Commentary Magazine


The New Frontier Fulfilled

Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?

Bishop Butler
Fifteen Sermons, No. 7, par. 16

One year after the Presidential election of 1960, the New Frontier of President John F. Kennedy has acquired a firm place in a historic American series. There it stands alongside the Great Crusade of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both fly flags of hardihood and high venture. Our age has no taste for the resonance of “business as usual”: it prefers to flavor the day’s round with a dash of high sentence. For this spice, Crusade and Frontier may serve equally.

But the Great Crusade and the New Frontier have far more in common than the language of high aspiration. Both mean the thoroughgoing acceptance of all that which is now—since the Great Depression and War and Demobilization—firmly established and fundamental in the domestic American economic, social, and political order. The institutional changes of the 30′s and 40′s are unchallenged. With the second Truman administration, all that is already in the past. From about 1948, there are no great innovations. At most, taxes are increased sharply during the Korean War and reduced significantly by Eisenhower and George Humphrey. Main Street and Wall Street alike live comfortably under a friendly sun.

In this conservatism of fundamental social outlook, Crusade and Frontier participate in a climate of opinion that reaches far beyond the United States. They share the general spirit of a time which begins in the late 1940′s. In all non-Communist and economically advanced countries, this time—our own—is perhaps more stable and less subjected to internal challenge, in social and economic fundamentals, than any other period since the American and French revolutions. The yeast does not ferment. Elements of the socialist tradition have been absorbed, but a social-revolutionary alternative is nowhere taken seriously. It is well that we be clear about these things. So, we may avoid the aberration of judgment by trifling excitements and understand better our times and ourselves.

After this common ground of fundamental domestic conservatism, Crusade and Frontier are alike also in according primacy to foreign affairs. For both, social peace has the same urgent ground: how can Americans suffer themselves to be distracted and divided by trifling differences, when they are all called to the high duty of the worldwide struggle against totalitarian Communism? For both, what is to be done in the United States is to be determined not alone—perhaps even not primarily—by what is right as a domestic matter, but rather by what aids in the worldwide struggle. At the very least, domestic actions should contribute to a favorable “image” of America in the world. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind is, indeed, an old and honorable American tradition. But never before have the official spokesmen for the United States manifested so much concern over the national image or the national “posture.” (President Kennedy is reported to favor “a posture of sacrifice.”) Is it a clear mind and an enlightened conscience that are so sedulous of reputation?

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I The New Administration

Never, I believe, in American national history has a change in the party holding the Presidency1 been accompanied by so small a change in the personnel employed in the executive branch of the federal government. In the first Eisenhower administration, one liberal Republican, Mr. Harold Stassen, made a greater number of partisan dismissals than have been made by the whole Kennedy apparatus. The Eisenhower cabinet was genuinely and deeply suspicious of “hold-overs” from the previous administration. It took some years for them to stop looking under the bed for nonexistent radicals. There has been nothing remotely similar this time. The Eisenhower Republicans distrusted their predecessors in office; the Kennedy Democrats do not.

The drastically different experiences of the State Department are typical. In the 1930′s and 1940′s, the eareer Foreign Service officers had acquired a confidence of status greater than is otherwise found among the civilian personnel of the United States government. Under Dulles, that confidence was initially shattered. The Secretary of State dissociated himself from the career officers he had inherited and read them hectoring and threatening lectures. Eisenhower allowed them to be exposed to the full force of McCarthyism. Few in the State Department—or elsewhere in the federal government—had the character to speak for a maligned colleague. They feared, fell silent, shrank, and hid. But the cowering produced bitterness and sought a meager compensation in knowing glances and critical remarks to safe company. Work suffered. It was years before morale was restored. This time there is nothing of all that. Mr. Dean Rusk is of the Department and like it. He might have been chosen by a Foreign Service vote.

Reserving to himself public responsibility in foreign policy, the President has sought for businessmen and bankers to occupy many other high positions in public view. Undoubtedly he looks to men of business and finance in part—and in part rightly—as people who can make a policy and administer it. But in his choice of high officers the President has also clearly been seeking to stamp himself as a reasonable man of the political center. Surely he is no wild man who surrounds himself, by choice, with Ford and Inland Steel, the First Boston Corporation, and Dillon, Read and Company. When Mr. Kennedy was in trouble on foreign aid legislation, he deserted his former Democratic choice for Aid Administrator and sought out a prominent Republican banker (in turn, however, deserted to avoid a confirmation fight). When Mr. Kennedy needed a replacement for Allen Dulles at CIA, he chose another Eisenhower businessman, Mr. John A. McCone. When he has in hand a sensitive mission to Ghana, he commissions Mr. Eisenhower’s own Clarence B. Randall. Mr. Douglas Dillon, Secretary of the Treasury, has helped clarify the picture. He has expressed himself publicly, with great candor, as failing to see any great difference between the Republican and Democratic administrations in which he has served. And there is every reason to agree that Mr. Dillon has carried on, without significant change, the fiscal and financial policies which he inherited at the Treasury.

