On November 22, 1963, CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite interrupted a soap opera and reported, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1PM, Central Standard Time.”
A thousand days earlier, America had been at a crossroad. Two roads were diverging in woods, to paraphrase John Kennedy’s favorite poet, Robert Frost. The country had just elected a new president–an idealistic but pragmatic politician who promised to “get the country moving again.” Charming, witty, articulate, he was a romantic as well as a genuine war hero. He made Americans proud, even confident they could do anything–from ending the cold war to going to the moon. By his words and actions, he challenged his generation to achieve great goals, love America, and care for the disadvantaged.
This fall, bookshelves, newsstands and the media are full of Kennedy tributes, reviews, and assessments. From conspiracy theories to serial philandering, his life and times are on our minds again. Other than a charismatic president, what did we lose that day in Dallas? Surely our innocence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in one eulogy said, “Oh, we’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.” But what else? In this 50th anniversary month, I am struck by five ways his loss impacted our future:
Strategy for peace
The early 1960s were a dangerous time. It was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Proxy confrontations flared up in Southeast Asia, the Congo, Cuba, and East Germany. Berlin threatened a hot war if not a nuclear confrontation.
Nowhere was the risk of a “boots on the ground” war greater than in South Vietnam. Many assumed Kennedy, like his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, would escalate our military role there. Conventional wisdom argued that South Vietnam was a “tottering domino” that should not fall to communism. Kennedy seemed to agree: in two years he increased the number of military advisers there to 16,000.
Would JFK have fallen for the same ideological imperative that made President Johnson put on the war paint? Historians and pundits now think not. The prevalent opinion: he would have sought a political solution, the way he had in Cuba, Laos, and Berlin.
According to Kennedy White House aides, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers (Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye), JFK had reversed course on Vietnam and agreed with Senator Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that it was the wrong war at the wrong time.
“The President told Mansfield that he had been having serious second thoughts… and he now agreed with the Senator’s thinking on the need for a complete military withdrawal from Vietnam. ‘But I can’t do it until 1965–after I’m reelected,’ Kennedy told Mansfield…. After Mansfield left the office, the President said to O’Donnell, ‘In 1965 I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.’”
Recollections of loyal aides rarely hold water. But in this case, independent documentation supports their assertions. And Kennedy’s public statements were consistent with his private conversations. As early as May 22, 1963, he said at a press conference:
“…We are hopeful that the situation in South Vietnam would permit some withdrawal in any case by the end of the year, but we can’t possibly make that judgment at the present time” (Chase and Lerman, eds.,”Kennedy and the Press: The News Conferences,” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965.)
Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s and later Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, and a war hawk loathed by the anti-war movement, stated, near the end of his life, that Kennedy would not have escalated the war. In McNamara’s 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, he writes that President Kennedy decided in October 1963 to begin withdrawal of U. S. forces. At the National Archives (and probably online somewhere), you can hear an October 5, 1963 tape recording of his decision.
McNamara’s and Kennedy’s statements are further corroborated by historians, John Newman in JFK and Vietnam and Howard Jones in Death of a Generation who found Kennedy unobtrusively planning withdrawal from Vietnam because it was the wrong domino to prop up—a corrupt government fighting a civil war without the backing of its people. But first, he needed to win re-election.
Kennedy’s intent was further illuminated in 1998 when the Assassination Records Review Board published the record of a May 1963 Secretary of Defense (“SecDef “) conference in which a phased withdrawal from Vietnam was put on the books as a policy option. Released minutes of a November 20, 1963 meeting of Kennedy’s national security advisers cite a discussion of “plans for withdrawal after the 1964 election.”
Two additional documents, now unclassified, support the recollections of McNamara and key officials. On October 11, 1963, Kennedy signed an executive order (“NSAM 263″) to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam by the end of 1963, with plans for complete extraction by the end of 1965. Four days after the assassination, President Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision with a new order, “NSAM 273.” It ordered the Pentagon to develop a plan for total victory through increased military action in Vietnam.
