By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
A young First Family, captivating and chipper, reinvented life in the White House during John F. Kennedy’s 34-month presidency in the early 1960s.
The Rose Garden flourished with First Lady Jackie, striking in Oleg Cassini designs, endearing children named Caroline and John-John, and even a pet pony, Macaroni—a gift from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The context for this idyllic scene, however, contrasted vividly as the Cold War festered globally and social upheaval fractured the home front.
A New Frontier
JFK’s presidency introduced a time, a brief time, that began with a “New Frontier” and ended with his assassination in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago.
President Kennedy, then 46, arrived in Texas in November of 1963 against a backdrop of the Cold War, the Space Race and divisive civil rights controversies. Some historians said that the global and national tensions matched the thorniest mix of challenges faced by any president.
In JFK, the nation’s 35th president and first Catholic to hold the position, the populace got a war hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and visionary.
During his election campaign against Richard M. Nixon, JFK had to strategize to dispel the notion voiced by some that his religious beliefs would translate to a U.S. ruled by the Vatican.
In 2004, the Catholic News Service revisited the 1960 presidential campaign, noting that JFK faced “…a voting public in need of reassurance that the pope wasn’t going to be running the American government.”
In a televised campaign speech, the senator from Massachusetts told the nation that he was not “…the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be Catholic…”
JFK, who had commanded a U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boat and earned a Purple Heart, found himself frustrated because of his certainty of what he wanted to achieve during his presidency, said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History.
Engel said that JFK gained a reputation for inspired crisis management at a time when humanity grappled with unprecedented fears.
“People always had a fear that God could end the world, but the notion that the world could end tomorrow because of human action really only arose in the 1950s,” Engel said. “Kennedy was first and foremost a Cold War president. He thought that [President Dwight] Eisenhower had run out of energy. The thing to remember about the Kennedy administration, like all presidential administrations, is that an administration is, by and large, a rejection of what came before.”
In his inaugural address, JFK challenged the nation with his historic call for service-minded action: “…Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
But Engel, who has a Ph.D. in American History, said that JFK had far more interest in international affairs than domestic matters.
“The Peace Corps really does represent what Kennedy stood for—to send American energy around the world,” Engel said of the JFK-established organization. “But my read of Kennedy was that he was interested in foreign affairs and did domestic policy because he had to.”
But some characterized JFK’s administration in terms of the personality he brought to his decision-making.
James Bennet, editor in chief of “The Atlantic,” wrote in the Sept. 10, 2013, issue that in his publication’s February 1964 edition, “…the historian Samuel Eliot Morison was extolling Kennedy’s courage and comparing the significance of his decision-making to Lincoln’s. ‘Alas, that we shall never again see that bright, vivid personality, whose every act and every appearance made us proud of him, and who gave us fresh confidence in our country, even in ourselves.’ ”
The post-World War II relationship mainly between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the “Cold War,” lasted for decades and shaped international affairs on many fronts before JFK’s assassination.
From events concerning Cuba that brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war, to the Space Race that spurred competitive zeal, the years preceding President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas brimmed with suspense and high expectations.
In accepting his party’s nomination, he told the nation that: “The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges…”
JFK initiated strides in civil rights that revealed dramatically the country’s divisions.
For minorities, the poor and the persecuted, JFK’s proposals offered hope.
The Civil Rights Act was among his proposals that became law after his death.
In a televised speech in June of 1963, during the height of civil rights protests, President Kennedy told the nation that racial discrimination was intolerable:
“…If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?…”
Among his initiatives, President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, and Ghana and Tanganyika became the first participants.
The Cold War
But peace came closest to disintegration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which followed the previous year’s unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, when U.S.-trained Cuban refugees tried to dislodge Fidel Castro’s government.
President Kennedy’s painstaking communications with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resulted in the removal of Russian missiles—which reportedly could carry nuclear warheads—from Cuba.
Khrushchev had spurred the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall and advanced the Soviet space program, including the launch of the unmanned satellite Sputnik I in 1957.
That the Soviets established a lead in the Space Race rattled U.S. sensibilities.
In May of 1961, JFK called for the nation to aim to land a man on the moon before the decade’s end.
Containing Communism pervaded President Kennedy’s time in office, not only in relationship to the Soviet Union but in regions including Southeast Asia.
According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s website, the Nov. 1, 1963, overthrow of the South Vietnamese government had the Kennedy administration’s “…tacit approval.”
The website notes that, “In the final weeks of his life, President Kennedy wrestled with the future of the United States’ commitment in Vietnam. Whether he would have increased military involvement or negotiated a withdrawal of military personnel still remains hotly debated among historians and officials who served in the administrations of President Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.”
SMU’s Engel called JFK’s assassination pivotal for the nation’s collective mindset.
“His death was the beginning of the end of innocence for the post-World War II generation,” Engel said. “For the first time, Americans realized that they weren’t going to be able to do, collectively, everything they wanted to do in the world.”