After the business community, the chief source of policy officers in the new administration—as in the old—is the legal profession. The lawyers serve American governments as clergymen served a medieval monarch. Not themselves always men of power, they are still among power’s most trusted administrators. (Our economists and public administration specialists, in contrast, are usually disqualified by training and mentality for dealing with high policy questions; they accordingly rarely rise above the service level.) The lawyers qualify as policy officers for many reasons: firstly, some knowledge of the law is helpful in finding one’s way in public affairs under our constitutional system; secondly, the lawyers do have related experiences in adjusting private interests and claims; and finally, the lawyer’s role as general counselor in business and property management is easily transferred to government.

In fact, the lawyers are the one effective professional group of civilian policy officers in the United States government. They are American government’s professional wise men. And they are responsible for the greater part of such initiative as the staff work of the federal government does in fact display. But they suffer, painfully and visibly, under the New Frontier as before, from the lack of any general doctrine or direction. They are buyers of scraps of doctrine in many markets. Their knowledge of government regulatory activity or tax law is commonly technique, not philosophy. Recently some have been belatedly invigorated by winds that blow from Adam Smith, teaching the uses of free competition (anti-trust) and free trade (lower tariffs, common markets, etc.). They are not Keynesians: they were (like Franklin Delano Roosevelt) not sufficiently intellectual to master Keynes, and, besides, they quickly sensed that, among their best-placed private clients, not only “monetary management” but even “full employment” was frequently a dirty phrase. In contrast, the best of these lawyers were, in Washington, among the more appreciative readers of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. That book obviously struck them as helpful in providing an outlook to guide their work. But, even when they have read their Galbraith, one cannot look to the government lawyers for new thoughts. They are powerful and effective brokers in received ideas, not venturers on unmapped frontiers.

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II The Congress

To those who were impressed with the planning and skill of the Kennedy political machine in the Presidential campaign of 1960, the Congressional session of 1961 came as a violent shock—and one that is still only half appraised. Even others who, like the present writer, believed the Presidential campaign was an uncreative and indifferent performance, were still surprised by the desultory and unskilled—I had almost said amateurish—handling of the Congress which followed.

The President today has no solid bloc of support in either House of Congress. He cannot count on the right, the center, or the left. The outcome of every issue he presents to the Congress is dependent on an individual crystallization of interests and outlooks.

The time has not yet come to write the full history of this development. He who attempts it today must batten on betrayal of individual confidences. And all the materials are not in one hand. But the outline is clear.

Where the New Frontier has fallen short most comprehensively in the Congress is in giving the ordinary Democratic Senator or Congressman a sense of participation. The rank-and-file Democratic legislator does not feel that he is in the New Frontier—much as he might welcome being in, and much as he will profess, in public, that he is in. He was never invited. President Kennedy is substantially as distant from him as was President Eisenhower. The legislator feels the constitutional separation of powers not as a theorist’s simplification but as a painful reality. The executive departments do not ask for his views; they try to badger him into voting for measures they have formulated quite without him. The high-level bureaucrat is often closer to the President than is the ordinary Congressman.

When the White House or an executive agency does infrequently consult the Democratic Senator or Congressman who is not a titular committee chairman, it does so in an atmosphere of the perfunctory and conventional. The legislator is not a member of the Democratic family that is running the government, though he may try to convince the voters in his home district that he truly is. When the executive does belatedly send someone to solicit his vote, it commonly sends men without authority and who do not understand the business in hand. These lightweight spokesmen for the executive branch come each visibly charged with a mission to build up the public reputation of the President, as well as to further his legislative program. But they are not equally mindful of the position of the Senator or Congressman. They do not invite his participation, build up his self-esteem, and show themselves considerate of his views, his reputation, and his political future. They have their own problems; he has his.

To such a Congress, at arm’s-length in sympathies from the executive, the President came with two great requests for delegation of Congressional power. These were in farm programs and in foreign aid. In both cases a substantial bloc of members, in both Houses, were suspicious of the substantive ends for which the delegation would be utilized. (To my mind, these suspicions were largely justified for the farm programs, less justified in foreign aid.) But those who reject these farm and foreign programs, in substance, would not themselves have numbered enough votes to reject particular legislation. The dissenters on substance were joined by a large number of other legislators who, quite simply, did not like any delegation, since any would necessarily diminish their own effective authority.

