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The legacy of John F Kennedy

Published: 
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On this day fifty-four years ago, John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, would leave the White House and never return. Less than 24 hours later he would be dead, struck down while campaigning in the city of Dallas, Texas. Even now, more than half a century later, the country still hasn’t fully come to terms with what happened that terrible afternoon in November 1963. And it continues to inspire a morbid fascination, where the questions of “who,” “how,” and “why” narrate a complex conspiracy theory that it was an execution perpetrated by the US government.

As recent as last month, the JFK assassination once again became an au courant topic when President Trump announced the release of classified government documents pertaining to the investigation. But the long-anticipated bombshell fizzled out because of a last-minute decision to withhold some of the information for reasons of national security. However, the invocation of this tragic event is an opportunity for all the world’s nations, and their leaders especially, to re-examine the legacy of John Kennedy.

Despite its premature end, the Kennedy administration assured itself a place in history due to the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs Invasion (April 1961) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962). The coming to power of the communist Castro regime presented a strategic and an existential threat to America and its championing of democratic principles. But with the ever-present threat of the Cold War turning into a “hot” one, Kennedy favoured a more cautious approach, choosing covert or passive action over direct involvement. Even when the outcome didn’t go as planned, as with the failed CIA-backed invasion, he didn’t let his embarrassment override better judgment.

He would be tested again the following year when tensions with the Soviet Union over the basing of nuclear missiles on Cuban soil took the world to the brink of war. He stood firm, not only against the Soviets but his own military by choosing the naval blockade over a military solution. In what was undoubtedly the low and high points of his presidency, Kennedy displayed attributes that a number of the world’s leaders—even the powerful ones—are sorely lacking. He didn’t try to shirk or deflect responsibility, nor did he resort to bellicose or insulting language, but projected an air of capability and calm that commanded respect from allies and adversaries alike.

Turning to his handling of a personal issue, one of the interesting facts about Kennedy was that he was the first (and so far only) Roman Catholic to serve in the Oval Office. At the time of his candidacy, anti-Catholic prejudice was still very much in the mainstream of American life. With most of the country being either Evangelical or Protestant Christian, Kennedy had to go to great lengths to convince the electorate that his religion would have nothing to do with his politics.

Unfortunately, the concept of a separation between church and state, once considered sacrosanct, is being challenged in democracies around the world. Politicians are now pandering to conservative voters by advocating religious ideology and other populist rhetoric. Then, once elected, they advance draconian policies to maintain that support base even if it marginalises other population groups.

Kennedy’s attitude regarding his faith is one that all politicians should emulate; adhering to secularism so that all citizens are guaranteed equality and protection under the law.

Soon after the state funeral, Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to Life magazine in which she equated her husband and his presidency to the mythical King Arthur and Camelot. As audacious as it was… it stuck, and this mystique has been part of the Kennedy legacy ever since.

The Mighty Sparrow once sang, “It would take us over a century to get a next man like Kennedy.” Let’s hope he’s wrong and we don’t have to wait another 50 years for a worthy successor to the once and future king.

Ryan Hadeed