Fifty years ago President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and possibly a web of mysterious associates. The “Who Killed Kennedy?” debate has continued and remains alive these many years since the tragedy in Dallas. Less frequent but important discussion recently has arisen about the effectiveness of the Kennedy Administration on domestic and foreign policy. I wish to address these issues in three parts.
First, candidate Kennedy inspired a massive sense of enthusiasm from younger Americans, many first-time voters. His youth, his vigor, his articulateness, and his call for public service resonated with a generation of youth who were beginning to follow the growing struggles for racial justice in the South. In addition young people who began to pay attention to politics in the late 1950s were increasingly frustrated by the Cold War and the cloud of possible annihilation resulting from the spread of nuclear weapons. In this political climate the young presidential candidate appealed to the best instincts of many American youth. Ironically, the Kennedy mystique inspired a generation of activists whose struggles against racism and the Vietnam War would have appalled the President if he had lived.
Second, as to civil rights, the Kennedy Administration, much like the Eisenhower Administration that preceded it, was a reluctant supporter of the courageous activism, of young people in the South. The activists, Black-led and white supported-- primarily of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-- courageously fought against racial injustice with little support from the federal government: including Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department , and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by the notorious anti-Communist zealot J. Edgar Hoover. The Kennedy Administration would have preferred if the historically significant 1963 March on Washington had not occurred. Key representatives of the administration sought to moderate march organizers’ militant demands for racial equality and economic justice.
Third, as to foreign policy, Kennedy surrounded himself with vigorous, articulate, ideologically rigid anti-Communists. While he and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deescalated tensions after the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is clear that the President was willing to go to war, destroying both countries in the process, if he did not achieve a symbolic victory, the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba soil (even though the Secretary of Defense and others had advised him that the weapons on the island did not change the balance of power between the two military giants). In the end, while the Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba was foolish, it was Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw the missiles that saved the world from destruction.
On Vietnam, JFK added 16,000 military “advisers” to South Vietnam during his three year term. He launched the “Strategic Hamlet Program,” which moved thousands of Vietnamese villagers to South Vietnamese government “secure” areas. He launched the program to train Special Forces or Green Berets to fight counterinsurgent wars. He provided military advisers and resources to dictatorships elsewhere including small countries in Latin America. The Kennedy programs were part of a plan to “modernize” what was then called the “Third World” or the “developing countries.” His key aides in this global effort were military advisers such as retired General Maxwell Taylor, defense intellectuals such as Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and William Bundy, and academic advisors such as Walter Rostow. Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was a long-time diplomat who vigorously opposed what he regarded as the Communist strategy of “wars of national liberation.” For him Vietnam was a test case of United States resolve in the war against Communism.
In short, despite limited evidence from some of Kennedy’s closest supporters, the President for three years promoted a global agenda to push back what he and they regarded as International Communism, arguing that if given a choice, peasant villagers in Vietnam would choose the South Vietnamese government over the government of the North and former guerrilla fighters in the South who fought French colonial rule. JFK’s global vision, like his predecessors and successors, was to promote a global United States agenda that, contrary to predictions, increased violent opposition in the world. There is no compelling evidence that President Kennedy would have reversed the course of United States foreign policy by ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam if he had lived.
Ironically, the nearly forgotten successor to Kennedy was Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He proceeded to mobilize a recalcitrant Congress to pass major civil rights legislation, Medicare, and programs under the rubric of the War on Poverty, which for a time reduced poverty in America to the lowest levels in the twentieth century. He supported policies which established effective pre-school programs and empowered some heretofore marginalized peoples in urban communities to be politically engaged. Tragically, these programs lost their popularity and funding as the Vietnam War escalated.
In sum, candidate and President John F. Kennedy was a political inspiration for many of the sixties generation but as president did not live up to what he promised either in terms of civil rights or foreign policy.