The Congress of the United States does not desire to be a French or even a British Parliament. The powerlessness of the French legislators has been well advertised. And no Congressman who knows the facts—and especially not a Congressman in opposition—desires to exchange his personal role for that of a British Member of Parliament. Delegation is feared as meaning impotence. And even the Democratic legislator of the New Frontier does not feel that he is delegating power to us; he is delegating to them. He does not wish to do it. And no amount of calling him a reactionary can make him wish it more.

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It is possible to build great political strength on issues of principle. This is, of course, regarded as the flimsiest basis for political effectiveness by many who take themselves for men of the world. Yet principles are surely the strongest foundation of political strength where grave, moving, and articulate differences of principle exist. This ground was not available to the New Frontier.

It is also possible to build significant political strength on loyalty—party and personal—and on the pattern of working arrangements and expectations that flows from loyalty. But there hardly exists a national Democratic party (or a Republican one) to which to be loyal. Moreover President Kennedy chose the path not of strengthening his own party, and striving to increase its national character, but the other road of surrounding himself with Republicans, and he did so in a manner to suggest that he attributed little significance to the difference between Republicans and Democrats. He could not have it both ways. Party loyalty was not chosen as the cement of power. And, so far as personal loyalty is concerned, the White House, under all Presidents, has a deservedly poor reputation for that.

It is further possible to establish some political strength on personal affections or personal prestige. This avenue was, however, not open to President Kennedy in his relations with the present Congress. The affections do not exist. The prestige is one of office—not person.

Lastly, it is surely possible to build effective, continuing political strength on a basis of interests. But, for that, the affected interests have to be deep-seated and challenged, or at least in structured conflict with other interests. No such position exists in the New Frontier.

Lacking a continuing foundation in principle, loyalty, prestige, or interest, it is feasible to establish only fragile and temporary collocations of power. These collocations are formed, collapse, and are then re-formed, like dry sand-castles on a beach. Such were the alliances of the Congressional session of 1961.

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III The High Doctrine

Pragmatism is a high-sounding word Americans use to denote the absence of a philosophy. Pluralism is a high-sounding word they use to denote the absence of a politics. The custodians of doctrine in the New Frontier call themselves pragmatists and pluralists. Clearly they mean to do what is good. But what do they mean to do?

For an exposition of the high doctrine of the New Frontier, one turns first naturally to Mr. John Kenneth Galbraith. He is by far the most considerable of the New Frontier’s general theoreticians. But he has not made the search easy. He did produce a little book in the summer of 1960. Bearing the name The Liberal Hour, it was commonly expected to be a philosophical pamphlet on the public issues of the election. But it was not that at all. Mr. Galbraith did indeed identify certain public issues—urban squalor, unemployment, war industry, and inflation. On one of these, unemployment, he shifted ground significantly from the position taken in The Affluent Society.2 He wrote a delightful essay on “The Build-up and the Public Man” and a searching one entitled “Was Ford a Fraud?” But he hardly discussed any general public issue, except the untimely one of inflation, in greater depth than is common in a daily newspaper. The Liberal Hour turned out to be an hour for a mellow, relaxed, meandering walk in a pleasant New England countryside.

The task of exposition of the high doctrine, in a responsible political context, therefore fell to Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and this was perhaps fortunate. Mr. Schlesinger is simple and, on the surface, clear. He wrote an important paper,3 and one that deserves to be more widely read. Its authority is also perhaps somewhat enhanced by the fact that Mr. Schlesinger subsequently became an assistant to President Kennedy.

Schlesinger begins by invoking Goldsmith : “. . . wealth accumulates, and men decay.” And Emerson: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” Clearly this cannot be tolerated. “The editor, the professor, the writer, the intellectual, the community leader all have to till the ground.” What is the trouble? “For one thing,” says Mr. Schlesinger, “the American people are growing restlessly aware that the United States is losing ground in the world competition with the Soviet Union.” And there is also a “. . . second source of our anxiety—the spreading awareness that we are even falling behind in making adequate provision for the welfare and opportunity of our own people and for the future of our children and thus of our nation.” Due to this falling behind, “The whole quality of our national life is threatened by deterioration.”

What shall we do then? We must, says Mr. Schlesinger, change “the allocation of resources.” We need to move away from individual consumer spending on “gadgets and gimmicks” because these “overwhelm our bodies and distract our minds.” Less money should be spent on “private indulgence” and more on “public need.” And Mr. Schlesinger reels off a long list of essential “social overhead,” which includes “. . . education, medical care, housing, slum clearance, urban and suburban planning, social security, provision for the sick and the aging, roads, recreation, water, assistance to distressed classes and areas, resources and energy development. . . .” And he is far from finished, because he adds: “Do we need to put more resources in our missile program and in our conventional warfare capability and in the contest for space? The Soviet Union, a much poorer nation, has three times as many intercontinental missiles and three times as large an army and is outstripping us in the stratosphere. . . .”

