Fifty years after his death, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s legacy shines. To him, foreign policy was crucial, and his greatest achievement remains that he successfully navigated the threat of a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union.
David Barrett, Kennedy expert and political science professor at Villanova University, said Kennedy must get credit for the fact that “we survived the Cuban missile crisis.” His skills, ability to listen to diverse points of view, and his empathy for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev allowed him to avert a disaster.
One of his generals called his search for a peaceful solution appeasement. Barrett called that a big insult, adding that Kennedy remained calm and that this is what led to his success.
Kennedy learned from the failed CIA covert operation, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, to be skeptical of military and intelligence advisers. His skepticism helped him act wisely in the missile crisis, according to Barrett.
Civil Rights Redefined
Kennedy was a slow and reluctant advocate for racial equality. He hesitated to offend segregationist Democrats in the South.
Yet when he recast civil rights as a moral issue, his words marked a turning point. Though he did not start or finish the movement, he changed the way Americans thought about it.
In 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., the police department, led by Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, attacked peaceful protesters, including women and children, with dogs and fire hoses.
Soon after, Kennedy went on television and said of the civil rights activists, “They are acting not out of a sense of legal duty, but out of a sense of human decency.
“Like our soldiers and sailors in all parts of the world they are meeting freedom’s challenge on the firing line, and I salute them for their honor and their courage.”
Kennedy called for a federal Civil Rights Act, but it was not his fate to sign it into law. President Lyndon Johnson signed it in 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act in 1965 prohibiting discrimination in voting.
Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight Eisenhower had remained neutral about civil rights, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover regarded the activists with suspicion and worked against them.
Kennedy’s speech led to legislation that addressed his question of “whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Though Kennedy’s moral conviction about civil rights was sincere, his support was also part of the Cold War drive to beat the Soviets, according to University of Virginia associate professor Barbara A. Perry. She is co-chair of the Miller Center Oral History Program and an authority on the Kennedy presidency.
Many things that started in the Kennedy administration and changed America in the long term were born from Kennedy’s wish to beat communism, according to Perry.
The space program was about demonstrating an ability to dream big and accomplish big dreams. His setting the challenge of landing a man on the moon led to a technological revolution that is still benefiting America and the world, said Perry. The innovation it prompted led to the invention of computers, and other math and engineering advances that transformed society.
Countering the Communist Narrative
Communists wooed developing nations with tales of support for racial equality, in contrast to America’s segregation. Kennedy understood that Jim Crow inequality was a propaganda gift to the communists, according to Perry. Thus, Kennedy used various ways to counter their narrative.
The Kennedy White House held 16 state dinners, often for visiting leaders from developing countries. The first lady brought fine artists and performers to the dinners. Mrs. Kennedy restored the historic rooms and paintings in the White House, sparking a new interest in high culture. “I do find it fascinating, that soft power the Kennedys used to attract” world leaders and ordinary people to America, said Perry.
“We defeated the Soviets in the end, we beat their way of life,” said Miller.
Kennedy cherished the idea of public service, and started the Peace Corps in the same spirit that he offered White House hospitality. It was a way of showing the best of America, by sending people into the world as friends and helpers. It was also a tool in his Cold War arsenal.
The Peace Corps is going strong after 50 plus years, said Perry. Her cousin joined the Peace Corps in 1964 to teach English in Ethiopia, and it was the start of a lifetime of service. At age 70 that cousin works at the State Department. Her career was inspired by Kennedy, according to Perry.
Kennedy’s least fortunate legacy is the Vietnam War, of course. Scholars have mixed opinions about what he would have done had he lived, and about how much responsibility Kennedy bears for the conflict. According to Barrett, his administration was in disarray about Vietnam, and he did not know what the right policy should be.
Still, his greatest legacy is intangible. It is that he continues to inspire people to this day.
Perry said she participated in a State Department video conference on Nov. 21 with young people from New Delhi, India.
She said, “They all wanted to learn about JFK—people in their twenties.”