He was young and handsome, charming and witty, and many people across the United States — indeed, around the world — felt a deep personal connection to him. John F. Kennedy wasn’t just any president. He was their president.
And then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
The images from that sunny November day in 1963 when Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet — and from the days that followed — are seared into the nation’s collective consciousness. Whether we witnessed them firsthand or watched them replayed on news programs and in documentaries, their impact has reverberated through 50 years of history.
The torch is passed to a new generation
“It really was a new era,” Wade Clark Roof, the J.F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, said of the Kennedy presidency. “Kennedy benefited from this sense that it’s a new America, a new generation that’s taking on new issues. And being of that generation, of course, he helped to create that sense of newness. We were becoming more conscious of the global world, and we thought he was the man who would lead us into that new world.”
“Kennedy was clearly a very inspiring president who mobilized and motivated a lot of young people and raised a lot of hopes and aspirations,” said John Woolley, a professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara and co-founder of the American Presidency Project. An online archive that contains well over 100,000 written documents and more than 700 recordings, it is the definitive online source for all presidential documents.
“Since the beginning of the American Presidency Project in 1999, John Kennedy’s inaugural address has consistently been the most — or one of the most — frequently visited documents we have. And that speech is a moving legacy that matters a great deal,” Woolley said.
While many Americans count Kennedy among the country’s finest presidents, most historians are more measured in their praise of Kennedy as a great leader. “I can’t point to any historians who would actually say he should be given credit for a revolution in policy and politics and leadership,” said Alice O’Connor, a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara. “Instead, I think they would point to a few things that Kennedy did well.”
The notion of Kennedy as a great president, she suggested, comes more from historical memory and a sense of nostalgia and national longing. “That and the fact that many people who were close to Kennedy went on to play prominent roles, either in politics or in the press, and were in a position to keep alive that Kennedy mythology and mystique.”
The assassination itself has a lot to do with creating Kennedy’s larger-than-life reputation, O’Connor added. “I’d agree that the way it’s become a narrative of youth cut off at the pass, and lingering doubts on what would have happened if he’d lived, have a lot to do with this temptation to make him out to be a great president.”
The economy or civil rights — not both at once
When Kennedy came into office, he didn’t have a strongly articulated social policy agenda. According to O'Connor, his top priority was to follow up on his campaign promise to get the economy moving again. “The economy was in a recession when Kennedy was elected, and it lasted through the early years of his administration,” she said. “So that was part of the rhetoric, and more a priority than were specific pieces of legislation.
“There’s no question it was more a priority to him than civil rights were,” she continued. “To the degree that there was a legislative and policy agenda, it had to do with stimulating economic growth, employment, and things related to that.”
To that end, Kennedy very successfully employed Keynesian macroeconomics — the idea that, in the short run, especially during recessions, economic output is strongly influenced by total spending in the economy. “Kennedy was the first full-blown Keynesian president, putting into place the kind of economic policy necessary to create economic growth, full employment and a sense of shared prosperity,” said O’Connor.
“He brought into the government a new generation of the most advanced economic thinking of the time,” noted Woolley. “And that carried forward. He made the Council of Economic Advisers more prominent than it had been previously, and it continued as such for 15 years afterward.”
Kennedy is known by historians — and rightly so, according to O’Connor — for having been both reluctant and overly cautious on issues related to civil rights and racial equality. “He was not in favor of keeping the Jim Crow South, but he was also trying to manage the civil rights movement,” she explained.
Said Nelson Lichtenstein, MacArthur Foundation Chair in History at UC Santa Barbara and director of the campus’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy: “Kennedy’s presidency is now associated with getting to the edge of having a civil rights bill, and I think he did what he could, although he was late in making a speech fully endorsing the call for comprehensive civil rights legislation.”
Kennedy was a moderate liberal, Lichtenstein added, who could see the way things were going and then he did endorse it, but he was not in the vanguard of that question.
George Lipsitz, a professor of black studies at UC Santa Barbara, concurred. Lipsitz was a student at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., when he learned of the assassination. “In death, Kennedy became a symbol of all sorts of hopes and aspirations that even if he hadn’t advanced them in life, people believed that he stood for,” Lipsitz said. “And his martyrdom became, in some ways, a call for people to do more to change the country. I don’t think there would have been a civil rights act if it hadn’t been for his murder and Johnson’s use of it as a way to build support for it.”
The War on Poverty
According to O’Connor, Kennedy’s economic policies also helped set the stage for some of the social reforms that would become known as the War on Poverty, and for seeing it as a real possibility that should be a top priority for the administration. “The groundwork laid through his economic policy, coupled with what was happening within social movements at the time — including the civil rights movement — were a big part of why it was even imaginable that LBJ’s first State of the Union address declared an unconditional war on poverty,” said O’Connor.
“A lot of that can be attributed to LBJ himself, but a lot of the groundwork was put in place during the Kennedy administration,” she continued. “It was something Kennedy had been talking about since his campaign, but he had taken only incremental steps,” she said. “There were plans afoot in the administration in the fall of 1963 toward launching what they were calling an attack on poverty. Then LBJ really escalated it.”
