The 50th Anniversary of JFK’s death on 22nd November 1963 at the young age of 46 has recently been a time of recollection and appraisal of his short presidency that lasted less than three years (1961 – 1963). The nation’s media and bookshelves have been full of facts from the Kennedy era.
Highlighted here are two aspects. Firstly, a meeting (organized by Barbara Chierici) of some Pine Run Villagers with a reporter from the Intelligencer in which they were asked to recall the day when Kennedy was assassinated and to describe their lifestyles at that time. Secondly, there is a summary of an article by Alan Brinkley in the magazine Atlantic dealing with the Kennedy presidential legacy.
The Pine Run Villagers recalled vividly where they were when Kennedy was shot and the shock and sadness of the occasion. They each recalled the Kennedy presidential era as it influenced them personally. For example:
Ann Hadfield: Ann was in Doylestown Hospital right before the Kennedy election. She told Dr. John Gribb she wanted to be discharged so she could cast her vote for JFK…Ann recalls that JFK won the election by one vote in each precinct and she believes she cast the tipping vote for Bedminster West!
Jack and Mary Venner: Jack worked on air-to-air missiles for ACF Electronics and worked for a short time with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamarra’s staff. Jack later worked in flight simulation and proudly developed the shuttle mission training simulator for NASA prior to actual shuttle flights.
Jack and Marge Pettit: Jack is a Navy Veteran (1952-1980) and he was a test pilot flying over 50 different aircraft. Jack was serving in Japan, and on full alert, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Marge was on a ship headed back to Hawaii as the crisis loomed and was concerned about possible problems at sea.
Sandy Fickes: Sandy is a fashion maven and Jackie Kennedy’s example shaped her style choices during the Camelot era. Sandy was 27 years old in 1963.
Bunny Swartz: Bunny was a junior at Bensalem High School in 1963. She remembers hearing the announcement of the shooting over the loudspeaker, and more vividly, the announcement of the Canteen being cancelled that evening!
Irv Thompson: Irv attended a military prep school in Tom’s River, NJ and he was 15 in 1963. He recalls the clamor of television news (new and exciting at that time) and listening to radio coverage of the JFK shooting, Jack Ruby, and the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson as President.
Charlie and Ellen Burchill: Charlie was working at RCA and Ellen was working for a mortgage company and it seemed like everything stopped the day JFK was assassinated. They watched the news reports on television.
Chris Ball: Chris was a research student in England pursuing his PhD in genetics. JFK’s youthful appearance and enthusiasm was the embodiment of hope, he recalled. He galvanized the Western World. The space program was competition with the Soviets and bolstered the “can-do” image along with his famous speeches.
With regard to the presidential legacy article in the Atlantic, the author, Alan Brinkley, is a professor of American History at Columbia University and the author of John F. Kennedy (2012) and Liberalism and its Discontents (1998), which served as sources for the article, summarized here:
Half a century after his presidency, the endurance of Kennedy’s appeal is not simply the result of a crafted image and personal charm. It also reflects the historical moment in which he emerged. In the early 1960’s much of the American public was willing, even eager, to believe that he was the man who would “get the country moving again” at a time when much of the country was ready to move.
The capital city, somnolent in the Eisenhower years, had suddenly come alive… [with] the release of energy which occurs when men with ideas have a chance to put them into practice. Kennedy helped give urgency to the idea of pursuing a national purpose – a great American mission. In the 15 years since World War II, ideological momentum had been slowly building in the United States, fueled by anxieties about the rivalry with the Soviet Union and by optimism about the dynamic performance of the American economy.
Like all presidents, Kennedy had successes and failures. His administration was dominated by a remarkable number of problems and crises – in Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam; and in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Some of these, he managed adroitly and, at times, courageously. Many, he could not resolve.
Many of the initiatives Kennedy proposed or enacted he didn’t live to see bear fruit, among them the Civil Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, an improved free-school-lunch program for poor children; and abroad, the Peace Crops and the Alliance for Progress.
With regard to civil rights, in one speech Kennedy made the case that the denial of basic civil rights to Americans of color wasn’t a partisan issue, a regional issue, or even, as he said, a legal or legislative issue alone – rather, he asked all who watched to broaden their idea of a common humanity.
With regard to Cuba, most of his military advisors – and they were not alone – believed the United States should bomb the missile pads that the Soviet Union was stationing in Cuba. Kennedy, aware of the danger of escalating the crisis, instead ordered a blockade of Soviet ships and forced their retreat. This was a turning point in East/West relations.
In 1970 a prominent presidential scholar remarked, “He will be just a flicker, forever clouded by the record of his successors. I don’t think history will have much space for John Kennedy.” But 50 years after his death, Kennedy is far from “just a flicker.” He remains a powerful symbol of a lost moment, of a soaring idealism and hopefulness that subsequent generations still try to recover. His allure – the romantic, almost mystic, associations his name evokes – not only survives but flourishes.
Many people saw him – and still do – as an idealistic and passionate president who would have transformed the nation and the world, had he lived. His legacy has only grown in the 50 years since his death. That he still embodies a rare moment of public activism explains much of his continuing appeal. He reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could speak to society’s moral yearnings and be harnessed to its highest aspirations. More than anything, perhaps, Kennedy reminds us of a time when the nation’s capacities looked limitless, when its future seemed unbounded, when Americans believed that they could solve hard problems and accomplish bold deeds.
Finally, Bill Clinton adds: “Though JFK’s death was a tragedy we still mourn, he left behind legions of his fellow Americans and people the world over who embraced his vision and picked up the torch he lit.”
— Chris Ball