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Chris Ford: John F. Kennedy 50 years - a moment of change for America?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. This day, aside from September 11, 2001, was one of the most shocking and significant in post-war American history.

There has been much historiographical debate, though, about the importance of Kennedy's assassination in the wider scheme of US post-war history. Some see it as marking a watershed moment in this part of America's history. Others view it as an important event but one that fits within a wider historical narrative about a frontier society, steeped in violence and, due to this, sometimes prone to settling political disputes through resort to violence against political actors. Within this school of thought, Kennedy's murder was yet another demonstration that the power of the gun has sometimes intervened to shape American political history - think the assassinations of not only JFK but Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Junior, Robert F. Kennedy, and the fact that assassination attempts have been made against nearly all other sitting presidents.

Therefore, the implications of the constitutional right to bear arms has long cast its shadow over American political history.

There are also other reasons why JFK's assassination has gained the unique place it has in America's post-war history.

Pivotally, Kennedy's assassination unsettled a nation that was enjoying the fruits of a post-war economic boom. It un-nerved a nation that, only a year earlier, had narrowly escaped nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The act of assassination also terminated the life of the youngest leader the United States has (to date) elected and, for this reason, the idea that a youthful man could change one of the modern world's oldest political offices died with it.

Above all, Kennedy's death marked more than the death of a popular politician (his approval ratings being in the mid-60 percent range at the time of his passing) but the final passing of American political innocence. This is the case as in the decade following November 22, 1963, the unwritten about scandals of Kennedy's time in the Oval Office were gradually exposed. These included, for example, the decisions by Kennedy himself to order use of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, the connections between Kennedy and the Mafia, the numerous extramarital liaisons with countless women, and most ominously, the vicious campaign waged by the Kennedy brothers against the Castro regime in Cuba. What is more, only a fortnight before his assassination, Kennedy practically nodded his assent to the CIA-staged coup against the ruling Diem clan in Vietnam. This coup resulted in the death of President Ngo Diem and his brother. Kennedy, however, regretted the fact that the coup had ended in assassination and particularly of a co-religionist such as Diem who, like him, had been a practising Roman Catholic.

Therefore, in the years after Kennedy's assassination, not only was the lid lifted on some of his presidential scandals but those of previous presidents as well. The extramarital affairs of Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were all exposed by historians in the wake of the revelations about Kennedy's own dalliances. Moreover, the numerous revelations about Kennedy encouraged, in part, other stories to emerge about the damaging political decisions of past presidents as well.

On the other hand, from a progressive standpoint, the Kennedy years had many positives that contributed to the America that we know today.

Kennedy (after huge initial reluctance to do so for fear of alienating the still largely Democratic American South) had decided to back the passage of civil rights legislation in Congress by the time of his death. His administration signed the first limited nuclear test ban treaty, established the soft power components of American foreign policy in the form of the Peace Corps and US Aid as well as the Alliance for Progress, increased social security and unemployment benefits, gave greater support to farmers and backed moves to expand educational opportunities, amongst other things. As an amateur astronomer myself, I cannot overlook the significance either of his championing of the American space programme and his command that an American should be first to set foot on the Moon by 1969 - a goal achieved on time as history attests. However, it was left to his successor Lyndon Johnson to go even further by, for example, declaring war on a major problem that Kennedy was intending to do had he lived - that being an unremitting War on Poverty.

Another little known aspect of Kennedy is that he publicly backed the creation of a UK-style, free and comprehensive universal health system. He did so in a speech delivered at Madison Square Gardens, New York, in May 1961, only months after he assumed the presidency. The speech is on You Tube and provides a snap shot of a little known aspect of Kennedy's time in office. Like so much else, though, near universal health care was not achieved in Kennedy's lifetime. Had Kennedy survived this day in 1963, he would have certainly gone on to win re-election comfortably and, therefore, I wonder if he would have had pushed national health reform as one of his key domestic priorities in a second term? On the basis of the Madison Square Gardens speech, I believe he would have.

Certainly, there has been enough pontification on what Kennedy would and would not have done had he lived past this day back in 1963. There was so much potential for him to be a good and even great president but yet so many potential scandals that could have brought him down, as Watergate did his one-time rival and successor bar one, Richard M. Nixon, in 1974.

Nonetheless, in the short time that Kennedy held office, he attempted (if not to initiate change directly himself) to at least be prepared to lead societal change if that was demanded of him - as on the issue of civil rights. On international issues, he was definitely prepared to lead to defend America's role as the leader of the so-called Free World and, as intimated earlier, sometimes at any price to the country's reputation and even to his own. When it came to issues of national prestige and pride, he certainly led from the forefront when it came to pushing for an American to land on the Moon. Back at this hour in 1963, America had a leader who had his foibles but who also had the potential to do great things for his people as well the ability to equally lead himself and his country into disaster. Which path Kennedy would have ultimately traversed we will never know.

In my view, though, one thing is for certain - JFK's death did build up momentum for change in the form of the passage of Civil Rights legislation, Johnson's War on Poverty, the landing of the first person on our only natural satellite, and a belief that the Cold War had to become less frosty through greater detente. Conversely, his death also signified no change, especially when it came to the re-emergence of the darker side of the American character where the spilling of blood was seen as preferable to the spilling of ballot ink by some.

Therefore, at this time in 1963, America was changed in a moment - but sadly, only through the agency of violence - yet again.






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