It was 50 years ago today that Senator John F. Kennedy (MA) accepted the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. He defeated Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) who had entered the race only one week before the convention. In responding to Johnson’s accusation, Kennedy denied having Addison’s disease, but it was later proven to be true. Kennedy had defeated liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) in the primaries, and Johnson never came close to derailing Kennedy’s nomination.
The title of a best selling book about Johnson is “Master of the Senate,” and the powerful Majority Leader surprised many of his supporters when he agreed to be JFK’s running mate. They thought it was a demotion.
Kennedy was nominated on July 13th, 1960 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. His acceptance speech came two days later in front of 60,000 people at the outdoor Los Angeles Coliseum. The next presidential candidate to accept a nomination in a similar setting was Barack Obama in 2008 who addressed 84,000 people in the football stadium used by the Denver Broncos.
Remembering The Anniversary
Today’s anniversary is being marked at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston with the unveiling of the original four-page draft of his New Frontier acceptance speech. It includes the hand written edits of Kennedy and his speech writer, Ted Sorenson.
The Democratic Party was far different in those days, and conservatives and moderates held considerable power. The party was in many ways the opposite of the convention which nominated Obama.
The Arrival of The New Frontier: Why Was Kennedy’s Speech Important?
For the first time the candidate spoke of a New Frontier, which would become the label for his entire administration. The speech called on Americans to define their place in the Cold War. Kennedy advocated showing the world what a free and democratic society had to offer, and he felt this would help ensure the defeat of Communism.
This was also emphasized in his speech at the Berlin Wall when Kennedy said, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in. . . There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.”
The July 15, 1960 New Frontier speech said in part:
For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. Some would say that the struggles of the old frontier are over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier.
But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.
The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.
The New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.
Have we the nerve and the will? . . That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make — a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline.
National Security and the 1960 Democratic Platform
The pro-defense Democrats were strong in 1960, and like Kennedy, many of them were veterans of World War II. They promised to contain communism by spending more on national security than the Republicans.
They promised to close what they called a missile gap and a bomber gap with the USSR, although it was later learned neither gap existed. The party pledged increased support for NATO.
The centerpiece of their foreign policy was a renewed commitment to the Truman Doctrine, which emphasized it was “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Two decades later the same policy would be known as the Reagan Doctrine.
Kennedy charged that under Eisenhower and the Republicans, the nation had fallen behind the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in both military and economic power. If elected President, he promised to “get America moving again.”
Kennedy would later authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion and he increased the U.S. military presence in Vietnam by a factor of 16. The foreign policy advocated by Kennedy is far removed from today’s Democrats, and the national security platform is quite similar to Ronald Reagan’s freedom agenda.
Economic Policy and the 1960 Democratic Platform
Many of the economic policies advocated by Kennedy and the 1960 platform are also completely different from the modern Democratic Party. The best example is that Kennedy called for a large tax cut to provide capital and stimulate the economy.
In addition to tax and deficit reductions, Kennedy advocated increased free trade. In those days the AFL-CIO did not object to free trade agreements.
JFK criticized the Republicans for adding $10 billion to the national debt. (As a percentage of GDP, the debt had declined dramatically from the Truman years).
Kennedy also advocated a a “full-fledged alliance” with business, and his Treasury Secretary was Douglas Dillon, a prominent Republican. GDP would expand an average of 5.5% every year from 1961 through 1963, while inflation was 1%.
A half century ago the Democratic Platform said:
- We believe these needs can be met with a balanced budget, with no increase in present tax rates, and with some surplus for the gradual reduction of our national debt.
- To assure such a balance we shall pursue a program of fiscal responsibility.
- We shall end the gross waste in Federal expenditures which needlessly raises the budgets of many Government agencies.
- The most conspicuous unnecessary item is, of course, the excessive cost of interest on the national debt.
- We shall bring in added Federal tax revenues by expanding the economy itself. Each dollar of additional production puts an additional 18 cents in tax revenue in the national treasury. A 5% growth rate, therefore, will mean that at the end of four years the Federal Government will have had a total of nearly $50 billion in additional tax revenues above those presently received.
The Role of Civil Rights
The civil rights era took place in the 1960s, and Kennedy would be remembered for sending federal troops to Alabama and Mississippi to assist with desegregation. However, civil rights was not a source of major tension at the Democratic convention.
It was a prominent issue and the party once again adopted a civil rights plank. However, unlike 1948, there was no walkout by southern delegates. Many of the 1960 delegates from the former Confederacy advocated segregation. Black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was roundly booed during the convention’s opening ceremony.
Delegates from the former Confederacy said the party should stand for states rights rather than civil rights, and Kennedy did not scare them. He had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
The solid south was still intact in 1960. The GOP’s Richard Nixon would win only three of the eleven states in the former Confederacy (Obama in 2008 would also win only three of these states).
Kennedy never called himself a liberal, and he thought it would be too controversial to openly meet with civil rights leader Martin Luther King. However, when King was arrested for leading a protest march, Kennedy made a supportive call to his wife.
C. Bruce Littlejohn, the former Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, wrote about the Kennedy convention: “Republican was not a four-letter word, but until the 1960s it was a four-syllable word obnoxious in the minds of many South Carolinians. If one had leanings other than Democratic, he did not go around boasting of it in public.”
The Kennedy Agenda
Kennedy, 43, was our youngest elected President. (Theodore Roosevelt was 42, but he came to office because of the death of the incumbent.)
The Kennedy administration did not win any major legislative victories, even though Democrats had huge majorities in the House and Senate. The problem was that 104 members of the Democratic Caucus were conservatives by the standards of Americans for Democratic Action. His proposals to increase federal aid to education, Medicare for the elderly, and the creation of a new Department of Urban Affairs were all defeated.
He launched the Peace Corps by executive order and was successful in bringing back the Special Forces and their Green Berets. Another victory was the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. It reduced tariffs with the European Common Market nations by as much as 50%. It also led to multilateral trade negotiations which later became known as the Kennedy Round. The great bulk of JFK’s proram was enacted during the Johnson administration.
Kennedy’s agenda was a combination of conservative and liberal proposals. They were similar to his nominees to the Supreme Court, liberal Arthur Goldberg and conservative Byron White.