We need not belabor what happened after the assassination. When we retreated ignominiously in 1975, 58,209 Americans, mostly young draftees, had died in Southeast Asia killing fields. And the stage was set for the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s. In the end, we hobbled home with nothing more to show for our gallantry than a wailing wall on the mall in Washington D.C. At home, the county was torn apart by anti-war protests and our national economy damaged by Johnson’s naïve insistence that the nation could afford a “guns and butter” spending policy.
Strategy for peace
Fifty years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a dangerous nuclear arms race. Both sides were testing new and more potent nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Incredible as it seems today, they conducted over 1,000 weapon tests, sending radioactive fallout around the globe and unwittingly spiking annual rates of thyroid cancer.
Soon after he came to office, Kennedy learned American bombers, armed with nuclear weapons, were flying over the North Pole towards targets in the Soviet Union. Pilots carried sealed ”target packages” for attacking Soviet cities. If they did not receive an “abort mission” signal, they would open the packet and follow its orders. To Kennedy this was nuclear brinkmanship at its most absurd. He worried about a catastrophe resulting from “miscalculation, accident, or even madness.” Meanwhile, production of nuclear warheads—already far ahead of the Soviet’s arsenal–accelerated in response to the Pentagon’s doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). While conceding that the Soviet Union had enough firepower to knock out parts of the eastern United States, the Pentagon flaunted the heavy price they would pay—18 hydrogen bombs were targeted at Moscow alone.
Aghast at tangible threats to the survival of civilization, Kennedy launched a peace offensive, following the defusing of the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962. It culminated with his “Strategy for Peace” speech at American University on June 10, 1963. In eloquent terms, he appealed to Americans and to the leaders of the Soviet Union to “build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.”
Many historians consider it the best speech of his presidency. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, called it “not just one of the greatest achievement of his presidency, but also one of the greatest acts of world leadership in the modern era.”
In the speech, Kennedy announced a unilateral above ground test ban, and called for better communication with the USSR as well as a relaxation of tensions. He urged both sides to seek peace before war once again overtook the world:
“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.”
The Soviets responded positively and the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom on August 5, 1963. “It was,” said Kennedy, “a shaft of light that cut through the darkness.”
At Kennedy’s insistence, the treaty pledged the signatories to work towards complete disarmament: strict controls to prevent proliferation, a halt to testing and production, destruction of stockpiles, an end to the arms race, and decontamination of radioactive environmental sites.
After the assassination, our preoccupation with Vietnam and distrust of the Soviet Union eroded further progress. Missing his strategic clout, nuclear disarmament lost its sense of urgency. It would not be until 1996 that 71 countries signed a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. (Ironically the U.S. Senate rejected it.)
JFK’s worry about nuclear proliferation has become a reality. Nine nations, including unstable Pakistan and North Korea, now possess nuclear weapons. And Iran, an indicted supporter of international terrorism, has seen its nuclear plans slowed only–but not stopped–by sanctions, threats, and diplomacy. Kennedy’s great fear of calamitous destruction is gone, but the threat of a random nuclear attack by a terrorist group or rogue nation remains a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the human race.
When John Kennedy spoke of getting the country moving again in the 1960 campaign, he was talking about the economic growth. Back then, the economy seemed stuck in the doldrums. From 1953 to 1960, it expanded at the just 2% per year. Unemployment stayed relatively high during President Eisenhower’s administration and the Republicans shunned proactive measures to encourage growth and spending.
Kennedy wasted no time embracing the Keynesian principles of “New Economics.” He drew the best minds from academia and commerce to develop a “pro growth” program of fiscal and monetary measures to improve output, productivity, and consumer spending. Two big tax cuts, one on business and the other on personal income, along with short-term deficit spending, were proposed. When the tax cuts became law, the business one in 1962 and the personal one early in 1964, the economic results exceed all expectations. (Even today they are still considered phenomenal.) From 1961 to 1969, the economy grew by 48%, a third more in an eight-year period than in the sixteen years ending in 1960.
