As historians and journalists downgrade the legacy of President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death this week, ordinary citizens around the globe will remember a cherished figure.
More than all but the greatest U.S. presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt — Kennedy is an icon of American political culture. Yet, as New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson observed recently, there has never been a major historical work on the Kennedy presidency, a contrast with significant presidents before him and several who followed.
Even contemporary assessments, which are on balance more negative than those of a generation ago, are replete with contradictions. (A personal note: I am chairman of the nonpartisan Profile in Courage Committee at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.)
On civil rights, the burning issue of the day, he was late. Historic advances for minorities were achieved by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet it was Kennedy who put civil rights on the agenda, sent troops to the South to enforce integration and made it a moral issue, at no small political cost.
Under his watch, starting with a disastrous 1961 summit in Vienna with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviets were emboldened to be more aggressive. Yet when Soviet missiles were detected in Cuba, Kennedy provided a textbook lesson in presidential leadership. Having absorbed the lessons of Barbara Tuchman’s work on the origins of World War I, “The Guns of August,” he was acutely aware of the dangers of a small mishap and rebuffed trigger-happy generals.
He also shrewdly heeded the instincts of his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and gave the Soviets a way to save face. It was the world’s closest brush with nuclear war, and Kennedy’s skills may well have saved 20 million to 30 million lives.
It was during the Kennedy administration that the U.S.’ involvement in Vietnam slowly escalated. At the time of his death, there were 16,000 American forces there. Would he, like Johnson, have increased that number more than thirty-fold over the next four years and stuck with that mistaken war? After all, Johnson was following the counsel of Kennedy advisers. Yet there are indications that Kennedy, had he lived, might have shuffled his foreign policy team and resisted the anti-communist war lobby. McGeorge Bundy, a leading adviser to Kennedy and Johnson and an architect of the Vietnam disaster, believed JFK would have avoided that costly war, according to his biographer.
There were important achievements: He was the first (and so far only) Catholic president, he initiated a nuclear test ban treaty, and he developed space exploration and the Peace Corps.
And there was his rhetorical eloquence. Over the past century, no president’s words, save for FDR’s, have left such a mark: Think of “Ask not what your country can do for you,” or “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Whatever the historians’ verdict, Kennedy remains an inspiration, even to those who were born well after his death. In the recently published “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation,” Scott Reich, a young attorney, captures the president’s devotion to courage, public service and citizenship.
This may be why the Kennedy aura still flourishes today. Fifty years from now, there probably will be important histories of the 1,036 days of the Kennedy presidency, perhaps with mixed verdicts. Chances are, however, that much of the world will still celebrate the gifted and elegant politician that their grandparents told them about.
Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News