Why We Are Still Preoccupied with the Kennedy Might-Have-Beens

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tags: JFK, RFK, Kennedys

Mr. Kashatus is a historian with the Chester County Historical Society in Pennsylvania and a writer for the History News Service.

After forty years, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy continues to ignite countless conspiracy theories, rising from the strange circumstances and seemingly inexplicable actions surrounding it.

Only one thing is certain. Kennedy's death remains an emotionally charged mystery for millions of Americans who lost their idealism, and perhaps their faith in government itself, on that sunny autumn day in Dallas in 1963. In an inaugural address that has become a poignant reminder of the idealism of the 1960s, JFK challenged his hearers to ask not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country. By issuing such a challenge, he inspired a strong sense of national purpose and pride, especially among young Americans. His New Frontier programs ushered in a refreshing spirit of voluntarism by urging citizens to commit themselves to solving the problems of poverty and social injustice, both at home and abroad.

Kennedy's agenda proved both ambitious and energizing. He advocated such programs as a higher minimum wage, the creation of new jobs, greater federal aid to education, and increased Social Security benefits. In foreign policy, he sought to counter the Communist threat by supporting democratic movements in Third World nations and to land an American on the moon before the end of the 1960's. But it's important to remember that few of these efforts were achieved without failure or suffering.

JFK came late to the civil rights struggle. Fearing that the fight for racial equality would divide the Democratic Party, he stalled for two years on his campaign pledge to ban discrimination by executive order in federally financed housing. Instead of attacking segregation head-on by supporting congressional liberals who pushed civil rights legislation, Kennedy quietly pursued desegregation through litigation. His reluctance earned him harsh criticism from black activists, whose non-violent resistance to segregation often resulted in injury and imprisonment.

JFK's initial ventures into foreign policy were also marred. His misguided attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion led to a critically dangerous showdown with the Soviet Union over Cuba, while his continued support of South Vietnam resulted in the initial American casualties in that conflict and ultimately to the escalation of a U.S. presence there.

But Kennedy also learned from his mistakes and grew as a leader because of them. The sobering drama of police dogs and high-powered fire hoses unleashed on school children who voluntarily joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest segregated public facilities in Birmingham, Ala., forced Kennedy to reconsider the morality of his civil rights position. "If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch at a restaurant open to the public," he said in a June 11, 1963, television address, "if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"

Eight days later, Kennedy introduced the strongest civil rights measure proposed up to that time. Not only did the bill guarantee the rights of blacks to vote and to use public accommodations, but it charged the Justice Department with enforcement and cut off federal funding to those states that refused to uphold the new measure.

Kennedy demonstrated similar growth in his foreign policy. After he led the world to the brink of a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, he pursued a more open dialogue with the Soviet Union, which resulted in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In fact, some misguided conspiracy theories maintain that it was Kennedy's decision to pursue detente that provoked the CIA into engineering his assassination.

There are also indications that the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in early November 1963 made JFK realize that the United States could not control events there and that a gradual withdrawal of American special forces would be necessary. Unfortunately, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did not share Kennedy's growing doubts about American involvement in Southeast Asia.

While it is futile to compare John F. Kennedy with the presidents who have held office in the subsequent forty years, a special affinity for him still remains among the American people. Perhaps his appeal rests more with the potential he demonstrated to grow in office and with what might have been had he lived longer, rather than the reality of his achievements, which have tended to fade over the years. Even so, it's hard to find among his successors anyone else who has inspired us as deeply or challenged us as passionately to act on the selfless idealism that we find so wanting today.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Earl Williams - 11/24/2003

The principal observation that I have in looking back at JFK is
that if He were alive today He would probably not pass muster with most Liberal Democrats.The fact is that Kennedy was a Cold
Warrior from the git-go.In 1949 asa member of the House He denounced President Truman's abandonment of the corrupt and incompetent regime of Chaing-Kai-Shek as a ''betrayal of the Chinese people''.He never brought Himself to publicly criticize
His father's friend Joe McCarthy until after McCarthy had been censured by His senate colleagues.Kennedy was elected President in 1960 largely on a proposal for massive increases in defense
spending,not to mention some creative vote counting in Chicago and south Texas.The missile gap that Kennedy accussed President
Eisenhower of in 1960 was a myth as His own Secretary of Defense Robert Mcnamara later admitted.Also during the campaign Kennedy
called for decisive action against Fidel Castro.When He became president He discovered that Eisenhower had a plan to deal with
Castro, the Bay of Pigs invaision.Kennedy dithered finally giving the go ahead for the invaision but denying the Cubans air
support, thus guaranteeing the failure of the mission.Having said
all this I believe Kennedy acted boldly and decisively in the Cuban missile crisis.In domestic affairs Kennedy's greatest achievement was a massive tax cut that fueled an economic boom that would last a decade.Today all liberals seem to regard tax cuts or tax relief in any form as the Devil's work.Kennedy's accomplishments on civil rights were all the result of pressure.
Kennedy made no secret of His commitment to the defense of South
Vietnam.Yet today liberals pursue the silly illusion that Had Kennedy lived He would have abandoned the Vietnamese to Ho Chi Minh and His fellow Stalinist butchers.To believe this one would have to believe that John F. Kennedy once re-elected would have
repudiated everything He ever said He believed about the Soviet threat and the nature of communism.Dream on.

