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 Cold War. My thinking was that it was a conflict in which ideology really only mattered insofar as it affected military and geopolitical 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.”