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Dale Banham

Student Question: JFK's Reputation

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How do people in America today view JFK? Is he seen as a hero? Is his reputation growing/declining? Why?

Background details of the people answering this question can be found at:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=1169

Edited by Dale Banham

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My Year 10 (aged 14-15) are now starting on a piece of coursework: 'Why is JFK remembered so positively?'. I have attached the questions they came up with in groups. Answers and different views from experts would be great for when we start back in September or for pupils to look at over the Summer.

Question: How do people in America today view JFK? Is he seen as a hero? Is his reputation growing/declining? Why?

Background details of the people answering this questions can be found at:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=1169

JFK is well remembered because:

1. He was young, rich, handsome, glamourous, intelligent, intellectual

2. He was a real war hero

3. He was popular with people in general, but not big business

4. He made some popular moves...pull out of Vietnam, Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.

5. He was a master of rhetoric and public speaking ..."Ask not, etc."

6. He had a beautiful young wife and children, and appealed to women

7. He was popular with blacks

8. He had glamorous friends (Sinatra, Monroe, etc.)

9. He was popular tabloid fodder

10. He had good speech writers

11. He had written books

12. He loved sports and sporting, like sailing

13. He was not a typical politician

14. He had very good public relations.

...But he made MANY POWERFUL ENEMIES, who conspired

to kill him.

Jack White ;)

Edited by Jack White

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President Kennedy is often remembered for what he said in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961.

"Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

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Hello Dale:

One aspect of J.F.K that I shall always recall, was how he gave the younger generation the ability to see themselves as achieving any goal they set for themselves, anything was possible.....he gave that feeling of encouragement, and support....the older generation at that time, I believe, the feeling that they were in very safe hands and so were their children....That whatever happened he was extremely capable...

He made the people feel good about themselves, and their country....when visiting other countries he gave those people of the world the ease of mind that a capable and fair man was in charge of the most powerful nation of the world....and a feeling of peace within....and perhaps most of all he made them smile..

I believe that is what a President or leader of any country should be able to do.

I have not seen this appear since....and it had been greatly missed, during all these following years.

Thankyou for your wonderful question...

Bernice

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Hello Dale:

One aspect of J.F.K that I shall always recall, was how he gave the younger generation the ability to see themselves as achieving any goal they set for themselves, anything was possible.....he gave that feeling of encouragement, and support....the older generation at that time, I believe, the feeling that they were in very safe hands and so were their children....That whatever happened he was extremely capable...

He made the people feel good about themselves, and their country....when visiting other countries he gave those people of the world the ease of mind that a capable and fair man was in charge of the most powerful nation of the world....and a feeling of peace within....and perhaps most of all he made them smile..

I believe that is what a President or leader of any country should be able to do.

I have not seen this appear since....and it had been greatly missed, during all these following years.

Thankyou for your wonderful question...

Bernice

Yes, Bernice...I forgot to mention the young...and the PEACE CORPS,

Jack

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Hello Dale:

One aspect of J.F.K that I shall always recall, was how he gave the younger generation the ability to see themselves as achieving any goal they set for themselves, anything was possible.....he gave that feeling of encouragement, and support....the older generation at that time, I believe, the feeling that they were in very safe hands and so were their children....That whatever happened he was extremely capable...

He made the people feel good about themselves, and their country....when visiting other countries he gave those people of the world the ease of mind that a capable and fair man was in charge of the most powerful nation of the world....and a feeling of peace within....and perhaps most of all he made them smile..

I believe that is what a President or leader of any country should be able to do.

I have not seen this appear since....and it had been greatly missed, during all these following years.

Thankyou for your wonderful question...

Bernice

Yes, Bernice...I forgot to mention the young...and the PEACE CORPS,

Jack

May I add something said by a friend of mine many years ago in New Orleans? We had been mourning the death of President Kennedy and remembering his effect on our lives.

He said, "He made me feel alive!"

My friend was an African-American, born and raised in New Orleans, a high school history teacher who had become Executive Director of the local Urban League, an organization devoted to civil rights and the improvement of racial relations.

I think he expressed in that simple sentence what many people, black as well as white, felt.

Adele

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Today, I am able to realize that JFK was a good President, I am able to see his good attributes and for all he stood for.

I agree with all that has been stated above, by the above persons. Those were referred to as The Days of Camelot.

Unfortunately, this is only one side, or the Positive side of JFK as President. There is also a more Negative side. The fact is that not everyone believed JFK to be a great President.

