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John F. Kennedy

The Kennedy Legacy

JFK's Presidency II

Study & Essay

Upon hearing of JFK's assassination, the nation and world went into a period of shocked mourning. While Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office, a twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald, who had at one time sought citizenship in the Soviet Union, was arrested for the murder. Two days later, Oswald was shot by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby. President Johnson then appointed a seven-member commission, headed by the Supreme Court's Chief Justice, Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. The "Warren Commission" Report, not published until September of 1964, concluded that Oswald was almost certainly the only gunman, and "found no evidence" that the killer "was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy." Nevertheless, the JFK's assassination has become a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories, implicating everyone from the Soviet government to angry segregationists, from Fidel Castro to organized crime figures. Speculation continues unabated to the present day.

On November 24, 1963, JFK's body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The funeral was held the following day, and a million mourners lined the streets of Washington as the body was borne first to St. Matthew's Cathedral for a Requiem Mass, and then taken to Arlington National Cemetery. There, Jackie Kennedy lit an eternal flame to mark his grave.

Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, and would win reelection in 1964. He pushed through landmark civil rights legislation, and carried out a massive expansion of social services that came to be called the "War on Poverty." But the "War on Poverty" had mixed results, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam proved disastrous for Johnson's presidency and late 1960s America. Meanwhile, tragedy continued to plague the Kennedy clan. Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York, and JFK's youngest brother Edward Kennedy, known as "Teddy," was elected Senator from Massachusetts. But the immensely popular Robert Kennedy saw his life cut short by an assassin's bullet while he was running for the presidency in 1968, and Teddy Kennedy's presidential aspirations were doomed by his shadowy involvement in the accidental drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969. More recently, JFK's son, the handsome and much-beloved John F. Kennedy, Jr., crashed his plane into the sea off Rhode Island with his wife and her sister on board. A dark star, many people have noted, seems to hang over Joseph Kennedy, Sr.'s descendants.

The argument over JFK's legacy, as a man and as a president, continues unabated. After JFK's death, Jackie and JFK's aides helped mythologize his presidency as a golden age, a second "Camelot." For many Americans, especially those who came of age with his administration, an air of nostalgia and lost idealism still hangs about JFK. More recently, though, revisionist historians have emphasized his flaws–his foreign policy blunders (Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs), the extent to which his career was buoyed by his father's money and connections, his endless affairs and willingness to hide the state of his health from the American people, and the way he and Robert Kennedy skirted the law while in office by using wiretaps and intimidation against their political enemies.

A balanced assessment of JFK's time in office must recognize his errors, while crediting his undeniable accomplishments. He fouled up the Bay of Pigs, but staved off nuclear war with the Soviet Union over Cuba, and parlayed this détente into important agreements such as the nuclear test-ban treaty. He may not have done all he could for civil rights, but his symbolic support for blacks was important in the fight against segregation. One can argue that had he not been assassinated, JFK might have made the same blunders in Vietnam that ultimately dragged Lyndon Johnson down. One can counter, however, that JFK had an ability to rise to the occasion during key moments, first as a war hero and then as president. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through his rhetoric to unite the country and through programs like the Peace Corps, JFK inspired a generation of Americans in a way that few presidents have managed to do–for this alone, he deserves admiration and respect.

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