The idea that John F. Kennedy was really a conservative, rather than the liberal icon he is so often depicted as, is the thesis of a new book by Ira Stoll. The idea is seconded by George Will in a column in The Washington Post. Are they correct?
Before examining the case, let me make an important distinction. I seem to be one of the few writers who sees conservatism and liberalism as sociologies, not ideologies.
What's the difference? As I explained in a post at my blog:
An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere. Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik's Cubes.
Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.
Take the issue of national defense. The Kennedy-was-a-conservative crowd points to the fact that Kennedy was the pro-defense candidate in the 1960 election. He accused Eisenhower of allowing a missile gap to occur and letting the Soviet Union become the stronger power. His solution? More silos with more missiles.
If you find it perplexing that a liberal Democrat would take that position, you are probably too young to remember that for most of the 20th century the Democratic Party was the party of war. The Republican Party was the party of peace. In fact, a not inconsiderable faction of the Republican Party was downright isolationist. Our anti-communist, Cold War foreign policy was almost completely shaped by Democrats. Although he was a general, Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War and give us international peace and stability. On his way out of office he warned of a "military industrial complex." By contrast, Kennedy started the Vietnam War and his policies toward Cuba almost got us into World War III on two separate occasions.