How should we remember JFK?

BY DI STAFF | NOVEMBER 22, 2013 5:00 AM

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Fifty years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most popular presidents, though historians are split on his legacy. Was he a progressive reformer cut down before his agenda could bloom or a calculating politician whose escalation of the Cold War nearly cost America dearly?

A dangerous and manipulative bully

It’s easy to idealize the past. Childhood was great, except everyone was micromanaging your life. The 1950s were wonderful, unless you were, you know, not a white guy. The presidency of the late, allegedly great John Fitzgerald Kennedy was another such time.

He was a charming guy. Hell, he would intimidate journalists one minute for reporting news that didn’t suit him, and the next minute he’d flatter them.

Kennedy is fondly remembered for his charisma, youth, and unfulfilled presidency. Many say he would have signed civil-rights legislation. Publicly, he implied he might, but behind closed doors, Kennedy encouraged the movement’s leaders not to demonstrate en masse, instead pressuring them to simply vote. If anything, he avoided improving civil rights whenever possible.

It’s also common to say Kennedy would have withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam, but he continued with the increasingly aggressive policies of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before him by deploying thousands of military advisers and initiating combat operations in Vietnam.

Maybe Kennedy would have ended the Cold War and prevented Vietnam. Or perhaps he would have killed us all, as he came very close to doing.

Kennedy vowed to close an alleged missile gap with the Soviet Union during the 1960 presidential campaign. Indeed there was a gap, but contrary to his assertions, we were well ahead of the Soviet Union. So Kennedy fulfilled his campaign promise (sort of) by bolstering the U.S. nuclear armory and freaking out the Soviets, thus exacerbating the arms race.

Then the CIA tried to overthrow Fidel Castro in Communist Cuba. I don’t fault Kennedy for the initial attempt because the plan existed before he entered office. But the CIA’s plan failed miserably after Kennedy reluctantly agreed.

Failing to learn from the past was Kennedy’s error. He continued to screw around with Cuba and launched a covert effort to destabilize the regime. After that, the plan was to invade. Kennedy orchestrated many assassination attempts on Castro and funneled aid to right-wing dictators across Latin America to stop social reformers.

Eventually, the provocations by the United States, which included placing nuclear missiles in Turkey had gone too far. The Soviet Union and Cuba agreed to station their own missiles on the small Caribbean island, initiating the Cuban Missiles Crisis, and the United States was brought to the brink of nuclear war.

Kennedy was a dangerous and manipulative bully whose arrogance nearly annihilated all of us. History has been far too kind to his memory.

Jon Overton

A strong and capable leader

It’s hard to imagine the type of world we’d be living in — or what would be left of it — had Richard Nixon been victorious in the 1960 presidential election. Luckily, the race was won by a candidate who would eventually prove he was as calm and collected in the Oval Office as he was during the first-ever televised presidential debate. Though his presidency had a bumpy start, John F. Kennedy’s time as commander-in-chief was anything but disappointing.

Sure, the Bay of Pigs Invasion was a poorly designed plan rooted in the early Cold War hysteria over communism. Devised by the CIA under President Eisenhower, it was handed off to Kennedy before his term as president even began. He made the logical choice to place trust in an agency responsible for the well-being of the country. Its failure was tragic and embarrassing, and it increased tensions across the globe. Still, the United States managed to negotiate for the safe return of 1,113 captured soldiers while also providing Cuba with $58 million in food and medicine it desperately needed.

Later, the Cuban Missile Crisis proved that Kennedy was one of the best crisis managers this country has ever seen. In response to the USSR boating nuclear weapons to Cuba, Kennedy called for a blockade around the island rather than launching an offensive attack. After a tense 13 days of behind-the-scenes negotiating, the United States agreed to remove weapons located in Italy and Turkey, allowing the USSR to withdraw missiles from Cuba without embarrassing itself. Who knows what would have happened with a president prone to cracking under pressure?

JFK’s contribution to civil rights is also important to note, despite his efforts being cut tragically short. While Johnson — chosen by Kennedy — eventually managed to get the bill passed, the Civil Rights Act was actually first proposed by JFK in 1963, though it faced difficulties from the segregationist Democrats — at the time, a politically correct way of saying “racist” — and failed on its initial attempt.

John F. Kennedy was an insightful leader who made the best he could of a country in a bad situation. He handled Cold War tensions beautifully. He watered the young sapling of civil rights. He was a proponent for the separation of church and state, and he created the Peace Corps. I don’t care who he was allegedly knocking boots with; we should celebrate his efforts. At the very least, he wasn’t Nixon. 

Adam Gromotka

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