This Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death. Although Kennedy is discussed frequently and countless books are written about him seemingly every year, the 50th anniversary of his assassination surely calls for a more commemorative moment.
For many Americans, Kennedy was, and remains, a curiously special and intriguing president. To this day, he continues to capture our attention, interest and admiration. Kennedy’s intrigue is not entirely surprising; he was a unique president.
He was a magnetic presence, charismatic and charming, full of optimism, confidence and conviction. The youngest president to ever be elected to the White House, he was dynamic, and brought a new energy to the White House. His presidential leadership was accessible and exciting.
The promises Kennedy made throughout his presidential campaign of 1960 were bold and strong. Internationally, the United States was engaged in the threatening and monumental Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Domestically, Americans were faced with the violence of racial segregation in the South and were confronted with the Civil Rights Movement.
We were also facing other concerns, including an economic recession. Kennedy boldly commanded the American people’s attention in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, against Richard Nixon: “Therefore, I think the question before the American people is: Are we doing as much as we can do? […] I should make it very clear that I do not think we’re doing enough, that I am not satisfied as an American with the progress that we’re making. This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country…”
When Kennedy entered office in January of 1961, he took on a series of challenges and reforms which were aggressive, liberal and progressive.
On the one hand, he sought to push the country forward, in terms of science, technology and industry. He called his administration, “the new frontier.”
He made it a priority to secure funding for the space program with a request of nearly $9 billion from Congress, with the goal that we would land an American astronaut safely on the moon. He signed off on liberal legislation including an increase in the minimum wage, expansion of unemployment benefits, an increase of Social Security benefits and he sought to increase the development of infrastructure at home.
Only two months into his presidency, he also established the Peace Corps, an organization which allowed Americans to serve impoverished countries, with the hopes of establishing and sustaining peaceful relations through development.
Of significance, he was also a strong champion for women’s rights, evident in his creation of the Commission on the Status of Women in December of 1961. He and subsequent lobbied for the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which prohibited paying women lower wages than men for the same job. Kennedy was instrumental in the promotion of gender equality, both in education and employment.
Despite these progressive advances, Kennedy also revealed his human side in very real blunders — for instance, in the failed invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Under direction from the U.S., a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles attempted to invade Cuba and oust Communist dictator Fidel Castro. Castro’s army stopped the invaders, and the plan failed, a huge embarrassment for Kennedy and his administration.
Although a public failure, Kennedy also publicly admitted responsibility. During the following year in October of 1962 an American U2 spy plane snapped pictures that showed the construction of Soviet missile bases in Cuba.
Kennedy immediately called a special meeting of his top advisers, who urged him during very intense hours of discussion to launch air strikes as soon as possible to destroy the bases.
Kennedy carefully considered all sides, understanding the very real danger behind such an act, as this could bring the world to nuclear war if the Soviet Union retaliated.
Today, it seems rather levelheaded and logical of Kennedy to, instead, take a more cautious approach, opting for a naval blockade and negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Yet, at the time this was not necessarily the most-obvious choice. Considering the context of the Cold War and the various options, counsel and support for aggression, it could be said it was somewhat fateful Kennedy was president at this particular place and moment in time.
What soon followed was the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August of 1963, as the Soviet Union and the U.S. both promised to not test nuclear bombs in air, space or water.
Historians also debate his stance on Vietnam, as he is partly responsible for escalating the American presence. Kennedy tripled the amount of American economic and military aid to the South and increased the number of military advisers.
He is also critiqued for failing to take more initiative on the Civil Rights Movement, something he had promised to do throughout his presidential campaign.
Although he was initially lukewarm to political legislation for civil rights, by 1963 with massive demonstrations, violence and police brutality in Birmingham, Ala., he finally responded in June by proposing a new civil rights bill.
It made segregation illegal in all interstate rooms and housing, promised equal employment opportunities and gave the attorney general the ability to file school integration suits.
It also stipulated federal money would be withheld from federal programs that discriminated and removed a barrier that prevented voting by declaring a sixth-grade education to be sufficient for literacy. For the organizers and leaders of the civil rights movement, this was finally the long-awaited legislative response for which they were hoping.
Although Kennedy’s record is mixed and we can recognize his blunders, mistakes and flaws, there are times in which we must recognize great leaders when we are presented with them, and it does not happen very often.
Entering the presidency in 1961, he was seemingly eager, aggressive and ready to fulfill the large leadership role for which the office called. He made sure the American people knew he was more than just a president; he was a capable and strong leader who would boldly confront the challenges we faced.
Yet the overwhelming particularities and complexities he encountered in office called for different attributes, for something more.
Kennedy listened and contemplated; he showed intelligence, restraint, humbleness and the ability to face overwhelming events with a perspective that reached beyond his own role. It is my humble opinion Kennedy showed a type of leadership that is unique, as at particular crucial and key moments he responded to circumstances with a larger consciousness; beyond the realm of politics or power struggles.
He was capable of acting with a spirit focused on the larger picture, without worrying about ego, competency or credibility. When circumstances called for it, Kennedy showed he was capable of rising above. He had a spark of a special quality, a particular character that came out at small moments, but they were moments that had historic consequences.
If Kennedy would have lived, would he have calmed down the escalation of Vietnam? We will never know. Was he perfect? Certainly not.
What we do know is that he delicately steered our country in a crucial and very delicate time, leaving a significant legacy behind that we as Americans can all continue to learn from; as great presidents not only shape their country, but are shaped by it in equal proportions.
About the author
Toini Hiipakka a graduate student studying history. She loves grapefruit, and has a crush on Lyndon B. Johnson.