The first Catholic president
When Kennedy announced his candidacy, the issue of religion took center stage for many Americans. The country had not elected a Catholic president, but with the white Protestant establishment beginning to face serious declines, it seemed like a possibility. “The decline was not so much in numbers, but in terms of cultural strength and political power,” said Roof, who is also director of UC Santa Barbara's Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life.
The 1960s saw some important Supreme Court decisions that ruled against prayer in public schools; that, according to Roof, was huge. “The Protestant empire in this country historically had rested on the strength of families and schools to inculcate basic values,” he said. “Taking prayer out of public schools was perceived by many to be a real slap in the face to religion. People knew it would not be the same for the Protestant establishment.”
Then came the Kennedy candidacy just as these shifts in Protestantism were occurring. What’s more, Americans were becoming more pluralistic in their mindset, and the country was gradually becoming more religiously diverse. “Kennedy stepped in at a time when, given his youthfulness, given his articulate style, given his great capacity to speak to the issues with intellectual force and depth, he fit the mood that was developing in the country that we could look more broadly for our leaders than just to the old Protestant culture,” Roof said.
While religion continues to be a driving force in presidential politics, the issues surrounding a Catholic commander-in-chief have been “pretty much laid to rest,” Roof noted. “The big battle has been won. Kennedy helped us through that major transition.”
That’s not to say the evangelical Christian constituency in the country wouldn’t be upset if another Catholic candidate came to the fore. “They would be,” Roof continued. “But I think the issue of the religion of the candidate has less salience and less significance now, much less so than was true when Kennedy ran.”
Why does religion play such an important role in presidential politics? Roof explained it in terms of its symbolic significance. In our religious heritage, he said, the president of the United States is akin to the chief priest. “And the chief priest being different from the vast majority creates a certain dissonance that is worrisome,” he said. “But as the country becomes more pluralistic, and given that we’ve crossed the barrier that Kennedy helped us with, I think there’s less an issue.”
The United States today is less than 50 percent Protestant, Roof continued, “and if you know anything about American history, you know this place started out as a Protestant country. But with a majority culture now that is non-Protestant — it’s not necessarily non-Christian, but it is non-Protestant — that opens the door for maneuvers that are very different.”
Foreign policy: Ich bin ein Berliner
On the international front, Kennedy quickly became the image of a fresh face for global unity and social justice. And that image is more enduring than any specific policy accomplishment. “From Paris to Santo Domingo, over a hundred avenues and plazas are named for Kennedy, which demonstrates the enormous symbolic appeal of the handsome young president,” said Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies at UC Santa Barbara.
“However," Juergensmeyer continued, "it was quite clear that JFK wanted to chart a new course for Latin American and European friendships on the basis of partnerships among equals, reversing the image of a pushy, exploitative America in the past. Hence his enormous popularity in those two regions of the world.”
In terms of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time, Kennedy took a softer approach to the Cold War, even as he was sending more and more advisers into Vietnam, and following through — disastrously — on clandestine plans to liberate Cuba from Fidel Castro's rule. “Even as he was willing to use covert military force in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and later to engage in nuclear brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis, he was putting a soft face on the Cold War by declaring the 1960s the Decade of Development,” said O’Connor.
“With initiatives such as the Peace Corps, which Kennedy established and appointed brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to head up, he was absolutely a Cold War president in terms of his foreign policy and his commitment to anti-communism,” O’Connor continued. “But, again, this was the soft face of the Cold War. He began his presidency by imploring people to ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’; and if you look at that speech, it’s about how we can lead the world to democracy and freedom, as opposed to a call for public service at home.
How the Vietnam War might have progressed — or not — had Kennedy continued his term is open to educated speculation, and current evidence suggests he would have pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam. “Judging from Kennedy’s response to the debacle of the Bay of Pigs assault, he appears to have been quite ambivalent about the use of U.S. military power,” said Juergensmeyer. “He would give in, at first, to his generals’ requests, then recoil when things got tough. In that sense, he was more like Obama than like Bush.”
LBJ, however, was different. He was a hard-core anti-communist and saw the standoff in Vietnam as essential to keeping communism from taking over the world, Juergensmeyer explained. “Just before he was shot, JFK had given the order to bring down the number of troops by a thousand, which at the time was almost 10 percent. Five days after Kennedy was dead and LBJ took office, LBJ reversed that and gave in to General William Westmoreland and the others to expand U.S. military presence rather than retract it,” Juergensmeyer said.
“My guess is that Kennedy would not have pursued the Vietnam War as aggressively as LBJ did,” he concluded, “and would have pulled out much earlier.”
Lichtenstein agreed. “This has gone back and forth among historians over the years, but now the majority judgment is that Kennedy probably would have deescalated. LBJ was more seared by the prospects of a right-wing McCarthy-ite backlash if he pulled out,” he said. “Kennedy, for whatever reason, was not. So now historians believe that he wouldn’t have kept us in Vietnam. In that respect, Kennedy’s assassination is extremely consequential.”