This is one of two essays I wrote for my 20th century Presidency class. If you enjoy this one, you may also like my look at Reagan.
Gunshots shattered the early afternoon revelry of November 22, 1963. One moment the nation’s beloved president was waving to the adoring masses, and the next he was mortally wounded. Before the day was over, John F. Kennedy would be dead, and a mythical image of his presidency would begin to take shape. Kennedy’s wife gave a name to this myth when she described her husband’s presidency as Camelot, an allusion to the legendary kingdom where, for a brief moment, the great King Arthur reigned over a kingdom of justice and order before it was brought to a tragic end. It was easy for the American people to mythologize Kennedy because in life his rhetoric had risen to such inspirational heights. He challenged Americans to live up to their ideals, and evoked images of a world in which even the toughest problems could be conquered by human ingenuity. In reality Kennedy did not always live up to his own philosophy. Kennedy seems to be constantly straddling the line between his idealistic vision for American on the one hand and the cold realities of international power struggles on the other. All of his actions, both noble and self-serving, must be taken as a whole to glimpse the man’s true character. Kennedy was a brilliant political actor with an ability to tap into American idealism and attitudes of exceptionalism. Although his actions were occasionally at odds with his idealistic message, Kennedy ultimately believed that the United States government could be used as a tool for good both at home and throughout the world.
In his speeches Kennedy often appealed to American’s sense of idealism and constantly challenged his fellow citizens to be their best selves. In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy associated himself with the transfer of a “new generation of Americans” who were “born in this century, tempered by war, [and] disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” (1/20/61). He urged this new generation to fight for the fullest blessings of liberty and the best of life both at home and abroad. To Kennedy, his inauguration symbolized a new beginning and a chance to achieve the idealistic dreams of America. Although he would not always live up to this articulation of his philosophy, the gap between his idealism and his actions is illustrative of his ability to work through political reality. Rather than merely casting him as a hypocrite, these failures shed light on his character.
One of the most significant aspects of Kennedy’s idealist challenge was his call for Americans to live up to their philosophy of equality with regards to race. In his Radio and Television Report on Civil Rights, Kennedy reminds Americans that their nation was “founded on the principle that all men are created equal” (6/11/63). Throughout American history, there has never been true equality for all members of society, but because equality is a fundamental belief in America, it has been used at various points to expand the realm of freedom and equality to ever larger portions of the population. Kennedy believed it was time to do this again. He urged the American people to reject racism and to extend the “full promise of American life” to all (1/11/62). He argued that the United States could “not be fully free until all its citizens are free” (6/11/63). By tying race equality to the core beliefs of Americans, Kennedy was able to effectively market an agenda that many Americans had previously considered off-limits. Kennedy himself did not have a perfect record on race. He was willing, for example, to lend his support to a segregationist-friendly amendment to the 1957 Civil Rights Act in order to gain the political favor of Southern politicians (Matthews 120). Even in his Civil Rights speech, he was careful not to single out the Southern states. One could even argue that he cared more about setting the right example in the Cold War than doing what was morally right. But whatever his reasons or his past actions, he was ultimately able to cast aside political conveniences and move for significant improvements in race equality.
Kennedy spoke with similar idealism about the pursuit of science. Kennedy is famous for his declaration that America would accept the challenge of going to the moon before the end of the decade. In his Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center, Kennedy optimistically declared that “it was a time for pathfinders and pioneers” (11/21/63). There were those in America, Kennedy said, who thought their challenges were too great and there would be tremendous pressure to do less. To Kennedy, this was unacceptable. To choose the easier path would be to discard the tremendous potential of the American people. In a particularly lyrical statement, he said that America “had tossed its cap over the wall of space” (11/21/63). The American people had made a commitment and must follow through no matter how difficult it turned out to be. Although Kennedy believed in the good science can provide humanity, he did not ignore its ominous potential for abuse. In his Address Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, Kennedy elegantly stated that humanity now had the ability to “make this the best generation,” through scientific innovation, or “the last,” through nuclear war (9/20/63). He confidently argued to explore the “wonders of science instead of its terrors” (1/20/61). By doing so, America could “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war” (1/20/61). Although Kennedy’s main motive in advancing these views of science may have been a more down-to-earth struggle of international competition, it does not detract from his integrity. By advancing these views of technology, he helped shift Cold War competition from the realm of military buildups to more beneficial areas of research.