Some 13 million jobs were created; 6 million more than in the 1950s. Unemployment, hovering around 6% in the 1950s, dropped below 4% in the 1960s. Federal revenues profited by the epic rate of economic growth, rising by 55% in real terms over a seven-year period. By early 1963, inflation was under control, the stock market was strong, and corporate profits reached a record high.
After the assassination, succeeding administrations shunned professional economic guidance, time and again, in favor of short-term expediency. Most economists today agree that the county has been in a long period of decline since the high points of the 1960s. According to Michael Snyder of the Economic Collapse blog, “we are in the midst of an economic decline that is the result of decades of very bad decisions.”
Presidents often sought shortsighted fixes, climaxing with the huge deficits incurred by the Reagan and Bush II administrations to defeat communism and global terrorism. Even his future vice president, George Bush I, called Reagan’s approach “Voodoo Economics.” George Bush II inherited a strong economy, but two long wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), ill-advised tax cuts, and Medicare expansion cost the country over $3 trillion dollars, creating huge deficits that will take generations to pay off. It was on his watch too that reckless, unregulated Wall Street investment practices nearly drove the country into another Great Depression.
In Kennedy’s term, the total U. S. debt was less than 2 trillion dollars. Today it is more than 56 trillion dollars. Millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost; in fact, there were more manufacturing jobs in the US in the 1950s than there are today–even though the population has doubled. The number of self-employed people is at a record low and the number of dependent people, those reliant on government handouts, is at a record high. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the US is losing 5000,000 jobs to China every year. Back in 1965, one out of 50 Americans was on Medicaid; now it is one in six. Since Obama entered the White House, the number of Americans on food stamps has jumped from 32 million to 47 million people.
If Kennedy were alive today, he would not be deterred by the challenges facing our economy. He would embrace them. As he was fond of saying, “Our problems are man-made and they can therefore be solved by men.” He would emphasize the positive: the United States still produces almost 20% of the world’s goods and services and is blessed with a great bounty of natural resources and rich farmlands. Yes our share of the economic pie is declining, but global trade makes countries interdependent and less likely to resort to war. The challenge, like in the early 1960s, is to correctly analyze the economic problems and systematically attack the root causes of declining growth and productivity in an era of ever-expanding entitlement programs. Certainly, he would call for a global “rules-based” economic system. Free trade is the goal, but it cannot be achieved when a trading partner, think China or to a lesser extent Mexico, is gaming the system by engaging in unfair trade practices, dumping inferior products on world markets, wasting the environment, manipulating currencies, and pirating American patents and copyrights.
President Kennedy once said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Three great initiatives sprung from that sentiment:
Alliance for Progress
In 1963, Kennedy used the power of the “presidential pulpit,” to call for federal legislation ending segregation and discrimination. Following a series of violent attacks on Southern blacks seeking admission to while schools, he federalized the National Guard to secure compliance with the law. And on June 11, he addressed the nation, defining civil rights as a moral, as well as a legal obligation, saying, “If an American, because the color of his skin is dark, cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
The speech was followed by civil rights legislation submitted to the Congress to guarantee equal access to public facilities, to end segregation in education, and to provide federal protection of the right to vote. At the time of his assassination, the bill was languishing in the Congress. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, exploited the outpouring of emotion after Kennedy’s death to pass the Civil Rights Act.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress on November 27, 1963, Johnson said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
Passed on July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was a crucial step in achieving the civil rights movement’s goal of equality for all Americans.
Alliance for Progress
In his inaugural address, Kennedy called for a change in the relationship between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere with these words: “To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge – to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress – to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”
Unlike United States and Canada, many Latin American countries remained impoverished in the 1960s–ripe targets for Soviet and Cuban infiltration. The Alliance was designed to be a Marshall Plan for the region. The United States pledged $20 billion in assistance (grants and loans) and called upon the Latin American governments to provide $80 billion in investment funds for their economies. It was the biggest U.S. aid program for the developing world up to that point—and called for substantial reform of Latin American institutions.