He had many enemies, among many different factions. These range from The Military Industrial Complex, to The Oil Men, and the Right Wing, not to mention the Mafia and the Cuban Exiles. To the Republican working man, JFK was immoral and because of Right Wing groups influence, it was even suspected that JFK was Communist. They did not seem to accept or understand the idea of detente.

Many also had (unfounded) fears because JFK was Catholic. This was actually a big issue during the Presidentail Campaigns among many of the Protestant Republicans.

Also unfortunately, in that era, I happened to be among the Republican frame of mind. I did believe a lot of the negative charges against JFK. Although, I never actually belived JFK was Communist. I wasn't that far right anyway.

I just belived, at that time, that Richard Nixon was the better person to be President. I belived Nixon was a good man and since that happened to be my very first time to vote, I did vote for Nixon. After all, Nixon had already been Vice President, so I felt he was more qualified. I especially did not approve of the immoral behavior of JFK or his family. I also assumed that JFK's father probably had some bad influences on his sons. I was not alone in all the above thoughts, most everyone around me, believed just as I did.

Irregardless, I was still devestated when JFK was assassinated! This was just unreal to me.

I accepted what we were being told, until Jack Ruby shot Oswald. From then on, I just didn't believe there was no conspiracy. As bad as I felt about the assassination, it wasn't until several years later, that I began to realize more positive aspects about JFK, as a President, then I had in my younger years, as a young, (and nieve) first time voter.

I believe there are attempts to trash JFK, by those who seem to want to capitalize on his womanizing and also on his physical and health problems and all his enemies. Perhaps this is an attempt to change history or to make JFK seem to future generations as not such a popular president as he actually was. Then too, perhaps this also would seemingly lessen the questions of the assassination....just a thought anyway!

Regards

Dixie

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If you go to this link you can see details of polls carried out in 1999, 2000 and 2001 concerning the issue of who was the greatest president.

http://www.clovisnews.com/trails/greatest.html

Polls like this are always unfair as they give an advantage to recent presidents. For example, in 50 yeas time Ronald Reagan will definitely not be in the top ten.

One thing to note is that the two presidents that always score highly are Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. It would be easy to say that the reason for this is that they were both assassinated in office. This does seem to influence people’s perceptions of the past. However, it is no guarantee of status. For example, James Garfield and William McKinley were both assassinated but do not usually appear on the list of the best presidents.

In my view the best three presidents in history are Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. They all died in office but that to me was not a significant factor. All three were great presidents for similar reasons. When they were elected to office they were not unlike other politicians. They told the electorate what they wanted to hear and this enabled them to obtain victory. They all were great orators (content as much as style) and had what some political commentators would call charisma. This gave them extra power over the electorate. Therefore there was a danger that they would exploit this skill for their own advantage (Ronald Reagan is an example of someone who did this).

Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy refused to do this. While in office they grasped what the country needed. This meant making difficult and dangerous decisions. They were decisions that were going to upset very powerful forces in American society. (It is worth noting that in the UK we have not ever had a prime minister willing to take on the powerful in this way). As a result, two of these died violent deaths. In both cases, the killers got what they wanted. Not only did they get a corrupt president (both called Johnson) but they sent out a warning to others.

In retrospect, Kennedy obtained very little. His attempts to bring an end of the cold war was brought to an end when he was assassinated. His proposed civil rights legislation was passed after his death. Nor did he make much progress in doing much to help the poor.

Kennedy’s great achievement was that he encouraged those that followed to believe that it is possible to elect a president that would attempt to tackle the big problems that face us. In time this might enable the United States to elect a president who will tackle issues like global warming and world poverty.

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In spite of having lead a rather reckless personal life of apparent sexual excess---something I do not care about personally one way or the other---JFK's popularity continues to grow. I think this is for substantial, not insubstantial, reasons.