Kennedy also asked Americans to strive toward higher ideals in their view of other nations. In his Commencement Address at American University, Kennedy strongly advocated world peace. Kennedy declared that Americans should begin by “reexamining [their] own attitude” toward the Cold War (6/10/63). Rather than simply blaming the Soviets for the problem, they must look to themselves for the solution. Although world peace was a difficult and complex problem, he believed that “no problem of human destiny [was] beyond human beings” (6/10/63). Kennedy echoed this sentiment three months later before the United Nations General Assembly when he said that “problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings” (9/20/63). While human nature might not change, he argued that the ways the international community responds to it can and should be changed. An interesting aspect to Kennedy’s call for world peace is his statement that it should be “a genuine peace,” not a “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war” (6/10/63). In numerous other speeches, Kennedy called for massive military buildup to deter the threat of Soviet attack. But here Kennedy indicates that although this strategy may indeed keep the peace, it is not an optimal situation. In his idealistic world, the necessity of these defenses would be eliminated along with the probability of war, and the world could put these funds to more productive uses. This seeming contradiction highlights how Kennedy could do what was necessary in today’s reality, while simultaneously arguing for a better tomorrow.
Like that of most Americans, Kennedy’s idealistic vision for America was entangled with the concept of American exceptionalism. This feeling of exceptionalism holds that the United States has a special role to play in promoting liberty throughout the world. In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy said that the energy and devotion Americas will bring to its endeavors could “light the world” (1/20/61). To Kennedy, America should stand not only as a role model to the world but as its leader. In his 1962 State of the Union Address, Kennedy even declared that the United States “is commissioned by history to be either an observer of freedom’s failure of the cause of its success” (1/11/62). Kennedy saw the challenges facing the United States as unique in their magnitude, and the American people as more fit than any other to face them. In the same speech he said that “no nation has ever been so ready to seize the burden and the glory of freedom” (1/11/62). By appealing to the nation’s sense of exceptionalism, and no doubt feeling it himself, Kennedy was able to summon the resolve to meet the challenges he placed before America.
Given his attitude about American exceptionalism, it is no surprise that the core of Kennedy’s philosophy was his view that the United States can be a force for good in the world. It has already been established that Kennedy believed in the attainability of world peace. In his 1962 State of the Union Address Kennedy called the United Nations the “instrument and hope” for this peace, and believed the United States had an obligation to give that institution its firmest support (1/11/62). In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy pledged his nation’s best efforts to “break the bonds of mass misery” suffered by the world’s poor (1/20/61). Beyond merely maintaining peace, Kennedy saw the United States government improving the lives of people across the global, regardless of national boundaries. One can see this belief most strongly in his Remarks at the Rudolph Wilde Platz. There Kennedy called the Berlin Wall “an offense against history,” and pledged that the United States would continue to keep West Berlin a “defended island of freedom” (6/26/63). Although it was a city in a foreign nation, and one which had been at war with America less than two decades earlier, Kennedy fully supported its struggle against the Soviet Union and made that struggle America’s responsibility.
Kennedy’s actual attempts at shaping the world outside American borders often failed to live up to his rhetoric. In his 1962 State of the Union Address, Kennedy declared that all nations should be “free to choose their own future and their own system” (1/11/62). Along the same lines he stated in his speech at American University that the United States was “unwilling to impose [its] system on any unwilling people” (6/10/63). Both of these statements seem to contradict Kennedy’s willingness to offer military support against communists in Cuba and Vietnam. In the same speech he chastised the Soviet Union, demanding that it “must let each nation choose its own future,” and yet he had no intention of doing the same when he supported the failed invasion of Cuba (6/10/63). Perhaps he would have justified this apparent contradiction by arguing that he was merely supporting preexisting movements in those countries and not imposing anything, but then Soviet leaders probably would have responded the same way. Although he spoke elegantly for this form of nonintervention, Kennedy was willing to believe that at times that the reality of national interests could outweigh this ideal and make such actions necessary.
