In popular opinion, JFK is regularly ranked among the best American presidents, but how well does his record stand up to historical scrutiny? On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Mark White considered how we should view him today.
The elements of what occurred on the streets of Dallas on 22 November 1963 are indelibly burned onto the world’s memory. The motorcade, the gunshots, the Texas School Book Depository building, the grassy knoll, the conspiracy theories. And a dead president, father and husband.
A week after witnessing the murder of her husband on Dealey Plaza, John F Kennedy’s widow, Jackie, invited the journalist Theodore White to interview her for Life magazine. Taking place just four days after the state funeral, the timing of the interview might have been surprising, but clear-eyed reason underpinned the invitation. John Kennedy had always worked hard at cultivating a powerful and alluring image. Up until 1961, his father, Joseph Kennedy, the driven businessman who had served as US ambassador to Britain, had helped his son in the polishing of his image. In late 1961, however, Joe Kennedy suffered a massive stroke that left him incapacitated, so the protection of JFK’s image was bequeathed to the grieving widow.
In the interview, Jackie Kennedy handled this responsibility with immense skill. Shrewdly, she informed White that, on evenings, her late husband had enjoyed listening to Camelot, the musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. A particular set of lyrics had been especially meaningful to JFK: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” Accordingly, White’s feature for Life took Camelot as its motif.
Jackie Kennedy suggested to the American people that it was appropriate to think of JFK in mythological terms: he had been a noble, graceful, inspiring leader who evoked the Arthurian legend. Grief-stricken over the death of their glamorous young president, the American people were receptive to Jackie Kennedy’s message and were prepared to accept her argument that he had been a genuinely great president.
In the development of Kennedy’s image since his assassination, this Life interview remains the key text for historians. Film and television have sustained JFK’s seductive image over the years, but nothing has had as much impact as his widow’s interview with White where she succeeded in ensuring her view of her husband’s leadership prevailed.
As historian Stephen Ambrose put it: “She certainly wanted to take control of history and in so many ways she managed to do so.” Despite the attempts of various historians since the 1970s to challenge the ‘Camelot’ interpretation of JFK as an outstanding president, many Americans have continued to support the idea of his greatness. A Gallup poll taken in April 2003 showed that the American people regarded him as the second greatest president in US history, behind only Abraham Lincoln. In a 2010 Gallup poll, he was rated the best of the nine most recent presidents. Jackie Kennedy had countered any sober historical assessment of JFK by advancing an interpretation based on Arthurian mythology – and myth has proven to be more powerful than history.
For if one attempts to get beyond the Camelot mythology, what emerges is not a record of greatness that can be favourably compared to that of Lincoln who won the Civil War, kept the American nation as one and ended slavery, or of Franklin Roosevelt who brought the United States through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Rather, Kennedy’s record is mixed in both foreign and domestic policy.
Ever since writing his undergraduate thesis at Harvard on the British appeasement of Hitler (subsequently published in 1940 as a book, Why England Slept), Kennedy’s greatest interest in public affairs was foreign policy. Since his death, Kennedy has often been viewed not only as a great president but as a moral, progressive one – a leader intent on reducing Cold War tensions and on tackling racial inequality at home. In truth, Kennedy was more a pragmatic centrist than a liberal ideologue. In world affairs, his study of British appeasement made him believe that a democracy like the US needed to be tough in dealing with totalitarian foes by increasing its military power. This hard-line conviction would shape his presidential foreign policy.
In the 1960 presidential campaign against his Republican rival Richard Nixon, Cuba was the dominant foreign-policy issue, the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro having risen to power there the previous year. Kennedy promised to take robust action in order to oust Castro; once in office, that was precisely what he tried to do.
In spring 1961, he approved a CIA-authored invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, hoping to spark an anti-Castro uprising. After this failed, he sanctioned Operation Mongoose to use covert means to destabilise Castro’s rule, while almost certainly endorsing CIA plots to assassinate the Cuban leader. Kennedy also alarmed Cuba’s chief ally, the Soviet Union, by embarking on a huge military build-up, even though he had inherited a vast lead in nuclear weaponry over the USSR.
