The Lasting Legacy of Kennedy
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lehigh doctoral candidate Matthew Rozsa offers his thoughts on the legacy of the youngest man to be elected to the nation’s highest office. A student of history and a political columnist, Rozsa has written for The Morning Call, The Express-Times, The Newark Star-Ledger, The Baltimore Sun, and various college newspapers and blogs.
A little less than two weeks ago, my close friend Samantha sent me this message on Facebook:
“Do you think JFK was the greatest president to ever live?”
Bear in mind that we had not been discussing John Kennedy. Indeed, most of our conversations about history had been as politely bored on her end as they’d been enthusiastic on mine (when you’re a history nerd, you get used to this). Needless to say, her non sequitur – which had been inspired by the intense media attention this month on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination – caused me to reflect on how little is known about that president’s larger legacy. While the details of his death have been so thoroughly picked apart by celebrities and scholars that most Americans are at least passingly familiar with them, the same cannot be said of what he achieved during his life. To rectify this, I have composed a list of the three greatest accomplishments of the Kennedy administration.
1. Taking the Lead on Civil Rights
One facet of Kennedy’s reputation that has taken a hit among recent historians is his record on civil rights. While Kennedy’s popular image often lumps him in with Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall as among the great heroes of the ‘60s civil rights movement, he was often reluctant to act as boldly and decisively as activist leaders wanted. Then again, a similar charge could be made of Abraham Lincoln, who after all didn't seriously consider emancipating the slaves until more than a year into his presidency. What matters is that Kennedy was clearly moving toward supporting full racial equality, with his aides helping to draft the milestone civil rights legislation of 1964, 1965, and 1968 (all of which would be passed under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson) and Kennedy taking great political risks by intervening to release Martin Luther King from prison during his 1960 presidential campaign, using the National Guard to desegregate Southern colleges, and delivering the landmark statement June 1963 civil rights address, which declared that “We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law, but they have a right to expect that the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be color blind...”
2. Creating the Peace Corps
In the fifty-two years since Kennedy created the Peace Corps, more than 210,000 Americans have visited 139 countries in the name of achieving the program’s mission “to promote world peace and friendship” and “to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” This is especially impressive given the virulent opposition that the Peace Corps met when Kennedy first proposed it in the 1960 presidential election, with Republican candidate Richard Nixon predicting it would become a “cult of escapism” and a “haven for draft dodgers.” Although Kennedy’s critics are quick to point out that the president was as motivated by a desire to improve America’s world image (which was significantly tarnished by its dismal civil rights record) as he was by genuine benevolence, the complexity of his reasons should not diminish the magnitude of his accomplishment. As the philosopher Voltaire once wrote of Marcus Aurelius, whose great deeds as Roman emperor are attributed to vanity instead of sincerity, “My God! Often send us such scoundrels!”
3. Preventing Nuclear War
America often seemed to be at the brink of nuclear war in the decade-and-a-half after World War Two, a terrifying prospect rendered more palpable in the eight years before Kennedy’s presidency by the policy of “brinksmanship” practiced by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. While Kennedy himself was hardly blameless in the nuclear irresponsibility department (most notably during the 1960 election when he falsely accused Republicans of allowing a “missile gap” to emerge between America and the Soviet Union), he grew as a leader on this issue, ignoring the calls of his advisers to preemptively strike nuclear facilities during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and getting the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963. There are even conspiracy theorists who argue that Kennedy was martyred for this cause, in light of Lee Harvey Oswald’s links to political movements sympathetic to the Fidel Castro regime. Regardless of whether those claims are true, however, Kennedy’s handling of this global crisis ranks him among the greatest statesmen of the Cold War.
So in answer to Samantha’s question: Superlatives like “greatest” are inherently subjective. Many ordinary Americans certainly believe Kennedy was our greatest president; many scholars do not. In the end, though, what matters is that he used the privileges of his intelligence, charisma, and wealthy background to make a positive difference in this world. While the world may still be fascinated by his death, it was this aspect of his life that ought to inspire us today.