In the 1950s and 1960s, people divided the world into the industrially developed West, the Communist bloc, and the non-Western countries, including many recently freed European colonies — respectively, the First, Second and Third Worlds. In practice, use of the terms First World and Second World soon disappeared, but Third World persisted until it was replaced by the (inaccurate) term Developing Nations.
Third World nations, except Latin America, had mostly been freed from European control as a result of the two world wars. First the Turkish, then the German, Italian, French, Belgian, and British Empires were freed either as the result of defeat in war, or of economic exhaustion, or of pressure from the American government. In the post-World War II world, these new countries became Cold War pawns. Many Third-World intellectuals flitted with the idea of communism, or at least socialism, as the way to industrial and social development. Western governments naturally responded with alarm.
But not Senator John F. Kennedy, and not President John F. Kennedy. As senator, he went on the record (and was stridently criticized for it) as advocating French withdrawal from Algeria, several years before Charles de Gaulle accomplished that feat in the teeth of civil war. A book compiled of Kennedy’s speeches was titled “A Strategy of Peace”; an implicit common thread is that peaceful coexistence meant more than not going to war with the Soviet Union, and did not imply imposing a Pax Americana upon the world.
At a time when many Western statesmen were working from the premise that those who were not with us were against us, he asked merely that neutral nations pay attention to their own interests. He told one African statesman visiting the White House that he understood his position as a neutral, because there had been a time when America was a small, poor, militarily insignificant nation trying to get by while European superpowers fought the Napoleonic Wars.
The thing about Kennedy that you must always remember, if you are to understand the man’s presidency, is that he was steeped in history, and his judgments proceeded from that knowledge. He remembered other times, and drew analogies from the experiences of others. Thus, he understood their positionAnd in that, as in so many things, he was far ahead of others in his perceptions. This led some American to suspect him of being “soft on communism,” but it won the respect and indeed the affection of many a third-world leader.
It was a simple and effective strategy, resulting not in fear and hatred, but in respect. When news of Kennedy’s murder was announced to the world, one African leader wept, and said, “I have lost my only friend in the outside world.”