do not mention the war

The Soft American: John F. Kennedy on Sports

In Cold War on November 27, 2015 at 10:00

A rare find in a Parisian book store: Sport and Society. An Anthology, a work edited by Charles H. Page and John T. Tahamini and published in 1973. This collection contains 33 essays by scholars and journalists and also by a former US-President, John F. Kennedy. The latter’s essay is the focus of this post.

The Soft American is an essay written by Kennedy for Sports Illustrated in December 1960, shortly after being elected as president. His lament was that American youth were in danger of becoming soft, i.e. unsporting citizens. This is of course nothing negative, at the end of the day healthy people tend to be more productive and generally are happier. However, Kennedy argues solely from the perspective of the Cold War. No surprise as this conflict reached its climax during his presidency. Not one does Kennedy mention sports as a recreational pastime although he himself was a keen sportsman engaging in swimming, sailing and other activities.

Kennedy, in this article, has argued in the same manner as many British historians have before him, that the fate of the nation will be made on the playing fields of Harvard and Yale. He pleaded ‘not to forget that the well-being of the citizen is an important foundation of the vigor and vitality of all activities of the nation and it is as old as Western civilization itself.’ Though he warned that ‘it is knowledge which today, in America, we are in danger of forgetting’.

The decline of which he spoke became apparent in the early stages of the Korean War. A nation’s prowess was measured by how the Youth fares in conflict. Given that America has continuously engaged in war or armed conflict since 1945 are we thus in a position to draw any conclusions on the physical health of American youngsters? No! Both spheres have nothing to do with each other. In fact they are diametrically opposed as both have different objectives. One is destined to keep people healthy and fit, the other sphere prepares for the battle of the survival of the fittest in armed conflicts.

The recently elected John F. Kennedy concerned himself mainly with the decline of physical activities and the lack of security that is linked with it, in his view. He indicated ‘imperial aspirations’ of the United States when he spoke of ‘an expanding America’. In this respect he was right in his prophecy as America is now everywhere; though the hope he expressed ‘that Americans will never again have to expend their strength in armed conflict’ has become futile as America were and are involved in many armed conflicts to varying degrees. Even then this was wishful thinking.

Not enough in lamenting the increasing decline and the resulting softness, Kennedy also mentioned the prime suspect the young Americans would have to face: the Soviet Union, which for Kennedy was

‘a powerful and implacable adversary determined to show the world that only the communist system possesses the vigor and determination necessary to satisfy awakening aspirations for progress and the elimination of poverty and want Only if our citizens are physically fit will they be fully capable of such an effort’.

This is a call to arms and a blatant misuse of sports for Cold War purposes. Placed in a wider historical context such parlance was the norm during the Cold War. It serves also to demask the West. Repeatedly, the Communist countries have been accused of misusing sports as a demonstration of their superior way of life. In this article however, Kennedy stops short of a sporting mobilization of the American youth against the Russians. In fact, in this article Kennedy hints at using sports for the same end: to demonstrate the superiority of the western way of life. Nowhere does the elected president mention sport as a leisure pursuit without aiming for glory but relaxation and well being in body and mind. It is thus indicative of the extent of Cold War rhetoric that has taken hold of J.F.K’s thinking.

To tackle this lack of physical fitness, Kennedy outlined a national plan how to get young Americans fit again. Firstly, there should be a White House Committee established on Health and Fitness. Its task would be to implement and carry out a programme to improve the physical condition of the nation. It should include representatives from the Secretary of Health, Welfare and Education as well as the Secretary of the Interior. Secondly, the health of the nation should be made a key task for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It should initiate research into the development of physical fitness for schools. The third suggestion was that every governor was invited to attend a National Youth Health Congress where ideas could be exchanged to improve the fitness schedule. Finally, It is the task of the president that sports participation and physical fitness is a basic principal and policy of the United States.

These four suggestions should be made compulsory for each country! However, the reality is somewhat different as school schedules see less and less time for physical exercise. These four points are the gauge by which to measure his politics with regards to sports and physical exercise. The gold medal rankings are not indicative as both the US and the SU were the dominant teams even in the 1960s, before John F. Kennedy could introduce a policy to make young Americans physically fitter. Additionally, Olympic medals served only one purpose: the continuation of the Cold War by other means.

Kennedy concluded to remind Americans to stay fit and healthy for their own and their children’s sake. This is a very laudable conclusion but with the knowledge of the purpose of exercise and fitness, a sour aftertaste remains reading this article.

A review of the volume can be found at jstor.

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