|President John F. Kennedy was young, handsome and charming, with a beautiful wife and adorable children. Inaugurated in January 1961, he led the nation through tense foreign and domestic crises and challenged his countrymen to strive for ambitious goals. His presidency was tragically cut short by an assassin in November 1963, but his legacy was assured by the achievements of his successor, Lyndon Johnson.|
|The Kennedy Mystique____________________|
|Jack and Jackie|
In the 1960 Broadway musical "Camelot," the legendary King Arthur of England sang these words near his death: "Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” The imagery of Camelot--King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table--provided a romantic reference for the Presidency of John F. Kennedy.
Shortly after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, his young widow, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy invoked the image of Camelot in an interview with journalist Theodore White. She described her years in the White House as an American Camelot, a period of hope and optimism. White would later write that Kennedy's Camelot represented, “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, called Jack by friends and family, was the first president born in the 20th century and the youngest man elected to the office: a Harvard graduate, decorated World War II veteran (awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroic service as skipper of PT109), journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Congressman, and Senator. Elected in 1960, Kennedy projected an image of youthful vigor and relaxed elegance. His idealism inspired a generation of Americans and far-transcended his presidency.
Jacqueline Bouvier was born in Southampton, New York. The daughter of a successful stock broker, she attended Vassar College, Smith College, studied abroad, and graduated from George Washington University. Through her work as a photojournalist for a Washington newspaper she met Jack Kennedy at a dinner party in 1952. They were married in 1953. Jackie gave birth to a daughter named Caroline in 1957. and son John in 1960. Once Kennedy was elected President of the United States in November 1960, the young handsome couple came to epitomize American vitality, grace, and style.
Kennedy's lofty goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, perhaps more than anything else, symbolized his "New Frontier" agenda: including a more forceful and flexible response to communism abroad, stronger civil rights legislation, increased educational opportunities, economic development in both cities and rural communities, and expansion of social programs. Many of Kennedy's proposals came to fruition under the leadership of his vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, yet both men are remembered more for tragedy than triumph: Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 and Johnson's political suicide due to the war in Vietnam in 1968.
1960 Presidential Election
The youthful, charismatic Democratic nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, stood in stark contrast to the elderly President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his bland vice president, Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate in 1960. During the campaign, Nixon often found himself taking a defensive stand as Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for failing to exert vigorous leadership at home and abroad.
Kennedy claimed that the Soviet Union had pulled ahead of the United States, not just in the space race but also in the arms race. He promised to overcome the "missile gap" and restore America to its rightful place as the dominant world power. (Eisenhower and Nixon knew that the so-called missile gap actually favored the United States, not the Russians, but the proof necessary to refute the charge was classified information, release of which would have compromised national security.)
Kennedy ran a savvy campaign. He looked more "presidential" than Nixon in a series of televised debates; he phoned the wife of jailed civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., to offer moral support (see "Civil Rights" below); and his running mate, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, worked hard to keep Southern Democrats from abandoning the ticket because of Kennedy's support of civil rights and his Catholicism (no Catholic had ever been elected president). Still, the election was close. Nixon carried more states but Kennedy won by a narrow margin: 34,226,731 to 34,108,157 (0.2%), and an electoral vote difference of 303 to 219.
|The New Frontier_________________________|
|Ask What You Can Do|
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy promised to fight against "the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war." He exhorted Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." The stylish elegance that Jack Kennedy and his wife Jackie brought to the White House were idealized by the press with references to Camelot. His charm, grace and wit were legendary, but Kennedy had little success advancing his "New Frontier" legislative agenda through Congress.
His first program, the Peace Corps, was approved by Congress in 1961; but his civil rights and education bills became hopelessly bottled up in Congress. In the White House, Kennedy surrounded himself with highly-regarded intellectuals, close friends, and family members. His brother Robert was appointed Attorney-General. (Bobby Kennedy, as he was known, later served as Senator from New York until his assassination during the 1969 presidential campaign.)
Race to the Moon
Four years after the Soviets had launched Sputnik, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The Soviets were beating the Americans to every milestone off the planet. Feeling a sense of urgency in finding a way to overtake the Soviets in the space race, in 1961 Kennedy huddled with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his science advisers to come up with a plan. He decided that safely landing a man on the moon, though technologically daunting, was a goal that the U.S. could reach before the Soviet Union.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy proclaimed: "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." Kennedy had no illusions about the challenge: "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." He warned Congress that the cost would be significant, more than $9 billion. While steeped in Cold War rhetoric, Kennedy's address also noted that the push to explore space transcended national rivalries: "This is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share."