Huge demands, surely, these of Mr. Schlesinger? No. Not at all. For, when the chips are down, Mr. Schlesinger, on this New Frontier too, will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; he will roar you as ’twere any nightingale. He requests, all in all, and for everything, civil and military, only 2 per cent or 2.5 per cent of the national product. (This is far less than the decline in military spending alone between 1953 and 1960.) “All that is involved,” Mr. Schlesinger tells us, “is a marginal shift of resources—say some $10-12 billion a year more to be employed for public purposes. Such a shift in resources can easily be achieved within the framework of our present economic and political order. It would entail no interference with the existing freedom of investment or of entrepreneurial decision or of consumer choice.” (Italics mine.)

Then why has it been necessary, as a preamble, to invoke God and His holy angels? But the best is yet to come. Mr. Schlesinger knows a “painless way” to find the needed $10—12 billion. It is “to pursue a policy of economic growth” up to the level already achieved under Truman. So, all the gadgets and gimmicks, which we thought we were to lose, arc right back! Now that the game is played out, “. . . we can begin to do what must be done in the public sector and have continuing improvement in the standard of living at the same time.” And the true faith, and loaves, and fishes.

Yet, after once going through the whole cycle of inflating this balloon and then himself puncturing it, Mr. Schlesinger cannot refrain from returning again to the same heroics: “The choice is stark and imperative: either a continuation of self-indulgence along these lines of least resistance, until we drift into minor-power status and oblivion, or a recovery of national purpose and an exercise of national leadership.”

My cup runneth over.

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President Kennedy’s programs4 have hitherto remained well within the modest limits traced by this high doctrine. Of course the administration’s activities do show changes during the year. In general, the military component rises steadily. The space program was enlarged spectacularly on May 25, 1961, when the President put before the Congress, in joint session, his request for greater expenditures aimed at putting an American man on the moon. (It was guessed by some that this enterprise would involve something like $20 billion during a decade.) At the same time the President was deciding that he would deny administration support—on the ground that there was no money—for a bill proposed by some members of the Congressional “left” to provide $1 billion for assistance in financing municipal and state public works. And, in general, President Kennedy has not put forward larger programs than those sponsored in the first weeks of office except in military affairs and space.

But, always and running through everything, there is the characteristic New Frontier polarity of portentous general language and modest specifics. Only let a speech begin, “The trumpet summons us again,” and we can be sure we are being called to wash our hands. The White House does not escape the tone of café society, yet it strives for the demeanor of Churchill during the Battle of Britain. How Churchill is envied his “toil and tears, sweat and blood”! The Washington leadership of the New Frontier has an appetite for sacrifice—in comfort. St. Anthony wishes to suffer temptation—on the cobbled, shaded streets of Georgetown.

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IV Welfare Legislation

In appearances, President Kennedy fell down badly, in this first year, in welfare legislation—especially in health and education. At least, that is the view of outsiders generally sympathetic to the administration. I myself am not sure. I have heard two dozen fragmentary stories on this failure. But I am not sure that the inner circle of the White House takes these defeats tragically. And I do not have an opinion on how much of the result was due to lack of political skill, how much to omission of timely work, and how much to absence of enthusiasm. Nor am I able to apportion the responsibility, as others do with conviction, among the White House, Secretary Ribicoff, and the administration’s high command in the Congress.

For the unemployed, the New Frontier brought no change. At the President’s request, Congress passed a Bill (H.R. 4806, approved March 24, 1961) duplicating Eisenhower’s legislation in 1958. It provided federal advances to permit states to extend unemployment compensation for a maximum of 13 weeks. Under this program, in the six months of April through September 1961, less than six out of every ten unemployed persons have been receiving benefits. The others have exhausted their benefits or are ineligible. The average payment—to the six who arc getting anything at all—is just over $30 a week.

Fulfilling a campaign pledge, the President made the passage of Distressed Areas legislation one of his first items of attention. A bill was passed (Senate 1, approved May 1, 1961) providing $394 million for loans and grants, available during four years. It has been of no consequence this year and will amount to little in the future.

An extremely complicated minimum wage bill was passed (H.R. 3935, approved May 5, 1961). Riddled with exceptions and qualifications, it generally increases the minimum applicable for enterprises in interstate commerce, by steps, to $1.25 per hour. The steps take to September 1963 for most enterprises but up to September 1966 for some. Tens of millions of workers in local and service enterprises remain uncovered. I can testify, of personal knowledge, that, in Washington, D.C., grown men, working full time in luxury apartment houses, now are paid less than $35 a week.

