Idealism and pragmatism in American foreign policy rhetoric: The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam
Presidential Studies Quarterly;
New York;
Summer 1994;
Denise Bostdorff (Purdue University),
Steven Goldzwig (Marquette University)
Volume: 24
Issue: 3
Start Page: 515

President Kennedy's rhetoric on the situation in Vietnam exemplifies the way in which presidents balance idealistic arguments, which apply principles of genus to public problem-solving, and pragmatic arguments, which emphasize the efficacy or practicality of politics. Kennedy legitimized his Vietnam policy through his idealistic appeals, casting himself as a principled leader, and deflected criticism and built an image of expertise through his pragmatic appeals.

Full Text:
Copyright Center for the Study of the Presidency Summer 1994

In 1951, Congressman John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts set out for an extensive fact-finding mission to the Middle and Far East. Upon his return, Kennedy reiterated his support of western efforts to defend freedom in both regions. He claimed that if the West did not act upon this ideal, especially in Southeast Asia, that the Chinese Communists would easily dominate these countries.(1) At the same time, however, the Congressman clearly disagreed with the methods the French employed. For Kennedy, France's anachronistic colonialist mentality had blinded it to the nationalistic aspirations of the native peoples of the region. In a radio address upon his return, the Congressman explained the complexities of Southeast Asia and warned that these complexities called for particular policies. Kennedy presciently observed:

The Indo-Chinese states are puppet states, French principalities with great resources but, as typical, examples of empire and colonialism as can be found anywhere. To check the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is, rather, to build strong native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a spearhead of defense. To do this, apart from and in defiance of, innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure.(2)
In the years that followed this speech, Kennedy claimed French and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia lacked practicality.(3) Nonetheless, he never failed to show support for the principle of freedom behind that policy. As he declared in 1956, "Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike."(4)

In many ways, this early rhetoric foreshadowed John Kennedy's presidential rhetoric on Vietnam. From 1961 to 1963, President Kennedy invoked idealistic terms to encourage Americans to view the conflict there as one small part of the larger struggle between freedom and communism. According to the President, the United States had to do whatever was necessary to defend Vietnam's freedom. Alternately, Kennedy explained that the situation in Vietnam was quite complicated and unique because of that nation's particular history, government, logistics, and legal relationship with the U.S. In view of these complexities, the President held that the United States must pragmatically pursue very special policies in order to fulfill its mission in Vietnam.

Kennedy's pragmatism, of course, is what many Americans remember. According to Philip Wander, for example, the President's foreign policy rhetoric exemplified "technocratic realism" because it focused upon complexities and expertise.(5) We argue, however, that Kennedy's Vietnam talk concerned itself with principles, as well as practicalities. Specifically, we claim that Kennedy characteristically alternated between idealistic discourse, which applies principles of genus to public problem-solving, and pragmatic discourse, which emphasizes the efficacy or practicality of policies.(6) By shifting ground between these two forms of argument, the President accrued rhetorical and political advantages for himself. Previous research has indicated that a mixture of idealism and pragmatism is key to successful American political rhetoric,(7) but no study has demonstrated how presidents balance these two appeals or the particular functions that these two types of appeals may serve. Through an analysis of Kennedy's Vietnam rhetoric, we hope to form some tentative answers to these questions.

Beyond our explication of idealism and pragmatism in foreign policy talk, our study has another purpose as well. In 1984, Ted Windt conducted a survey of existing research on presidential rhetoric and discovered that rhetorical scholars had paid almost no attention to John Kennedy's discourse, the President's legendary eloquence to the contrary.(8) Since that time, some progress has been made: Windt, Steve Goldzwig and George Dionisopoulos, Justin Gustainis, and Kevin Dean all have published studies that address Kennedy's discourse about topics as varied as the Berlin Wall and civil rights.(9) Nevertheless, no thorough treatment of Kennedy's Vietnam rhetoric yet exists. The present study is one small step in the correction of this oversight and is based upon an analysis of all of the President's public remarks about Vietnam, as recorded in Public Papers of the President.

In the pages that follow, we first discuss idealism and pragmatism in American political rhetoric and then turn our attention to how Kennedy invoked these modes of agument in his rhetoric on Vietnam and the functions these arguments served. Finally, we examine the implications of our analysis.

The American Persuasive Tradition: Idealism and Pragmatism

Throughout our nation's history, American rhetors have tended to rely upon two basic types of appeals: idealistic arguments and pragmatic arguments. Richard Weaver explains that idealistic arguments define a particular class of things in terms of the principles they hold in common, or, idealistic arguments may apply an already-established classification or genus to advance one course of action over another.(10) For example, a politician might define children as the key to future society and, based upon that definition, advocate government programs that would ensure adequate food, shelter, medical care, and education for children. Whether implicitly or explicitly, idealistic rhetoric emphasizes principles of definition and argues that auditors should comply with those principles.(11) Pragmatic discourse, on the other hand, consists of arguments from cause and effect or consequence.(12) According to Kenneth Burke, pragmatic rhetoric "evaluates a doctrine by its 'consequences,' by what it is 'good for,' by 'the difference it will make to you and me,' or by its 'function,' or by asking whether it 'works satisfactorily.'"(13) For instance, an advocate of Head Start might argue that the program has had positive consequences for low-income children's performance in the public schools and, therefore, should be continued. Another form of pragmatic argument would be exemplified in a rhetor's insistence that pre-school programs must involve parents if they are to be successful and, given this feasibility, that Head Start is an eminently desirable means by which to achieve educational goals. In sum, idealistic discourse deals with enduring principles or defined ideas, while pragmatic discourse concerns itself with practicalities.