Kennedy's vision guided NASA's human space flight program from the beginning. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were designed with his objective in mind. Despite skeptics who thought it could not be accomplished, Kennedy's dream became a reality on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took a small step for himself and a giant step for humanity, leaving a dusty trail of footprints on the moon, and crewmate Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin planted the flag for the United States. After more than 21 hours on the lunar surface, they returned to Earth. The two Moon-walkers had left behind scientific instruments, an American flag and other mementos, including a plaque bearing the inscription: "Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. Jul. 1969 A.D. We came in Peace For All Mankind."
A total of twelve Apollo astronauts would reach the lunar surface over the next three years. The Soviet Union scrapped its lunar manned mission program before one cosmonaut reached the moon. In July 1975 a new era of space cooperation, rather than competition, began as a part of Soviet-American détente: Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft executed a successful rendezvous and docking. Joint space projects continued, off and on, for years.
The United States and Russia still compete on many fronts, but the race to the Moon, like the Cold War, is nearly forgotten except in the pages of history. Most Americans can no longer remember "duck and cover" air raid drills, the fun of drinking Tang, or the excitement of men walking on the Moon. But the quality of life on Earth has been improved immeasurably as a result of the Space Race. Satellites are a vital part of our global communication system. Today we take for granted the use of digital cameras, microwaves, microcomputers, and cell phones. In addition, knowledge learned from manned space travel has led to countless improvements in medical care. Many developments in so-called "space age" technology probably would have occurred without the impetus of the American-Soviet race to the moon, but the competition surely accelerated the pace with the major investment of human resources and government funds. (See Research 3.J.)
Ninety Miles off the Coast
Kennedy's worst foreign policy embarrassment and his greatest triumph both involved Cuba. The former will forever be remembered as the Bay of Pigs Fiasco. Near the end of the Eisenhower presidency, the CIA hatched a scheme to depose Fidel Castro by deploying a small army of fourteen hundred Cuban exiles loyal to Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-supported dictator overthrown by Castro in 1959. The landing site was the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the southern coast of Cuba. Naively optimistic intelligence reports from the CIA predicted that thousands of Cubans would rise up and support the "liberation army" of fourteen hundred men launched from nearby Nicaragua.
What little hope of success there might have been for the "secret" operation was not helped by the fact that the Associated Press and CBS News had been reporting on the preparations for weeks and announced that the invasion was imminent. Kennedy fumed, "Castro doesn't need agents over here, all he has to do is read our [expletive] papers." Castro rounded up and detained thousands of potential "traitors" and mobilized his loyal troops to repel the invasion. Kennedy approved the operation nonetheless, which took place on April 18, 1961, but he insisted that there be no direct involvement of U.S. armed forces. Overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned, "Brigade 2506" never had a chance. More than a thousand surrendered, a few escaped, and the remainder were killed.
Eyeball to Eyeball
The defining moment of Kennedy's presidency occurred in October 1962, when Soviet missile installations in Cuba were discovered by American U-2 aerial photographs. Kennedy pressured Soviet premier Khrushchev into backing down (apparently), in a tense showdown. In fact, frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations resolved the crisis. Kennedy made a public announcement on television, ordered a blockade of Cuba (technically a "quarantine" to avoid a war with the Soviet Union), and demanded the prompt removal of soviet missiles. Though generally praised for his tough stance, critics have charged that Kennedy needlessly pushed the confrontation to the brink of nuclear war.
Back in 1961, following the botched Bay of Pigs invasion which made Kennedy look bad, the Soviets had abruptly sealed off East Berlin by constructing the Berlin Wall, and Kennedy's inability to stop it was perceived by his critics (and possibly by Khrushchev) as weakness. Some historians believe Khrushchev's motive in Cuba was to force Kennedy out of Berlin. (In 1963 Kennedy made a symbolic visit to the Berlin Wall, proclaiming that "we are all citizens of Berlin.") This time Kennedy stood firm.
