Last month on the 43rd anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I had hoped that public reflections on that tragic event would be more discerning than in the past. I was disappointed.
In 1963 when JFK’s life was cut short, leaving behind two small children, grief was eminently appropriate. But commentators went far beyond grief and predicted that his violent death would have dire political and cultural consequences.
Then, supporters of a young and charming JFK felt cheated by his sudden death. Somehow, the grim reaper had got it wrong. Camelot was shattered before it could be fulfilled; the youthful idealism he had fostered was dealt a blow. Avid admirers sensed the end of an era, the “end of innocence” that cast a rudderless ship of state on a troubled sea.
Again, at this anniversary, Kennedy loyalists and much of the press recycled stirring phrases from his inaugural address in January 1961–“the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and echoed the strident, even apocalyptic, forebodings that had filled the air in 1963. But in plain fact, his assassination brought on none of the predicted disasters.
An early admirer of the youthful Kennedy, I took my current affairs class at Foxcroft School for girls to JFK’s Senate office in 1959 for a friendly chat. As a foreign policy staffer for Senator Hubert Humphrey (JFK’s rival for the nomination), I campaigned for Kennedy. Many of my colleagues joined his administration.
Though I was caught up in the enthusiasm of it all, some older friends had early reservations. A professor of world politics observed that JFK’s ringing statement, “Ask not that your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” was something “Mussolini might have said.” He had a point.
When Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots, I was in Leopoldville, capital of the former Belgian Congo, working on a U.N. peacekeeping study. Like other Americans there, I received condolences from anxious Asian and African diplomats who asked urgently: “What will happen to America now?”
“Nothing,” I replied, “There will be no coup or policy change. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, already sworn in as president, will continue Kennedy’s policies.” Like most Americans, I assumed that life would go on much as before.
The three earlier American presidential assassinations had had no significant political or cultural impact, though if Abraham Lincoln had lived, the harsh measures against the defeated South might have been eased.
In his A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who worked for Kennedy, wrote this of his assassination:
It was all gone now–the life-affirming, life-enhancing zest, the brilliance, the wit, the cool commitment, the steady purpose . . . It was as if Lincoln had been killed six months after Gettysburg or Franklin Roosevelt at the end of 1935 or Truman before the Marshall plan.
A different and perhaps more detached, view was expressed by Paul Johnson, a British historian. Writing in 1983, he bluntly called JFK a failed president, especially in foreign affairs. He cited the Bay of Pigs fiasco and JFK’s failure, in August 1961, to bulldoze the coils of barbed wire strung between East and West Berlin that eventually became the Berlin Wall. This Khrushchev authorized barrier, Johnson wrote, was illegal “and Truman and Eisenhower would certainly knocked it down.”
Johnson also faults Kennedy’s political intervention in Vietnam, particularly his complicity in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s authoritarian, but able, President Ngo Dinh Diem. He quotes Lyndon Johnson, who later said that ousting Diem was “the worst mistake we ever made” and one which “hog tied us to Vietnam.”
Johnson also asserts that Kennedy was weak on civil rights and that “LBJ was much more successful.” Of course, things are never as certain as Paul Johnson makes them.
During his White House years, Kennedy made many wise decisions and pronouncements. Perhaps his best statement was before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. After calling for billions to combat Communist insurgency, he issued this challenge: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him to Earth.” That goal was fulfilled with the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.
— Ernest W. Lefever is founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.