JFK's Bridge to the 21st Century

by Andrew Sprung

In a prior post, I recounted that in a recent reading of JFK's inaugural address I was struck by the sense of beleaguered peril that infused the new president's world view. I further noted that Kennedy's response to the danger of nuclear destruction was to invoke a 'moral equivalent of war' -- extending to the Soviets an offer of partnership in fighting nonpolitical adversaries such as poverty and disease.

While I watched Obama's State of the Union address last week with the Kennedy speech fresh in mind, I can't say that any particular connection leaped out at me. That is, not until I read Noam Scheiber's post-mortem, which cast a bridge across the decades:

The Cold War is over. But Americans know that we have a new economic, and possibly military, adversary across the Pacific, and that some of America's economic woes are due to our enormous trade deficit with China. So without saying so explicitly--which would have been impolitic to say the least (we are not at war with China, and should not do anything to encourage the notion)--Obama reaped the thematic rewards of a neo-Cold War metaphor that implied a threat to our national security without sowing the actual seeds of war. Clean-energy technology, high-speed rail--they're not just about spending money on new gadgets, they're about national defense and survival just as the highway program was. That was the unspoken theme of Obama's economic nationalism, and it framed the debate over government and the downturn in a new way that will allow him to promote the kind of measures that he has always wanted.

Perhaps we can be at least a little grateful that fifty years after Kennedy's inaugural a U.S. president has the luxury of invoking a "neo-Cold War metaphor"  -- that is, a decidedly muted call to arms, cast in terms of peaceful economic competition. That we are faced with this kind of rivalry suggests to me that in the interval between the speeches we actually did to some extent find the moral equivalents of war that Kennedy called for (and too much actual war as well, but on a scale that avoided global catastrophe). Cf. Bruce J. Holmes' fond memories of technological stimulus arising from the original Sputnik moment.

Since Kennedy stood coatless in the cold,  the world has experienced a half century of rapid technological progress, fitful but dramatic progress in democratization, equally fitful but dramatic gains in prosperity and public health, and diminished incidence of death by violence.  The world is now struggling with the dynamics of equitable and sustainable growth, and Obama is only the most recent in a succession of presidents who have been able to say, with regard to an inevitably emerging rival , "we do not seek to contain China's rise" (as Obama told Chinese students in November 2009. There is doubtless some ambiguity, and some ambivalence, behind that mantra.  But it is at least conditionally true at present, and represents the country's enlightened self interest.

I don't mean to minimize the problems the United States faces today. It's hard not to take seriously the possibility at least that we're on the cusp of national decline (as James did so exhaustively, with guarded if hedged optimism, about this time last year).  And the human race is always on the knife's edge -- we should never underestimate our capacity to destroy civilization, whether through environmental depredation, a sudden outbreak of nuclear war, some malign as-yet-undreamed-of new ideology, or some combination of these.  Still, perhaps it's not completely besotted to look back with some satisfaction at several decades of World War Avoided and rising global prosperity. Perhaps the problems faced by Obama are problems that Kennedy, could he have seen ahead, would have been glad to see the nation and the world confronted with.

Postscript: After drafting the above, I came across The Economist's Lexington column, which cast Obama's "Sputnik moment" claim as a bit of cheap jingoism. More on that in a coming post.

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.