Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted the principal legacy of the murdered leader might well be an ‘attitude,’ a contagious spirit that all things are possible if only we have the vision and will.
In fact, JFK had important tangible accomplishments – as well as failures – during his brief tenure in office. Nonetheless, Sevareid was remarkably perceptive in emphasizing the emotional impacts of this president on the population. His shocking grotesque murder continues to reverberate in our collective lives, even after a half century.
The administration’s disastrous failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs dogged President Kennedy from the start, and provided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with strong incentive to deploy offensive missiles on the island. Intense U.S. efforts to kill Fidel Castro, directly pressed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, spurred Moscow.
This led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In recent years, meetings between surviving officials from both sides in the confrontation have revealed that nuclear war was even closer than realized in that tense time.
The President, a combat veteran of World War II, resisted powerful pressure to attack Cuba and was highly imaginative. He and his advisers were able to get the missiles out of Cuba through a blockade, combined with a secret Cuba-Turkey missile trade. Kennedy’s outlook contrasts markedly with the administration of President George W. Bush regarding Iraq.
In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev achieved a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, a major breakthrough. The Senate ratified the treaty with a bipartisan vote of 80-19. JFK had other success with Congress, including international trade negotiation authority key to the 1967 Kennedy Round agreement.
Two domestic issues always on the front burner were civil rights and organized crime, the former reflecting growing popular pressures, the latter the focus of driven RFK. JFK was careful on race relations, addressing the subject decisively only when pressed to do so by a massive public march on Washington.
RFK was relentless in pursuit of the mafia, while simultaneously gangsters were recruited for the effort to kill Castro. Dallas ended both efforts. Regarding organized crime, a decade passed before the Nixon administration returned to prosecution, notably with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation.
People around Robert Kennedy were puzzled by his marked disinterest in possible conspiracy in the assassination. In hindsight, RFK no doubt avoided that dark tangled path because he might come face-to-face with it himself.
Senator John Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage,’ about U.S. Senators who put principle above political expediency, received the Pulitzer Prize. While critics cracked President Kennedy should show less profile and more courage, he actually demonstrated considerable personal strength.
Professor Herbert Parmet has documented exceptionally serious health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Despite this, he managed to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II, then volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty.
Sevareid’s observation applies perhaps most tangibly to the American space program. President Kennedy early on made a dramatic public commitment to carry out a successful manned moon landing, including safe return to earth.
A number of technological innovations resulted from the mammoth space effort, including extreme miniaturization of electronics. Every time you turn on a computer or cell phone, you’re saying hello to JFK.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of the book After the Cold War (NYU Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr reflects on the anniversary of JFK's assassination.
JFK's Assassination [Student Essay]
The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22nd in 1963 shocked, saddened, and bewildered American children. Girls and boys of all ages watched the funeral broadcast on television—including those who lived abroad during the 1960s. For many children, seeing their distraught parents and other adults in mourning undermined their sense of security. The meanings that Kennedy’s assassination had on a seven-year-old American girl can be gleaned from her elementary school essay.
Children’s cultural productions (whether written or drawn) present researchers with opportunities as well as obstacles to eliciting their understanding of past events. Even a handwritten source like this one cannot provide a thoroughly unmediated understanding of the assassination’s meanings to her. Although a descriptive source that recounts an occurrence, it is not necessarily free of partiality. (Consider, for instance, the ways in which she weaves the everyday lessons imparted by adults to children into her history.) In order to achieve an understanding of the past that is as precise as possible using a source like this, interrogate or "unpack" it by subjecting it to questions about authorship, audience, purpose, content, context, reliability, and meanings.
In what ways was this youngster struggling to make sense of the narrative of events surrounding the assignation? What events in her recounting of the past were based in fact and which were influenced by her imagination? What genres and rhetorical strategies familiar to a child might have influenced the narrative structure of her story? As with adults, reading informs writing. Also consider the issue of motivation. What difference might it have made if the child had been inspired to write this for herself rather than for to satisfy her teacher’s civic literacy assignment?
"Kenady's life," Unpublished manuscript (1963), private collection. Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.
Primary Source Text
In 1960 Kennedy was elected. He is a very good president. One day as he was going home from some place with the governor and his wife and the driver, Kennedy was told someone would do something now or later if we went in a[n] open car. But Kennedy wanted to be with his people. Someone shot [from] the top of a house. He shot at the governor and Kennedy. He left the gun and ran down the stairs as quick as a mouse. A policeman tried to catch him but the man shot him dead.
Now everyone new. They rushed to get him to the hospital but it was to late. He was dead. Mrs. Kennedy flew back to Washington D.C. By then the man got into the movies. But the policemen got him because he was standing up
The man’s name was Oswald. They took him to a place to ask him questions. On their way back a man named Ruby shot Oswald dead. They got hold of the man and took him to prison.
A few days later was Kennedy’s funeral and Kennedy was buried.
How to Cite This Source
"JFK's Assassination [Student Essay]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #485, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/485 (accessed March 13, 2018).