The enduring legacy of John F Kennedy

Mohan Guruswamy
Mohan GuruswamyNov 21, 2016 | 13:44

The enduring legacy of John F Kennedy

There once was Camelot!

There was a magic about Kennedy which was very rare for a politician. He never had to worry about who he was.

53 years ago on November 22, at 12.30pm CST on a crisp and clear Texas morning, three shots cracked from a mail order purchased Mannlicher-Carcano .30 rifle in Dallas’ downtown Dealey Plaza and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA was mortally wounded, and as the presidential motorcade raced to downtown Parkland Hospital, his life ebbed away.


He was just 46 years old. With it ended the hopes of an early thaw of the frigid Cold War that constantly threatened the world with Armageddon and one of the world’s most enduring legends began.

Kennedy held office for just a thousand days but the luminescence is still there after over half a century. It owes as much to his personality as to the promise of hope and idealism he brought with him.

President John F Kennedy moments before he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas.

JFK was well educated, he went to Harvard and LSE, was a war hero with a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for bravery, and had won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage. He was extremely bright and well read, witty and with an infectious sense of humor.

When a young lady reporter asked him what he did to get the medal, he replied: “it was entirely involuntary, they cut my boat into two!”  He was born into great wealth, handsome and with a beautiful wife. In short he was a very classy guy.

JFK served a term in the US House of Representatives, before he entered the Senate in 1952 defeating a prominent Boston Brahmin, Henry Cabot Lodge.


He parlayed this background into a victory to the world’s most powerful office by the thinnest of margins. By just 2,00,000 more "votes" delivered in a Chicago controlled by the Democratic Party boss, William Daley, gave him the mandate. Once in office he transformed this slimmest and possibly even most dubious of all mandates into popular adulation whose magic is felt even today.

It is still believed that Kennedy won the election in the US’s first televised debate by presidential candidates. While his opponent Richard Nixon appeared sweaty, gruff and uncomfortable under the glare of TV lights, JFK came out as cool and a comfortable winner in post TV debate polls. Interestingly, enough radio listeners of the debate polled for Nixon, suggesting that looks did matter.

Bill Clinton and John F Kerry harked on the Kennedy legacy when they ran for President. Barack Obama’s outsider run for the Democratic nomination became a serious one once JFK’s lone surviving brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, and his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, endorsed him over Hillary Clinton. Caroline is now the US Ambassador to Japan. Her appointment was as much a way of saying thanks as it was for Obama's admiration for JFK.

It is still believed that Kennedy won the election in the US’s first televised debate by presidential candidates.

What made Kennedy so unique? The late John Kenneth Galbraith, a Kennedy confidant and his Ambassador to India explained, “there was a magic about Kennedy which was very rare for a politician. He never had to worry about who he was.” And that it was because of this quality, so rare among politicians now, that Kennedy brought a sense of purpose and excitement to government.

Thus, when he demanded of his fellow citizens to “ask not what America can do for you, but what you can do for America”, they listened to him. When he promised that “we will bear any burden, and pay any price in the defence of freedom and liberty”, America’s friends abroad believed him. And when he warned that he would “never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear”, his adversaries paid heed to him.

Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was matched by deeds, some worthy and some misguided, for above all, he was a man of action. That first misadventure in Cuba, the Peace Corps, the race to the moon, and the entanglement in Vietnam were some. But Kennedy’s keen sense of history and his place in it served him well too.

In 1961, he inherited a poorly conceived and morally indefensible plan from the Eisenhower administration to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro. Instead of satisfying himself about the feasibility of the plan, he preferred to rely on the generals and the CIA. But when “the perfect disaster” resulted, Kennedy was quick to take the blame on himself, as he was to learn the pitfalls of trusting “experts”.

“How could I have been so stupid,” he publicly exclaimed, and he was never to trust his “experts” again. The American people rewarded his candour with increased support rather than reproach.

One thing was certain. JFK learned from his mistakes. When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in October 1962, he was prepared and ready. It was as if there is a learning curve that even heads of government are not immune from.

The decision-making style and mechanisms had changed, and what followed was a classic case of crisis management. This was analysed in the classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis by Graham Allison, later Dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

When the generals advocated a pre-emptive strike on Soviet missile sites, he almost contemptuously rejected it. When there seemed no other options, he demanded them from his advisors and got them.

