JFK’s Legacy 43 Years Later
By Arthur I. Cyr
This year, Thanksgiving Day was also the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 ― November 22.
One result has been to help put the ghost of JFK to rest, a development that the fatalistic as well as realistic politician would welcome. In comparison with past Novembers, there has been relatively little media and public emphasis on the terrible bloody memory.
JFK was killed on a Friday; Thanksgiving was the following Thursday. In consequence, our major national holiday that year was rendered largely thankless. The nation's traditional gratitude for the positive aspects of our lives, individually and collectively, was overcome by the immediate shocking loss.
Outside of collective mourning, the murder largely froze the life of the nation. In one tasteless exception, the National Football League decided to continue Sunday games as scheduled. NFL press releases argued the vigorous JFK would have wanted sports to go on as usual.
In fact many fans stayed home, there was no national television coverage, pro teams lost goodwill along with money, and Pete Rozelle later cited the decision to go ahead with play as his worst as NFL commissioner.
Over the years the sense of trauma accompanying November 22 has gradually faded. In the early 1960s the presidency was an office of enormous prestige, and traditional authority was much more prominent in all phases of life. These features, greatly reinforced by the relative domestic stability of the 1950s, made the assassination all the more shocking.
In the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's death, there was a thoroughly understandable tendency to glorify the man and exaggerate his accomplishments.
Kennedy's brief tenure in office further complicates analysis. Yet there is no denying his administration confronted exceptionally turbulent times, and some frightening challenges.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War, could easily have led to general thermonuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Kennedy, like other men with very direct military and war experience, was consistently cautious about using force. In the end, he and his advisers were able to finesse the missiles out of Cuba.
The two domestic issues always on the front burner during the Kennedy administration were civil rights and organized crime. JFK was cautious on race relations. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was relentless in pursuing the mafia, and a very large number of gangsters had been imprisoned at the time of the assassination.
Dallas abruptly ended this crusade, and nearly a decade passed before the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation reignited the effort.
Kennedy's fatalism was accompanied by a striking capacity to evaluate himself dispassionately. The qualities reflected a lifetime battling severe health challenges, kept secret by his family until recently.
Professor Robert Dallek's book, ``An Unfinished Life ― John F. Kennedy,'' uses the newly available information to document an extraordinary array of health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Despite this, he managed to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and beyond that volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty.
Kennedy at the start of his administration made a dramatic public commitment to land a man on the Moon. That effort reflected the 1960s' sense of adventure as well as Soviet threat; Kennedy exploited both in his presidential campaign.
The manned space program required extreme miniaturization of many items, which in turn helped drive development of the computer chip. Every time you turn on your personal computer, you're addressing the future, even when researching the past. You're also saying hello to JFK.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and author of the book ``After the Cold War'' (NYU Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.