Historically, idealism and pragmatism have both played key roles in political rhetoric. The ancient rhetorician Cicero, for example, observed that political speeches deal with expedience consistent with values, or "what is honourable and what is advantageous."(14) In American political discourse, the dual themes of idealism and pragmatism have been particularly important. Ernest Bormann explains that the Puritans may have originated the American rhetorical tradition of "romantic pragmatism." According to Bormann, the Puritans defined themselves as God's chosen people and urged one another to act in accordance with this transcendent principle. Yet, the Puritans also revealed a predilection for pragmatism when they looked to "the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas and proposals for criteria of judgment."(15) Rod Hart writes that the dual appeal of idealism and pragmatism in American society has continued into the present day, for American politicians typically have incorporated both types of argument.(16) Carroll Arnold goes so far as to assert that "successful public debates have been marked by an almost anti-philosophical mixture" of idealism, pragmatism, and--he adds--doctrinality. Arnold maintains that rhetors typically fail when they emphasize one of these themes too strenuously.(17) In American Diplomacy and the Pragmatic Tradition, Cecil Crabb, J., indicates that the balance between principles and pragmatism plays an especially central role in foreign policy rhetoric. Crabb asserts that American foreign policy is operationally pragmatic, but that leaders still must refer to ideals in order to legitimize their policies. He writes, "the exercise of power by the United States abroad must be related to some ostensible, worthwhile human purpose that is understood (or at least intuitively sensed) by the American people." Otherwise, Crabb warns, policy is unlikely to succeed.(18)

Indeed, Bostdorff's study of the Iranian hostage crisis argues that Carter impaired his ability to resolve the hostage situation in two ways. First, he publicly deemed the hostage seizure a "crisis" and heightened its significance further through dramatic events, such as leaving the White House Christmas tree unlit. Carter clearly could not have ignored the situation, but his use of a crisis terminology focused public attention upon the issue and made it more difficult to resolve by increasing the value of the hostages for their captors.(19) Second, and more pertinent to this study, the idealism of Carter's discourse constrained his issue management efforts, such that his goal became the safe release of the hostages--rather than an expedient close to the crisis--and that he eliminated many policy options because they were not in keeping with, what he claimed, "we the nation's" defining principles. If an overemphasis upon idealism can be deleterious, Bostdorff indicates that an overemphasis upon pragmatism might be equally problematic. She points out that during the Persian Gulf crisis, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker initially justified American involvement based upon practicalities such as oil and American jobs, but were attacked for their "cynical" explanations and then chose to balance their appeals to pragmatism and idealism more equitably.(20)

In previous research, scholars have noted that American political discourse--including foreign policy rhetoric--typically includes appeals to both idealism and pragmatism and that discourse which emphasizes one of these themes to the detriment of the other is unlikely to prove persuasive. Scholars have not, however, examined how presidents incorporate these two appeals, nor have they analyzed the particular functions that idealistic and pragmatic arguments may serve for a president. As a step toward answering these questions, we turn to the case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam.

Shifting Ground: Kennedy's Alternate Espousal of Idealistic and Pragmatic Arguments

In the realm of issues and public policy, definition is the key to persuasion. David Zarefsky explains, "to choose a definition is to plead a cause"; that is, an issue's definition sets up boundaries in which subsequent discussion of the issue takes place.(21) The definition of an issue as a "crisis," for example, has particular implications and encourages the urgent consideration of possibly extreme measures to bring the crisis to an end.(22) One type of definition, contextual definition or "definition by location," occurs when rhetors place an issue in a particular setting or scene. Burke explains the process this way:

To tell what a thing is, you place it in terms of something else. This idea of locating, or placing, is implicit in our very word for definition itself: to define, or determine a thing is to mark its boundaries, hence to use terms that possess, implicitly at least, contextual reference.(23)

Definition by location occurs, for example, when presidents tell us that events in other countries must be examined within the context of American interests Implicitly, we also seem to recognize definition by location in our observations that individuals have "grounded" their arguments, made "groundless" arguments, "held their ground," "lost ground," or "shifted ground."

In the case of Kennedy's Vietnam talk, we argue that the President alternately grounded his arguments in two different ways. First, Kennedy defined the Vietnam conflict in the idealistic terms of a worldwide struggle between countries which exemplified the principle of freedom and countries that exemplified the principle of Communism. Given the ideals at stake, he asserted that the United States must do whatever was necessary to ensure victory. Second, Kennedy located the Vietnam conflict within the complexities of Vietnam's history, government, logistics, and legal ties to the U.S. and explained how these complexities called for practical, expert policies. By shifting back and forth between idealistic and pragmatic arguments, the President gained persuasive advantages, but--as we will discuss later--his talk also may have laid the foundations for further U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Idealistic Argument: Staking the Moral High Ground