Kennedy receives high marks from most scholars for his careful handling of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, triggered by the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons on the island. It represents a vital achievement; a failure to defuse the crisis would clearly have been catastrophic for humankind. However, a number of historians argue that, although Kennedy merits praise for his management of the missile crisis, he deserves criticism for those earlier policies towards Cuba. Had it not been for his excessively hostile approach towards Castro and the military build-up he sanctioned, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev might well have decided against sending missiles to Cuba
The other two key foreign-policy issues facing Kennedy were Berlin and Vietnam. The divided German city deep within communist East Germany had been a persistent source of Cold War conflict, generating major crises in 1948–49 and 1958–59. In Vienna in June 1961 – and for the one and only time in his presidency – Kennedy met Khrushchev. There the Soviet premier demanded western withdrawal from Berlin by the end of the year, creating a dangerous crisis that dominated the summer of 1961. At first, it appeared that Kennedy hadn’t done well at Vienna, spreading the idea that he had been bullied by a more experienced Khrushchev.
When the transcripts for the Kennedy-Khrushchev Vienna meetings were finally declassified, this idea was discredited. While the Soviet leader was indeed forceful at Vienna, a resolute JFK made clear that he would not permit Khrushchev to eject the US from West Berlin and, in the crisis that ensued, ordered an increase in military spending to demonstrate American resolve. Despite the building of the Berlin Wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the west, Khrushchev essentially backed down. Kennedy could not be coerced on this issue.
The president’s handling of the Berlin crisis had been manifestly successful and a vital US interest protected without the triggering of a superpower war. This, along with events in Cuba in October 1962, highlights one of the major themes of Kennedy’s presidency: he excelled at crisis management, remaining cool and effective under pressure. His ability to craft policy that worked in the long term was more questionable, though. For instance, the vast increase in military spending predictably led to the Kremlin instigating a military build-up of its own. By the 1970s, it was clear that these policies had served to reduce the US’s military lead over the Soviet Union.
Another area in which the long-term effectiveness of Kennedy’s approach can be queried is Vietnam. Inheriting a limited commitment in the region from his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy – while rejecting advice to deploy combat troops in South Vietnam – massively increased the US presence, from around 800 US military personnel to more than 16,000. Historians have frequently debated whether Kennedy would have gone to war in Vietnam, as his successor Lyndon Johnson did with disastrous effect. But whatever the answer to that theoretical conundrum, the policies that JFK did carry out deepened US involvement in a conflict that turned out to be a catastrophe.
Furthermore, the overthrow and assassination of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem (three weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination) happened on JFK’s watch. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Diem had provided a measure of stability to non-communist South Vietnam for the best part of a decade. With Diem gone, the situation in South Vietnam – from a US perspective – deteriorated further.
A disappointing record
In domestic policy, Kennedy did manage to promote economic growth, but the success of his ambitious legislative programme was more questionable. If all of his proposals are considered, Kennedy’s success rate at securing the passage of bills in Congress was impressive. Of the major recommendations he made to Congress, 33 out of 53 were passed in 1961; 40 out of 54 passed in 1962; and 35 out of 58 the following year.
But if one focuses on Kennedy’s major pieces of legislation, the initiatives to which he attached the greatest importance, his record was disappointing. His three most important legislative objectives were to enact sweeping educational reform, to introduce medical care for the aged (Medicare) and – by 1963 – to end racial segregation in the South. But Kennedy failed to persuade Congress to pass any of these bills and a comparison with his successor’s domestic policies does not reflect well on Kennedy. In his Great Society programme, Lyndon Johnson achieved success in all three areas. Kennedy was a gifted politician, but lacked Johnson’s genius for cajoling Congress into supporting his agenda, as well as the Texan’s passionate commitment to the underprivileged.
An assessment of Kennedy’s domestic policy depends in part on how one answers the hypothetical question of whether he would have secured the passage of his civil rights bill had he not been assassinated. After resisting pressure to back openly the civil rights movement, he only committed himself to racial desegregation in the South following protests in Birmingham, Alabama, introducing his civil rights bill and proclaiming in a television address that racial equality was an important moral objective for Americans. No 20th-century president had so publicly championed civil rights. It was a risky decision, too; Kennedy knew such a commitment would damage his popularity among many white southerners, a not-inconsequential development for a president facing re-election in 1964.
