Kennedy's Not-New Frontier
How a Long Forgotten Column By Civil War Historian Bruce Catton Originated Kennedy's Famous Campaign Slogan
John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in July of 1960 remains one of the most iconic ever given by a future president.
Viewed on television screens across the nation, and by those packed inside the 100,000 seat Los Angeles Coliseum, the speech laid out a bold new vision for a new generation of young Americans.
The idea of a new American frontier however was not original.
While many credit Secretary of Agriculture and future Vice-President Henry Agard Wallace with first using “New Frontier” in his book of the same name in 1934, its first use dates back even further, to one of the nation’s most celebrated historians of the American Civil War who was then working as a correspondent.
Nearly 27 years to the day before Kennedy’s speech a column written by American journalist and Civil War historian Bruce Catton entitled “The Challenges of the New Frontier” appeared in newspapers across the country.
Written a full year before Wallace’s book Catton’s column spoke of the passing of the old frontier of the American West and the existence of a new industrial, agricultural and commercial frontier still left for Americans to conquer.
“The future can be finer than anything in our past has been….if we just recognize our new frontier and tackle it as frontier should be tackled,” wrote Catton.
It was in late 1934 that Secretary of Agriculture Henry Agard Wallace published his book New Frontiers.
Born near the small farming town of Orient, Iowa (nearly 11 years to the day before Catton) Wallace was still serving as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture when New Frontiers was published.
Costing one to two dollars – depending on which binding you purchased – New Frontiers - unlike Catton’s column - created a national stir. Newspapers across the country printed excerpts and reviews; American historian Charles Beard declared it “indispensable…for those who want to know what is happening” and advertisements proclaimed that “Liberals, Conservatives, Radicals Agree This Book Should Be Required Reading for Every Literate American.” Not everyone however liked it. The editor of the Des Moines Register’s described the book as “provocative and controversial.”
The same could be said of its author.
Wallace’s unorthodox views concerning the Soviet Union and China were unpopular even within his own party. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention Wallace was booted from the vice-presidency. Instead of Wallace – who had served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president since 1941 – the convention chose Harry S. Truman to be FDR’s running mate that year.
Wallace was subsequently appointed by FDR to serve as his Secretary of Commerce - a post Wallace held until President Truman fired him following a speech Wallace made where he argued the Truman administration’s policy toward the Soviet Union would lead to war. In 1948 Wallace ran for president on the Progressive ticket but was soundly defeated.
Much like Kennedy’s New Frontier Wallace’s book was a call to a new generation of Americans ready to embark on a journey of economic and political progress.
“All of us under 60 years of age are desperately in need of some means of conveyance to this new world,” Wallace wrote in New Frontiers. “ I think the youth of America is about ready to try it.”
Following his acceptance speech in Los Angeles many took credit for Kennedy’s New Frontier. Speechwriter Theodore Sorensen claimed to have penned the term and Walt Whitman Rostow (an economic historian and Kennedy advisor) who used the phrase in his book The Stages of Economic Growth the year of Kennedy’s acceptance speech, was also credited with originating the phrase. (Rostow’s book – while it did mention a “New Frontier” – was but a fleeting mention and bore little symbolic or substantive resemblance to Kennedy’s).
Kennedy and his advisors – who had been trying to prove their candidate’s conservative credentials since the early days of the campaign – had every reason to distance themselves from Wallace.
Declaring or even acknowledging that the New Frontier – that came to define their entire campaign and later presidency – had in part been borrowed from a book written by a man whose own campaign for president in 1948 had garnered the support of America’s Communist Party would have been political suicide at the height of the Cold War.
While Wallace would eventually get the credit he deserved for being among the first to use the phrase, Catton’s earlier use of the term was forgotten.
A year after his column appeared however Catton did get a chance to write a review of Wallace’s book.
“Mr. Wallace writes in an uncommonly pleasant and persuasive manner,” wrote Catton. “Whatever you may think of his agricultural priorities you will at least find him imbued with old fashioned confidence that our democracy can find its way out of a crisis. He is not, as they say, selling America short.”
The Burlington Free Press July 16, 1960 “Kennedy Faces ‘New Frontier’” AP
The Kenosha News July 1, 1933 “The Challenge of the New Frontier” Bruce Catton”
The Des Moines Register November 11, 1934 “New Frontiers By Henry Wallace”
The Tallahassee Democrat October 17, 1934 “Review of Books” Bruce Catton
The New York Times “Walt Rostow Adviser to Kennedy and Johnson Dies at 86” Todd S. Purdum February 15, 2003