John F Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev.

Even as the two superpowers were literally eyeball-to-eyeball, he opened a private channel of communication with Soviet Chairman, Nikita Khrushchev.

When it seemed that he had the Soviet leader with his back to the wall, Kennedy with great alacrity privately offered him a face-saving device against the machinations of his Politburo comrades, by offering to dismantle US Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

He also gave Khrushchev a backchannel assurance about not interfering in Cuban affairs again by sponsoring insurgencies and assassination attempts. Something that is honoured even now. But none of this was made publicly. First the Soviets had to back off and take their missiles home.

Dennis Healey, later UK’s defence minister, called it a “model of textbook diplomacy.” But no tribute could have been greater than that paid by Khrushchev, who told a western diplomat after the crisis ended: “Had I been in the White House instead of the Kremlin, I would have acted like Kennedy.”

In Profiles in Courage, the young Congressman apotheosised famous Americans who became great because they defied public opinion and even their own followers. This is significant, because in a democracy, leaders instead of leading are mostly responding to the needs of the citizenry.

During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy had an opportunity to show that he too can defy his supporters. That was when Martin Luther King was arrested for leading a protest march against segregation. While his opponent Richard Nixon dodged the issue, despite having a southern running mate in Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy sent King a message of support.

During the same campaign, Kennedy made much of the “missile gap” between the former USSR and the USA. This was the time immediately after Sputnik and the 50 megaton bomb test, when Americans generally, but wrongly, believed that the Russians were ahead of them in the space and nuclear races.

After the cold realities of living at the edge of nuclear apocalypse hit him after the October 1962 confrontation, JFK was quick to seek agreements on limiting and even rolling back the nuclear race. The Test Ban Treaty endures even today.

Ever a man in search of challenge, JFK, while working to end the nuclear race, was quick to begin another one. In October 1961 when the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin aloft into space on the Vostok I, JFK vowed that the USA would never again be behind in the space race. He wanted an American on the moon within the 1960s. Six years after he was killed, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

JFK's affair with Marilyn Monroe provoked more envy than anything else.

Visitors who enter the Kennedy School of Government in 1981, walk past a bust of the late president by Edward Durrell Stone, and many like me who joined the school as graduate students would look at it and wonder what JFK would have been like as a teacher.

It was said that JFK’s great ambition after he retired as President at the hoary old age of 51 was to teach at Harvard. He had planned his Presidential Library at the site where the school bearing his name now stands.

His plan was to attach the library to a school of government, where he would also teach a new generation of leaders. But after his death the citizens of Cambridge, fearful of the droves of tourists who they expected to flock in, objected and the library was instead built at Columbia Point in South Boston where the Boston Irish mostly live. The prince came home.

There are many unsavoury and salacious aspects of the JFK presidency as well. A few years after he died, stories started appearing in the media of his voracious sexual appetite and his trysts with various women, some even in the White House.

Some, like the gangland moll, Judith Exner, reflected bad judgment, some others like that with Marilyn Monroe provoked more envy than anything else. But true to style, JFK seemed to be not very secretive about his affairs. After a spate of tawdry revelations, Camelot came under a cloud and there were reactions.

Most prominent probably was the renaming of Cape Kennedy to Cape Canaveral once again. In 1982 the Dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government, the same Graham Allison who first came to notice as the author of Essence of Decision, made an abortive attempt to rename the JFK School as the Harvard School of Government.

Allison tried to explain that he wanted this to get the school into alignment with all the other great Harvard schools, which were not named after anybody. The student community at the school was aghast. The city of Cambridge quickly moved to rename Boylston Street on which the school stood as the John F Kennedy Street. Allison backed off and the name remained.

As America waxed and waned in its adulation of one of its most charismatic presidents, in the far corners of the world the mystique of Camelot was still incandescent. In the mid 1980s as this writer was driving the son of the late President, John Jr in the rural hinterlands of Telangana, we would frequently stop at small tea shops where many a time the picture of the 35th President of the United States would be alongside the old Gods and the new ones like Gandhi, Nehru and Bose.

It was as if here, at least, someone was heeding the lyrics from the musical:

Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for a brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.

Last updated: November 21, 2016 | 13:44
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