In retirement benefits under social security, the administration asked for little and received somewhat less (H.R. 6027, approved June 30, 1961). Representative was the action on the minimum retirement benefit, where the administration asked for an increase from $33 to $43 per month, and Congress agreed to $40. Equally representative was the treatment of a widows’ benefit, where the administration asked for an increase from 75 per cent to 85 per cent of the benefit due the deceased husband, and Congress agreed to 82.5 per cent.

On major health measures, the Congress did nothing. The President delivered a thoughtful, minimalist message already on February 9. It stressed two issues: health insurance for the aged and financial assistance for medical education. Speaker Rayburn expressed his benevolent inclination. But the House of Representatives did not move.

In the end, a similar fate befell the whole administration program on education. There again the President sent the Congress a thoughtful message, this time on February 20. But the House of Representatives did not go even as far as under Eisenhower. On May 26, 1960, the House had passed, by a majority of 206 to 189, a $325 million bill for school construction. This time they passed nothing.

But President Kennedy did not call the Congress into joint session to hear his views on the urgency of federal government action for the unemployed or for medical care or education. That high spectacle was reserved for shooting the moon. The unemployed, I fear, did not interest any effective political force in American society. But clearly those minimum needs in health and education for which the President wished to provide did hold wide public appeal. The President’s programs would have added, from federal funds, perhaps 4 per cent to the $50 billion which the American people now spend annually on health and education. The amount is small. Nevertheless the aged in need of medical care would have been deeply interested. The medical students and schools would have listened. No one concerned with education and its finance could have been indifferent. But the President chose the path of more reticent action. These measures in education and health policy are therefore preserved as the daily bread of political controversy. They can be served up, in various forms, in the Congress of 1962 and in the Congressional election of 1962. Who knows, perhaps they will be preserved for the Presidential election of 1964?

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V Economic Accomplishment

When President Kennedy took over in January 1961, about one American wage earner in every ten was totally unemployed. In October 1961, approximately one in ten was still totally unemployed. Gradually, the significance of this gross fact seeps around the world. No retouching of the national image is equally important.

According to the official statistics, the share of the civilian labor force that is unemployed has hovered all year around 6.8 per cent or 6.9 per cent. But these figures are quite misleading to the inexpert. They include in the divisor (the civilian labor force) perhaps 20 million people or more, out of a total of about 72 million, who do not contribute significantly to the dividend (the unemployed). First, there are perhaps 10 million unincorporated businesses in the United States;5 their proprietors are not among the unemployed, but they are included in the 72 million civilian labor force. Second, there is a large group of senior salaried employees—in private business and in government—among whom there is almost no unemployment at any time, but they are also in the 72 million. It is not suggested that these 20 million or more be removed from our statistical measure of the labor force. But, if we are to be attentive to social and personal realities, we must look into the meaning of the statistics we bandy about. We must be mindful that there are both owners and salaried groups who do not participate significantly in unemployment. All the actual unemployment is shared by another, narrower number of people.

The unemployed are, of course, in our time, special people. (How different all this is from the 1930′s!) The rest of us have hemmed ourselves in, principally by property or seniority, against unemployment. The non-white are unemployed twice as frequently as the white. The unskilled blue-collared worker is unemployed six times as frequently as the white-collared worker. The man above forty-five is more frequently unemployed than the average. But obviously the man over forty-five who is unemployed is not a success. Few successful people will know him.

The New Frontier has adopted a perspective on unemployment which is perhaps to be expected in a period when the unemployed are special people. In 1900 through 1929, and again in 1946 through 1960, unemployment averaged about 4.5 per cent of the civilian labor force. These averages, of course, included good years when unemployment went down to 2 per cent and very bad years when it shot up over 7 per cent. Now, in March 1961, the new Council of Economic Advisers of the Kennedy administration had to put forward a set of economic plans. The three professors of economics who constitute the Council made a joint statement which is important as reflecting a mentality and a style of work. What did they have to say about unemployment? “An unemployment rate of 4.0 per cent is taken as a reasonable target for full utilization of resources. . . .”6 Where 4.5 per cent is the historical average, 4 per cent becomes the target. So severely demanding are the titular Economic Advisers of the New Frontier.