In his public talk, Kennedy often located Vietnam within the context of a much broader conflict of principles. The President told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, for instance, that South Vietnam was just one battleground in the larger struggle between freedom and communism. Kennedy argued that "we face a relentless struggle in every corner of the globe that goes far beyond the clash of armies or even nuclear armaments."(24) In a 1963 magazine article, he described nations as actors who personified the principle of freedom or the principle of communism. Kennedy wrote, "Two great forces--the world of communism and the world of free choice--have, in effect, made a 'bet' about the direction in which history is moving." South Vietnam, Laos, and other countries were "points of uncertainty [that] remain" and new nations, too, would have to "choose between two competing systems."(25) Similarly, the President discussed Vietnam in terms of the challenge free nations faced from what he classified as: "the Communist conspiracy"; "the communist tide"; "Communist efforts"; and "the Communist advance."(26) In a typically idealistic fashion, Kennedy defined nations in terms of the principles he claimed they held in common and then applied that genus to advance his policy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Kennedy's idealistic arguments elevated Vietnam from a civil conflict to a moral battle. Before Congress, for instance, the President moralistically intoned, "Freedom, all freedom, is threatened by the subtle, varied, and unceasing Communist efforts at subversion in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia."(27) Kennedy's idealistic appeals heightened the significance of U.S. efforts in Vietnam and urged Americans to support the defense of its most cherished principle. In a public speech in New Orleans, he told citizens that the United States must "bear the burden... of helping freedom defend itself" in Vietnam.(28) Likewise, the President addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and urged its members to "join free men in standing up to their responsibilities."(29) Given this moral imperative, he insisted that the United States assist South Vietnam "in every way we properly can" in order to preserve that nation's independence and thus to defend freedom as a whole.(30) Ironically, "freedom" in Kennedy's idealistic appeals left the United States with no choice but to assist South Vietnam through any means possible. In the moral battle between the principles of freedom and communism in Vietnam, Kennedy argued that the United States "will do whatever must be done to provide for... success."(31)

Kennedy also employed idealistic discourse about Vietnam at two other historic points in his presidency. In his news conference on the steel crisis, the President contrasted the Americans who made sacrifices in Vietnam to fulfill our nation's responsibilities there with steel executives "whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility."(32) The unfavorable comparison classified citizens into one of two categories: those who lived up to valued societal principles and those who did not. In this way, Kennedy's words lent credence to his version of the steel controversy and, simultaneously, accentuated the importance of the American mission in Vietnam. In his famous June 11, 1963, civil rights speech, the President also made a strategic reference to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia:

Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Viet-Nam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.(33)
Kennedy restated the nation's moral commitment to preserve freedom and emphasized that blacks, as well as whites, had made sacrifices to fulfill that responsibility. By definition, he argued, blacks were American citizens who carried out their responsibilities and therefore they were entitled to concomitant rights. Again, Kennedy used Vietnam to justify a particular policy; once again, he used idealistic arguments to underscore the importance of U.S. assistance to Vietnam.

The President's morally-grounded idealistic rhetoric provided him with definite advantages. First, Kennedy's arguments made him sound tough and allowed him to satisfy those who desired a hardline stance against communism in Southeast Asia. No doubt this image-building function was particularly important after the President's early foreign policy controversies: his allegedly weak performance with Khrushchev at Vienna, the defeat at the Bay of Pigs, and the construction of the Berlin Wall.(34) Kennedy's idealistic appeals allowed him to locate Vietnam as another testing point in the freedom-versus-communism struggle; in addition, his words implied that he was a man of principle who would do whatever was needed to win. In this sense, the President's talk also served to warn the "enemy" of our--and his--commitment As Kennedy reportedly told James Reston, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place."(35)

The second advantage of the President's idealistic arguments was that he could use them to rally support for his policies. When Congress threatened to reduce foreign aid, Kennedy declared:

Now, we have been able to hold this line against this internal subversion by the Communists, as well as the external threat of military invasion, because for many years the United States has assisted these countries in meeting their own problems. We are assisting the people of Viet-Nam. We are assisting countries in Latin America which are faced with staggering problems. If we stop helping them, they will become ripe for internal subversion and a Communist takeover.(36)
As the President framed it, foreign aid was an all-or-nothing proposition because of the principles at stake. Congress either could provide all of the aid Kennedy desired, or it would have to take responsibility for the victory of communism and defeat of freedom in the affected nations.(37) According to Kennedy, representatives and senators had to make policy decisions in light of the larger moral consequences that would stem from those policies. As he commented before the Economic Club of New York in 1962, "Viet-Nam would collapse instantaneously if it were not for United States assistance."(38) Kennedy's idealistic arguments about Vietnam defined the conflict as a battle of principles and urged citizens either to commit themselves to an all-out effort or to prepare themselves for a communist victory there that would harm the cause of freedom around the world.

Although Kennedy widely is recalled as a cool, pragmatic rhetor, Hart argues that Kennedy often grew heated when speaking about communism.(39) The President's Vietnam rhetoric reveals this predilection. In his public discourse, Kennedy discussed Vietnam in terms of the widest possible circumference: the worldwide struggle between the principles of freedom and communism. His idealistic arguments portrayed him as a man of principle and charged the United States with the urgent moral duty to assist Vietnam through whatever means were necessary. In sum, the President's idealistic arguments located the battle in the realm of morals, and Kennedy used this issue definition to justify further American involvement in Southeast Asia.

This was not the only way in which he talked about Vietnam, though. On the contrary, Kennedy tended to draw upon idealistic arguments in speeches that asked the general public and/or Congress to support his administration's policies. In other situations, most notably when he answered policy questions from journalists, he shifted to pragmatic arguments.