Kennedy’s most glaring contradictions to his own philosophy in Vietnam go deeper than failing to allow the Vietnamese to choose their own political or economic systems. Kennedy said privately that the United States did not “have a prayer of staying in Vietnam” because “those people hate us,” but he could not “give a piece of territory to the Communists and then get the American people to reelect” him (Matthews 230). In an ideal world, Kennedy may not have decided to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. But faced with the prospect of electoral defeat, Kennedy chose not to live up to his philosophy, and traded American lives for a chance at another four years in the White House. Part of this escalation involved American support for the coup which led to the murder of South Vietnam’s leader Ngo Dinh Diem. It is not clear how involved Kennedy was in the coup, but his reaction was recorded by Maxwell Taylor who remembered Kennedy “rushing from the room with a pale and shocked look on his face” (Matthews 232). Even if Kennedy had it within him to play dirty in international power struggles, it is clear that he did not truly have the stomach for it. Although he saw the necessity of compromising his values at times, he justified these compromises to himself by believing they allowed him to achieve the positive goals he publicly advocated.
While he had a preference for foreign policy, Kennedy believed the government can be a force for good domestically as well. In his 1962 State of the Union, Kennedy exposed his view that congress and the president were not to be rivals checking one another’s power, but “partners for progress” (1/11/62). Government was, in his view, responsible for expanding “growth and job opportunities” (1/11/62). It is clear that Kennedy had an optimistic view of government programs, and believed they could be perfected. For example, he cites problems with the income tax, but dedicates a large portion of his 1963 State of the Union to his remedy. Kennedy also believed that government could be used to improve the cities, farms, health care, and education of America (1/11/62). He saw the space race as primarily a competition with the Soviet Union, but in his Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Center, he was careful to stress that it would lead to innovations that improved life on earth (11/21/63). Building on the success of the Peace Corps, Kennedy supported the creation of a similar organization that would operate inside the United States (6/10/63). Beyond all of this, the government’s most fundamental role was to ensure “full and equal rights” for all citizens (1/11/62). Kennedy saw the federal government not as a potential threat to liberty and prosperity, but as its ultimate champion.
Like the other aspects of his philosophy, Kennedy’s rhetoric on domestic policy does not quite match the reality. While he spoke of making “lives healthier and happier here on earth” one could argue his main concern was not so much health and happiness, but creating a nation better suited to compete in international struggles for power (11/21/63). Indeed, throughout his 1962 State of the Union, he explicitly linked domestic prosperity to Cold War competition (1/11/62). More tellingly, he said in private that “foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president” and such issues as the minimum wage were insignificant in comparison (Matthews 199). Taken in this light, his idealistic domestic policy can be cast as quite cynical. Beyond his personal motivations, even his tactics are questionable. Although he wanted the United States to be a shining example of a free economy, his means to this end were far from a purely free market approach. He spent large portions of each State of the Union Address outlining centralized governmental controls to achieve economic prosperity, which is the socialist model of progress.
John F. Kennedy exposed a philosophy for the United States which tapped into American idealism and saw viewed the federal government as a force for good both at home and throughout the world. At times Kennedy failed to live up to his own rhetoric, but his ability to inspire people combined with his tragic death has caused a mythical image of the Kennedy presidency to emerge. There is a sort of nostalgic tendency to see his time as one of optimism and possibility, where progress was being made in a way it never has again. Although the myth of Kennedy does not match the reality, the reality actually offers more to the present. It is an image not of an infallible man, but an imperfect man struggling to advance his idealistic philosophy in a less than ideal world. It serves as a reminder that a sort of mythical figure is not required to achieve great things. Though the particular merits of Kennedy’s ideas are open to debate, this overriding theme should serve as an inspiration to all Americans as they forge ahead with their own visions for the future.
[1/20/61] Kennedy, John F. Inaugural Address.
[1/11/62] Kennedy, John F. State of the Union Address
[6/10/63] Kennedy, John F. Commencement Address at American University.
[6/11/63] Kennedy, John F. Radio and Television Report to the American People on Civil Rights.
[6/26/63] Kennedy, John F. Remarks at the Rudolph Wilde Platz.
[11/21/63] Kennedy, John F. Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center.
[9/20/63] Kennedy, John F. Address Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations. Matthews, Christopher. Kennedy & Nixon.