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In monetary policy, the Kennedy administration has accomplished one of its two objectives. These were, first, to keep short-term interest rates high and, second, to reduce long-term rates considerably. With the harmonious cooperation of the Treasury, the Reserve System, and the private banks, the administration accomplished its first objective. The yield on three-month Treasury bills was 2.302 per cent in January 1961 and 2.325 per cent on October 24. The commercial bank “prime” rate for short-term business loans was held up at 4.5 per cent. Success. But long-term rates were not brought down. Moody’s average corporate bond yield was 4.65 per cent when President Kennedy was inaugurated and 4.72 per cent on October 26. Treasury long-terms (for example, the ’78—’83s) rose from 3.87 per cent to 4.04 per cent. Failure. And the failure was entirely predictable as soon as the financial community learned—as it did very early—that the President was unprepared to enter into combat with the great forces resistant to his early general declarations of monetary policy.

In tax legislation, almost nothing has been accomplished. The Ways and Means Committee did not even report to the House the key measures which the administration proposed. These consisted partly of measures of additional tax severity—particularly related to taxing income earned abroad: there was no reforming zeal or push for these, and they were easily set aside. But the administration also proposed corporate tax reductions, estimated to reduce yields by about $1.7 billion annually, and these also were received coldly. The administration called its proposal one of “. . . tax incentives for the modernization and expansion of private plant and equipment.” In substance, the proposal was to concentrate tax “incentives” on new or rapidly expanding firms and in industries employing large amounts of fixed capital. To minimize transparent absurdity, those activities employing most fixed capital—utilities, residences, apartment houses, and hotels—were excluded from the benefits of the bill! The President argued “. . . the [tax] investment incentive itself can contribute materially to achieving the prosperous economy. . . .” In so arguing, he was adopting a point of view now frequently held among American economists but for which, I believe, there is no real evidence nor any force of logic. In any case, the business community was not interested. What it wanted, what it expected, was a general reduction in rates of tax on profits and on larger personal incomes. It was not going to be fobbed off with any trifling substitute.

In balance of payments matters, nothing fundamental has changed. There was no occasion for the Eisenhower-Anderson-Dillon panic in the winter of 1960-61. There was equally no basis for the public self-congratulation in which President Kennedy indulged, so prematurely, earlier this year, when a trickle of gold inflow replaced, for a time, the gold outflow. There is also no ground for a new wave of panic now that the gold outflow has resumed and the U.S. monetary gold stock (October 24, 1961) is some $466 million below its level at the end of 1960. The United States does have a balance of payments problem. American private foreign investing and U.S. government foreign spending, taken together, are a little heavy for our export earning capacity. The widening of the European Common Market will create additional difficulties. Our representatives in reciprocal trade negotiations have not achieved that degree of access for U.S. exports to the markets of developed countries which our volume of foreign investing and foreign spending requires. In all this, there is no irretrievable damage done and no occasion for great concern—except one. The cause for concern is that the New Frontier has shown no spark of new thinking regarding the United States policy on trade and tariffs or on the appropriate American attitude toward exclusive common markets in developed countries. The mind of Cordell Hull still sits at the conference table.

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In the third quarter of 1961, the gross national product of the United States was running at an annual rate of about $526 billion. This was an increase of some $15 billion over a year earlier, when measured in constant 1960 prices. The increase in output is rather less than the year’s growth in the national productive capacity. At full employment, the national product would probably now be in the area of $600 billion.

To some extent, the United States is now recapitulating the experience of a decade earlier. But there are also great differences. Government spending, at all levels, was already running $11.6 billion higher in the third quarter of 1961 than a year earlier. But military spending was barely beginning to rise. And business expenditure on plant and equipment has not reached levels in 1961 that were attained even five years earlier. Moreover, short of the outbreak of a large non-nuclear war, there is no prospect of such a $20 billion increase in military expenditure as took place in a single year from 1950 to 1951. It may even be that, with respect to public expenditure, the administration of President Kennedy will be more inhibited by conventional thinking regarding budget balancing than was the administration of President Truman.

A decade ago, military expansion drew two million additional men into the armed forces in three years (1949-52); nothing like that is to be anticipated. Then a scramble took place to enlarge supplies of materials; today steel, copper, aluminum, petroleum, and all basic chemicals are in heavy surplus supply. Then there was a great deal of fabrication of conventional weapons and a drive to “stockpile” materials to enable World War II to be fought again; that will not be done still once more. These are great differences. Yet one basic similarity remains: at the close of 1961 the American economy is again being impelled forward primarily by the growth of military expenditure.

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VI Foreign Affairs

President Kennedy let pass without initiative the great opportunity of his first week of office: to repudiate the stultifying doctrines of recognition lodged in American public policy by Woodrow Wilson and Henry L. Stimson: to reconfirm the old sound principle of the recognition of all de facto governments: and to declare for the universality of state membership in the United Nations. He would then have done in reason what he cannot now do under threat.