Pragmatic Argument: Staking the Practical Ground

From the first few months of Camelot to the very end, Kennedy's talk frequently located the Vietnam conflict within the seemingly narrower circumference of that country's own uniqueness, rather than within the broader scope of the worldwide struggle against communism. Specifically, the President's pragmatic arguments encouraged Americans to view Vietnam in terms of its history, government, logistics, and legal relationship to the United States. While Kennedy's pragmatic rhetoric implied that the nation's goal was still to protect South Vietnam and to promote our mutual freedom, this end was overshadowed by Kennedy's emphasis upon means. He cautioned that the policy the United States followed to defend South Vietnam had to be well-suited for and adapted to that country's complex realities. For example, the President publicly commented to visitors from Latin American air forces, "the paramilitary or guerrilla struggle, the kind we are seeing in South Vietnam...requires sophisticated techniques to meet it."(40) Accordingly, in interviews and news conferences, he stressed the special types of "training," "transportation," "extensive economic assistance," "equipment," and "advisers" that the United States was providing to South Vietnam, although he rarely provided details about what these encompassed.(41) The President also hailed the policy of counter-insurgency, to be carried out by the Green Berets, as a means carefully crafted to meet the special exigencies of Southeast Asia.(42) When a reporter asked why U.S. policy in Vietnam was different than U.S. policy in Laos, Kennedy replied that "we have adopted what we considered to be, considering the geography, the history, the nature of the threat and the alternate solutions--we have adopted for each country what we regarded as the best strategy."(43) The President's rhetoric insisted, then, that U.S. policy had to fulfill our commitment to freedom and be "practical" at the same time. Moreover, Kennedy shifted back and forth between idealistic arguments and pragmatic arguments about Vietnam throughout his presidency.

As with his idealistic discourse, Kennedy also accused particular advantages when he discussed Vietnam in practical terms. The President argued that only policies crafted by experts would have the positive consequences desired. Through his rhetorical reliance upon "experts" and the intricacies of "national security," Wander points out that Kennedy obfuscated U.S. policy and policy progress which, in turn, helped deflect public discussion and criticism about such matters.(44) As early as May of 1961, for instance, Kennedy announced that Vice President Lyndon Johnson would go on "a special fact-finding mission to Asia" and that "technicians" would accompany him. When a reporter then asked whether the President was about to send troops to Vietnam, Kennedy responded that a decision on troops would have to wait until Johnson had consulted with the South Vietnamese government.(45) The President implied that decisions on Vietnam must be informed by expert information if they were to have a practical chance of success. As so often happens in politics, the President dispatched his envoy, but never discussed Johnson's return publicly nor what information had been gathered.

In October of 1961, Kennedy again announced that he would send a representative to Saigon, this time General Maxwell Taylor, to "discuss with the President [Diem] and American officials on the spot ways in which we can perhaps better assist the Government of Viet-Nam in meeting this threat to its independence." The President also deferred public discussion of possible troop deployment until Taylor's return.(46) Once Taylor completed his tour, however, Kennedy told reporters that "General Taylor's findings will need review not only in this Government but discussion with the Government of South Viet-Nam, and at this stage I have no public announcement to make."(47)

Two years later, in 1963, Kennedy still had not made a definitive public statement on Vietnam when be appointed a former adversary, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, as ambassador to Saigon. At a press conference shortly after this appointment, the President refused to answer a question about President Diem's ability to reform the South Vietnamese government as long as Ngo Dinh Nhu remained his adviser. Said Kennedy, "I would think that sort of matter really should be discussed by the Ambassador--Ambassador Lodge--and others. I don't see that we serve any useful purpose in engaging in that kind of discussion at this time."(48) Pragmatically speaking, Kennedy emphasized that expertise was needed to craft Vietnam policies that would work. He further insinuated that only experts could make the decisions needed about U.S. policy in Vietnam and that non-experts need not be involved.

In addition, Kennedy insisted that national security practically prohibited public discussion of American foreign policy. He told reporters, for instance, that "there is a good deal of danger and it's a matter of information. We don't want to have information [publicly discussed] which is of assistance to the enemy."(49) As Wander explains this line of reasoning, "Ordinary people, it is assumed, are not equipped to grasp the demands made on American foreign policy, to deliberate issues about which most of the information, for reasons of national security, cannot be made available, or to understand the technical instruments used to select, process, and interpret the data relevant in the formation of government policy."(50) Kennedy's rhetoric allowed him to keep the public in the dark about what his administration was or was not doing in Vietnam. Indeed, his discourse encouraged others to consider secrecy a perfectly acceptable White House mode of operation, a legacy that remains to this day.

On those occasions when journalists quizzed the President insistently about the apparent lack of success in Vietnam, Kennedy again used pragmatic argument, this time to justify the slow progress of U.S. policies there.(51) He told reporters, for example, that sometimes U.S. objectives were difficult to carry out because South Vietnam "had not many skilled administrators when it got its independence in '54, and it had been at war for really, in a sense, with the Japanese occupation and the war with the French, for almost 15 years before that, so that it's a very difficult assignment."(52) Americans had to understand the South Vietnamese conflict and the slow progress towards its resolution in terms of that nation's troubled history. Similarly, Kennedy justified the seeming lack of influence the United States had over Cambodia, Thailand, and South Vietnam when he placed this problem within the narrower context of these nations' unique backgrounds and interests. The President explained,

we can't expect these countries to do every thing the way we want to do them. They have their own interest, their own personalities, their own tradition. We can't make everyone want to go in our image. In addition, we have ancient struggles between countries....We can't make the world over, but we can influence the world.(53)
Another complication that the U.S. had to account for, Kennedy argued, was the rough terrain of Vietnam. During a news conference late in 1962, Kennedy emphasized that "There is great difficulty in fighting a guerrilla war. You need 10 to 1, or 11 to 1 [soldier ratio], especially in terrain as difficult as South Vietnam."(54) When Buddhist protests against the Saigon government began in June of 1963, Kennedy explained that our nation's purpose still was to preserve South Vietnam's freedom, but that the U.S. also had to deal with the Saigon government to fulfill that commitment. According to the President, the complexity of coordination with Ngo Dinh Diem's government "exposes us to some criticism. We are using our influence to persuade the government there to take those steps which will win back support [of South Vietnamese citizens]. That takes time and we must be patient, we must persist."(55) Kennedy claimed that U.S. objectives in Vietnam remained the same, but pragmatically maintained that the complexities of the conflict there required that the U.S. embrace particular methods. These methods were often painstakingly slow, but remained the only way to fulfill U.S. goals.