Nancy Brown - 11/22/2003

One aspect of the appeal of the Kennedys is the story of American potential. This family was looked down upon because they were Irish, then became the so-called "American royalty."
With all their flaws and contributions, they may represent who we all have the possibility to become in America.
JFK, like all historical figures, is a person of his time. He would never get away with using women like he did in our time, at least not in public office. His behavior is disgusting; on the other hand, his appeal to women is obvious.
When watching his press conferences on video, I am struck by the wit and intelligence that caused him to be so personally charismatic. I think he was a great leader and I am sad that he wasn't able to have a longer life.

Barbara Cornett - 11/21/2003

Unfortunately the historians here do not see fit to weigh in on the subject so I guess you are left to your opinions and I have mine.

John Brennan - 11/20/2003

A bit shrill and syrupy, don't you think Barbara?

Your elegy to Kennedy sounds like an episode of Seinfeld--grace and elegance--give me a break, a big time break.

Kennedy's initial foreign policy fiascos took us to the brink of nuclear war--which he handled well. He escalated in Viet Nam--rightly so--but it was a war you liberals hated and helped us lose (along with an incompetent Pentagon). Doesn't matter that 80 million Vietnamese still live under communist opresssion, ride bikes, and burn sticks for heat--they got your paradise. Kennedy was no Reagan--and will probably compare less well to Bush once history is written.

As to the puffery of Camelot--what about the revolving door of interns Kennedy used for his legendary boinkathons. The illicit drugs? Grace and elegance--Hustler Magazine style!!!!

Please, dry your eyes.

John Brennan

Barbara Cornett - 11/20/2003

He also set the goal of landing human beings on the moon and showed Americans and the whole world what we can accomplish if we put our minds to it. He showed us that we are capable of doing anything and made us feel pride. Unlike the shame and disgrace that is being forced upon us by the current white house.

Kent Hartmann - 11/19/2003

I do not understand Mr. Dresner's comment minimizing Kennedy by stating his great ability was to "project and manipulate a mood." Is this the old "all style, no substance" or "more profile than courage" contention? If it is, there is lots of good research, including Robert Dallek's recent book, that confirms that Kennedy was moving ahead on many fronts with progressive initiatives, including much of what became Johnson's Great Society.
If instead Mr. Dresner refers to something broader, that there was a national "mood" to be "manipulated," that instead suggests creating a tone or vision for the nation. If that was Kennedy's success, then it falls right into line with Bruce Kuklick's assertion in his interesting book "The Good Ruler" that that is what presidential leadership in fact is.
Mr. Dresner calls Kennedy "deeply reactive" - I assume he is referring to civil rights, but perhaps I'm wrong. Indeed, Kennedy was cautious on moving ahead on civil rights, no doubt owing to his slim margin of victory and need for Southern Democratic support. Nevertheless, if Kennedy did not lead on the question of civil rights (the Movement itself did), he did something historic and vital - he used the office to facilitate the aims of the Civil Rights movement. He need not have done this - obviously many presidents since Lincoln had not. The problem comes - as it always does - in comparing Kennedy's record to the Camelot myth. He was not a passionate civil rights advocate, but he ultimately did the right thing (even if it was with mixed motives, as all politics generally is), and at a cost, and that was essential. The man only had less than three years in office - had he temporized for seven years or never moved on the issue, then there would be more grounds for this argument.

Barbara Cornett - 11/19/2003

John Kennedy was our first tv president. He represents a shift away from people such as FDR who could hide his wheel chair and fool the American people about his actual condition and appearance.

Presidents today have to 'look presidential' and Kennedy certainly did look and sound presidential. His were the days of 'vigor' and youthful enthusiasim which got many young people interested and involved in politics and service to their country. Bill Clinton for example.

Kennedy gave us the Peace Corp. He created a program between North and South America for economic progress. He represented our years of Camelot. He broke the barrier against having a Catholic in the White House. He and Jackie brought grace and elegance and art to the White House.

The Kennedys are a great liberal family and Ted Kennedy continues to fight for the people of this country as one of the few remaining liberals in Congress.

So? So the American people will never know what was lost when Kennedy's life was cut short and we never saw the results of his growth and experience. He was loved by the people and we greive his loss. Like Bill Clinton, when he traveled to other countries there were always crowds of people to welcome him and the US could feel pride in having him as our president.

Unlike a jerk like Bush who has to have unprecedented police protection and who has to avoid the crowds of people who protest him and hate him and make us ashamed to be stuck with him as potus.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/17/2003

The conclusion, that Kennedy's appeal lay in his potential not his actual, deeply flawed and reactive, political persona, is wishful thinking at best.

Kennedy's appeal lay in his ability, like Ronald Reagan, to project and manipulate a mood that was largely unrelated to his actual policies and programs and accomplishments. And Kennedy's enduring appeal is in his martyrdom, as a symbol of an office that attracts at least as much hostility as it does admiration for its leadership and which has, with some frequency, killed its occupants.

Yes, if he'd lived longer he might have accomplished more, and he might even have moved in good directions (though that's highly speculative at best based on his highly pragmatic approach to policy). But that's not why people liked him then. Nor is it really a good explanation of why people still find him interesting and admirable.