The Cuban Missile Crisis essentially ended in a draw. Kennedy publicly pledged not to invade Cuba and privately agreed to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey that were threatening the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, his popularity soared and Khrushchev's political power began to crumble (he was deposed two years later). Feelings of relief and elation were tempered by a sobering realization that nuclear "brinksmanship"--the diplomatic "art" of pushing a Cold War dispute to the brink of thermonuclear war--had gone too far. Speaking at American University's commencement in June 1963, Kennedy stated, "Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war." (See Research Document 4.D.)
Kennedy and Civil Rights
In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy had argued for a new civil rights law. His phone call to the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a call to the Georgia judge who had sentenced King to a six months in a maximum security prison for a minor traffic violation, may have won him the presidency. After the election it was discovered that over 70 percent of the African-American vote went to Kennedy. However, during the first two years of his presidency, Kennedy failed to put forward his promised legislation.
Then, in the summer of 1963, Southern resistance to integration and voter registration in Alabama and Mississippi shocked the conscience of the nation. His civil rights bill was brought before Congress in 1963 following a televised speech on June 11. (See Research Document 4.C.) Kennedy pointed out:
"The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day; one third as much chance of completing college; one third as much chance of becoming a professional man; twice as much chance of becoming unemployed; about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year; a life expectancy which is seven years shorter; and the prospects of earning only half as much."
Kennedy's civil rights bill was still being debated by Congress when he was assassinated in November, 1963. The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a poor record on civil rights issues, took up the cause. His main opponent was his long-time friend and mentor, Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, who told the Senate: "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our [Southern] states." Russell organized 18 Southern Democratic senators in filibustering this bill.
On June 15, 1964, Senator Russell succumbed to intense pressure from Johnson and agreed to end the filibuster that was blocking the vote on the civil rights bill. It was passed by a vote of 73 to 27. The 1964 Civil Rights Act made racial discrimination in public places, such as theaters, restaurants and hotels, illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Projects involving federal funds could now be cut off if there was evidence of discrimination based on color, race or national origin.
The Civil Rights Act also attempted to deal with the problem of blacks being denied the vote in the Deep South. The legislation stated that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy and the attorney general was given power to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law.
An Unfinished Life
For years Kennedy had talked of dying young and violently, and since his election he confided on numerous occasions that he did not expect to leave the White House alive. Outwardly relaxed and often smiling, casually joking with buddies, staff, and reporters, the inner man was grimly somber, stoic and fatalistic. Despite his youthful appearance, he was a sick man, tortured by chronic back pain and Addison's disease (an endocrine disorder characterized by weight loss, muscle weakness, fatigue, and low blood pressure). He privately spoke of a premonition of "a crowd. . . a man with a rifle. . . . Do you think I'll be assassinated?"
In November 22, 1963, Kennedy made a visit to Texas to kickoff his 1964 reelection campaign. In Dallas, Jack Kennedy and First Lady Jackie rode in an open car, a Lincoln Continental convertible. "If you're going out to see the people, the people ought to be able to see you," he said. (Still, he also remarked, "If someone wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it.")
Lee Harvey Oswald, a dishonorably discharged marine who had lived in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962, watched from a sixth-floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, aimed, and fired several shots. Kennedy was struck in the back of the neck and then in the head. The second wound was mortal. The nation's shock and sorrow of Kennedy's death was followed by a dark feeling of anxiety and disillusionment.
Kennedy was not the first American president to be assassinated (he was the fourth), but he was the first one to have the moment captured on film. News of the shooting was instantaneous, but still photos were not published until November 29 in Life magazine. The famous Zapruder film, made on the afternoon of November 22 by a private citizen named Abraham Zapruder, was first aired on network television in March 1975. The initial public response was shock and outrage. It also ignited widespread skepticism of the 1964 Warren Commission findings that Oswald acted alone. Conspiracy theories continue to circulate to this day.
After Kennedy's death, allegations of extramarital affairs surfaced (including Mafia moll Judith Campbell Exner, painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, and actress Marilyn Monroe), as have facts about his various health problems. It's unflattering but fair to say he was a compulsive womanizer. Kennedy likely rationalized it as a diversion from his painful illnesses and stressful duties, in his mind not much different from sailing or fishing. The press discretely respected the line between Kennedy's private life and presidency, and the Kennedy mystique captivated the nation without the tarnish of a public scandal.