Lastly, the President used pragmatic rhetoric to deflect questions about policy matters through a painfully complex recitation of details about Vietnam which, in turn, served to build his image as a knowledgeable leader. By the time Kennedy had finished his "answer," one could pardon his auditors if they had forgotten what the question had been in the first place; at the same time, the President's apparent knowledge seemed to impress his listeners and to portray him as extremely competent. For instance, a reporter told Kennedy that a Republican National Committee publication "has said that you have been less than candid with the American people as to how deeply we are involved in Viet-Nam." The journalist then asked, "Could you throw any more light on that" In response, Kennedy ponderously explained:

Yes, as you know, the United States for more than a decade has been assisting the government, the people of Viet-Nam, to maintain their independence. Way back in December 23, 1950, we signed a military assistance agreement with France and with Indochina which at that time included Viet-Nam, Laos, and Cambodia. We also signed in December of 1951 an agreement directly with Viet-Nam.

Now, in 1954, the Geneva agreements were signed and while we did not sign those agreements nevertheless Under Secretary Bedell Smith stated that he would view any renewal of the aggression in Viet-Nam in violation of the aforesaid agreements with grave concern, and as seriously threatening international peace and security. And at the time that the SEATO Pact was signed in 1954, September 8, though Viet-Nam was not a signatory it was a protocol state, and therefore this pact, which was approved by the Senate with only, I think, two against it, under article 4 stated that the United States recognized that aggression by means of armed attack against Viet-Nam would threaten our own peace and security. So since that time the United States has been assisting the Government of Viet-Nam to maintain its independence. It has had a military training mission there and it's also given economic assistance.(58)

This quotation represents less than half of Kennedy's historical and legal "lesson" in this instance, but it demonstrates all too well how the President's recitation of complex facts and figures masked his evasion of the reporter's question. Kennedy ended his response with the observation that he had discussed Vietnam with the Republican leadership and his belief that both political parties "should really attempt to leave these matters to be discussed by responsible leaders on both sides."(57) The President certainly was neither the first nor the last politician to wiggle out of answering a question, but this example illustrates how Kennedy's emphasis upon practical details aided him in the endeavor and also portrayed him as a highly knowledgeable, competent leader.

Kennedy's pragmatic arguments about Vietnam typified the cool, detached rhetoric that so many people associate with his presidency. In his computer-based analysis of presidential discourse, Hart found that Kennedy's take typically displayed "a caution borne of political loins."(58) Certainly, the President's pragmatic focus upon the complexities of Vietnam exemplified such characteristic caution. Kennedy's talk allowed him to legitimize vagueness and secrecy in discussing governmental policy, to justify slow progress, and to polish his public image. As noted earlier, however, pragmatic arguments were not the only ones employed in Kennedy's discourse; idealistic arguments also played a major role. To comprehend the President's Vietnam rhetoric more fully, one has to understand both types of arguments and the way in which Kennedy intertwined them.

The Rhetorical "Lessons" of Kennedy's Vietnam Rhetoric

A close examination of Kennedy's Vietnam rhetoric reveals that he did not start with one type of argument and then end with the other. Instead, the President sometimes idealistically cast the Vietnam conflict as one small part of the larger Cold War and insisted that the U.S. must defend freedom there through any means possible. At other times, Kennedy used pragmatic arguments to locate Vietnam within its own historical, governmental, logistical, and legal complexities. The goal was still the defense of freedom in Vietnam, but the President emphasized the expert policies that would be needed to accomplish this end, rather than the end itself.

Individuals as disparate as Walt Rostow, who headed Kennedy's State Department Policy Planning Council, and Richard J. Walton, a scholar of politics and Kennedy revisionist, have claimed that Kennedy would have escalated in Vietnam as Johnson did. Others--such as Kennedy's Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman, and presidential aides Kenny O'Donnell and Dave Powers--maintain that the President would have avoided further involvement. Much of the controversy has rested upon the conflict between Kennedy's public words in support of American involvement and his private words of doubt. . . . We argue that public words can take on a life of their own and make policy reversals extremely difficult to undertake.

Through the alternate use of these two arguments, Kennedy provided himself with rich rhetorical resources. The President employed idealistic arguments, which invoked the principle of freedom, to define Vietnam as a moral conflict of great importance and to portray himself as a moral leader. These appeals appeared most often in his public speeches. In contrast, the President tended to withdraw to the safety of pragmatic argument in response to journalists' questions about policy specifics during press conferences and interviews. Through his use of pragmatic argument, Kennedy found a rhetorical means to deter policy criticism and to depict himself as a competent, knowledgeable commander-in-chief; his method was to explain the practicalities behind the fairly new and unique challenge of conducting "limited wars." This is not to say, of course, that the President employed purely idealistic arguments on some occasions and purely pragmatic arguments on others, but that each of these types of arguments tended to predominate in particular rhetorical contexts. Kennedy stressed ideals in his public speeches, but ideals also were present in his statements during interviews and news conferences. Likewise, the President may have emphasized pragmatics to reporters, but citizens also were exposed to his professed need for practicality through both his addresses and the news coverage that his press conferences and interviews received. The net result was a balance between idealism and pragmatism in his overall public discourse about Vietnam. In the short-term, Kennedy's alternate espousal of idealistic and pragmatic arguments proved politically expedient. The United States' mission--the defense of freedom--remained constant in each argument; hence, the President was able to shift ground in his discourse without drawing excessive attention to the fact that he was doing so. This case study demonstrates, we believe, how presidents characteristically balance appeals to ideals with appeals to pragmatics in their foreign policy rhetoric.

