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Stoll on JFK Part II: Catholicism, social programs, Joseph, Robert and Teddy Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, 1942. Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

In a wide-ranging interview with Blaze Books in connection with his newest title, JFK, Conservative, Ira Stoll provided his insights on JFK's political ideology, religiosity, foreign policy views and a whole host of other topics. Below is Part II of our interview, conducted via email. You can find Part I here. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

One of the big focuses of your book is on JFK’s religiosity: How do we reconcile his devout Catholicism with his personal failings? How did JFK’s religiosity influence his politics?

Stoll: One possibility is that Kennedy was so diligent about Mass and confession and daily prayers and meatless Fridays because he knew he was sinning and felt a need to compensate for it or confess. I do argue in the book that Kennedy saw the Cold War as, as he put it in a speech in the 1960 campaign, “a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.” In a 1955 speech, he spoke of the Cold War as “the battle for the preservation of Christian civilization.” There’s a lot of evidence given in the book that this was really what Kennedy thought — it wasn’t just rhetoric.

Speak a bit to JFK’s relationship with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

[sharequote align="center"]JFK on the Cold War: freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny[/sharequote]

Stoll: In 1953 Kennedy voted with McCarthy and Barry Goldwater to cut U.S. aid to countries that traded with Communist China. Liberals like Albert Gore Sr. and Hubert Humphrey opposed the measure. Kennedy attended McCarthy’s wedding, and Kennedy was absent when the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy. Robert Kennedy had worked on McCarthy’s Senate staff.

One of the focuses of your book is on JFK’s actions against the labor unions. How much of this can we chalk up to political motives versus genuine ideological differences?

[sharequote align="left"][JFK] was genuinely troubled by union violence and...“the cancer of labor racketeering”[/sharequote]

Stoll: As a political matter, as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Kennedy would have been better off leaving the unions alone, or cultivating their support by defending them. Yet I think Kennedy was genuinely troubled by union violence and by what he called “the cancer of labor racketeering,” so he pressed ahead with legislation, opposed by labor, that required greater financial disclosure from unions.

You speak in your book to JFK’s experience with and studies around the lead up to WWII. Why do you think he broke with his father on the matter of fighting the Germans?

Stoll: There’s no way to know for sure. I write in the book that part of growing up for all young people, especially those with powerful fathers, is figuring out what part of a parent’s legacy to keep and what to discard. It’s true that JFK enlisted to fight in the war that his father tried so hard to avert. But people shouldn’t neglect the continuities and similarities between the father and son, either — Joseph Kennedy opposed FDR’s increasing the income tax above 75 percent, and he gave a speech criticizing what he called “Santa Claus” government in America, warning, “If the state is to dominate the individual, sustaining him in slavish dependence…then the winning of the second World War will have proved a hollow victory.” That sounds a lot like JFK.

In your view did JFK pave the way for the Great Society programs of LBJ, or was LBJ’s agenda a complete break from that of JFK?

[sharequote align="right"]His priorities were cutting taxes and tariffs and building up the military, not increasing... programs[/sharequote]

Stoll: There had been a gradual trend of increasing power and size of the federal government in America going back to Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, and continuing through Eisenhower-Nixon. Kennedy warned of this explicitly in his 1950 speech at Notre Dame, in which he warned, “The ever-expanding power of the federal government, the absorption of many of the functions that states and cities once considered to be the responsibilities of their own, must now be a source of concern to all those who believe as did the Irish patriot, Henry Grattan: ‘Control over local affairs is the essence of liberty.’” In the three years he was president, Kennedy restrained domestic spending. His priorities were cutting taxes and tariffs and building up the military, not increasing big government programs or creating new ones. LBJ’s Great Society was a sharp left turn. Johnson told one holdover Kennedy aide, “As a matter of fact, to tell the truth, John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”

In your research did you find any evidence as to why both Robert and Teddy Kennedy broke left from JFK?

Stoll: I actually found some evidence that Robert Kennedy was also more conservative than he is remembered as. The New York Times reported on Robert Kennedy in 1968 campaigning by telling voters in Indiana, “We can’t have the Federal Government in here telling people what’s good for them…I want to bring that control back to the localities so that people can decide for themselves what they think is best for themselves….We’ve got to get away from the welfare system, the handout system, and the idea of the dole…We’ve got to have jobs instead of welfare.”

Ted Kennedy is a puzzle. I don’t write about him much in my book. He did work with Republicans to deregulate the airline industry, impose tougher economic sanctions against Iran and Libya, and condition federal funding for public schools on testing and accountability. But he was definitely more left-wing than JFK. Maybe it was a generational thing. I also think that anyone who had two brothers assassinated, and two other siblings (Joe Jr. and Kathleen) die in plane crashes or explosions can’t help but be affected by it somehow, perhaps in unpredictable ways.

Stay tuned for Part III of our interview with Ira Stoll in which we talk about Kennedy's pro-growth economics, libertarian influences and anti-Communist ideology .  

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