The Legacy of JFK

Kennedy with Caroline

It is hard to believe 57 years have passed since John F. Kennedy was elected President.  After the assassination, it was immediately clear that the American people and the country would never be the same. Before that event, everything seemed possible. After, Americans were left to wonder what dangerous future awaited their country.

We have been left with many gifts[bequeathed to the nation by its youngest-ever elected president. The lessons from John Fitzgerald Kennedy's legacy can be divided into three parts: the effects of his presidency; the effects of his policies; and most significantly, the effect of his assassination. In all three areas Kennedy left behind an unparalleled contribution, particularly, in light of the fact he was assassinated after serving less than three quarters of his first presidential term.

The Kennedy Era was a time when all seemed possible. John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency as a representative of a new generation, one that was subsequently to be given the soubriquet, "the Greatest Generation”. They were the generation that had carried the burden of fighting in World War II. Kennedy was the first member of that generation to reach the Oval Office. Moreover, John F. Kennedy had also been a genuine hero of that war. 


Kennedy entered office at the height of the Cold War. This was a period during which there was a fear that the Soviet Union would overtake the US in the race for world leadership. It was a period when Americans had a very real fear of nuclear war, so much so that children in schools would have bomb shelter drills, in addition to the usual fire drills. The American people elected a young, vigorous President to confront those fears. And, he came to the Office of the Presidency with the experience of having been a naval officer, having served six years in the House of Representatives and having served eight years in Senate. 


Kennedy fulfilled the wish for a powerful, young leader in both form and substance. In the beginning, he stumbled both in the Bay of Pigs, and to a lesser extent, at the Vienna Summit.  But Kennedy rapidly learned from his mistakes. He soon showed that he was a match for any adversary. Kennedy proved himself, whether dealing with the Soviets in Cuba, or staring down the ‘Big Steel’ executives. America gained the strong leader it desired. Kennedy was willing to fight for the ideas he believed in, even when they were not popular. To that end, he pushed heavily for tax cuts, to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and for Civil Rights for American blacks.


With the Kennedys, America acquired a First Family with whom they could fall in love. The White House became the center of American culture. While very few Americans personally participated in the White House events, they all took pride in the fact that the "People's House" had become so important. Furthermore, Americans reveled, albeit vicariously, from the love bestowed on the First Couple from around the world.


JFK accomplished more than he is generally given credit for achieving regarding foreign policy. The event for which he is given the most credit is his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that pivotal moment, America came closest to going to war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy handled the crisis almost flawlessly. He skillfully navigated the difficult middle course. Kennedy was strong enough to force the Soviets to back down, while being careful to avoid any situation where a miscalculation could lead to war.


The economy was the second area in which JFK deserves a great deal of credit. Kennedy recognized that tax rates were too high in the US, (with the highest marginal rates being 92% at the time.) He realized that the rich did not have any incentives to take risks and invest their resources to grow the economy. In that sense, he was the first supply-sider. On the other hand, he was always concerned about creating a deficit and would never agree to revenue cuts that could not be offset by additional sources of revenue. Despite calling for a tax cut, he made it clear that he was not an unconditional friend of big business. His confrontation with ‘Big Steel’ over their attempted price increase demonstrated to average-income Americans that he was on their side.


The third major accomplishment of the Kennedy administration was the "race to the moon” won by America in 1969. It should be noted that getting to the moon was a small achievement, compared to all of the recognized benefits accrued both along the way and after the fact. So much of what we now describe as advances in microelectronics and computers, not to mention material science, came out of the intense years of the space race. One could argue that in the area of scientific research, the country has been relatively coasting ever since. Furthermore, the boost in American morale and prestige as a result of the space program are incalculable. And, thanks to the space program, those growing up in the 1960s had true heroes to admire and emulate.


The fourth accomplishment of the Kennedy administration was the creation of the Peace Corps and all that it came to represent. Kennedy understood, long before he became President, that the US could not, nor should it, compete with the Soviets on the military level alone. JFK felt the US needed to compete for the hearts and minds of people around the world. That concept is known today as "soft power". Kennedy established the Peace Corps, whose mission was to send young Americans to volunteer their time and knowledge around the world. The Peace Corps has endured for 50 years. It has not only affected the millions of people helped by Peace Corps programs, but it also provided life-changing experiences for the tens of thousands of young Americans who have volunteered to serve in its ranks.


