Reconsidering JFK’s legacy 50 years later

Jennifer McDonell, ’16

John F. Kennedy has a legacy as one of America’s great statesmen because of his death, but not necessarily because of his life. Some may remember him as the great leader who advocated for the furthering of NASA in the 1960s, while others may remember him as the darling of American media. Some remember him as the president who paved the way to the Vietnam War and the scandal caused during the Bay of Pigs. Yet, all remember the tragic assassination that ended his life.  It’s been 50 years since that fatal day in Dallas, and it’s time to stop looking at JFK’s presidency through rose-colored glasses.

The Kennedy boys were groomed for a political career

The accomplishments that typically come up when JFK’s legacy is mentioned are milestones like the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the eventual success of the space program.  These things are great examples of Americana, but they’re high-school history textbook fare.  They don’t accurately depict the impact on American life or actual policy change his presidency had.  When we think about JFK’s presidency in those regards, we must see through the glitz and glamor and debate the facts.

Penetrating that glitz and glamor is a tough task.  Patrick McLean, director for the Ford Institute for Public Policy at Albion College, notes, “JFK had an aura about him, about his family and about what the United States as a country could do.”  The Kennedy family has dominated American news headlines for decades; everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Taylor Swift has had a fling with a Kennedy.  An illustrious family, sometimes nicknamed the “American Royal Family” with ancestry dating back to the beginnings of American history, the Kennedys were a great stepping stone for a career in politics. The Kennedy boys were groomed for a political career, considering their father had his heart set on one of the three becoming president. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of their late father, his dreams were realized when John was sworn into office. From 1964-2011, there has been a Kennedy in a position of power in the federal government, constituting a Kennedy presence for a large portion of history.

He had so much yet to do for us

From the time Kennedy was a boy, he was introduced to the “noblesse oblige” mindset towards charity and philanthropy that his parents were heavily involved in. Their greatest duty would be to help those less fortunate because of the wealth and status they had. JFK would later use this sense of duty to further his work in the civil rights movements going on during this time. McLean remarks, “JFK was the most aspirational of any President. He challenged not just the country as a whole, but individuals.” He signed the first legislation in the United States supporting affirmative action, giving people of all races a legal opportunity for equality.

So there’s the basic presentation of Kennedy as most know him: the rich, beautiful, young president who made great strides for America, tragically taken from us by an assassin’s bullet.  He had so much yet to do for us, some say, but was killed before his time.  However, popularity and public approval ratings don’t say much about the impact of his policies.

Kennedy made some controversial moves during his short time in office, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The failure of the U.S. to remove Castro’s administration through military means emboldened the young revolutionary leader to explore his ties with the USSR, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  One of Kennedy’s most-hailed accomplishments is his “brinkmanship,” the way he took the world to the edge of nuclear war in order to gain advantage over the Soviets. It’s great that we’re on the right side of history looking back, but remember, brinkmanship only came into play once Kennedy’s foreign policy had failed drastically.

Kennedy’s foreign policy also had effects that went far beyond the span of his presidency.  He sponsored the continuation of action in Vietnam, sending more military “advisors” and supplies to the South Vietnamese.  Although he never got to sign an official order on the war, as a Good American, Kennedy feared the spread of Communism and planned to contain it as a matter of policy.  His policies gave Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) the go-ahead to escalate.

It seems appropriate to reconsider his legacy

Despite these missteps, the dark patches of Kennedy’s record are often glossed over.  Why?  Did his death force Americans to run away from the problem of their nation’s shattered innocence?  Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the greats, and he trampled all over the Constitution.  What does it mean for a president’s legacy to be assassinated?

“The assassination ironically preserved his legacy better than it would have survived had he lived,” McLlean said.  “He took on a saintly status because of that, which would be hard for any president to live up to.  One of the things that’s interesting to ask questions about is whether LBJ, who succeeded him, did things that JFK would have tried to do.  I’ve found that JFK was more cautious, and LBJ knew the political landscape and was able to push through landmark legislation.  One might wonder what would have happened in the 1960s and how history would have played out if we’d had more of a cautious President.”

As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death draws near, it seems appropriate to reconsider his legacy.  We like to think of Kennedy as the American hero who fought the commies, fought for freedom and inspired a great peace at home.  Unfortunately, the reality of it is no American president is a goody-goody.  They all, JFK included, are just human, even if the media portrays them on an untouchable pedestal. Where he may not have been the worst president, JFK was by no means the white knight who saved America. Death can often muddle things, and in this case, death sustained Kennedy as an American ideal, and not an American truth.

Photo courtsey of Abbie Rowe, Wikimedia Commons

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