July 2, 1957 – Sen. John F Kennedy’s Controversial Speech: “Imperialism – The Enemy of Freedom”

John F Kennedy Speech

Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts

On July 2, 1957, John F Kennedy, the very junior United States senator from Massachusetts, upset almost everyone in the Washington, DC power elite – including his own Democratic party – with a speech to the assembled Senate on the folly of modern-day imperialism.  The immediate context for his speech, “Imperialism – The Enemy of Freedom,” was France’s ongoing repression of revolutionary forces in their colony of Algeria.  But Kennedy looked beyond North Africa to the Middle East and the Arab world.  How, he asked, could the United States best promote change and prevent Communism in this region?  Not with military force and a Cold War “us against them” mentality, he maintained.  He proposed that advocates for freedom in the Arab world would likely be as opposed to Western military interventions as to Communist takeovers.  He began his speech with the following statement:

“Mr. President, the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb not the guided missile – it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent.  The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called, for want of a more precise term, imperialism – and today that means Soviet imperialism and, whether we like it or not, and though they are not to be equated, Western imperialism.

“Thus the single most important test of American policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man’s desire to be free.   On this test more than any other, this Nation shall be ethically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa, and anxiously watched by the still hopeful lovers of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.  If we fail to meet the challenge of either Soviet or Western imperialism, then no amount of foreign aid, no aggrandizement of armaments, no new pacts or doctrines or high-level conferences can prevent further setbacks to our course and to our security.”

Kennedy pointed out that the Western nations’ stated policies of commitment to freedom clashed with our actions repressing Algerian desire for self-rule.  Our hypocritical stance, he believed, has “furnished powerful ammunition to anti-Western propagandists throughout Asia and the Middle East.”  He reminded the Senate of our nation’s revolutionary beginnings, and our dependence on French foreign aid to champion our cause with the British.  He contrasted terrorism and political revolution in this way:

” Terrorism must be combated, not condoned, it is said; it is not right to ‘negotiate with murderers’ . . . . The fever chart of every successful revolution . . . reveals a rising temperature of terrorism and counterterrorism; but this does not of itself invalidate the legitimate goals that fired the original revolution.  Most political revolutions – including our own – have been buoyed by outside aid in men, weapons, and ideas.  Instead of abandoning African nationalism to the anti-Western agitators and Soviet agents who hope to capture its leadership, the United States, a product of political revolution, must redouble its efforts to earn the respect and friendship of nationalist leaders.”

Negative reactions – furor and consternation – followed Kennedy’s speech, along with a flood of mail.  Widely covered by the press, this speech brought more mail to his Senate office than any other Kennedy delivered as a member of that body.  Historians see it as a key event on his road to the presidency.

Image Credit: The Boston Globe

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