Friday, 22 November 2013

A Light Is Extinguished: Remembering JFK

by Will Wallace

Had he lived, Kennedy would have guided the world down a more united, peaceful path
The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was the most disastrous event of the latter half of the 20th century. A pretty bold statement, you might say, yet the legacy of this man’s short time in the White House is often overshadowed by fascination surrounding the way in which his life was cut short, as Gregory Walton-Green explores. People forget the fact that Kennedy was from a new generation, unlike his predecessors, and was elected on a promise to move the country into a new decade, the 1960s. Does that sound at all familiar? President Obama was elected on a similar platform in 2008 and most Americans have deemed his presidency to be a disappointment, propelled by false hope. Within two years of being president, Kennedy had already seriously damaged his and his government’s reputation, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. A few weeks after the fiasco, he told NBC correspondent Elie Abel that no one would want to “write a book about an administration that has nothing to show for itself but a string of disasters”. He frequently reminded those in his inner circle that he would never think of running for re-election; he expressed his frustration to close friend Lem Billings, describing the presidency as “the most unpleasant job in existence”. Yet something happened in the October of 1962, something that would alter the direction of Kennedy’s administration and have a resounding effect on the man’s perspective.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is often cited as bringing the world excruciatingly close to a Third World War. As GCSE historians will be able to tell you, Kennedy averted nuclear fallout with the Soviet Union and arguably prevented the destruction of civilisation. However from then on, President Kennedy reassessed himself and spent the last year of his life dedicated to two causes: one of these causes was peace abroad. He persisted with a new policy which sought to heal the relationship with the Soviets; this was an immense change in course from that set by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before him. He repeated his calls for joint space and lunar exploration between the two nations, an idea that would have ended the petty space race. His commencement address at American University in June 1963 perhaps best indicates his personal evolution as a president: he appealed to the American people to “reexamine [their] own a Nation” and said of the Soviet people that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue” and he reminded listeners that Americans and Soviets “both inhabit this Earth...both breathe the same air...both cherish [their] children’s future...are all mortal”. Most importantly, he proposed that the United States unilaterally suspend its atmospheric nuclear tests and instigate negotiations in Moscow aimed at drafting a treaty banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, underground, underneath the oceans and in outer space. This would be the first step towards nuclear disarmament and is unambiguously a display of Kennedy’s desire to ensure a more peaceful world for future generations. Kennedy’s colleague David Ormsby-Gore observed that after the Cuban Missile Crisis, “he saw [his actions] in terms of children - his children and everybody else’s children”.

The second of the two causes that Kennedy died fighting for was peace at home. Civil rights had been an explosive issue for many Americans, dividing the country and stirring up a great deal of hatred between African Americans and segregationists. The day after his American University speech, he gave a televised address to the nation on this matter. His civil rights speech declared that “race has no place in American life or law”, announced that the government would send a comprehensive bill guaranteeing all citizens the right to be served in public facilities, and was praised by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. as being “eloquent, passionate and unequivocal...a hallmark in the annals of American history”. What was most striking about Kennedy’s quest for racial equality was his statesman outlook: he told civil rights leaders that, “I may lose the next election because of this. I don’t care”. By the time of his assassination, this legislation had stalled on Capitol Hill, with Southern Democrats enabling the Republicans to prevent its passage. It might be unreasonable to suggest that it was only due to the sympathy that resulted from his death that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Certainly, success may not have been achieved as early as it was, but a convincing re-election (due in part to the Republican’s nominee, Barry Goldwater, being a nutter) would have enabled the bill to pass during his second term. Kennedy was the first president to indentify civil rights as a moral issue, condemning discrimination as wrong and seeking empathy among whites by asking “who among us would be content to have the colour of his skin changed and stand in his place?”

When Kennedy addressed peace abroad and peace at home, he sought to bridge the divide, stressing the common humanity of Americans and Russians, and whites and blacks. The possibility of five more years of Kennedy in the White House could have seen a continuation of the policies that he began to introduce in the summer of 1963. I have no doubt that the United States would not have escalated the War in Vietnam, and not have committed ground troops to a predetermined disaster. Nixon may never have been elected in 1972, meaning there wouldn’t have been a Watergate scandal resulting in the alienation of millions of young Americans. Above all, the world would have been guided down a more united, peaceful path with a new optimistic generation at the helm.

Kennedy stated in his inauguration address, “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world”. As the life left Kennedy’s body, so too did the light from that torch become extinguished. His successors from Johnson to Bush, Sr. were all from an elder generation that embraced conflict and division, and their actions saw the perpetuation of such. So as we mourn the death of President Kennedy, so too do we mourn the lost chance for peace. President Obama has three years left: he must follow the example set by Kennedy in the summer of 1963, which is best described by political scientist James MacGregor Burns as being “a commitment not only of mind, but of heart”.

See also: Gregory Walton-Green on Why Do People Believe In Conspiracy Theories?; Mark Richardson on the connection between JFK and Dr Who; and an article and video marking 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address.


  1. I strongly contest your assertion that 'His successors from Johnson to Bush, Sr. were all from an elder generation that embraced conflict and division, and their actions saw the perpetuation of such' . Ronald Reagan hardly perpetuated conflict and division given that he ended the cold war and creating the INF treaty. This proves that the practice of Détente was effectively helping the soviet union and the only real way of dealing with the threat from the Soviet Union was the ' Reagan Doctrine' and in the opinion of many historians the Strategic Defence Initiative hastened the end of the Cold War.

    1. Good point! Reagan certainly did have a role to play in ending the Cold War, and lest we forget that Nixon improved relations with China. But I wasn't just talking about confrontational foreign policy; I was also referring to divisive domestic policies, and Reagan's trickled down economics did lead to a net increase in poverty (seen by the sharp increase in 1989)

  2. William Watts-Jones 7W8 January 2014 at 12:07

    What an outstading blog: there is so much I never knew before!


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