That civil rights legislation finally passed under Johnson, but had JFK managed to achieve this himself, he would have received full credit for arguably the most important piece of legislation in 20th-century American history. When evaluating Kennedy, the issue of the hypothetical relates not only to civil rights but also to Vietnam (would he have gone to war?) and to his character (would his colourful personal life have caused a scandal that would have destroyed his presidency?).
Character has indeed become an important issue for Kennedy scholars. Thomas Reeves, in his 1991 book A Question of Character, argued that the dubious influence of his father meant JFK lacked a strong sense of morality. This was evident right across his life: in his womanising, including liaisons with mafia moll Judith Campbell, Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe and prostitutes; in his use of drugs, including amphetamines; and in his alleged dealings with the mob, including crime boss Sam Giancana. Reeves maintained that Kennedy’s moral deficiency affected his policies as well as his private life.
None of Kennedy’s private failings damaged him politically in an age when the media was far more respectful and less prurient in its attitude towards leaders than it is today. But should our knowledge of his personal foibles influence an overall evaluation of his presidency? In general, it should not. Some of the US’s greatest presidents were personally flawed; Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was unfaithful to his wife. Besides, the important issue is whether a president’s private life has an impact on his political role – and with Kennedy it almost never did. While astonishingly reckless in his personal life, by contrast his performance as president was cautious and measured.
In the final year of his life, Kennedy matured as a leader. The Cuban missile crisis made him determined to mitigate Cold War tensions, as shown both by his speech at the American University – in which he urged the nation to adopt a less hostile attitude towards the Soviet people – and by the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The brutal suppression of peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham in spring 1963 convinced him of the need for major legislation to end racial inequality, suggesting he was starting to become the sort of inspirational leader Jackie Kennedy would later claim he had always been.
But the assassination in Dallas cut short the maturing of Kennedy as president. And it was only through tragedy, myth and the influence of his widow that it could appear he had achieved greatness.
Has history given these presidents a rough ride?
Not all US leaders have enjoyed JFK’s glittering reputation. Yet the criticism heaped on Presidents Nixon, Carter and George HW Bush may not be entirely justified.
Richard Nixon (president 1969–74)
Watergate, the biggest scandal in American history, destroyed the presidency of Republican Richard Nixon in 1974. Originating in a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, a culture of illegal and abusive conduct on the part of the Nixon White House was revealed, making him the only man in US history to have been compelled to resign the office of the presidency.
Beyond Watergate, Nixon enjoyed major successes. A highly intelligent man, he opened up relations with communist China and signed the SALT-I arms agreement with the Soviets. While it took him too long, he was the president who ended US involvement in the Vietnam War. In domestic policy too, there were significant initiatives. He established the Environmental Protection Agency and encouraged self-government and federal assistance for Native Americans.
Jimmy Carter (president 1977–81)
Democrat Jimmy Carter left the White House in 1981 in disgrace. Beset by foreign-policy problems (in Afghanistan and Iran) and with the economy in a parlous state, he was consigned to history as a one-term president, having been trounced by his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, in the 1980 election.
But Carter’s presidency included some impressive achievements in foreign affairs, including the Panama Canal Treaty (guaranteeing that Panama would gain control of the canal after 1999) and the Camp David Accords (leading to an Egypt-Israel peace treaty). His attempt to ground US foreign policy in human-rights considerations can be viewed as valiant. In addition, his brand of centrist politics influenced the successful ‘Third Way’ approach adopted by Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
George HW Bush (president 1989–93)
Republican George HW Bush, like Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover before him, failed to win re-election in a time of economic downturn. In the 1992 presidential campaign, as he battled against his Democrat opponent Bill Clinton, he seemed out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary Americans.
But the ending of the Cold War and the destruction of that symbol of the east-west divide – the Berlin Wall – happened on his watch. Also, and with considerable skill, Bush put together an international coalition that liberated Kuwait after it had been invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As for the economy, his much-criticised decision to break his 1988 campaign promise by accepting tax increases can now be viewed as a mature and brave response to the problem of long-term government debt.
Mark White is a professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Kennedy: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Bloomsbury, 2013)