often sent to prison. Mere suspicion or denunciation, which was not further investigated, was enough. [...]

After the Republican election victory in 1952, McCarthy was able to continue his role as Grand Inquisitor with even greater authority: as chairman of a specially established subcommittee of the Senate. The new President Eisenhower let him go. Even liberal politicians like John F. Kennedy did nothing to stop the witch hunt. His brother Robert Kennedy was a member of the McCarthy Committee.

By the time McCarthy took office, several waves of purges had swept across the country. [...]
Blacklists and interrogations put writers and filmmakers as well as musicians under increasing pressure. [...] [T] he now 84-year-old Broadway producer Harold Leventhal remembers what that meant to her. "[...] For the people who were affected by it, who fell victim to the McCarthy era, in many cases it meant the loss of their jobs and thus the opportunity to earn a living. It destroyed the people; it destroyed them because of it prevented from living from their art. Of course not everyone was affected. It left its mark on intellectual circles in particular. It was a threat to human freedom. "

Harold Leventhal himself became an object of political persecution under McCarthy. "The FBI wanted to talk to me. [...] You called me at the office. You called me at home. You were waiting for me on the doorstep. It was two guys who followed me to the subway. Me I didn't say a word. My attorney's advice was: ignore them. After a year or so they disappeared. But when I checked my FBI files a few years ago, I found that they knew every little detail my life." [...]

Michael Kleff, "Current story: The end of the witch hunt", contribution by Deutschlandfunk from February 18, 2004,
www.deutschlandfunk.de/geschichte-aktuell-das-ende-der-hexenjagd.724.de.html?dram:article_id=97809

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The "Sputnik shock" demonstrated how closely the events of the Cold War were linked to American domestic politics. After the Soviets successfully launched the first satellite into orbit on September 4, 1957, the United States launched a multi-billion dollar space program and a national education initiative.
Otherwise, Eisenhower managed to take a course of the political center across party lines in domestic politics. Although his era is often associated with the phenomenon of the "affluent society", incomes remained unevenly distributed; the extent of poverty did not decrease significantly either.

Breaking down the racial barriers

Afro-Americans in particular were affected by economic disadvantage, especially during the brief recessions of 1953/54, 1957/58 and 1960/61. Closely related to this was their continued discrimination in the context of ongoing racism, especially in the southern states. Eisenhower campaigned for the dismantling of racial barriers, for example by appointing the liberal lawyer Earl Warren to the Supreme Court in 1954. In May 1954, in a landmark decision, he and his fellow judges declared racial segregation in schools to be unconstitutional (violation of the 14th amendment to the Constitution of 1868). With this judgment, the previously applicable doctrine of "Separate but equal" was repealed.

At the same time, a civil rights movement developed under the leadership of the black pastor Martin Luther King (1929-1968). With the principle of nonviolent resistance, he was able to gain a growing following, including increasingly white people. Congress took up criticism of the movement by improving the electoral law for blacks with the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 (the first civil rights law since 1875) and 1960.
To uphold the authority of the Supreme Court, Eisenhower ordered federal troops to be deployed on September 24, 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to give black students access to a public school previously reserved for whites. His support created a climate that made protests such as the several month long bus boycott in 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama, a success. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, the abolition of racial segregation in this mode of transport could be achieved. Here the course was set for the later civil rights movement of the 1960s.