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John F. Kennedy

JFK's Presidency II

JFK's Presidency I

The Kennedy Legacy

Cold War diplomacy was not the only part of JFK's foreign policy. In keeping with the idealistic spirit of his inaugural address, one of JFK's first initiatives was the creation of the Peace Corps, a service organization that sent young Americans overseas to do volunteer work in less-developed countries. Still in existence today, the Peace Corps stands as one of JFK's most enduring legacies. Meanwhile, in keeping with his earlier support for economic aid to the developing world (and in an effort to diminish the influence of Communist Cuba), JFK proposed that South American nations join the United States in a ten-year plan for economic development in the Americas. The Alliance for Progress, as it came to be called, did much to improve U.S. prestige in Latin America, and was a useful buffer against Soviet inroads in the western hemisphere.

At the same time, a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations after the Cuban Missile Crisis opened the way for negotiations between the two superpowers on the subject of arms control. On August 5, 1963, in one of JFK's principal foreign policy successes, the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union joined in signing a limited nuclear test-ban treaty, forbidding atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The treaty would eventually be signed by most of the world's nations, and it marked an important first step in the development of arms control treaties, which were to be a staple of later Cold War politics.

In terms of domestic legislation, JFK's record was less successful, as Congress repeatedly blocked his policy proposals. His calls for tax relief and education reform were largely ignored; he pushed an income tax cut in January 1963, but it was not passed until after his death. His most famous economic intervention did not involve legislation: in March 1962, the U.S. Steel Corporation attempted a 3.5% price increase on its product, and JFK pressured the industry into dropping the hike, a move that led many businessmen to view the president as an enemy. Meanwhile, as the election of 1964 approached, JFK discussed making a large-scale anti-poverty program the centerpiece of his re- election campaign. This plan would later be expanded by his successor, Lyndon Johnson, into a full-fledged "War on Poverty."

The public image of the Kennedy White House was one of glamour and high culture. Jackie Kennedy set the fashion world abuzz with her clothes, invited famous thinkers and artists to visit the White House, created a "White House Fine Arts Committee," and, in general, made the most of her role as First Lady. The beautiful Jackie, the handsome, vigorous president, and their young children, Caroline and John Jr., seemed to be a model First Family. Beneath the surface, though, things were not so pretty. Jackie felt lonely and isolated from her husband, who was occupied with affairs of state and with his almost compulsive womanizing. His most prominent mistresses during his White House years were the film star and international sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, and a woman named Judith Campbell Exner, who was also the mistress of a mob boss. But there were many others in addition, including those with whom JFK had countless brief, semi-anonymous flings. All of this was kept secret from the general public, of course, as was JFK's continuing struggle with Addison's Disease–papers were loathe to risk lawsuits by publishing rumors, especially when the Justice Department was in the hands of JFK's brother Robert. The Kennedy brothers, assisted by the slightly unstable, paranoiac FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had no qualms about using their power against their political opponents. Illegal wiretapping, something Hoover had been practicing for years, expanded drastically under JFK. Robert Kennedy used the wiretaps against the Mafia and other underworld types, but also authorized spying on public figures.

One of the people secretly wiretapped by Hoover's FBI was civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. This fact illustrates JFK's cautious approach to the Civil Rights Movement, which gathered steam during the early 1960s with sit-ins, strikes, and the famous "freedom rides" across the Deep South. In the fall of 1962, a black student named James Meredith attempted to enroll in the University of Mississippi, sparking massive protests and violence that forced JFK to send in 23,000 federal troops to restore order. Again, in spring 1963, two black students enrolled in the University of Alabama, and again JFK was forced to use the National Guard to ensure their safety. JFK was sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement–southern segregationists certainly regarded him as a villain–but he was wary of political risk, and acted only when absolutely necessary. Only after a horrific scene in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, during which black demonstrators were attacked with fire hoses, cattle prods, and police dogs, did JFK go on television to declare that the country faced a "moral crisis" on the civil rights issue. All through 1963, JFK worked to pass a moderate civil rights bill, which would eventually be shepherded through Congress by Lyndon Johnson in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Just as the turmoil of the late 1960s was foreshadowed by the racial strife that plagued the U.S. during JFK's presidency, so too could the roots of the Vietnam War be found in JFK's policies. Throughout his administration, JFK labored to shore up the faltering pro-American regimes in South Vietnam and its neighbor, Laos. The U.S. had been sending advisors to South Vietnam since 1954, but under JFK the number of soldiers and observers expanded from about 700 to more than 15,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. government supported a military coup in early November 1963 that toppled the unpopular President Diem of South Vietnam and replaced him with a military dictatorship. The U.S. hoped that the new government would increase stability in the nation; in fact, it had the opposite effect, and soon tens of thousands of American troops would be on their way to the war-torn country.

In the autumn of 1963, JFK's advisers were split over whether the struggle against Communist insurgency in Vietnam was winnable. JFK himself seems to have been torn–he did not want to see his country trapped in a quagmire, but neither was he willing to cede Southeast Asia to the Communists. In any event, Vietnam would soon be someone else's problem. On November 22, 1963, JFK and Jackie flew to Dallas, Texas, as part of a speech-making tour. Riding through the city in an open car, JFK was shot twice in the neck and head by an assassin, and was dead within an hour. The Kennedy era was over.

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