Despite the advantages Kennedy accrued, his discourse also indicates that the intertwining of idealistic and pragmatic arguments--however artfully done--does not provide an infallible rhetorical refuge. The particular way in which Kennedy alternated idealistic arguments with pragmatic arguments built a linguistic structure fraught with long-term rhetorical peril. Through his idealistic arguments, the President made U.S. commitment to the defense of freedom an absolute imperative. His references to Vietnam in highly emotional contexts, such as the steel and civil rights crises, heightened the importance of the American mission in Southeast Asia, so too his public remarks on the importance of foreign aid and, eventually, the great sacrifice of soldiers who had died in Vietnam.(59) Even if Kennedy had lived, we imagine that the President would have found it very hard to back down from such bold declarations of principle once he had made them so repeatedly during his first three years in office.(60)

Since military success proved elusive in Vietnam, Kennedy's pragmatic arguments posed long-range problems. In his pragmatic discourse, the President claimed that due to Vietnam's complexities, only particular policies could practically fulfill U.S. goals in the region. If Kennedy's policies did not achieve success, audiences might reason, then he obviously had not yet found the "right" means to defend freedom in Vietnam and would, by this logic, be duty-bound by principle to try different policies, perhaps those that involved additional soldiers, equipment, and so on. Pragmatic rhetoric encompasses not only arguments in favor of a policy because of the consequences that it will have, but also arguments that justify a policy because of the consequences that it has had. In the case of Kennedy, he skillfully emphasized the complexities of Vietnam to appeal for "expert" policies that would have positive effects and to justify the sluggish progress of those policies. Eventually, though, citizens would have wanted to see signs of success. Since Kennedy had declared that the U.S. must fulfill its purpose in Vietnam, citizens might have concluded that the only alternative was a more involved policy.

The problems that Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, faced provide powerful evidence of the difficulties that may have lain before Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Johnson deepened U.S. involvement in Vietnam; like Kennedy, he alternated between arguments that claimed we should defend the principle of freedom (idealism) and arguments that relied upon "facts" and the practicalities of U.S. policy (pragmatism). Unlike his predecessor, though, Johnson committed U.S. ground troops to Vietnam on a large scale and had to cope, in Kathleen Turner's terms, with "the rhetorical hazards of a wartime situation--a perceived drain on the nation's resources, the loss of young lives," and without the rhetorical advantages that clear-cut victories bring.(61) Once Vietnam had been defined idealistically as a place where the U.S. must win by any means necessary, pragmatic arguments could serve to mask setbacks and to legitimize slow progress, but they could not deflect such questions indefinitely. A balance between ideas and pragmatics is essential for persuasive success, but presidents still must frame issues with care, for to define an issue in idealistic terms is to give that issue a great deal of significance and to raise expectations that may go unmet. This can expose a president to political criticism for not devoting enough time and resources to that issue or for failing to find an equitable solution. Pragmatic arguments that attempt to justify slow progress by pointing to the complexities of a situation may, in this context, simply add to citizen frustration.

We can never know what further actions John Kennedy might have taken in regard to Vietnam had he lived.(62) Nonetheless, the President's public talk stands as testimony of the troubling direction in which he (and with him, the nation) was headed. In his last public remarks at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, the President intoned moralistically about how the Vietnam conflict had to be viewed within the context of the larger battle between communism and freedom.(63) His prepared remarks for the Dallas Trade Mart reveal that he had planned to discuss the practical complexities of military and economic policies in Vietnam and also to warn that a reduction in U.S. assistance would "only encourage Communist penetration." At one point in the undelivered text, Kennedy insisted, "we dare not weary of the task."(64) The President idealistically invoked "freedom" as a rationale for support of the regime in South Vietnam and ever-deepening U.S. involvement there and, simultaneously, cast himself as a leader of principle. When he relied upon pragmatism to provide public "facts" about Vietnam, Kennedy obfuscated policy details and promoted the image of expertise. His pragmatic arguments also fostered the notion that one can discuss political events in a practical, dispassionate way and that foreign policy matters should be left to the experts. As the rhetoric of war protestors later would attest, not all Americans agreed with such a premise when it came to the evaluation of the United States' Vietnam policy. Tragically, had the President survived the assassin's bullet, he may have gone down the same road that later diverted Lyndon Johnson. His delicate balancing of idealistic and pragmatic arguments provided him with short-term persuasive success, but it likely would have faltered in the face of long-term U.S. escalation and policy stagnation. In many ways, Kennedy's rhetoric well may have paved the way to the Vietnam War and America's internal conflict over U.S. involvement there.(65)


1. Untitled Speech on Far East Trip, n.d., Speech File, 1946-1952, Pre-Presidential Papers: Box 96, John F. Kennedy Library.

2. "Advance Copy Report on His Trip to the Far East by the Hon. John F. Kennedy, Rep. 11th District of Massachusetts Over Mutual Broadcast Network From Station WOR, New York, New York," 15 Nov. 1951, Boston Office speech files, 8/16/47-11/51, Pre-Presidential Papers: Box 95, John F. Kennedy Library.

