LATELY — 3 October 2015

JFK on Capitalism versus Communism

Quite a few years ago when I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum I was very much struck by one exhibit: JFK’s re­sponse in 1961 to a re­porter asking whether the Com­mu­nist system would “prove more durable than ours.”

The ques­tion and answer changed my think­ing about the period of history spanned by the Cold War. I had been think­ing about the Cold War as if it were a con­flict in which ide­ol­ogy really only mat­tered insofar as it af­fected mil­i­tary and strate­gic objectives. (So for example, some coun­tries were more likely to es­tab­lish an al­liance with the U.S.S.R. because they were more sym­pa­thetic to Communism.)

But here, on the day Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth, was a serious ques­tion and a serious re­sponse about whether a method of struc­tur­ing the economy and or­gan­is­ing pro­duc­tion could be more ef­fi­cient and fruit­ful than the one adopted by the United States: the idea that po­lit­i­cal systems can differ, and should be judged, not only by their how they in­crease GDP or improve social justice, but also by how ef­fi­ciently they guide sci­en­tific progress.

The full exchange:

QUESTION: The Com­mu­nists seem to be putting us on the de­fen­sive on a number of fronts, now again in space. Wars aside, do you think that there is a danger that their system is going to prove more durable than ours?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that we are in a period of long drawn-out tests to see which system is – and I think the more durable, not better, but more durable. We have had a number of ex­pe­ri­ences with this kind of competition. A dic­ta­tor­ship enjoys advantages, in this kind of competition, over a short period, by its ability to mo­bi­lize its re­sources for a spe­cific purpose. We have made some ex­cep­tional sci­en­tific ad­vances in the last decade, and some of them – they are not as spec­tac­u­lar as the man in space, or as the first Sputnik, but they are important. […]

I do not regard the first man in space as a sign of the weak­en­ing of the free world, but I do regard the total mo­bi­liza­tion of men and things for the service of the Com­mu­nist Bloc over the last years as a source of great danger to us, and I would say we are going to have to live with that danger and hazard through much of the rest of this century.

My feeling is that we are more durable in the long run. These dic­ta­tor­ships enjoy many short range ad­van­tages that we saw in the Thirties. But in the long run, I think our system suits the qualities, and as­pi­ra­tions of people, the desire to be their own masters – I think our own system suits better. Our job is to main­tain our strength until our great qual­i­ties can be brought more ef­fec­tively to bear.

From President Kennedy’s News Con­fer­ence 9, April 12, 1961.

A few other in­ter­est­ing tidbits from the press conference:

  • The very first ques­tion (would the US help “an anti-Castro up­ris­ing or in­va­sion in Cuba”?) and answer (“this gov­ern­ment will do every­thing it pos­si­bly can, and I think it can meet its responsibilities, to make sure that there are no Amer­i­cans in­volved in any actions inside Cuba”) are quite ex­tra­or­di­nary in light of the Bay of Pigs Invasion less than a week later. It does seem that JFK was tech­ni­cally accurate, but boy, it’s one se­ri­ously mis­lead­ing answer.
  • For some reason JFK was un­will­ing to label Fidel Castro as a Communist, despite agree­ing that “he has ap­pointed a great many Com­mu­nists to high positions.”
  • JFK be­lieved that getting fresh water from salt water cheaply would be a sci­en­tific ac­com­plish­ment to “dwarf any other.”