What is the history of the perception of the U.S. president – including as a global president – in the decolonized/ing world? At which junctures did that perception arise, shift, and assume contrasting if not conflicting forms? Who produced, consumed, spread, and contested it? And what does this theme tell us about globalization?
These are key questions underlying this conference which, for three reasons, will focus on the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Firstly, Kennedy (and his administration) was greatly interested in decolonized/ing countries, which he saw as central to a changing world. Described by Arthur Schlesinger as “Secretary of State for the third world” [A Thousand Days, 509], he unprecedentedly engaged also nonaligned countries, courted on the D.C. stage leaders of decolonized countries, and intensified public diplomacy and expanded polling worldwide. But simultaneously, he sought to not alienate European NATO allies that held colonies.
Related, secondly, the time around 1960 was a double turning point, making the Kennedy presidency particularly relevant for the opening paragraphs’ questions.
- Kennedy’s preoccupation with decolonized/ing countries – although predating his presidency, as shown e.g. by his 1951 world tour and his support, in 1957 as U.S senator, for Algerian independence – intensified from the late 1950s in reaction to the surge of decolonization. That surge created a loop effect: more people in the world had louder voices – which was taken more seriously and seen as more unified than before. US-Soviet competition now became well-rooted in what Washington and Moscow now, by around 1960, saw as a global arena.
- Kennedy was president when Marshall McLuhan, in 1962, argued that “the new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.” Indeed, Kennedy and his administration tried boosting his, and America’s, image through media techniques honed during the 1950s expansion of the U.S. ad industry. Kennedy, who won the presidency partly by being more youthful(-looking) on screen than Nixon, “master[ed] the art (or pseudo-art) of [the] image,” including his own – and viewed “aesthetic[s] … as integral to [America’s] cold war initiative” around the world [David Lubin, Shooting Kennedy, 139&133].
However, thirdly, very few of the thousands of texts penned on Kennedy have focused on his reception in decolonized/ing countries. This lacuna is doubly problematic because ‘regular’ people mattered, too. For instance, people from decolonized/ing countries, including Arabs, inundated his senatorial office with letters after his 1957 speech on Algeria; his 1962 visit to Mexico, as the first Catholic U.S. president, was followed especially in Latin America, also on TV; more books – both in praise and critique – were written on him during and just following his presidency than on earlier U.S. presidents; and in many countries people mourned his assassination.
As conference contributors write their empirically grounded papers, they may consider questions like:
- How did Kennedy’s youthful image and decolonized/ing countries’ own self-image as young nations (on which Kennedy played) matter?
- What about Kennedy’s Irish Catholic minority status (which made Norman Mailer in a 1957 article call him a “white negro”)?
- What about Kennedy’s claim that the USA was an older anti-colonial sister to the 20th-century anti-colonial movements?
- how was the complex reality of his meandering position, as president, toward decolonization perceived …
- … and (how) was that perception shaped by Kennedy’s image (projection), including his TV images?
- what are material and oral historical methods, in addition to studies based on archival sources and printed matter, to study these questions?