3. Untitled Speech on Far East Trip, n.d., Speech File, 1946-1952, Pre-Presidential Papers: Box 96, John F. Kennedy Library; "The War in Indochina," Congressional Record 6 April 1954, 4673; John Galloway, ed., The Kennedys and Vietnam (New York: Facts on File, 1971) ;7-9

4. Wesley R. Fishel, ed., Vietnam: Anatomy of a Conflict (Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1968) 144.

5. Philip Wander, "The Rhetoric of American Foreign Policy," Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 347-350. Wander emphatically states that his essay is a critique of American foreign policy rhetoric, a goal he fulfills quite admirably, rather than a theoretical statement or historical study of how presidents talk (341). If we were to situate Wander's critique within the parameters of our own rhetorical analysis, we would describe what he calls "technocratic realism" as a variant of pragmatic argument.

6. We concern ourselves here with rhetorical idealism and pragmatism, rather than these philosophies per se. Readers may refer to the following for information about the philosophies of idealism and pragmatism in the United States: Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Josiah Joyce, ed. John K. Roth (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971); Contemporary Idealism in America, ed. Clifford Barrett (1932; New York: Russell and Russell, 1964); William James, Pragmatism (1955; Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1967); John Dewey, Philosophy and Civilization (New York: Minton, Balch, 1931); John Dewey, Theory of Valuation (1939; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1950).

7. See: Roderick P. Hart, "The Functions of Human Communication in the Maintenance of Public Values," Handbook of Rhetorical and Communication Theory, eds. Carroll C. Arnold and John Waite Bowers (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1984) 759; Carroll C. Arnold, "Reflections on American Public Discourse," Central Slates Speech Journal 28 (1977): 74, 73; Cecil V. Crabb, Jr., American Diplomacy and the Pragmatic Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989) 183; Denise M. Bostdorff, "Idealism Held Hostage: Jimmy Carter's Rhetoric on the Crisis in Iran," Communication Studies, in-press.

8. Theodore Otto Windt, Jr., "Presidential Rhetoric: Definition of a Field of Study," Central States Speech Journal 35 (1984): 29.

9. Theodore Otto Windt, Jr., Presidents and Protestors: Political Rhetoric in the 1960s (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1990); Steven R. Goldzwig and George N. Dionisopoulos, John F. Kennedy's Civil Rights Discourse: The Evolution From 'Principled Bystander' to Public Advocate," Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 179-198; Justin Gustainis, "John F. Kennedy and the Green Berets: The Rhetoric Use of the Hero Myth," Communication Studies 40 (1989): 41-53; Kevin W. Dean, "We Seek Peace-But We Shall Not Surrender': JFK's Use of Juxtaposition for Rhetorical Success in the Berlin Crisis," Presidential Studies Quarterly 21 (1991): 531-544. In addition, Murphy published an essay that examines how the Kennedy administration as a whole attempted to domesticate the dissent of the Freedom Rider. See: John M. Murphy, "Domesticating Dissent: The Kennedys and the Freedom Rides," Communication Monographs 59 (1992): 61-78.

10. Richard M. Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company 1953) 56: Richard M. Weaver, "Language Is Sermonic," 212-213, and Richard L. Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks, "Richard M. Weaver on the Nature of Rhetoric: An Interpretation," 21-22, both in Language Is Sermonic, eds. Richard L. Johannesen, Rennard Strickland, and Ralph T. Eubanks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1970).

11. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (1945; Berkeley: U of California P, 1969) 171.

12. Weaver, "Language Is Sermonic," 209.

13. Burke, 277, 2;r6.

14. Cicero, De Oratore, trans. E. W. Sutton, rev. ed. (London: William Heinemann, 1959): 2.4, 12.

15. Ernest G. Bormann, The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985), 18-19, 44-52.

16. Hart, "Functions of Human Communication" 759.

17. Arnold 74, 73.

18. Crabb 183.

19. Bostdorff, "Idealism Held Hostage." For more on how Carter's rhetoric about the hostages made the issue more difficult to resolve, see: Gerard A. Hauser, "Administrative Rhetoric and Public Opinion: Discussing the Iranian Hostages in the Public Sphere," American Rhetoric Context and Criticism, ed., Thomas W. Benson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989) 332-334.

20. Bostdorff, "Idealism Held Hostage."

21. David Zarefsky, President Johnson's War on Poverty (University: U of Alabama P, 1986) 8; Richard E. Crable and Steven L. Vibbert, "Managing Issues and Influencing Public Policy," Public Relations Review 11(1985): 6.

22. Denise M. Bostdorff, "The Presidency and Promoted Crisis: Reagan, Grenada, and Issue Management," Presidential Studies Quarterly 21 (1991): 737-750.

23. Burke, 26, 29, 24.

24. Address Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 20 April 1961, Public Papers of the Presidents: 305-306. (Hereafter Public Papers of the Presidents will be cited as PPP).

25. Magazine Article "Where We Stand," 15 Jan. 1963, PPP 20; also see: Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union, 14 Jan. 1963, PPP: 18.

26. Address in Chicago at a Dinner of the Democratic Party of Cook County, 28 April 1961, PPP: 341; Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, 25 May 1961, PPP: 400; Statement by the President on Foreign Aid, 19 Sept. 1962, PPP: 690; Special Message to the Congress on Free World Defense and Assistance Programs, 2 April 1963, PPP: 295; Remarks at the Breakfast of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, 22 Nov. 1963, PPP: 889.

27. Special Message to the Congress on Free World Defense and Assistance Programs, 2 April 1963; PPP: 295. In her cluster-Agon study of Kennedy's rhetoric, Berthold found that "Communism, as one of Kennedy's most frequently used devil terms, is freedom's most frequent opponent in his speeches." Carol A. Berthold, "Kenneth Burke's Cluster-Agon Method: Its Development and an Application," Central States Speech Journal 27 (1976): 306.

