50 years ago, on the 22nd of November, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed as he and his wife campaigned in Dallas, Texas. As though we might forget that fact, TV and newspapers are reminding us this month with a flood of painful stories, some with shreds of new information, but mostly heavy with old suppositions and mythology. Careful scrutiny of the evidence indicates that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal bullets, but we don’t know why.
There’s no proof of accomplices, and his motivation is unclear. Oswald had traveled to Russia and distributed communist literature, but Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had just signed an important nuclear test ban treaty—initiated by JFK—and relations between the two nations were getting better. As Kennedy said of the treaty, “If we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” That treaty ended the awful process of exploding nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, a practice that was poisoning not only the world’s air, but its plants and animals.
On the other hand, U.S. agents had apparently been trying to assassinate Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro, so a connection there is a possibility. It is also a fact that elements of our own government, in the FBI and CIA, as well as some people in organized crime, had strong feelings of animosity toward President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Any of those people may have helped Oswald pull off his killing, but with all the conflicting stories, we may never know the whole truth. The fact that Oswald was then murdered by Jack Ruby adds to the plausibility of a conspiracy.
More important, though, than why he was assassinated, stands the fact of JFK’s life and presidency. What did he mean to our nation and the world? Certainly, he was much, much more than the gigolo politician presented in numerous sensational accounts. Some—especially right-wing commentators who like to downgrade any liberal leader, and government itself—would have us believe that JFK had so many extramarital affairs that one wonders how the man got anything else done. Some of the stories about him were made up, including a few possibly by him, to deflect public concern about the documented fact that JFK was far from the vigorous man he portrayed. He often used crutches, and was in pain most of the time from war wounds and a lifelong battle with various ailments, for which he took a variety of strong medications. Seems unlikely that he had the time, health, or privacy for the extensive womanizing which so many assume to be true with such scant reliable evidence.
Sadly, many young people today think of JFK and Marilyn Monroe almost as regular companions. There’s no evidence they were lovers, though stories have been concocted and photos doctored by those seeking to cash in on their fame. As to Robert Kennedy’s alleged affair with Monroe, an aide to FBI head J. Edgar Hoover has confessed that those stories were made up, that RFK was monitored at all times and was “squeaky clean,” to Hoover’s disappointment. These demeaning rumors increased after both men’s deaths, but a JFK quote is appropriate here.
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Besides ending atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons—and moving the world away from the deadly standoff we were in with Russia, Kennedy did several things that had a lasting and positive effect on America. Responding to the civil rights struggle in the South and elsewhere, Kennedy sent troops to Alabama to enforce the right of black students to attend previously all-white Ole Miss, and he went on TV and radio to say, “This nation will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” He submitted powerful proposals for legislation which became the laws under which we now live, as they were passed by the Congress and signed by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.
Although JFK was a wealthy man, born into privilege, he sided with those who had less, after seeing poverty first hand when he campaigned in West Virginia, and he helped create the Food Stamp program that had kept millions from starvation. He did not believe that people should just accept poverty and injustice, but that we should work for change. “Things,” he said, “don’t just happen. They are made to happen.”
Kennedy saw the value of unions and believed in the rights of all workers, including public employees, to join unions and negotiate with their employers. So, since public employees were not covered by private sector labor law at that time, he issued Executive Order 10988 which gave Federal employees the right to bargain with their employers. This step energized America’s public sector work force across the country, so that teachers, state and city workers, and others could now bargain for better wages and working conditions. Kennedy’s order also spoke to the value, to the employer and the society, of having input from workers in the management of any organization.
Kennedy is sometimes unfairly blamed for the Vietnam War. He did send 16,000 troops, originally to train those fighting against communist takeover, but rumors of what he planned to do if re-elected range from an increase in troops to a pull-out. We just don’t know what he would have done, though we do know Robert Kennedy turned against the war. President Truman had begun U.S. involvement there, by helping fund the French effort to retain their colonies. President Eisenhower and his right-wing Secretary of State, Dulles, refused to sign the treaty when the French pulled out or to support the elections that were called for. Then it was President Johnson who sent half-a-million Americans to fight there, with many casualties on both sides, including civilians, in a war that seems spectacularly foolish today.
JFK was an inspiring speech maker—though he used writers—and outstanding off the cuff, as in press conferences. He invented the televised presidential news conference, and in them he gave the nation a sense that our government was in intelligent and compassionate hands. His youthful ways inspired the generation that came of age in the ‘60s. If Kennedy were alive today, what would he say to the politicians who obstruct and try to nullify government in Washington? “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibilities for the future.”
Jack Burgess is a retired teacher of American & Global Studies, and former Chief of Arbitration Services for the Ohio Office of Collective Bargaining. He’s a Portsmouth native.