Four Fresno State professors spoke Monday about the historical significance of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his legacy as president during a panel discussion.
Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the day Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in Dallas.
The panel, hosted by Phi Alpha Theta, included subjects ranging from conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination to Kennedy’s successes and failures in foreign policy.
The speakers included Dr. Lori Clune and Dr. Blain Roberts from the history department and Dr. Thomas Holyoke and Dr. Russell Mardon of the political science department.
Conspiracies surround his assassination
Clune said when Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald on live TV, there was a lack of answers about what actually happened and why.
“There is a mystery; there is an unknown, and into the unknown floods the weird and crazy,” Clune said.
Kennedy’s assassination has spawned conspiracy theories like few other events in history, Clune said. She said thousands of books and articles have been written about what may or may not have happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
The prevalence of conspiracy theories is so complete, Clune said, that as of this April, 59 percent of people believe that a conspiracy occurred concerning the Kennedy assassination
“That’s more Americans than agree on just about anything,” she said.
Clune said that Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy found it difficult to believe that Oswald worked alone to execute the assassination.
Quoting Johnson, she said, “What raced through my mind was that if they had shot our president driving down there, who would they shoot next and what was going on in Washington, and when would the missiles be coming? And I thought it was a conspiracy, and I raised that question and nearly everyone who was with me raised it as well.”
Johnson created the Warren Commission to find answers. Headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, it sought to create a definitive account of how the assassination happened.
However, Clune said that Johnson told them not to dig too deeply for fear of what they might find or reveal to the public.
“He argued if they proved that Castro was behind the assassination, the United States would have to invade Cuba. And then the Soviets would respond and that would be the start of World War III,” Clune said.
As a result, Clune argued that the real conspiracy may have been what the Warren Commission covered up and not the assassination itself.
Kennedy’s legislative legacy mixed
His assassination left a lasting mark on U.S. history, but there was more to his legacy than his death. Roberts addressed his record on civil rights legislation for women and African-Americans.
“He was a tragic hero whose life was cut short, his potential not realized,” she said of the narrative of Kennedy’s life and time as president in early textbooks. “His legislative achievements are portrayed, in these books, in an overwhelmingly positive light and sometimes even inaccurately.”
As time passed, Roberts said historians changed their view of Kennedy in the 1980s. She said in her own office is a “newish” textbook that describes Kennedy’s legislative achievements as modest and as making “no headway” on civil rights, aid to education and medical health insurance.
“I think it’s fair to say that his record on women’s rights is modest,” she said. “To say he made no headway in regards to black civil rights legislatively is accurate. Though his assassination precluded what might have been a major legislative achievement.”
Kennedy’s President’s Commission on The Status of Women, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was his biggest women’s right’s accomplishment, according to Roberts.
Even then, however, Roberts said there was a damaging contradiction at the core of the commission.
“The commission was responsible for ‘developing recommendations for overcoming discrimination in government and private employment on the basis of sex, and for developing recommendations for services which will enable women to continue their roles as wives and mothers.’
“So we’re going to help women in the workplace, but really we think women should be wives and mothers. In other words, the commission, by design, was somewhat conflicted as to what women should be doing: working or staying at home.”
She emphasized that there was important legislation that came out of the Kennedy administration, though. This included the Equal Pay Act, signed into law in the summer of 1963.
The law required that women working the same jobs as men must receive the same pay. Because of the high amount of sexual segregation amongst jobs in the work place, it was not as effective as it could have been.
“A law that required equal pay for comparable work would have had a larger impact,” Roberts argued.
Unlike the women’s movement at the time, the African-American civil rights movement was more established during Kennedy’s presidency.
Roberts said Kennedy passed up many opportunities to strengthen the cause unless his hand was forced. She cited the freedom riders and violence over southern black voter registration in which the government largely failed to protect activists.
“The Birmingham protest finally jolted President Kennedy to action, and in one of the most dramatic moments of his presidency, in June 1963, Kennedy addressed the American people on TV and radio, announcing his support for a civil rights bill.”
Political struggles of a young president
America has come a long way politically since the time of Kennedy’s election, Holyoke explained to the audience.
When Kennedy was elected, his religion was a major topic of discussion but it was different than recent religious debates regarding presidential candidates. He referenced his grandmother, who he said hated Kennedy because he was Catholic.
“She was certain that Kennedy was taking daily phone calls from the Vatican,” he said.
Once in office, Holyoke said Kennedy’s administration was largely reactive rather than proactive.
He said one reason for this was the fact that he only barely beat Richard Nixon in the election of 1960.
“We have a young president coming in, who has barely won an election. This is a president who is coming in with no mandate. He can claim no broad public support.”
As a result, “Everything is about strategizing for that next election.”
Holyoke explained that issues like civil rights drove a wedge between northern and southern Democrats, making Kennedy’s relationship with Congress contentious and a nearly impassable obstacle for passing legislation.
“Had Kennedy not died, could he have passed civil rights? My suspicion is probably not. Simply because Kennedy had started his time in office with very little clout, and by ’63 he really had no clout left at all,” Holyoke said.
“In the end, the Kennedy legacy in domestic policy and dealing with Congress, there’s really not a lot there.”
Kennedy’s controversial foreign policy
Although Kennedy only had a short time in office, Mardon talked about four policies he initiated. He argued that the first three of these policies could be viewed as failures.
The first was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The plan was to train Cuban refugees and equip them with American weapons to invade the island.
The hope was that it would galvanize a revolution to overthrow communist leader Fidel Castro. The attempt, which was organized by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration and executed early in Kennedy’s presidency, failed and was a black mark on his record.
The second was Kennedy’s expansion of aid to South Vietnam in its fight against the communist North Vietnamese forces.
“Immediately after he comes into office, he ordered an executive order through the National Security Council to expand military assistance,” Mardon said. “And by the time that Kennedy died, we had about 25,000 troops in Vietnam. So things were building up.”
Kennedy believed in the “domino theory:” that if one country fell to communism, so would its neighbors.
The third piece of foreign policy was Alliance for Progress, designed to send aid to build up the infrastructure and military of allied South American countries to fend off communism.
“The thinking was, first we will give the governments of those countries military assistance to build up their militaries so that revolutionaries can’t overthrow them. They’ll have the power edge,” Mardon explained.
“We will give them economic assistance to help them build ports and better power plants and better railways, but the idea, of course, is to integrate them into a strategic alliance with the United States economically.”
However, he said that this led to a military buildup that outpaced industrial development, leading to well-trained armies that started to seize power in coups.
Mardon wrapped up the discussion with the tense political and military showdown between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“There were no good options. Eventually Kennedy opted for what made a logical progression. Let’s start with a blockade,” he said.
Although Kennedy might have looked strong publicly, Mardon noted that a secret deal between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s ambassador was hatched.
In exchange for removing the missiles from Cuba, America removed its own missiles from Turkey and vowed not to invade Cuba.