Joseph Nye on JFK’s Legacy and Foreign Policy

by Molly Lanzarotta

As part of the JFK50 commemoration, Joseph Nye Jr., University Distinguished Service Professor, reflects on JFK's legacy in the realm of foreign policy.

Q. In the thousand days of JFK’s presidency, he and his administration faced numerous foreign policy challenges and crises. In your opinion, which foreign policy challenge was the most crucial at the time?

Nye: President Kennedy faced numerous foreign policy challenges in a short amount of time, some of which he assumed from previous administrations and others which appeared first on his watch. Overall, however, I would say that most historians look back on Kennedy’s presidency and say that the Cuban missile crisis was his greatest challenge and his finest hour.

His administration had suffered a grave foreign relations disaster just a year earlier – during the Bay of Pigs operation in which a CIA plan to stir up a popular revolt against Fidel Castro failed miserably – and I think Kennedy learned a lot from that experience. He then drew upon those lessons during the very tense days of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. It’s a good thing he did because he may well have saved us from a nuclear war.

Q. And which of those foreign policy challenges and responses has had the most significant legacy in American foreign policymaking in the years after the Kennedy administration?

Nye: If President Kennedy had not so deftly handled the Cuban missile crisis, we might not be here today to talk about it, so that single event is obviously a large part of his legacy.

Kennedy also came in with an idea of using what I call American “soft power” – the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps – the view that America could use its ideas in international affairs. And I think that’s been an important part of his legacy as well.

Kennedy’s speech in Berlin “Ich bin ein Berliner” was another example of his effective use of soft power. He was able to attract many Germans, but also people behind the iron curtain and people in other countries by standing up for freedom in that way. I think that Kennedy was very effective in this ability to project American soft power through a sense of vigor and through effective rhetoric.

Students here at the Kennedy School have asked me why I don’t include Kennedy in the group of 20th century foreign policy leaders that I focus on in my course, and I tell them it’s because President Kennedy only had three years in office, while all the others I include had two full terms. Therefore, it’s not fair to judge him on 3/8ths of a record. It’s a pity that he didn’t have eight years in the White House because I think he would have built an impressive record of accomplishments.

Q. In much of your research you have focused on how leaders use power. Say a little more about President Kennedy’s use of power during his administration.

Nye: In my new book “The Future of Power,” I examine in depth the concept of “smart power,” which is the ability to combine both hard and soft power into successful foreign policy strategy. I would say Kennedy was a pioneer in terms of using smart power. He was able to use both hard and soft power and combine them very effectively on the world stage. You need to remember that Kennedy was in office in the throes of the Cold War, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up nuclear arms and fighting proxy wars in far corners of the globe. Hard power was very much on display on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but I do think that Kennedy understood that hard power alone was insufficient.

Q. Some historians see the seeds of the ending of the Cold War as having been sown during the Kennedy administration. Do you agree?

Nye: Yes. From the day he took office, President Kennedy articulated his sense of a renewed focus in U.S. foreign relations. During his inaugural address, he spoke of the need for “both sides [to] begin anew the quest for peace,” and he delivered the famous line, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

And if you examine President Kennedy’s famous speech delivered at American University not long after the end of the Cuban missile crisis, you’ll see that he once again appealed for a new approach to the Cold War – by both the United States and the Soviet Union. I think many people see that speech as the mark of a turning point – from the darkest, most acrimonious days of the Cold War to a thaw in bilateral relations that ushered in the beginning of serious and substantive arms control talks and agreements, and eventually détente. 

Interviewed on February 17, 2011.

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