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JFK at 100: His Presidential Legacy

With the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth on May 29, we look back at the impact of his slightly over 1000 days in office.

May 29, 2017, marks the 100th birthday of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States from January 20, 1961 until November 22, 1963. Assassinated in the prime of his presidency, Kennedy’s tenure in office was slightly over 1,000 days. Not a lot of time to accomplish the many goals he had set in speeches made during his short tenure.

As with many presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama—John Kennedy had the gift of oratory. He had mastered the ability to frame complex concepts in terms of American exceptionalism and set the course for promoting the values of courage, freedom, justice, service, and gratitude. How well Kennedy was able to translate these plans into real policy is still in great debate over 50 years after this death. 

President Kennedy’s first few months did not start out well. In April, a poorly planned covert mission to invade Cuba, which he inherited from the Eisenhower administration, ended in the capture of Cuban militants supported by the CIA. Then in June, at a summit meeting with Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy was humiliated by the Soviet leader who characterized him as weak and inexperienced. By the summer of his first year in office, most of President Kennedy’s legislative proposals were stalled on Capitol Hill. 

However, in three separate speeches made during his first year in office, President Kennedy announced several major initiatives. Some of these were intended to fulfill long-standing pledges, others were born out of crisis, and some were intended to move the country, and by association the world, into the next century. 

On January 20, 1961, 43-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. Outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower was there as was Vice President Richard Nixon, the man Kennedy defeated in the election and Kennedy’s Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. After being sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren, President Kennedy took the podium. Recognizing his paper-thin victory against Nixon, and that his party had lost the majority in the House of Representatives, he avoided the divisiveness of speaking about domestic issues. Instead, Kennedy set forth foreign policy goals and pledges:  

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

As America’s youngest-elected president, Kennedy was cognizant that European allies such as Charles De Gaulle, president of France, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain, would be listening intently to hear if this young president would uphold America’s commitments. To convey his seriousness of purpose and grasp of global issues, Kennedy announced that “a new generation of Americans,” which he was leading, was committed to protecting human rights at home and abroad. 

Later in the speech, Kennedy backed this pledge by telling all nations the United States would not be intimidated:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

In October, 1962, this pledge was put to the test when the Soviet Union began installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles off the coast of the United States. In response to several attempts by the United States to undermine the communist regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Soviet leaders decided to protect their protégé-nation from further harassment. After U.S. spy planes confirmed the missile installation on September 8, 1962, President Kennedy was faced with a dangerous dilemma. His military advisors strongly urged a quick air strike to destroy the missiles and neutralize the threat. Aware that such a strike might kill Soviet military personnel and escalate the situation, Kennedy instead ordered a naval blockade of Soviet ships to prevent completion of the missile installation. After 13 harrowing days of tense negotiations, the crisis was resolved with the Soviets agreeing to withdraw its weapons and the United States agreeing not to invade Cuba without provocation. 

The incident provided both Soviet and American leaders with a stark revelation of how a small miscalculation could result in the ultimate disaster. Within months of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy began negotiations with Nikita Khrushchev to address these concerns. On August 5, 1963, the U.S., the U.S.S.R., and the United Kingdom signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which limited nuclear testing to underground and began the process for reducing the countries’ stockpile of nuclear weapons. 

Another area of the competition between the United States and the U.S.S.R. was the Space Race. In October, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, a radio-equipped satellite that orbited the earth for 21 days, making it quite clear the Soviet Union had technological capabilities that exceeded the United States. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke before a joint session of Congress and called for an ambitious program of sending an American safely to the Moon and back before the end of the decade:  

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”

In addition to asking Congress to fund a moon shot, Kennedy also asked for funds to explore the solar system beyond, accelerate the use of space satellites for worldwide communications, and a develop satellite system for early weather detection. By 1969, the United States had landed a man on the moon—the only country to date to do so—and by 1972 when the Apollo space program ended, 12 Americans had left their footprints on the lunar surface. From Kennedy’s call to explore the “final frontier,” weather monitoring satellites provide early warnings about major storms and U.S. space probes have explored the surface of Mars, the atmosphere of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and the far-reaches of the solar system. 

In addition to the use of “hard power,” President Kennedy understood the potential benefits of “soft power” in projecting a positive image and establishing strong relations with emerging nations. In his inaugural speech, he spoke directly to the people of these countries: 

“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Less than 40 days into his presidency, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps by Executive Order 10924 on March 1, 1961. The program trained American volunteers to help underdeveloped countries improve conditions in education, health care, farming, and construction. Initially, the program recruited 750 volunteers which grew to 5,000 by 1963 and 10,000 the following year. Since its inception, over 220,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps serving in 141 countries. Though it has experienced some controversy over the years, the Peace Corps has gone a long way in helping to dispel the stereotype of the “Ugly American” and “Yankee Imperialism.” 

One of President Kennedy’s other goals to address the United States’ deteriorating relations with many Latin American countries. Years of exploitation and “gun-boat diplomacy” had soured their outlook on America. During his inauguration speech, Kennedy spoke to the people of Latin America: 

“To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge—to convert our good words into good deeds—in a new alliance for progress—to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty.”

Kennedy announced plans for a multi-million aid program the Alliance for Progress for Latin America a few weeks after initiating the Peace Corps. By May, 1961, Congress had authorized an initial grant of $500 million. Billions of dollars were spent over the next 10 years, but the program experienced marginal success. To its credit, the AFP exceeded its own goal of raising per capita output. Adult literacy increased and there were improvements in housing, education, and health care. But many Latin American leaders failed to implement needed reforms, and ebbing support from succeeding presidents and Congresses caused the program to end in the mid-1970s. 

Many historians conclude that President Kennedy’s 1000 days didn’t yield the historic achievements of some of his processors. But many of his actions were successful in addressing long-neglected issues and setting a new course for many others. Medicare, civil rights reform, tax-cuts, and aid to education weren’t enacted until the Johnson administration, but they saw their genesis during the Kennedy administration. And that is reason enough for celebrating John Kennedy’s 100th birthday.