Other Views: JFK’s legacy continues a half century later

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Arthur I. Cyr
Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted his principal legacy might well be an “attitude,” a contagious spirit that all things are possible if only we have the vision and will. Kennedy had direct ties to Wisconsin: Victory in the 1960 primary was essential to his nomination.

In fact, JFK had important tangible accomplishments—as well as failures—during his brief tenure in office. Nonetheless, Sevareid was remarkably perceptive in emphasizing the emotional impacts of this president. His shocking, grotesque murder continues to reverberate in our collective lives.

The administration’s disastrous, failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs dogged President Kennedy and provided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev strong incentive to deploy offensive missiles on the island. Intense U.S. efforts to kill Fidel Castro, directly pressed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, spurred Moscow.

This led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In recent years, meetings between surviving officials from both sides in the confrontation have revealed that nuclear war was even closer than realized in that tense time.

The president resisted powerful pressures to attack Cuba. The missiles were forced out through a blockade, combined with a secret Cuba-Turkey missile trade.

In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev achieved a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere. JFK had other successes with Congress, including international trade negotiation authority key to the 1967 Kennedy Round agreement.

Two domestic issues always on the front burner were civil rights and organized crime. JFK was careful on race relations, addressing the subject decisively only when pressed to do so by a massive public march on Washington. RFK was relentless in pursuit of the mafia, while simultaneously gangsters were recruited for the effort to kill Castro.

Sen. John Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” about U.S. senators who put principle above political expediency, received the Pulitzer Prize. Critics cracked unfairly that President Kennedy should show less profile and more courage. Professor Herbert Parmet has documented exceptionally serious health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Nonetheless, Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Navy in World War II, then volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty.

Sevareid’s observation applies tangibly to the American space program. President Kennedy made a dramatic public commitment to a manned moon landing, including safe return to Earth.

Technological innovations resulted from the mammoth space effort, including extreme miniaturization of electronics. Every time you use a computer or cellphone, you’re saying hello to JFK.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Kenosha and author of the book “After the Cold War” (NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

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