View Mobile Site

JFK, 50 years later: Kennedy’s death left us hanging on the legacy question

POSTED: November 22, 2013 1:09 a.m.

It may be one of the biggest “what if” debates in political history.

Had an assassin’s bullet not taken President John F. Kennedy’s life, how would his presidency have played out?

Kennedy had a full plate of domestic and foreign issues before dying 50 years ago today after being shot during a downtown Dallas motorcade, leaving some area scholars and historians to wonder if the glow around his presidency may have faded as he faced trial after trial on the American and world stages.

“No president who is in office, for two terms especially, leaves office with the same reputation they have going into it,” said Glen Kyle, director of the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville.

Kennedy entered office in 1961 as a breath of fresh air for many Americans. The first president born in the 20th century, he had a glamorous wife and young family. He talked about self-sacrifice, serving the country and landing an astronaut on the moon by the decade’s end.

But he faced many challenges during his roughly 1,000 days in office, including a showdown with the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba, a failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba, widespread racial discrimination and instability in Vietnam.

“There’s nothing like martyrdom to make people remember the good and be less mindful of the not so good,” said James Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“What happens is the domestic side of his policy up to that point, which was pretty lackluster in terms of results, is — because of him being assassinated — sort of pushed aside, along with the fact that he brought a very distinctive style to the presidency.”

Many civil rights supporters laud the Democratic president for his stances on that issue, but that was a tricky issue for Kennedy, especially in the South, which still voted largely Democratic.

“He had come around very, very reluctantly to the idea of really establishing a high profile in support of a civil rights agenda,” said Cobb, who teaches in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History.

Kennedy’s death “gave an opening” to his successor, Lyndon Johnson, “to sort of play on Kennedy’s martyrdom as one of his weapons in trying to build up support for civil rights (legislation) and undermine the opposition,” Cobb said.

“If you want to look at a very tangible outcome of (Kennedy’s death), you’d have to look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Chris Jespersen, the dean of the University of North Georgia’s College of Arts & Letters and a history professor, said Johnson also was able to skillfully push through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited imposing any voting qualifications or denying the right to vote on account of race or color.

“I think it’s reasonable to question whether Kennedy would have been able to accomplish the same things, not because Kennedy wasn’t as committed to it, but if you look at his record up until 1963 ... he’s very cagey in the ways he handles things,” Jespersen said.

Vietnam was an emerging issue on the foreign scene, and there is some question as to how Kennedy would have led the U.S. in that conflict had he lived.

After World War II, the French tried to re-establish colonial control over a region comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Following the defeat of the French, Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva Accord of 1954 into communist North Vietnam and noncommunist South Vietnam, according to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent some 700 military personnel as well as military and economic aid to the government of South Vietnam.

“The effort was foundering when (Kennedy) became president,” according to the JFK library’s website.

Eventually, Kennedy “accelerated the flow of American aid and gradually increased U.S. military advisers to more than 16,000.”

Three weeks before Kennedy died, the South Vietnamese government was overthrown and its president assassinated.

“In the final weeks of his life, President Kennedy wrestled with the future of the United States’ commitment in Vietnam,” the library states. “Whether he would have increased military involvement or negotiated a withdrawal of military personnel still remains hotly debated.”

Jespersen believes Kennedy’s record in Vietnam could signal his future moves.

“It’s a policy of escalation,” he said. “Those who want to claim he would not have done like Johnson did, they have perfect opportunity to do that because we don’t know what would have happened.

“One thing that is clear is that when Johnson became president, he wanted to continue Kennedy’s policies, and he thought he was doing that in Vietnam.”

By 1968, under Johnson’s watch, the number of U.S. forces in Vietnam surpassed 500,000.

Still, during his short time in office, Kennedy inspired hope in the future for many Americans.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Jespersen said. At the same time, Kennedy was “reckless,” as characterized particularly in the Bay of Pigs Cuba invasion.

“I’m not certain that, if he had lived, the kind of expectations that were raised would not have met the reality that caused a lot of the rage, anger and protests that beset Johnson.”

Kyle said: “When you look at the politics of the time, he was not nearly as popular as perhaps popular memory now thinks of him. There was a lot of controversy surrounding some of his decisions.”

Cobb, who was in high school study hall when the shooting happened, said one “can make an argument as well that, in a sense, Kennedy’s assassination had sort of left expectations for whomever was in the Oval Office that were going to be very hard to duplicate, for any of his immediate successors.

“You don’t get somebody who comes close to that until Ronald Reagan in 1980.”

Despite their partisan differences, “there are a lot of ways in which Reagan’s style as president is reminiscent of Kennedy’s.”


Contents of this site are © Copyright 2010 The Times, Gainesville, GA. All rights reserved. Privacy policy and Terms of service

Powered by
Morris Technology
Please wait ...