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John F. Kennedy, Twenty Years Later
Was the murdered President one of our best, a man of “vigor, rationality, and noble vision” or was he “an optical illusion,” “an expensively programmed waxwork”? A noted historian examines the mottled evolution of his reputation.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Some historians have offered a spirited rebuttal, too, to the allegation that Kennedy was an implacable Cold Warrior. They point out that as early as 1961 he was saying, “the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient … we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind. ” They note, also, how often he showed restraint—in resisting loud demands to invade Cuba or to smash the Berlin Wall, in accepting compromise on Laos, in taking pains not to discomfort Khrushchev unnecessarily in the missile crisis. “Most conspicuous,” wrote the critic Hannah Arendt, ”… were the extremes to which he did not go.” The historian Henry Pachter, who was critical of much of the President’s performance, stated, “Kennedy’s true claim to fame in matters of foreign policy is his genuine reversal of American attitudes to the Third World,” especially in encouraging acceptance of neutralism and socialism and in taking “long shots” on “unsafe leaders” like Nkrumah. If the Alliance for Progress was flawed, it nonetheless represented a new attitude. Kennedy is perceived as an innovator who established the Peace Corps, which sent volunteers from Togo to Sarawak; negotiated the Test Ban Treaty, a first step, in his words, toward getting “the genie back in the bottle”; and set up the hotline between the Pentagon and the Kremlin. (It was first tested while Kennedy was in office, and a puzzled Russian operator replied, “Please explain what is meant by a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog.”) His defenders claim either that Kennedy had already made plans to withdraw from Vietnam or that, given what one knows about him, it is unreasonable to assume that he would have persisted as Johnson did. “He would have understood the opposition to the war as it arose,” the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has written, “and he would not have let his own ego get in the way of adjusting to the country’s deepening perception.” Finally, his proponents note that his American University speech in June 1963 departed abruptly from the rhetoric of the Cold War. “For, in the final analysis,” Kennedy said, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Perhaps the most judicious appreciation of Kennedy has come from a man who might have been expected to have been a critic, the socialist Michael Harrington, who said in 1973: “The claim I make for his historic significance is both restrained and major. Within the limits of the possible, as defined by his own pragmatic liberalism and the reactionary congressional power arrayed against it, he developed to a surprising degree. How far he would have gone, we will never know. (Robert Kennedy, who survived his brother by a little less than five years, spent them in making the most extraordinary pilgrimage a practicing politician has ever traveled. What if John Kennedy had had those years too?) John F. Kennedy … must be judged not as a shining knight nor as a failed hero but as a man of his time and place.… He was not, of course, a radical and it is silly to accuse him, as some of his disillusioned followers have, of not having carried out basic transformations of the system. That was never his intention and had it been the people would not have elected him President.
“And yet, within the context of his political and personal limitations, John F. Kennedy grew enormously. He arrived at the White House a young, and not terribly distinguished, senator from the Eisenhower years with a tiny margin of victory and a Dixiecrat-Republican majority against him in the Congress.
“The America which inaugurated him in January, 1961, still believed in the verities of the Cold War (as did Kennedy in his speech of that day), in the sanctity of the balanced budget, and it had not begun to come to terms with that great mass movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The America which mourned John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, was different. It was not transformed—but it was better. That was Kennedy’s modest and magnificent achievement.”
In the years to come, historians, while continuing to refine their estimates of Kennedy, will probably conclude that there is more to the history of this time than deciding whether Kennedy deserves to be admitted to the Valhalla of “Great Presidents,” assigned to the vestibule of the “near great” or shoved into more crowded quarters with all the rest.
The subject invites the attention of the social historian and the cultural historian. William Carleton has reflected on Kennedy as a romantic hero: “Strange that he should have come out of the America of the machine and mass production. Or is it? People in our prosaic age, particularly young Americans, were yearning for a romantic hero, as the James Dean cult among our youth reveals. Now they have an authentic one.” Mark Gelfand, an authority on the history of the city, has pointed out that Kennedy was the spokesman of postindustrial America, of a metropolitan sophistication far removed from the sensibility of an Al Smith. (When Kennedy first ran for office, an observer noted with astonishment that “he never even went to a wake unless he knew the deceased personally.”) Kennedy, the critic David Bazelon has written, succeeded in “ridding us at last of Abe’s log cabin … and allowing us to enter a twentieth-century fantasy with city immigrants as heroes, instead of homesteading farmers.”