28. Address in New Orleans at the Opening of the New Dockside Terminal, 4 May 1962, PPP: 360.

29. Address in New York City Before the General Assembly of the United Nations, 25 Sept. 1961, PPP: 626.

30. The President's News Conference, 7 Feb. 1962, PPP: 122.

31. The President's Special News Conference With Business Editors and Publishers, 26 Sept. 1962, PPP: 715

32. Opening Statement at the President's News Conference, 11 April 1962, PPP: 315-316.

33. Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights, 11 June 1963, PPP: 468.

34. Barton J. Bernstein, "Courage and Commitment: The Missiles of October," Foreign Service Journal Dec. 1975: 11; I. F. Stone, In a Time of Torment (New York: Random House, 1967) 19. Such information also is discussed in the numerous memoirs about Kennedy.

35. Quoted in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 247. A slight variation on his quotation is: "now we have a problem in making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place." John Hellmann, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: Columbia UP, 1986) 50-51.

36. Broadcast Remarks on Trade and Foreign Aid, 23 Sept. 1963, PPP: 703.

37. See, for example: Statement by the President on Foreign Aid, 19 Sept. 1962, PPP: 689, 690.

38. Address and Question and Answer Period at the Economic Club of New York, 14 Dec. 1962, PPP: 886.

39. Roderick P. Hart, Verbal Style and the Presidency: A Computer-Based Analysis (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984) 107.

40. Remarks to Visiting Chiefs of Staff of Latin American Air Forces, 8 May 1963, PPP: 371.

41. See, for example: The President's News Conference, 7 Feb. 1962, PPP: 122; The President's News Conference, 14 Feb. 1962, PPP: 137; Transcript of Broadcast With Walter Cronkite Inaugurating a CBS Television News Program, 2 Sept. 1963, PPP: 652.

42. See Gustainis 41-53

43. The President's News Conference, 8 May 1963, PPP: 375.

44. This characteristic is shared with Wander's technocratic realism. See: Wander 350.

45. The President's News Conference, 5 May 1961, PPP: 354, 356,

46. The President's News Conference, 11 Oct. 1961, PPP: 660.

47. The President's News Conference, 8 Nov. 1961, PPP: 701.

48. The President's News Conference, 12 Sept. 1963, PPP: 674.

49. The President's News Conference, 7 Feb. 1962, PPP: 122.

50. Wander 350.

51. Wander makes a similar observation in regard to technocratic realism which, he claims, allows politicians to "justify a more moderate course of an action than would otherwise be the case when confronting Evil" (350).

52. The President's News Conference, 21 Feb. 1962, PPP: 155.

53. Transcript of Broadcast on NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report," 9 Sept. 1963, PPP: 659-650

54. The President's News Conference, 12 Dec. 1962, PPP: 870.

55. Transcript of Broadcast on NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report," 9 Sept. 1963, PPP: 659.

56. The President's News Conference, 14 Feb. 1962, PPP: 136-137.

57. The President's News Conference, 14 Feb. 1962, PPP: 137.

58. Hart, Verbal Style 105. According to Hart, there is "one important exception to John Kennedy's general caution." Hart found that when Kennedy spoke on matters of value, particularly communism, that his discourse became more certain and more embellished (101-108). Our analysis corroborates Hart's findings.

59. Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union, 14 Jan. 1963, PPP: 19; Remarks at a Reception Honoring Medal of Honor Recipients, 2 May 1963, PPP: 363.

60. This analysis of the President's Vietnam talk may shed light on why Kennedy remains so popular among present-day "neo-Liberal" politicians such as Gary Hart. According to Weiler, neo-Liberalism means "a pragmatic sense of balance between absolute principle in a given case and overall effectiveness regarding a broad range of issues." See: Michael Weiler, "The Rhetoric of Neo-Liberalism," Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 369, 371-372.

61. Kathleen J. Turner, Lyndon Johnson's Dual War: Vietnam and the Press (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985) 4.

62. Individuals as disparate as Walt Rostow, who headed Kennedy's State Department Policy Planning Council, and Richard J. Walton, a scholar of politics and Kennedy revisionist, have claimed that Kennedy would have escalated in Vietnam as Johnson did. Others--such as Kennedy's Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman, and presidential aides Kenny O'Donnell and Dave Powers--maintain that the President would have avoided further involvement. Much of the controversy has rested upon the conflict between Kennedy's public words in support of American involvement and his private words of doubt. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy refrained from public discussions of withdrawal for fear of undermining the Saigon government. Schlesinger indicates, though, that he, too, believes Kennedy would not have committed the U.S. more deeply to South Vietnam had he lived. See: Richard J. Walton, Cold War and Counterrevolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy (New York: Viking Preps, 1972) 201; Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (New York: Pocket Books, 1973) 444; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "What Would He Have Done?" The New York Times Book Review 29 Mar. 1992: 3, 31; John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power (New York: Warner, 1992). We argue that public words can take on a life of their own and make policy reversals extremely difficult to undertake.

63. Remarks at the Breakfast of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, 22 Nov. 1963, PPP: 889.

64. Remarks Prepared for Delivery at the Trade Mart in Dallas, 22 Nov. 1963, PPP: 892-893.

65. According to Walton, "When Kennedy took office there were only about 600 advisers in Vietnam. At the time of his death there were some 25,000 Americans there, many of them actively engaged in combat, about 50 already dead" (201).

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