Kennedy viewed it as a means of encouraging capitalist growth, funding social reforms, promoting democracy, and strengthening ties between the United States and its neighbors. A key element of the Alliance was U.S. military assistance to friendly regimes in the region,
For all its promise, the program did not achieve its goals, especially after the assassination. The Johnson Administration cut funding and emphasized military rather than economic aid. According to one study, only 2 percent of economic growth in 1960s Latin America directly benefited the poor; and there was a general deterioration of United States-Latin American relations by the end of the 1960s.
Established in 1961, the Peace Corps remains an important foreign policy initiative that has paid for itself many times over in terms of goodwill and positive impact. It sends volunteers on two-year tours to countries in need of social and economic assistance. Since its founding, more than 210,000 men and women have joined the Peace Corps and served in 139 countries. Currently over 8,000 volunteers are active in 76 countries around the world.
In a 2011 proclamation honoring the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, President Barack Obama called it one of President Kennedy’s most “enduring legacies.”
He praised volunteers saying, “With each village that now has access to clean water, each young woman who has received an education, and each family empowered to prevent disease because of the service of a Peace Corps Volunteer, President Kennedy’s noble vision lives on.”
No president did more to elevate the arts to national prominence than President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie whom he called the nation’s art director. While in the White House, she restored the White House to its past grandeur, filling rooms with period furnishings, once used by former presidents, and original works of art. The Kennedys welcomed artists and performers to the White House and encouraged the nation to celebrate the arts and letters.
In a 1963 speech at Amherst College, in honor of the poet Robert Frost, Kennedy encouraged the nation to represent itself not only through its strength but also through its art. He called for “full recognition of the place of the artist” in American life:
Our national strength matters, but the spirit that informs and controls our strength matters just as much… When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment…
I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future…
Two years later, that vision resulted in the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1965, it has supported over 128,000 artistic endeavors. For more than four decades, the Arts Endowment has supported performances, public TV, exhibitions, festivals, artist residencies, and other projects that “foster artistic accomplishment.”
The Dream Lives On
President Kennedy proved one man can make a difference by sheer strength of will and God-given intelligence. With brilliant clarity, he assessed world problems, made sound decisions, and persuaded skeptics to join the cause. Even the Soviet Union, which bitterly opposed his every move towards world peace in 1961 and 1962, came round to his viewpoint in 1963 and stopped madcap nuclear testing. When advised of Kennedy’s assassination, Premier Khrushchev went to the American Embassy in Moscow and signed the condolence book with tears in his eyes.
Fifty years after the assassination, presidents are still comparatively judged. Nine men have followed him in the White House, but few have approached that rare combination of pragmatic judgment and inspirational leadership to move the country forward in times of crisis and uncertainty. More often than not, they have approached problems from ideological or self-serving perspectives and the country has paid the price. On the extremes, one (Clinton) was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice but acquitted in the U.S. Senate while another (Nixon) resigned before three articles of impeachment were voted upon.
In judging Kennedy by the five major initiatives of his day, the record is increasingly clear. Had he lived, I am convinced Vietnam would have been a footnote in the history books, not the great cataclysm that slaughtered the flower of our youth and divided the nation. He defused the nuclear arms race without giving into the “brass hats” clamoring to bomb the Soviet Union into oblivion and no doubt cost us a major city or two. But, his death stopped disarmament in its tracks, and gave rise to the twin threats of of nuclear proliferation and terrorist attack. In embracing new economic principles, he argued for increasing the manufacturing base and productivity as first principles for raising federal revenues and increasing spending. At home, he moved cautiously on civil rights in the face of Southern opposition in the Congress. But, to his credit, he finally introduced legislation to end segregation and discrimination. Many believe that the Civil Rights Act would not have become law, short of President Johnson selling it as a tribute to the martyred president. JFK’s call for recognition of the artist in our society and for volunteers to help poor people worldwide have survived the test of time and continue to reflect credit on our culture.
Though JFK died early, his inspirational leadership still serves as a model of what can be done—even in times of fear and crisis. His belief that America’s best days are ahead of us, that we can solve our problems, and that right makes might are as timely today as they were 50 years ago. As he said, “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”