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Dr Michael F Hopkins is a Senior Lecturer in American Foreign Policy in the University of Liverpool’s School of History
“Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that produced public mourning on a huge scale around the globe.
“Contemporaries talked of a loss of innocence, even though it was the fourth presidential assassination after Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881 and McKinley in 1901. Perhaps what made it so shocking was the killing of someone so young: Kennedy at 43 was the United States’ youngest elected president (Theodore Roosevelt was 42 when he succeeded McKinley in 1901) and was only 46 when he died. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were a handsome and elegant couple who seemed to symbolise the promise of a better future. And this image had spread across the world thanks to television. America’s loss seemed also a loss for the whole world.
“In the afterglow of his tragic death a myth emerged of a golden leader of a modern-day Camelot cut down in his prime and denied the opportunity to pursue new, more hopeful policies for the nation and the world. Kennedy and his administration challenged the racial discrimination in the southern states; improved relations with Latin America through the Alliance for Progress scheme for aid in the region; adopted a resolute position in the Cuban missile crisis – Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously declared that they and Soviets had been eyeball to eyeball and the other guy had blinked; and secured passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
“Kennedy continues to divide historical opinion a half-century after his assassination. My judgment is broadly positive.
“With his charm and good looks, his wit and intelligence, Kennedy cut an impressive figure as president. This is evident in his televised press conferences. It also emerged in his speeches, which embodied an optimism about the problems of the age. He displayed a thoughtfulness and restraint in framing policies and a capacity to learn from mistakes.
“In domestic affairs his main goal was to improve civil rights for black Americans, but he was over-cautious, compromising more than was needed. He ought to have heeded the suggestion of Vice President Lyndon Johnson who argued for a moral crusade. Nevertheless, he deserves credit for taking important steps in what was a vicious atmosphere of anti-civil rights feeling in the southern states.
“Most writers think that Kennedy’s actions and rhetoric worsened the situation in Vietnam and increased the likelihood of direct military intervention to help the South Vietnamese government. The number of US military advisers in Vietnam grew twenty-fold during his presidency. Yet I share the doubts of Robert Dallek and Lawrence Freedman about whether Kennedy would have escalated like Johnson did. Kennedy was wary of the military’s promises of easy successes. He repeatedly rejected their requests for the dispatch of combat troops. As he said in November 1961: “It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to have another”. We will never know how he would have reacted to the circumstances Johnson faced in 1965, but it seems clear he would have brought a more sceptical eye to the proposals of the military.
Substance behind the image
“Kennedy certainly came into office espousing tough anti-Soviet rhetoric, launched a programme of increased defence expenditure, and adopted a resolute position over Berlin and Cuba. At the same time, he sought a thaw in relations. He favoured patience in negotiations, keeping cool in a crisis, wanted to avoid cornering any adversary, and seeing an issue from the perspective of the other side. Progress in East-West relations was limited but he did secure signature of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
“We live in a more cynical world about public figures, especially about politicians, yet Kennedy’s lustre remains, as the number of TV and radio programmes and newspaper articles about him testify. The reasons for this are elusive, but seem likely to owe something to his public persona. He benefitted from his good looks but there was substance behind the image. For all his many failings, he was an impressive politician. His rhetoric sometimes set unrealistic objectives – his inaugural address announced that America would “bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and success of liberty.” But his words were deployed in pursuit of noble goals.”
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