The fifth major accomplishment of the Kennedy administration was the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In addition to heralding the treaty, Kennedy’s American University address -- otherwise known as his "Peace speech" -- marked an important turning point for the President. In the speech, Kennedy moved the American position away from the idea that confrontation with the Soviet Union was the only option. For the first time, Kennedy publicly stated that there could be another way. This was the first of what would be many speeches in which the US and the Soviets slowly backed away from confrontation, potential nuclear annihilation and toward coexistence.


The sixth area of accomplishment was in the area of civil rights. According to some critics, President Kennedy had moved too slowly in promoting civil rights legislation. Those critics may have a point, but Kennedy was always very aware of what was possible and what was not. He realized when he took office that he would not be able to pass any major civil rights legislation considering the composition of Congress at that time. So he took whatever actions he could as the Chief Executive of the United States. 


Over the course of the Kennedy Administration, two things took place that set the stage for what would be sweeping civil rights legislation in the summer of 1963. First, there was the continued Southern opposition to any compromise that would give blacks additional rights. That opposition was played out on American TV sets daily. That constant exposure strengthened public opinion against the actions of Southern segregationists. Second were the meteoric heights of Kennedy's public approval ratings. By the summer of the 1963, Kennedy enjoyed the approval of the overwhelming majority of Americans. As a result, he felt he was able to lead them into areas that might have been outside their comfort zone. Sadly, it was left to his successor President Lyndon Baines Johnson to actually shepherd the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the subsequent Voting Rights Act. However, it was JFK who had proposed these Acts and helped pave the way for their passage.


The final area of note for the JFK administration, the legacy of Vietnam, is much more complicated. The Kennedy legacy there carries with it mixed consequences and varied lessons. One cannot look at this period in the hindsight of history without assigning some of the blame for the morass that became Vietnam to President Kennedy. Yes, he was reluctant to commit forces to Vietnam. True, JFK was very skeptical that America could achieve its goals. Ultimately, however, he supported a policy that led to the US becoming mired in Vietnam for nearly a decade more.


JFK supported a coup in Vietnam that ousted Vietnamese leader Diem and directly led to the deaths of both Diem and his wife. It is clear JFK regretted that decision. There is a great deal of evidence that Kennedy was considering a withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. With the evolving world view that he exhibited his American University speech, it seems clear that his stance on Vietnam was undergoing a transformative change. On the other hand, Kennedy had not been willing to take any significant action on Vietnam until after he was re-elected in 1964. He was not willing to pay the political price for taking the actions that would support his changing convictions. Lee Harvey Oswald made sure that Kennedy was not re-elected. As a result, we will never know what Kennedy might have done after his re-election. We only know that over 50,000 young Americans died in a war which America ultimately lost.


The Assassination

The tragic assassination of President Kennedy was one of the most traumatic events in American History.  It was not the first time that a President of the US had been assassinated. But it was the first time that such an event and its aftermath were broadcast on TV.  That this monstrous event had occurred to a President so widely loved and admired only compounded the tragedy. It was a life-changing event for those who lived through the period. They will always remember where they were when they heard the news. Even those who were mere children of seven or eight, retain distinct and indelible memories.  Americans of all political and religious persuasions were glued to their TV sets as a funeral like no other took place. They watched the images of the grieving widow. The nation remained transfixed by the poignant images of the Kennedy children (metaphorically adopted by all Americans). The pictures remain etched in the memories of a generation of Americans as no other event before or since.


The assassination of President Kennedy was not the only assassination of that decade. It was not even the first assassination, having been preceded by a few months by the killing of the black activist Medgar Evers. By the time the decade ended, so many who had worked to bring change and hope to America were dead: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and of course the President Kennedy’s brother and closest confidant, Robert. 


The assassination of JFK brought to an end a unique era of boundless American confidence during which it was believed that anything could be accomplished; that no task was too great for Americans to achieve. The legacy of the 1960s has continued to be played out in American politics.  But the images that come to mind from that period are images of conflict and protest, and not images of accomplishment. The momentum created by JFK allowed the US to land on the moon, pass important pieces of legislation, and inspire millions. Unfortunately, Kennedy’s absence from the scene allowed many of his accomplishments to be overwhelmed by the subsequent turmoil in American life.