JFK and his legacy

On this day in 1963 American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.


1. I know it is a bit of “what if history” but would you say that JFK had a real potential to somehow fundamentally change the U.S. or perhaps not so much and why?

2. Is JFK more of a brand on current American political scene or are they still some real bearers of his legacy?


James Hilty, Professor Emeritus, Temple University

1. You ask large questions for which there can be no definitive answers. My study of the Kennedy presidency, the lives of JFK and RFK, and American politics in the 1960s persuades me that JFK already had made a substantial difference and that, had he lived out a second term, would have made an even greater impact. His tragic death, however, provided impetus, political momentum for a number of much-needed reforms in American domestic life that, had he lived, would likely have occurred but at a much more moderate and gradual pace of change. I am referring, of course, to the civil rights acts, the development of programs to combat poverty, medical care for the aged, tax reforms to stimulate the economy and elements what became known as the Great Society under JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.

On the international level JFK had already made progress in lessening the impact of the Cold War, reaching out to the Soviet Union in his June 1963 American University speech, establishing a “hot line” to Moscow and negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty. He had learned from the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that the Cold War could never be allowed to flare into open hostilities with the Soviet Union and that the long-term peace of the planet required cooperation between the two powers.

JFK’s management of the war in Vietnam, on the other hand, was uncertain and at the time of his death seemed in chaos. Stunned by the ferocity of the Diem overthrow, he was searching for answers. Evidence indicates that he favored the continued use of covert measures rather than the overt introduction of US combat troops into the war. It is also clear that he did not intend to back away from the conflict and the threat of communist expansion. I am convinced that under JFK’s leadership US involvement in the conflict would never have approached the intensity that it did under LBJ and Nixon.

2. The Kennedy legacy lives on in a muted sense. Both Kennedy brothers, JFK and RFK were greatly admired while alive, but even more so after their deaths. They have served as iconic stimulants for young men and women who entered public service in the years since their deaths. If you enter the offices today of many members of the US congress or elected officials at various levels of government, regardless of political party, you likely will find pictures or memorabilia attesting to an ideological or sentimental attachment to the memories of the two men. Their lust for excellence, their devotion to serving others, and their passion for justice and fair play linger on in the American spirit. I expect they always will.

Richard BenedettoAdjunct Professor of Journalism, School of Communication, American University

1. Most of the unfinished JFK agenda – civil rights bills, Medicare, Medicaid and Vietnam – was carried on to fruition by his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

So by that measure, to the degree that those issues and programs changed or transformed American, you can say so too did JFK.

2. JFK is more of a legend, or a brand, or a style, or a symbol, than he is an ideological god. President Obama is proud to invoke his name, but on foreign policy, JFK would be closer to the Republicans today than Obama. And on domestic policy, Obama would never advocate across-the-board tax cuts as Kennedy did. Obama emulates the Kennedy style, but not the substance.

Thomas Whalen, Associate Professor of Social Science, Boston University

1. I think JFK actually did fundamentally change the US by being the first president Abraham Lincoln to place the full legal and moral authority of his office behind the civil rights movement for African-Americans. In doing so, he put his own reelection chances for 1964 in jeopardy as the old Confederate South in the US was the traditional base of support for the Democratic Party. It was a true profile in political courage.

2. I think the answer to that question depends on the age of the person responding to it. If you are over the age of 40, the Kennedy name is still political gold and contains much meaning. However, if you are younger than 40 I think the brand is tarnished due to all the scandals and political missteps the heirs to JFK have made in the years following his tragic death.

Steffen SchmidtUniversity Professor of Political Science, Iowa State University

JFK in his short term as President DID change many things fundamentally:

He made the President and politics glamorous and wonderful for many years.

He drew the line in the sand with the Soviet Union during the missile crisis and that laid the groundwork for a new and different Us/USSR relationship.

In how he rejected a nuclear confrontation he showed that nuclear powers MUSt be very careful and use diplomacy more aggressively so that the world is not threatened by armageddon again ( and that lesson was learned by both superpowers).

He laid the foundation for what citizenship means – as not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country” has become a reality with millions of Americans serving as volunteers. The Peace Corps remains as one of the most profound uses of good will and citizen diplomacy and Kennedy’s order to serve your country was the foundation for Americorps and other volunteer programs that exits today.

The AMAZING reminiscences of Kennedy and his family we are seeing on the anniversary of his death is a tribute to what a long lasting cultural and political imprint he made on the psyche of America. He is the “unforgettable” leader and even if it is only nostalgia his “Camelot” raises a yearning in Americans for the better world we think existed when he was President. He is rising as one of then GREAT Presidents so he serves in some ways as an example to other politicians of what Americans like – no, LOVE – in their leaders.

And let me add that Kennedy was the most orchestrated president in history with a fantastic private photographer hired by his father to document in a constant and elegant way every move of the President and his photogenic clan. That made a huge difference because that’s the JFK we know.


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