Kennedy's unfinished presidency left many questions: Would he have deepened American involvement in Vietnam or pulled out? Would Kennedy and his vice-president, former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, have somehow found the votes in Congress to pass his New Frontier legislation? Would Kennedy and Khrushchev have continued down the road to nuclear arms control? How much of Kennedy's enduring popularity is based on style rather than substance is debatable; but unquestionably he made a powerful mark on history in his short time as America's young "King Arthur."
|The Great Society_________________________|
A Naked Man
Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in November 1963, taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One with his wife on his right and Jackie Kennedy, still wearing her blood-spattered suit, on his left. Johnson later said, "I took the oath... but for millions of Americans I was illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne... The whole thing was almost unbearable."
Johnson was born on August 27, 1908, in central Texas, not far from Johnson City, which his family had helped settle. He felt the pinch of rural poverty as he grew up, working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now known as Texas State University-San Marcos); he learned compassion for the poverty of others when he taught students of Mexican descent.
In 1937 Johnson was elected to Congress. During World War II he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, winning a Silver Star in the South Pacific. After six terms in the House, Johnson was elected to the Senate in 1948. In 1953 at age 45 he became the youngest Minority Leader in Senate history. The following year he became Senate Majority Leader.
Johnson brought to the presidency a well-deserved reputation as a skillful politician and power broker. His mission was to make his mark in history as a successor to the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and to achieve this ambitious outcome he leaned heavily on the political capital generated by the martyrdom of President Kennedy.
The day after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson told an aide: "I am a Roosevelt New Dealer." He resolved to implement the program of reforms that Kennedy had proposed. In his first remarks to Congress as president, he emphasized continuity and summarized the unfinished business of "the greatest leader of our time: conquering the vastness of space... education for all our children... jobs for all who seek them... care for our elderly." With a genuine, deep-rooted commitment to help the poor of all colors and ages, he declared "unconditional war on poverty." Then he dropped a bomb on Congress: "I urge you again... to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color."
Johnson's full plate of legislative goals became known as the Great Society. This comes from a commencement address at Ohio University on May 7, 1964, and repeated two weeks later at the University of Michigan: "with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we shall build the Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled."
A first-hand account of Johnson's political style was written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, at the time a White House intern. Lacking Kennedy's gift for oratory, Johnson was at his best in private one-on-one meetings. Kearns explains:
"In an empty room he would stand or sit next to a man as if all that were available was a three-foot space. As the conversation progressed, Johnson would display an overwhelming combination of praise, scorn, rage, and friendship. His voice would rise and fall, moving from the thunder of an orator to the whisper reminiscent of a lover inviting physical touch. Faced with the ardor and the bearing of this extraordinary man, few people could resist."
From 1963 to 1964, Johnson dominated public life in Washington to such an extent that the Great Society was his program, the Congress was his instrument, and Vietnam became "Johnson's war." Ultimately Johnson's success focusing national attention upon himself led to his downfall. In 1965 Johnson secretly ordered escalation of the war in Vietnam, raising the stakes in a commitment that started with Eisenhower. By 1968 the number of American troops in 'Nam had escalated to over 586,000 and 36,000 had been killed, wounded, or were missing in action.
The rising costs of intervention in Vietnam, antiwar protests ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?), and the Tet Offensive, led Johnson to the conclusion that he had lost his credibility and could no longer lead the country. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced a unilateral cease-fire, and then stunned the nation by also announcing that he would not run for another term.
Johnson's announcement was the first of a series of shocks that year. In April a sniper murdered civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis; riots broke out in cities across the nation. In June an assassin killed Senator Robert Kennedy after his victory in the California primary for the presidential nomination. Then in August a violent confrontation between police and antiwar protesters shook the Democratic convention in Chicago. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination.
Republican Richard Nixon had been written off by the press after losing the 1960 presidential race, and then he wrote himself off following an unsuccessful run for governor of California in 1962. ("You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.") But he rose from the political grave and won the presidency in 1968. He narrowly defeated Humphrey, winning just 43% of the popular vote. Nixon had campaigned on a promise to restore "law and order" at home and to achieve victory in Vietnam. Privately he told an aide, "I've come to the conclusion that there's no way to win the war, but we can't say that, of course. We have to say the opposite."