The Communist China of the Asian mainland and the trumpery People’s Democracy of Eastern Germany are two gross political facts. We are not called upon to approve of them. But the United States gains nothing by failing to recognize them. The foreign policy of a mature people will acknowledge that there are evils beyond its remedy. But it will know even them and speak even to them, as it must live with them. And a foreign policy worthy of a mature people will acknowledge also that there are other evils that can be reached and remedied—it may be through study, understanding, and accommodation; it may be through resistance, force, and violence. In these situations too there will be no use for the powder-puff of non-recognition. Regrettably, in these matters, the New Frontier has not advanced beyond its inheritance.

Does the New Frontier have a distinctive foreign policy? White House strategy is always to concentrate attention on the President as responsible director of international affairs. This emphasis unifies. It elicits the widest serious public support attainable immediately. And it helps, in time, to stamp the President personally as the symbol of the nation. He then becomes our President—the right President, among other things, for us to re-elect. He speaks for us. But what does he say? Does he say only that policy must “. . . blend whatever degree of firmness and flexibility which are necessary to protect our vital interests. . .”?7 Or does he say something distinctively different from what Dwight Eisenhower said? Or Harry Truman? And in what does this difference consist?

President Kennedy seems aware that the content of his foreign policy remains unknown. At Chapel Hill, in October, he responded, somewhat defensively: “We cannot open all our books in advance to an adversary who operates in the night, the decisions we make, the weapons we possess, the bargains we will accept . . .” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than, “Trust me.” And, after Laos and Cuba, the President had not accumulated a great credit account of trust. Regarding Laos, a verbal belligerency made itself heard immediately after inauguration and then was slowly dissipated, in step after step of disorderly retreat. Regarding Cuba, three months after inauguration, the President was apparently incapable of interrogating the key sources of evidence and determining that there was no revolutionary situation. He seems also to have been unable to examine the plans for the miserable expedition to the Bay of Pigs and to determine that these were not plans for a serious revolutionary undertaking. When the operation collapsed, he sought comfort and immunity from criticism in the company of MacArthur and Hoover, Eisenhower and Nixon. These things do not reassure.

Failing direct evidence from Mr. Kennedy, there is a natural tendency to take as the views of the administration the statements of its more accredited representatives. Mr. George F. Kennan—is he not U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia?—is the most frequently cited in Europe and especially since his recent judgments on coexistence with the Soviet Union were given wide currency by being re-published in the London Observer.8 But I do not believe it is fair to charge the Kennedy administration with Mr. Kennan’s more sanguine views regarding the potentialities of accommodation with the present Russian leadership. Similarly, Senator Fulbright may be taken by many, all over the world, to have been speaking for the Kennedy administration recently—is he not chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee?—in advocating the crystallization of international organization around an “inner community” of the North Atlantic nations, which is then fatuously joined to an “outer community” of the remaining non-Communist countries in a combined “concert of free nations.”9 But I do not believe that it is fair to charge the New Frontier with so simple a picture of the world.

The administration of President Truman was the creative period of our recent foreign policy. Eisenhower, at best, carried on what he found. And Kennedy, so far as the public knows, has as yet improved on Eisenhower only in eloquence. He has continued the Eisenhower practice of going-it-alone in Southeast Asia. (Who can take seriously a SEATO from which not only India but even Japan is absent, and for which the U.S. is the only actor?) He seems also to have fallen into a pattern of acting alone frequently in regard to Berlin, where the three occupying powers (Britain, France, and the U.S.) are not continuously in action together but often the U.S. by itself.

_____________

 

The governing fact of United States foreign policy today is that of selective, multiple associations. It is, I believe, desirable that this multiplicity of associations continue to be the governing fact of our policy, and that our many associations be variously strengthened in scope and in community of decision-taking. But, for such strengthening to become possible, our wavering practice needs first to emerge from incoherent daily improvisations to the consistency of clear, conceptual understanding and articulate, studied principle. We need to appreciate, quite self-consciously, what we are doing. Perhaps the beginning is to stop playing that old, cracked record which recites that the United Nations (or Atlantic Union or a Western Hemisphere Federation) is the last, best hope of man.

The Kennedy administration can certainly not be charged with great reliance on the United Nations.10 And surely, in this, its position is basically sound. To attempt to carry out the foreign policy of the United States primarily through the UN is to perform an act of comprehensive abdication. What we can do through the United Nations is far less than we are obliged to do in the whole circle of our international relations, which must include many closer and more effective—though less universal—associations. The UN is now paralyzed, for many purposes. Its Communist members seek persistently to extend their system, as opportunity affords, and they consequently clash constantly with the other great group of powers that seek to support and strengthen non-Communist societies. This clash does not reflect some secondary deficiency of intelligence, skill, or ingenuity. And it is not alleviated by pointing to the fact that both sides have common interests—especially the paramount interest in preserving human life on earth.

