Fifty years ago today, the 35th President of the United States of America was shot dead as his car drove through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
The brutal shock of the assassination made it one of the defining moments of the 20th century: those of us who were alive at the time remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. Personally, I was in a cinema in London watching the newly-released West Side Story, when a news flash was projected onto the screen. A loud gasp went up from the audience.
Fifty years on, a tidal wave of books, media events and films shows that Kennedy’s assassination is still a subject of intense interest, as well as the source of many conspiracy theories.
Why have the events of that day had such a powerful impact, not just in the United States but also in the United Kingdom, on the European continent and elsewhere?
Of course, the killing of an American President is in itself an extraordinary and memorable event. In JFK’s case, it was made more poignant by his relative youth—he was 43—and the presence of his wife Jackie, sitting next to him in the car when he was shot. The fact that he was killed by a deluded and unstable ‘loser’ somehow made it all seem worse, particularly for his fellow Americans; this is one reason why conspiracy theories have persisted.
But there is more to it than this. JFK’s death seemed symbolic: a man in whom so much hope had been invested was cut off in his prime, during his first term as President, before he had a chance to show what he could achieve. Despite subsequent criticism of Kennedy, both professionally and personally, this remains the perception: but how well is it rooted in fact?
A look at the global context of Kennedy’s Presidency, and of his death, helps to explain why his assassination represented a turning point in history.
A President for peace
Every political leader in the early 1960s had lived through, and often served in World War II. Kennedy, a decorated veteran, was no exception. But that did not stop him from being seen, and portraying himself, as the first of a new, non-military generation of American leaders: his predecessor was, after all, the wartime Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Like any newly-elected leader, Kennedy spoke of, and envisaged, a brighter, more prosperous and more peaceful future for his country and indeed for the world, starting with his famous Inauguration Address.
A gifted speaker with a formidable speechwriting team, Kennedy continued to articulate his vision and inspire audiences right up to his death. A constant theme of his speeches was peace.
Not, as he said at The American University on 10 June 1963:
a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.
the peace of the grave or the security of the slave,
genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life worth living. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
(Read the American University Speech in full).
Fifteen years after the Second World War, and less than ten after the Korean conflict, this was a potent and attractive message, as was the idea of cutting spending on armaments to combat ignorance, poverty and disease. But on the day of his 1963 speech, Congress passed its largest ever defence budget: and Kennedy’s presidency had already seen the world come closer to nuclear annihilation than ever before.
A hot period in a cold war
Kennedy’s short presidency encompassed one of the most dangerous and frightening periods of the Cold War, including the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.
In addition, civil war in Laos and increasing tension between South and North Vietnam foreshadowed America’s long and painful involvement in south-east Asia, while Communist China, increasingly self-confident and aggressive, split with its Soviet mentor and contemplated developing nuclear weapons.
Cuba, after the humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs expedition in April 1961, intended to stir up revolt against Fidel Castro, remained a festering sore to many Americans. It was a hot period in a cold war, and Kennedy was in the thick of it. Beset by competing advice from Congress, from the US military, from allies and those who hoped for American aid, Kennedy faced a basic dilemma: how could the US stand firm in the fight against global communism, while avoiding a nuclear cataclysm?
‘Nothing really happened’
In October 1964, nearly a year after Kennedy’s death, his friend, ally and mentor Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1957-63, wrote in his diary that:
poor Jack achieved nothing positive... In spite of all the talk, on defence on monetary policy, on tariffs─nothing really happened.
Yet Macmillan admired and mourned Kennedy, whom he regarded as a great statesmen. It is true that Kennedy did not prevent the Vietnam War; did not resolve US policy towards Castro’s Cuba; did not tear down the Berlin Wall, let alone end the Cold War; did not achieve a significant diversion of resources from armaments to the eradication of poverty... But expectations of Kennedy’s presidency were so high that disappointment was inevitable, and many of the subsequent criticisms of his actions (or inaction) owe much to hindsight.
It is part of what Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman calls the ‘drive to replace history as celebration by history as indictment’.
There is another way of looking at this. ‘Nothing really happened’ might be seen as a considerable achievement in the context of 1961-63.
There was no nuclear war in 1962 over the placing of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Despite the tensions with the Soviet Union over Berlin, a modus vivendi was reached on a divided Germany, and a Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963.
The Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek did not, as he threatened, invade the mainland in 1962; border clashes between India and the People’s Republic of China did not result in war.
Kennedy exploited a potentially dangerous Sino-Soviet split to promote useful détente with the USSR. His willingness to negotiate defused the Skybolt crisis of December 1962, when cancellation of a US nuclear missile project threw Britain’s independent deterrent capability into doubt.
Of course, Kennedy did not do all these things single-handedly, and many of his plans went awry. But it is possible to argue that he left the world in a better position in 1963 than in 1961. The policies and decisions of the leader of the world’s greatest superpower affected everyone: whatever his failings or his faults, John F Kennedy was a symbol of hope for the future; a promise to try to do better.
His most enduring legacy is perhaps his belief that this was possible:
Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.
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