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.