Vietnam may be Johnson's most memorable legacy, but his "Great Society" social reforms were extraordinary and long-lasting. He achieved a remarkable 226 out of 252 legislative goals in four and a half years, a record second only to Franklin D. Roosevelt who was elected to four terms.
Among Johnson's accomplishments with a cooperative if not compliant Congress: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Voting Rights Act of 1965; Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (creating the Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound for college students, and Food Stamp program); Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (Title I reading programs, Head Start); Higher education Act of 1965 (Title IV Pell Grants, Guaranteed Student Loans); Social Security Act of 1965 (Medicare and Medicaid); Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (PBS and NPR). He also pushed forward Kennedy's goal of sending a manned spacecraft to the Moon, which led to countless developments in science and technology that improved the quality of life on Earth.
To this day, political conservatives decry the expansion of federal social programs that occurred during Johnson's Presidency, pointing to the persistence of poverty and the alarming national debt. What they often fail to acknowledge is the undeniable advancement of civil rights and equal opportunity. When Johnson left office, a negotiated end to the war in Vietnam was underway; he did not live to see end of that long nightmare. Johnson died suddenly of a heart attack at his Texas ranch on January 22, 1973.
The antiwar movement was but one part of a broader wave of dissatisfaction, especially strong among young middle-class white Americans who had grown disillusioned with postwar society. The roots of the 1960s Counterculture can be traced back to the Beat Generation of the 1950s (called Beatniks or Hipsters). They rejected "bourgeois" American culture and relished jazz, edgy poetry laced with profanity, Asian philosophy, mystic religions, drugs, and sex.
Around 1966 a Harvard psychology professor named Timothy Leary became a popular proponent of hallucinogenic mushrooms and drugs like LSD. Leary coined the counterculture motto, "turn on, tune in, drop out." President Richard Nixon called him "the most dangerous man in America." That year Leary was arrested on a marijuana charge. Sentenced to a 20-year prison term, he fled to Europe. He was apprehended and sent to Folsom Prison in California.
By 1967, "Hippies" had become associated with alienation and escapism. Haight-Ashbury, a rundown section of San Francisco, was the unofficial West Coast capital of the counterculture. The main medium of counterculture proliferation was rock music, and in the summer of 1969 the Woodstock Music Festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York attracted nearly half a million people for a long weekend of "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Over thirty artists performed on the outdoor stage over the course of three days (including Carlos Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who, among others).
Peace, love and freedom were central themes, and the Vietnam War gave fuel to the pacifist element of the movement. For many Americans the slogan "make love, not war" seemed to peg the hippies as both hedonistic and unpatriotic. A conservative backlash was inevitable, and what President Richard Nixon called the "Silent Majority" of Americans rallied behind the troops in Vietnam, police on the streets, and various symbols of conservative social values. Blue collar workers, in particular, resented the self-righteous rebelliousness of young activists, perceived as anti-Americanism and moral decay.
Within the Counterculture Movement itself was a self-destructive division between idealistic, warm-hearted proponents of peace and love on the one hand ("Flower Children"), and cynical riff-raff with a proclivity toward violence as their method of expression (e.g., the Hells Angels biker gang and the anarchist "Weathermen") on the other.
In an ironic but predictable twist of fate, by the end of the decade much of what had defined the counterculture was commercialized and absorbed into mainstream America: slick rock concerts, imitation tie-die clothes marketed in department stores, "organic" foods and herbal teas on supermarket shelves. The "Me Generation" seemed to lose interest in social justice, ecology and world peace, instead embracing materialism and self-indulgences such as sexual freedom and "pot" (marijuana).
For more information refer to the Research section. Sources and recommended reading: Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life (2003); Richard Reeves, President Kennedy - Profile of Power (1993); Geoffrey Perret, Jack (2001); Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days - A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1968); Robert Divine, ed., The Cuban Missile Crisis (1971); Robert Smith Thompson, Missiles of October (1992); Mark White, Missiles in Cuba (1997); Doris Kerns Goodwin, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976); Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant - Lyndon Johnson and His Times (1998); Irwin & Debi Unger, LBJ - A Life (1999); Randall Woods, LBJ - Architect of American Ambition (2006); Larry Sabato, The Kennedy Half Century (2013).