In 1960 it was the height of the Cold War tensions between the USSR (Soviet Union) and the United States, both super powers as a result of the Second World War and their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. The policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD had been adopted by both powers. This policy kept them from attacking each other because any attack would mean all-out nuclear war. The obvious impact would be total destruction of both countries. Bottom line for the United States and the USSR was that the fear of this destruction was supposed to prevent a war, at least that was the theory. In hindsight it worked because that unthinkable war never took place, but at the time we all believed it was inevitable, the only question was when.
Kennedy’s election in 1960 marked a major change. Here was a President from a younger generation who expounded new ideals and ways of doing things. His predecessor in the office, Dwight David Eisenhower, was 70 years of age in the last part of his presidency. Although a vital part of Second World War, he was of the older generation. Kennedy represented the younger generation who had just served in the war. In addition Eisenhower had been in office for eight years, Kennedy campaigned on the need for change to move the nation forward. His opponent was the sitting Vice President Richard Nixon. This likely hurt Nixon in the election because he was seen as part of the status quo whereas Kennedy was something new and exciting to the electorate. Even considering these factors it was still the closest general election in American history up until then. The election of George W. Bush in 2000 is now officially the closest in history with the result not becoming official for several weeks.
He was the youngest president ever elected at age 43. The White House was now occupied by the Kennedy’s, his beautiful and elegant wife Jackie along with their young children Caroline, 4 years old and John Jr. two years old. They were for all appearances real people and parents. Americans and the world could associate with that.
John Kennedy had endured tragedies in his life: the loss of his older brother Joe in WW II, and the loss of two children from miscarriages. Although he was from a wealthy family, he had a true affinity for the downtrodden and the average working person. He certainly didn’t need to work or serve the country, but public service was a tradition in the Kennedy family. People admired that.
He was idealistic, perhaps to a fault, but that’s what attracted the young like me when I was in high school. We could see the possibility of real change. One of the thrusts of his candidacy was to involve the young. Hence the formation of the Peace Corps and his “New Frontier” policies.
He had energy and vigor even though he had health problems. Only later on did we learn how serious some of those were. The fact that he battled though these only increases my respect for him. Author Robert Dallek expounds at length on this health problems in his wonderful biography titled “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963”.
Kennedy had one major character flaw. He was a womanizer and unfaithful to his wife frequently. Learning of this was a great disappointment to me, but over time has made studying his life even more interesting. In the broad scheme of world events, this must be set aside to focus on the important leadership he demonstrated. He certainly was not the first president to have affairs outside his marriage, Eisenhower, Johnson, and Clinton to name just a few. I am not condoning this, but the good that individuals do has to weighed against the bad. After all they were only human with the associated imperfections that we all live with.
The Cold War times of the 1950s and 1960s that I grew up in affected me deeply. When I realized that the U.S. and the Soviet Union could in less than 30 minutes destroy civilization as we know it, I started to become a news junkie and followed world events closely. I can clearly remember during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis carrying letters home from my elementary school advising our parents that should the situation escalate, they would be notified and we would be sent home immediately. Presumably this would be so we could be together as a family when the nuclear bombs landed and so die together. We watched Kennedy and his handling of this situation closely on the news every evening. I am not sure what would have happened if we didn’t have a man like JFK at the helm during those critical times. Against almost all his advisors’ advice he and his brother Attorney-General Robert Kennedy played the deadly game of nuclear chess and saved the day. His military and civilian advisors all wanted him to attack and/or invade Cuba, conveniently forgetting that the USSR was bound to come to Cuba’s defense if they were attacked. Many other men would have yielded to the temptation to exercise the might of the United States and attack. That would have been the easy way out, but likely the fatal way for the world.
After this incident Kennedy managed to get the Soviets to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Although just the first step in easing Cold War tensions, it did stop atmospheric testing of these weapons and opened up further dialogue with the USSR over nuclear disarmament.
The final tragic fascination lies with his assassination. He was struck down with so much possibility remaining. So many what-ifs linger. He was only 46 years of age when he was killed.
The assassination itself adds even more to the fascination. Was he really killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone gunman, or was there a conspiracy? The questions will perhaps never be answered to our satisfaction. Even if they are, it seems impossible for us to believe that a loser like Oswald could have altered history so dramatically with his mail-order rifle on that sunny November day in Dallas. How could it be allowed to happen?
At the time of the assassination I was 14 years old and very much in my formative teen years. Even at that young age I was absorbed by history. I had begun reading everything I could get my hands on about 20th century history especially the two world wars. Kennedy’s campaign, nomination, election and tragic assassination were broadcast on television for us all to follow. These processes were never before exposed so easily to the world at large. The presidential election debates between Kennedy and Nixon, and his televised presidential press conferences were firsts and allowed us a up-close look at the leaders. Before these innovations virtually all news was the written word in newspapers, magazines or books. Seeing history made live on television was a rush especially for young people like myself. It was instant gratification in its initial stages.
I am 58 years young now in 2007 almost 44 years after President Kennedy was taken from the world stage. With the passing of time I find that I am more fascinated than ever with him and the times he and I lived through.