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JFK Revisited

A noted historian and Kennedy Administration insider refutes the revisionist version of JFK's legacy.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 5)

Most important of all was the effort to stop the nuclear arms race. During the tense days of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev had looked down the nuclear abyss together. Both came away consumed with a passion to rescue the planet from the overhanging horror of nuclear holocaust.

Determined to banish the clichés and rigidities of the Cold War, Kennedy, in a notable speech at American University in June 1963, called for a change in American, as well as Soviet, attitudes. "No government or social system," he said, "is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue....We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other, and new weapons beget counterweapons."

The first step in slowing up the arms race, a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, was consummated in September 1963. Contrasting the two American presidents he had known, Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs, "The comparison would not be in favor of Eisenhower....It quickly became clear [Kennedy] understood better than Eisenhower that an improvement in relations was the only rational course."

In the fall of 1963, Kennedy told Robert that his greatest disappointment was that he had not accomplished more on nuclear disarmament. The second disappointment, he said, was that he had had to spend so much time on foreign policy; "each day was a new crisis." In his second term, he planned to concentrate on domestic affairs, especially on combating poverty, spreading economic opportunity and promoting racial justice.

Racism is historically the great failure of the American experiment, the glaring contradiction of American ideals and the still crippling disease of American society. Kennedy was an OK civil rights man when elected president. But it was rather an abstract problem for him, as it was then for most white Americans: someone should do something about it some time, but not just now.

Black Americans were not prepared to wait any longer. They had already begun to demand constitutional rights with righteous determination and unflinching courage. Kennedy for a while underestimated the moral urgency behind the crusade for racial justice. But he was educated by bitter events. Angry resistance by Southern officials to federal court orders at the Universities of Mississippi and Alabama and growling police dogs unleashed in Southern cities against peaceful demonstrators shocked the country and at last made congressional action feasible. In June 1963, Kennedy went on national television. His eloquent words bear repetition--and still carry meaning--today.

In that speech, 35 years ago, Kennedy called on every American to examine his conscience. "If an American, because his skin is dark... cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want," he asked, "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?

"We are confronted," he continued, "primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution....It is a time to act in the Congress, in our states and local legislative bodies and, above all, in all of our daily lives." And he set forth a program for the integration of black Americans into the national community.

Critics call Kennedy dilatory and opportunistic on civil rights and wonder at his abiding popularity among black Americans. But, as Prof. Thomas Brown comments, "Though one may legitimately ask whether Kennedy did enough to justify such wide support among blacks, one somehow suspects that they were better judges" than the critics.

Actually, despite each day's new international crisis (and despite the revisionist critique), Kennedy compiled a pretty good record in domestic policy, as Prof. Irving Bernstein of UCLA shows in his book, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier (1991). During the Kennedy years, overall economic growth averaged 5.6 percent, unemployment fell from 7 to 5.7 percent and inflation was held at 1.2 percent. In his thousand days, JFK laid the groundwork for federal aid to education and the arts, Medicare, increases in the minimum wage, the redevelopment of Appalachia and other rural areas, the war on poverty and the Keynesian tax cut of 1964--indeed, for most of President Johnson's Great Society.

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