JFK’s legacy of optimism
Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted the principal legacy of the murdered leader might well be an “attitude,” a contagious spirit that all things are possible if only we have the vision and will.
In fact, JFK had important tangible accomplishments — as well as failures — during his brief tenure in office. Nonetheless Sevareid was remarkably perceptive in emphasizing the emotional impacts of this president on the population. His shocking, grotesque murder continues to reverberate in our collective lives, even after a half century.
The administration’s disastrous failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs dogged President Kennedy from the start, and provided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with strong incentive to deploy offensive missiles on the island. Intense U.S. efforts to kill Fidel Castro, directly pressed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, spurred Moscow.
This led to the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. In recent years, meetings between surviving officials from both sides in the confrontation have revealed that nuclear war was even closer than realized in that tense time.
The president, a combat veteran of World War II, resisted powerful pressure to attack Cuba and was highly imaginative. He and his advisers were able to get the missiles out of Cuba through a blockade, combined with a secret Cuba-Turkey missile trade. Kennedy’s outlook contrasts markedly with the administration of President George W. Bush regarding Iraq.
In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev achieved a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, a major breakthrough. The Senate ratified the treaty with a bipartisan vote of 80-19. JFK had other success with Congress, including international trade negotiation authority.
Two domestic issues always on the front burner were civil rights and organized crime, the former reflecting growing popular pressures, the latter the focus of driven RFK. JFK was careful on race relations, addressing the subject decisively only when pressed to do so by a massive public march on Washington.
RFK was relentless in pursuit of the mafia, while simultaneously gangsters were recruited for the effort to kill Castro. Dallas ended both efforts. Regarding organized crime, a decade passed before the Nixon administration returned to prosecution, notably with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation.
People around Robert Kennedy were puzzled by his marked disinterest in possible conspiracy in the assassination. In hindsight, RFK no doubt avoided that dark tangled path because he might come face to face with himself.
Sen. John Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” about U.S. senators who put principle above political expediency, received the Pulitzer Prize. While critics cracked President Kennedy should show less profile and more courage, he actually demonstrated considerable personal strength.
Professor Herbert Parmet has documented exceptionally serious health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Despite this, he managed to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II, then volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty.
Sevareid’s observation applies perhaps most tangibly to the American space program. President Kennedy early on made a dramatic public commitment to carry out a successful manned moon landing, including safe return to earth. A number of technological innovations resulted from the mammoth space effort, including extreme miniaturization of electronics. Every time you turn on a computer or cell phone, you’re saying hello to JFK.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen is Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.