The Kennedy Legacy: The Assassination and Historical Memory

Inauguration of John Fitzgerald KennedyInauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jan 20, 1961. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library)

On November 22, 1963, Americans faced the grim reality that their beloved president, John F. Kennedy, had died at the hands of an assassin. In the following days, weeks, and months, people looked back on Kennedy’s contribution to the nation favorably. What he managed to accomplish in 1,000 days seemed to be the stuff of excellence. It did not hurt that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, almost immediately sought to turn his own domestic initiatives into a tribute to the fallen president; nor did it hurt that his widow, Jackie Kennedy, carefully constructed a view of their time in the White House as “Camelot” (an image linked to a popular Broadway show in the 1960s). Average Americans, when surveyed, tend to rank Kennedy high in terms of greatness. Historians evaluating his record, however, tend to disagree with that assessment or at least see Kennedy as overrated. What then accounts for this mismatch?

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, sought the Democratic nomination for president. As a candidate, Kennedy had several things working in his favor – his status as a veteran of World War II, his glamorous wife and adorable young children, and his family’s money to support his bid for the presidency. However, Kennedy also had a major hurdle to overcome. He needed to convince a predominantly Protestant electorate to vote for a Roman Catholic candidate. On the campaign trail, Kennedy worked to put the focus on his agenda rather than his faith. When accepting the Democratic nomination in July, Kennedy said “we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier…a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils – a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” In the end, he edged out his Republican rival, Richard M. Nixon, by a slim margin in the popular vote. His victory came partly from his campaign rhetoric promising national greatness, but it also stemmed from his effective performance in the nation’s first televised presidential debates.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy once again struck a chord with Americans. Most notably, he called people to action saying, “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Greatness seemed sure to follow. Kennedy provided the American people with an opportunity to do something for their country and the world with the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961. By year’s end, a cadre of young Americans went abroad to spread democracy and economic development. In 1962, the president successfully navigated the nation through the Cuban Missile Crisis, managing to avoid a nuclear war in the process. Going to the brink convinced leaders on both sides of the Cold War to improve communication between Washington and Moscow.

At the time of his death, though, the president had failed to secure Congressional support for key domestic policy proposals. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” promised to tackle “unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Kennedy suggested, on more than one occasion, his administration would address two very troubling aspects of American life: chronic racial discrimination in the world’s largest democracy and chronic poverty in the world’s healthiest economy.

Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, largely saw the battle over desegregation as a state issue after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared separate facilities unconstitutional. However, Kennedy seemed to be willing to throw the weight of the federal government behind integration. On the eve of the 1960 election, Atlanta police arrested Martin Luther King, Jr. for participating in a sit-in against a segregated facility. Kennedy helped to secure King’s release, an effort that worked in his favor on Election Day. Civil rights activists believed Kennedy would promote a federal solution to resistance to the desegregation of schools, restaurants, and other public venues. But once in office, Kennedy acted slowly. He responded to situations only when they reached a crisis point. James Meredith’s attempts to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962 caused rioting on the campus. The president authorized the use of the U.S. Army and the National Guard to quell the violence; however, it was far from a proactive move. There is no doubt that Kennedy faced political obstacles to actively promoting civil rights– namely conservative southern Democrats – but when the president finally called on Congress to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill in June 1963, he did little to pressure members to embrace his call for change. Had Kennedy lived, he might have been successful in pressing the nation to accept integration. Nevertheless, in judging his greatness, he fell short of expectations on civil rights.

In addition to civil rights, Kennedy saw chronic poverty as a troubling concern. The president and many of his advisers had read Michael Harrington’s “Our Fifty Million Poor: Forgotten Men of the Affluent Society,” which appeared in Commentary magazine in 1959. In light of the evidence suggesting 50 million Americans lived below the poverty line, the administration began to discuss ways to decrease poverty. Kennedy successfully managed to secure the passage of an increase in the minimum wage and the creation of a federal job-training program, but such measures did little to help those who struggled to escape poverty no matter how well the economy did. Kennedy hoped to increase federal funding of education as a means to provide greater economic opportunity for the poor. While he proposed $2.3 billion in grants to states for constructing new schools and raising teacher salaries, the legislation stalled in Congress over whether the aid could be used for parochial or private schools. Kennedy, who did not want to risk support for his efforts to fight the Cold War, backed away from his support. He left his agenda largely unfulfilled.

To be fair, the president seemed to be moving to a more active position in 1963. Still, Kennedy’s shortcomings must be addressed. Yes, he accomplished notable things in office, but his tragic assassination does not mean we should not assess his presidency accurately. John F. Kennedy’s short presidency left domestic and foreign problems for his successors, a reality that has often been obscured because his assassination has given him almost heroic status. In remembering his assassination, it is important to temper his historical legacy with a more accurate picture of his presidency.

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

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2 Comments

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful assessments I have seen of Kennedy’s abbreviated presidency, giving both sides of the argument their due. I do think it’s worth remembering, though, that Jackie Kennedy gave the Camelot line to Theodore H. White in an interview soon after her husband’s death, and he ran it in Life Magazine. How much of it was her and how much of it was other mythmakers or just a wishful public? It’s interesting to consider. I believe Arthur Schlesinger, who obviously was a Kennedy admirer, once said that the first person to have said that Camelot line was silly was Kennedy himself.

  2. This has always been the great tension with Kennedy – he *seems* great, and many of his policies, when enhanced and enacted by LBJ, were near-revolutionary, yet he himself always seemed less willing than his southern successor to actually go you’re to toe with southern Democrats. I was surprised not to see a treatment of Kennedy’s foreign policy legacy here, which has the same tension – great rhetoric but often hesitation in the face of crisis (Bay of Pigs, Berlin to a degree). Thanks for the well balanced portrayal here!

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