It is now apparent, with the release of many classified documents, the writing of many memoirs, and the release of many secret office recordings, that JFK was a real skeptic about the use of military force on the world stage, and that although he believed in a very strong military readiness posture for the United States, and took his Cold War responsibilities extremely seriously, he repeatedly used military force, or rather was prepared to use it, only as a last resort, if all other options had been exhausted. For example:

(1) He refused to bail out the failed CIA Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba with U.S. troops, as the JCS desired him to do;

(2) He ultimately refused to either bomb or invade Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He made all preparations to do so, and made sure the USSR saw these preparations, and used this impending readiness as a powerful diplomatic tool to leverage Kruschev, but his daily strategy during this crisis was to continue to prepare for military action, while daily stalling the hawks who demanded the use of military force. In doing so he probably prevented a nuclear war, for we now know that the Russian rocket forces in Cuba had permission to use tactical nuclear weapons (launched by FROG missiles) against any U.S. invasion forces, WITHOUT the advance permission of Moscow. As Robert McNamara said in 1992, if thousands of U.S. sailors and Marines and Army troops had been "fried" invading Cuba, it would have demanded a retaliatory response by JFK, and the nuclear war with the USSR would then have probably been unstoppable, escalating day-by-day into a true armaggedon. Ted Sorenson, who knew JFK's political instincts better than anyone else, has said that even though the Cuban invasion was "imminent" at the time Kruschev capitulated and agreed to remove the missiles, he was confident JFK would have found ways and means to stall the hawks in the USG and delay, or forestall, an invasion on a day-by-day basis, even though it was theoretically approved for Tuesday (I think), 2 days after Kruschev capitulated.

(3) JFK clearly was intent on withdrawing from Vietnam in 1965; he was disgusted with the entire military and political situation in Vietnam, was angry that we had become enmeshed and entrapped there with so many advisors, and was determined to right this error after his re-election. (See my 2 posts on this subject.)

(4) JFK took the Cold War seriously, but in the right way, and over the right issues. Berlin was important (because it did involve the serious issue of not appeasing a superpower bully, whose appetite might then only be whetted for more); Vietnam (which was increasingly apparent to be nothing more than a local civil war, and not truly a vital superpower issue) was not. JFK wanted to defeat communism, but NOT on the battlefield...he wanted to defeat the Communist ideology through the Space Race, the ultimate superpower propaganda contest in which national greatness and the validity of two competing systems were going to be measured by technological prowess and economic stength, not by a destructive war. JFK also wanted to promote the positive values of the West and the USA through volunteer service...through the Peace Corps.

(5) JFK wanted above all else to avoid an accidental, unintentional World War in the Nuclear Age. His own WW II experiences (in which he learned to be very skeptical about military leadership and so-called expertise), his study of Barbara Tuchman's book "The Guns of August" about WW I, and the fresh memory of the Korea stalemate in Asia all made him very cautious about the use of military force. He wanted to go to war only if we HAD TO...not because the hawks in the USG wanted to. And if we "had to" go to war, he wanted to ensure it was over a vital interest like Soviet aggression in Europe, not over a sideshow in Southeast Asia where U.S. interests were not directly threatened.

(6) This man chose a life of public service, when he could, instead, have rolled up in a ball of self-pity and lived a selfish life of luxury and ease, feeling sorry for himself because of his serious illness (addison's disease) and his congenital back pain (which was constant and unremitting). Yet all those who knew him well said he never uttered a word of self-pity, and had a genuine optimism about the future of man, about the positive role [and great responsibility] of the United States in the 20th century, and genuinely believed in the credo of public service that he so openly promoted.

(7) JFK became very courageous on civil rights in 1963, after a couple of years of dithering in 1961 and 1962. He could not duck the issue any longer, and strongly and firmly finally came down in favor of equal opportunity in education (with his famous June 1963 speech to the nation), and shortly afterward proposed a very bold civil rights bill which LBJ got passed in his memory as part of the "JFK legacy" after his assassination.

(8) JFK's "Peace Speech" at the American University in June 1963 was a truly remarkable document, just as the Test Ban Treaty in September of 1963 was a noteworthy accomplishment. The Test Ban Treaty was his proudest achievement, and the Peace Speech (which rejected a military PAX AMERICANA and asked Americans to re-evaluate their attitudes about the Soviet Union) challenged both Americans and the Soviets to end the Cold War...a full generation before it finally happened.

In conclusion, regardless of whether people have advanced degrees or not, or think about politics frequently or infrequently, they have a pretty good sense of these facts today in America; following the disaster of LBJ's War in Vietnam, and the current disillusionment over America's Iraq adventure, JFK's sober caution in foreign affairs looks pretty good to most Americans. (His one big screw-up was the Bay of Pigs; he openly acknowledged this, and he learned valuable lessons from it about being cautious about accepting the so-called expert opinions of others, and about the limits of military power.) So does his intelligent, well-informed and reasoned (but not jingoistic) patriotism, his encouragement of public service, his insatiable curiosity, his support of the arts in America, and his optimism. So does his correct and courageous (if a bit belated) stand on civil rights in America.

