TOPICS > Politics

Looking at JFK’s legacy in the shadow of his death

May 28, 2017 at 2:06 PM EDT
Monday marks the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president, whose tenure was cut short by his assassination in 1963. His three years in office saw Cold War crises, the expansion of space exploration, the beginning of the Peace Corps and an emphasis on public service. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield looks back at his legacy.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JOHN F. KENNEDY: And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

JEFF GREENFIELD: For many of us, it is as stark a measure of the passage of time as any. Could this symbol of a new generation really have been born a hundred years ago? Could he really be dead for 54 years…eight years longer than he lived? From a-half-century’s distance, we have a clearer understanding of why his presence was so arresting: the handsome war hero with a radiant wife and young children who helped define him.

The oldest President…replaced by the youngest ever elected, whose flair and wit became defining traits. But now, we also know that the image of that idealized family concealed a private life far different. Historians debate his sometimes-contradictory legacy. He ran for president as a cold warrior and ramped up U.S. military presence in Vietnam. But in the last year of his life, he called for an end to the Cold War.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: We are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And he signed a nuclear test ban treaty with Moscow. He presided over attempts to bring down the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. But during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviets placed missiles 100 miles from Florida’s shore, he rejected the military option to remove them and may have averted WWIII. He was at first a reluctant civil rights warrior, but in the last year of his life he committed to a landmark bill that banned racial discrimination in public places and the workplace, though this would have jeopardized his re-election.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And he set the nation on a path to win the space race. Despite what he did in life, the shocking manner of his death and its aftermath may have had as great an impact. His alleged assassin was a violence-prone former Marine and self-taught Marxist. But for many, the responsibility was elsewhere. This was Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren at the Capitol memorial service.

CHIEF JUSTICE EARL WARREN: We do know that such acts are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and malevolence, such as today are eating their way into the bloodstream of American life.

JEFF GREENFIELD: There was something of a consensus that something had gone wrong, terribly wrong in the collective soul of the country, where optimism and confidence had always been at the core of our outlook. Moreover, it seemed impossible to believe that the most powerful person on Earth could be brought down by a single, insignificant figure. Instead, conspiracy theories bloomed in best-selling books and popular movies, pointing to a cabal of shadowy, powerful figures in the military-industrial complex. And to the extent that Americans embraced such theories, what did it say about how much trust should be placed in the legitimacy of the American system? That kind of doubt grew deeper and wider in the late-1960s—with the divisive and costly Vietnam War, racial unrest in the cities, generational upheaval on campus and the assassinations of JFK’s brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King, Junior. A decade after Kennedy’s death, after Vietnam and Watergate, the percentage of Americans who had trusted their government in Washington to do what was right dropped by more than half.

No one can say what would have been different if President Kennedy’s life had not been cut short. His ingrained cautiousness might have made him less ambitious about launching a War on Poverty than his successor, Lyndon Johnson. But that same cautiousness—and his skepticism about the military’s judgment, after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as his long-held doubts about fighting a land war in Asia—might have made him pull back from the Vietnam commitment he’d made in his first years. Perhaps his extramarital affairs would have become public and threatened his political survival.

What does seem clear is that his death drained something out of the American spirit; made us less confident, less certain. If that could happen in broad daylight in the streets of a city, maybe we weren’t the country we thought we were.

SHARE VIA TEXT