This week in history: John F. Kennedy on his centennial
The January 20, 1961 inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Many will be the tributes to the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on this centennial of his birth, May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Mass. Product of a prominent, well-connected family descended from proud Irish immigrants, JFK became the first person born in the 20th century to serve as president. He also remains the only Roman Catholic president and the only Pulitzer Prize-winning president, for his Profiles in Courage (although Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen apparently wrote most of it).

At 43, Kennedy was also the youngest president ever elected to office (at 42, Theodore Roosevelt was nine months younger when he assumed the presidency in 1901 after William McKinley’s assassination, but was first elected in 1904 at the age of 46). After eight years of the avuncular Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Vice President Richard M. Nixon, whom Kennedy narrowly beat in the 1960 election, young people eagerly identified with the vitality of the new Zeitgeist emanating from the White House. It helped JFK’s presidency that he and his charming wife Jacqueline had two small children, Caroline and John Jr., photogenically scampering around the Oval Office.

Kennedy’s inaugural address signaled the passing of the torch to a new generation. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy pronounced, as he continued to identify the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Perhaps no single Kennedy initiative remains to this day so significant as his launching of the Peace Corps, a program of American volunteers helping underdeveloped nations in such fields as education, farming, health care, and construction. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 countries. Many of its graduates came back having learned far more than they taught, comprehending endemic problems of the so-called Third World that no Peace Corps could never resolve.

Although Kennedy represented a fresh start in both domestic and global politics, he inherited a number of issues he struggled with to varying degrees of success and consistency. The overthrow of the new revolutionary government in Cuba had been planned under the Eisenhower administration, and Kennedy was disinclined to reverse it. On April 17, 1961, 1500 U.S.-trained Cubans landed at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) thinking they would arouse the Cuban masses to join them in ridding the island nation of Fidel Castro. But within two days Cuban forces had captured or killed the invaders, and Kennedy had to negotiate for the release of the 1189 survivors in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine.

The following year, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but thanks to the sagacity of both JFK and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev, disaster was averted. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, the U.S. made military concessions in allied countries neighboring the USSR, and the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba again.

Relations with the Soviets inevitably preoccupied the new president. On June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he outlined a plan to curb nuclear arms. “I speak of peace because of the new face of war…in an age when a singular nuclear weapon contains ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied forces in the Second World War…an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and air and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn…I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men…world peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance.”

Within months, the U.S., the UK and USSR signed a limited treaty prohibiting atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater, but not underground. The U.S. Senate ratified it and Kennedy signed it into law in October 1963. Many scholars have pointed to signs suggesting that JFK was preparing to make a rapprochement with Cuba among other steps to end the Cold War, and indeed that this realignment of global priorities inspired a conspiracy to take him out.

Another problem Kennedy inherited was Vietnam. He continued the presence of American advisers and special forces to shore up the weak and corrupt South Vietnamese régime, but was disturbed by highly conflicting reports coming back from his emissaries to the country. Some said a military victory over communism was possible with U.S. ground troops, while others said exactly the opposite, that such action would be futile. By the time he died, Kennedy had so far resisted the introduction of ground forces, some historians concluding that he was preparing to withdraw completely.

Perhaps thinking back to his predecessors’ aid to the French in their attempt to re-colonize Indo-China after World War II, JFK memorably reflected, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Domestically, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 proceeded without a single arrest, and afterward its leaders decamped to the White House for a photo session with the president. Kennedy prepared the legislation that after his death became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under LBJ. In 1961, Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall as a judge for the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Serving as a circuit court judge over the next four years, Marshall issued more than 100 decisions, none of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. In 1967 LBJ advanced him to serve as the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

Kennedy also re-envisioned immigration policy, pivoting away from racial exclusion and toward new citizens from Latin America and Asia; this policy was effected in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by his brother, Senator Edward Kennedy. In his vision of peaceful coexistence and competition with the Soviets, he used the discomfort many Americans felt at seeing Soviet “firsts” in space to advance science and technology. In his public messaging, Kennedy built on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” on radio by consistently using the medium of television, which had served him well in the 1960 election debates.

The shock of Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, especially the confusion surrounding the basic facts and background to it and the subsequent investigation which many Americans saw as politically compromised, led to mountains of unanswered questions. As much or perhaps more than at any previous time in American history, wide sectors of the public came to doubt the word of the political establishment. A growing lack of confidence in government accompanied LBJ’s turnaround on Vietnam and his escalation of that relatively low-level involvement into a full-fledged, though formally undeclared war.

The term “Camelot” came to be used to describe the Kennedy administration and his charisma. Jackie Kennedy first used it as she recalled her husband’s affection for the contemporary Broadway musical of that name, particularly the closing lines of the title song: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

The image of a hopeful, forward-looking JFK became an icon. His revered photo hung in many homes alongside that of Pope John XXIII, later joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, his own brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez. In the more than half century since his death, Kennedy’s popularity has remained steady around 70 percent, among the highest of any president. Not again until the election of Barack Obama did Americans sense the awesome possibility of what this country might achieve.

Sourced in part from Wikipedia.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.