By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

What Nixon and Kennedy could teach today's presidential contenders

I am preparing a lecture on the US elections that I will be giving the week after next at the Center for US Research Center at Tsinghua. One of the points I wanted to make is that US-China relations are a relatively minor theme in this year’s elections, and that, compared with the Cold War era, foreign policy in general plays less of a role in US politics these days. I had vaguely remembered that the opening statements in the very first televised presidential debate, the first Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debate in 1960, discussed foreign policy, in a way opening debate statements seldom would these days. So I accessed both Kennedy’s and Nixon’s opening statements in the first debate on Youtube.

(You can watch Kennedy's here and Nixon's here.)
The contrast was far more dramatic than I had expected.

The moderator, Howard K. Smith of ABC News, specifically announced at the beginning that the agreed-upon topic of the first debate was “restricted to internal or domestic American matters.” Yet Kennedy’s first lines in the very first televised presidential debate ever –- lines that are remembered today -- referenced Abraham Lincoln’s statement  before the Civil War about America not being able to survive half-slave and half-free, and stated that “in the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world can exist half slave and half free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom or in the direction of slavery.”

Nixon, similarly, began his statement in this domestic policy debate by saying, “There is no question that we cannot discuss our domestic affairs in the United States without recognizing that they have a tremendous on our international position.” Both of them argued that the reason we needed to be concerned with making progress domestically was so that we would survive the international challenges we faced.

Wait, it gets more bizarre. Both these opening statements specifically mentioned the US competition not just with the Soviet Union, but also with China! Nixon said that “we are not only in a deadly competition with the men in the Kremlin but with the men in Peking.” Kennedy stated that China had always been important because of its big population, but that now as well they were “mounting a major offensive” for influence in the world.

So in 1960, at a time China was a desperately poor country in the throes of a major famine caused by disastrous government policies, both presidential candidates in their opening statements in a debate on domestic policy mentioned China. Today, with China a rising superpower, the candidates don't bring it up.

We are, not incorrectly, told that we are in an era of unprecedented globalization. Author Thomas Friedman told us a decade ago that the world was flat. Yet our presidential politics seem to be more inwardly focused than 50 years ago!

What is wrong with this picture?

Posted on Feb 24, 2012 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 Gladys New York

China is a threat economical and militarily only if we let them. If we allow people who have everything, to keep getting more at the expense of the nation's progress, we will find them a threat, one of our own making. We should pay attn to their global presence but if we are doing what we should be doing then they shouldn't be a problem any more than any other nation today but, if we keep allowing ourselves to devolve every country will become a threat and we will cede our position in the world and it will be our own fault. We have made bad national policy on domestic and global economics, on foreign involvement, and energy and we have done this for decades. Every time we get someone who gets it, we let the numb nuts convince us to vote them out of office. Then we regress and standstill for another 10 yrs. It's almost seems planned. Like there's some internal force working to keep us from realizing and acting on what's in our own best interest. No nation can continue to do what we are doing and stay number one in the world. The world will eventually catch up and pass us by. We seem to think if we don't invest in public education, fix our infrastructure, fund our regulatory agencies so they can keep up with advances in the industries they are suppose to regulate, that somehow by virtue of our just being American we will stay on top of the world. It's amazing. We allowed China into markets to decimate our domestic industry without any parameters to protect our home based businesses. No other nation did that. Then we enact tax policies to encourage major companies in those industries to move and hire offshore putting us into an unhealthy situation were every growth industry gets peeled off like an onion and shipped overseas as fast as we create them. The future growth industries never get off the ground while we reel from the onslaught the rest of the world is making great strides in developing those markets. We let politicians convince us that we can have a country of 300 million plus people with the taxes of nation the size of Monaco. That we should starve the gov't to make it smaller without making it more efficient. We should focus on what separates us and not what brings us together. Things have to change. We have to pay closer attention to the bills and laws being passed and stalled by our political system and we to ask ourselves when we look at a proposed bill, law or potential official is this bill, law or person good for the nation not just an individual or a segment of the population but will it/she/he do what's in the nation's best interest first? If you can't answer that question then you need to look deeper and maybe elsewhere.

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

"What's wrong with this picture?" The question is based on false premises: (1) "Today, with China a rising superpower, the candidates don't bring it up." and (2) "[O]ur presidential politics seem to be more inwardly focused than 50 years ago!" What nonsense. I don't know where Prof. Kelman has been these past few months, maybe hiking the Great Wall, but there has been no shortage of political commentary about China in the Republican debates, as a Google search will show. The professor should put down his The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the poetry of Li Bai, The Journey to the West, and The Thousand Character Essay and read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. As for our presidential politics being more inwardly focused than 50 years ago, the professor should check history and stop making overly broad generalizations. The theme of the Kennedy-Nixon debates was the threat of global communism and the "Cold War," which "threat" loomed large in everyone's minds in the 1960s. China then was under the control of Mao. The country was undergoing great economic expansion and was relatively prosperous, and no one was arguing about unemployment, contraception, immigration, abortion, and gay rights. "What's wrong with this picture?" The same thing that has always been wrong. For more insight into political themes, read Mencken, Notes on Democracy (1926), especially chapter 4, Politics Under A Democracy.

Mon, Feb 27, 2012 Steve

I don't disagree that relations with China are and will be important, but the United States has been exaggerating that importance for more than a century--at least since Adm. Dewey tried to open up Chinese ports for trade at the turn of the 20th century. For many years we have looked urgently to China as a huge market or a huge menace--and now it's both. U.S. politicians often exaggerate China's importance for their own political ends. Yes, let's pay attention, but let's keep things in perspective. History (and China) move at their own pace.

Mon, Feb 27, 2012 Dave

What is wrong with this picture is the loss of American identity. Kennedy and Nixon lived in a time when most American's believed that "we" were "better" than "them". We had to compete with China and Russia to ensure our prosperity, so that our system beat theirs. Collectively as a nation, we only care about Hellywood star, the next American idol, our favorite sports team, and the price of gasoline. We care about what's best for us, not what's best for America. Also, corporate America is doing the same thing...but since a corporation can cross international borders, they do not behave like citizens of any one country. They are elevated almost to a separate nation status...they don't want to be too much of an "American" company when there is so much money to be made around the world.

Sat, Feb 25, 2012 Mike Palumbo Ellicott City, MD

Great question Steve! Just one observation about our collective consciousness - it seems that in many things the people of the US are turned more inward - there's an increased sentiment of selfishness that often ignores the wider perspectiv...e of acting on behalf of the wider community both domestically and abroad. There are of course so many who dedicate their lives to helping others at home and in many foriegn lands. And when disasters strikes around the world Americans are quite generous and compassionate. However, on a day to day basis we seem so preoccupied with the sense of "falling behind" rather than noticing or appreciating how far ahead we really are - that we should be giving more not less - that we should be striving to lead the world to a more sustainable place - not arguing about whether global warming is even happening. And of course - just as when Kennedy spoke in 1960 - we still don't pay our teachers enough!!!

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