For the United States, any one association other than the United Nations can also serve only as a partial instrument of policy. (And the New Frontier does, I believe, understand this.) The United States cannot now usefully join any exclusive federation or confederation. To which shall we adhere? Is the U.S. a Western hemisphere power? Our Western hemisphere friends will welcome the opportunity to be rid of our customs duties and quotas on lead and zinc, sugar and meat, but will they be glad to join a confederation where our mature manufacturing industries will obliterate their infant industrial enterprises? Or shall we federate with Western Europe? What will we then say to Latin America, or to Japan, or to the less developed countries of Asia and Africa? Will these less developed countries be grateful for the privilege of forming an “outer community”—to quote Senator Fulbright’s unhappy terminology—around our “inner community” of North Atlantic powers? With all modesty, without self-righteousness, with no claim of superior virtue, we have to recognize that the United States is a world power. The United States does not today fit into any regional federation or confederation. Diversity of circumstances and universality of interests combine to bar the way.

_____________

 

VII Fulfillment

It would be folly to add up the reckoning of the New Frontier at this time, put paid to the account, and close the books. These dry bones may yet live. Indeed, particularly in Washington, there is even now some trace of life: there are earnest people who would like to do something hard that is worth doing. But enthusiasm is—for the time—quite exhausted, and there are no indications of important unmatured novelties. What is distinctively lacking is a taste for fundamental and systematic thought. Imagination is always scarce and equally scarce really daring personality. I do not myself, therefore, see where the New Frontier will draw any great productivity. But I also do not believe it has been given me to see the future. The spirit bloweth where it listeth. As Mr. Kennedy has been elected President once, he is the more likely to be elected a second time. Seven more years!

Even those who comprehend only after the event can see now how pointless it was to draw an analogy between the New Frontier of 1961 and the New Deal of 1933. Ours is not a time of any great domestic stress. The effective voice of the American people was one of contentment in the Eisenhower administration. Richard Nixon merely failed—by the closest of margins—to establish his title as the legitimate heir. The human condition of America is not, in 1961, dominantly one of complaint or rejection or even dissatisfaction.

The people of the United States are aware that there is great stress and conflict in the world and that the United States is involved. But Mr. Kennedy was not chosen President on that account. The American people is fundamentally very trustful of its government in foreign matters. It would trust Mr. Nixon or Mr. Rockefeller, in office, as it trusts Mr. Kennedy. There are countries where a fiasco like Cuba costs somebody his political head (as Suez cost Eden’s), but not in the United States. Only the grossest disturbance of public expectations regarding affairs outside the U.S. will have popular political consequences.

How characteristically American is the New Frontier! Look at the prophets of its High Doctrine. How small a gap separates these critics of the Affluent Society from the most devoted spokesmen for the affluence. Listen carefully, with ears tuned to the American language, as these prophets speak, and you will hear an old message: “Put your nickel on the drum, and save your soul. . . .” How often we Americans have wished to be saved, for a nickel.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 I refer, once and for all, to my earlier essay on the first phase of the Kennedy administration, “Political Economy and the New Administration,” in COMMENTARY, April 1961. I shall presume the ground covered there and not retrace it.

2 Compare the import, tone, and temper of The Affluent Society, pages 292 ff. with The Liberal Hour, pages 18-19 and 63 ff.

3 “The Big Issue,” in the Progressive of September 1960.

4 A useful compendium is President Kennedy's Program, Congressional Quarterly Service, Washington, 1961.

5 U.S. Business Tax Returns, U.S. Treasury, Publication No. 438 (1961) shows for 1958 some 8,800,000 sole proprietorships, 954,000 partnerships, and 990,000 corporations. I wish I could induce sociologists and political scientists to read this fascinating publication.

6 The American Economy in 1961: Problems and Policies, Statement of the Council of Economic Advisers before the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress, March 6, 1961, page 326.

7 Address at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, October 12, 1961.

8 See Russia and the West (1961), especially the last chapter and its telling rebuttal by Mr. Leonard Schapiro in The New Leader of May 15, 1961.

9 “For A Concert of Free Nations” in Foreign Affairs, October 1961.

10 On the other hand, it may perhaps be charged wtih having used the UN too little for those limited purposes where greater use was possible. The case for larger possibilities is explored with great discrimination by Mr. Benjamin V, Cohen in his Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures, The United Nations (1961).

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