America was on the right road in 1963 when he died. After his death, with the exception of the Apollo Moon Landing program and other space initiatives which he began, everything else went downhill fast in America in the 1960s. Most Americans know, and appreciate these facts. It is the mainstream historians who get it wrong when they say JFK was not a great President; the man in the street knows better. If he had lived to serve a full 8 years, I think the mainstream historians would treat him more kindly because they would have more completed accomplishments to write about. (Mainstream historians recognize concrete accomplishments rather than potential, and possibilities, and could-have-beens.) JFK was great because he had the country going in the right direction: by this I mean he avoided both a nuclear war, and appeasement, through his combination of caution and firm resolve during the Cuban Missile Crisis; promoted public service and the arts; and was responsible for the robust space program which may be the principal accomplishment for which the the post-WW II USA is remembered 500 years from now (as JFK himself predicted). END

Edited by Doug Horne

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Although not directly related to this thread, I thought this White House memo was interesting as it certainly highlights the Nixon administration's feelings on the legacy of JFK.

FWIW.

James

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America was on the right road in 1963 when he died.  After his death, with the exception of the Apollo Moon Landing program and other space initiatives which he began, everything else went downhill fast in the 1960s.  Americans know, and appreciate these facts.  It is the mainstream historians who get it wrong when they say JFK was not a great President; the man in the street knows better.  If he had lived to serve a full 8 years, I think the mainstream historians would treat him more kindly because they would have more concrete, completed accomplishments to write about.  (Mainstream historians recognize concrete accomplishments rather than potential, and possibilities, and could-have-beens.)  JFK was great because he had the country going in the right direction, avoided a nuclear war (and appeasement) through his caution and firm resolve during the missile crisis, promoted public service and the arts, and was responsible for the robust space program which may be the principal accomplishment for which the the post-WW II USA is remembered 500 years from now (as JFK himself predicted).  END

This is an excellent summary of the merits of JFK. I was especially in your comments about how historians judge politicians.

You are right to stress the importance of courage. That is the trait that is most often lacking in politicians. He always had this. He also developed other traits once in office. This included idealism, something politicians usually have in their youth but lose as they get older. In JFK case it came after he gained power. I think that was also true of FDR, another great American president.

JFK also had empathy. Another trait missing in most politicians. I think this probably came from his experiences in the war. I honestly believe that George Bush and Tony Blair would not have got involved in the Iraq War if they had served as a soldier in a war.

People have commented about some of the great speeches he made. He was well served by his speechwriters. However, the real reason they are so successful is that he really believed in what he was saying. What so many politicians fail to realize is that these things cannot be acted. This is why people like JFK, FDR and Martin Luther King inspired so many people when they spoke. They believed passionately in what they were saying. In this way they communicate with the people at a sub-conscious level.

JFK also had the ability to learn from his mistakes. Your example of the Bay of Pigs is a good one. It takes great intellectual courage to do this. JFK had this. He also had intellectual confidence. This meant he could surrounded himself with bright people who was willing to contribute to frank and honest debates on solving problems. Most leaders surround themselves with people who can be relied upon to support them whatever happens. Great leaders surround themselves with freethinkers who are likely to question everything. FDR was another who did this. In fact, like most true intellectuals, he enjoyed the debate that took place before decisions were taken. Most leaders make their decisions and then ask the opinions of those who they know will agree with them.

When faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis he established the Executive Committee of the National Security Council to advise him. Over the next few days they were to meet several times. At the first meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, the CIA and other military advisers explained the situation. After hearing what they had to say, the general feeling of the meeting was for an air-attack on the missile sites. Remembering the poor advice the CIA had provided before the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy decided to wait and instead called for another meeting to take place that evening. By this time several of the men were having doubts about the wisdom of a bombing raid, fearing that it would lead to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The committee was now so divided that a firm decision could not be made. It was at this point that JFK made the decision that saved the world from disaster. This was probably the most important decision made by a politician in the last 50 years. For that alone, we are in his debt.

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He is, I believe, regarded by the public as our greatest President. This judgment is partly based on the tragic circumstances of his assassination, on the glamor he and his family exuded and on the fact that he inspired the youth of the world in sharp contrast to the impact of George W. Bush. Many historians, I believe most, feel that his public reputation is not validated by the facts and that his durable achievements are few. His reputation was on the rise when I last looked at opinion polls 2 or 3 years back. I don't know whether this trend has continued or not.

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