Kennedy, Myth and Reality Fifty Years Later


Pablo Guerrero is an international analyst, FAES Foundation

Fifty years ago, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by the bullets fired by a young communist sympathiser, Lee Harvey Oswald. It was then that the Kennedy myth emerged. The myth of a life cut short at full maturity, of a progressive presidency too soon interrupted and of a thwarted American dream. However, half a century after the Dallas assassination and thanks to both the historical perspective achieved over time and to several research works of very high historiographical value, it is possible to separate myth from reality.

Kennedy won by a very narrow margin over Vice-President Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, the first election in the U.S. preceded by a campaign highly influenced by the media and with TV debates. The youth and good looks of the then Massachusetts senator contrasted both with Nixon's apparent sternness and with the venerable but ailing figure of the outgoing president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nevertheless, a more than likely electoral fraud in both Illinois and Texas contributed to his narrow electoral victory.

Once in the White House, Kennedy sought to implement an ambitious set of measures known as "The New Frontier". Although he managed to make the Congress adopt some of the reforms (expanding social security, equal wages law), the so-called Conservative Coalition, which joined the northern Republicans with the conservative Southern Democrats, managed to block the main measures. Amongst them are the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination and segregation on racial grounds. Both laws were passed after the death of Kennedy, in 1964 and 1965 respectively, thanks largely to the memory of the murdered president and the clever exploitation of this event made by the Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy in the White House.

In foreign policy, Kennedy's presidency featured in its first two years an active policy of containment of communism on all fronts. Therefore, to deal with the Soviets and revolutionary national liberation movements, his Administration replaced Eisenhower's ineffective and dangerous doctrine of massive retaliation, based on the use of nuclear weapons, by the principle of "flexible response" which created several Special Forces groups. However, the failed invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles, a CIA operation approved by the former president and, in particular, the weakness shown by Kennedy at the Vienna Summit (June 1961) before the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, most likely radicalised the Communists' stance during the crisis over the status of West Berlin. Furthermore, Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam from a few hundred to 16,000 in two years, although he was always contrary to the deployment of combat forces in Indochina.

The tension with the Soviet Union reached its climax with the Missile Crisis in Cuba, where the two superpowers came close to a nuclear war. If the crisis could be resolved peacefully, with the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for Washington's promise of not trying to invade the island again and the elimination of the American Jupiter missiles from Turkey, it was largely due to the restraint shown by President Kennedy and his closest civilian collaborators. So close was the President of nuclear war that, from October 1962 through to his death, he followed a more conciliatory policy toward the USSR, embodied in the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (October 1963), one of the great successes of his tenure.

A term, in short, rich in events despite its short duration and uneven in its results. In any case, once purged of mythical elements, Kennedy's figure still remains being highly appealing. Proof of this is the admiration professed by Democrats, but also by Republicans. The former still consider him a liberal in social matters who saved the world from a nuclear holocaust, the latter praise his anti-communist stance and his fiscal conservatism. Now that the political scenario of the United States is significantly polarised, evocations of a president who, fifty years after his tragic death, is still loved and admired are more than welcome.