“Nearly all men can stand adversity,
but if you want to test a man’s character,
give him power.”
If asked to name the 35th President of the United States, many people would be unable to do so. However, if you asked those same people who John F. Kennedy was, a sparkle would develop in most of their eyes, as they would nod with approval at the question and give answers ranging from American President, to inspirational figure, to hero, to womanizer and even martyr.
In commemoration, and to pay tribute on the 50th anniversary of his death, it is prudent to look at the Presidency of the man and ask the pertinent question of why he has lived on in the hearts and minds of millions around the world for five decades. This isn’t a conspiracy piece; there are already enough of those. This isn’t a love affair with a person who meant so much to so many. This is an attempt to conceptualize and give meaning to why the figure of President Kennedy has endured.
Furthermore, after having visited the remarkable library and museum dedicated to the 35th President in Boston, Massachusetts, and also been a visitor to the President Kennedy museum in Berlin, Germany, I think it is safe to say that the legacy will probably extend for another five decades to come. I acknowledge that this is a rather bland statement, as it ignores the more difficult question of why he actually endures beyond the photogenic charismatic American President with soaring oratory that could inspire even the most ruthless among us. Because as you look deeper you begin to realise that it is more than this. It is more than the vast conspiracy surrounding his death. It is more than the intellect or wit of the man. It is more than plethora of photos and videos. It is more than the copious womanizing rumours and it is more than the fanciful nature of the self-created myth known as Camelot.
It is just the way he led.
President John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States. At 43, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Presidency. The man he was is a true testament to why his legacy has endured 50 years after his assassination; which occurred on that fateful day, seared into the memories of so many, of November 22, 1963. But shouldn’t one cast their memories to January 20, 1961, and the one thousand days that followed to really understand why he endures?
Too often, the memory of JFK is defined not by his acts as President, but by the assassination that shook the world. This should not be so.
Was the assassination a heinous and tragic moment? Yes. Was it a defining event in history? Yes. And, will the imagery of that moment last in perpetuity? Yes. However, I propose that one should not look to the assassination as the defining moment of why JFK endures, but rather on a significant world event where the President was called on to lead, and did so.
The year was 1962, and the month was October. It was Thirteen Days that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. What is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted from October 14 to October 28, depicts the height of the Cold War; as Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev devised a plan to secretly place missiles in Cuba that had the ability to reach the mainland of the United States.
The President broke the news to the American public and the world:
“[U]nmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”
The President then opined on history in a way meant to appeal to all sides and lead with strength. Ultimately, this is what he was trying to avoid, an inevitable war with no end in sight:
“The 1930’s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged ultimately leads to war…We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth–but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
The whole Military apparatus was convinced that the only way to combat this threat was through force and force alone. Furthermore, it wasn’t only the Generals and Joint Chiefs advocating for the military option. Senators had also joined the push for an air strike on Cuba, followed by an invasion of the Island with a hope of removing the despot Fidel Castro once and for all. But the President knew the harsh reality of war. He was a veteran of World War II and had lost a brother in that war. What you can gather from this is that he wasn’t prepared to start another one; especially because he knew the brutal costs of war and the tragic circumstances that followed. That is why Germany, in particular allied controlled West Berlin, was so important to him, as it represented the greatest rebuke to the Soviet system. As he said:
“That is why this latest Soviet threat…must and will be met with determination. Any hostile move anywhere in the world against the safety and freedom of peoples to whom we are committed–including in particular the brave people of West Berlin–will be met by whatever action is needed.”
He defied the generals, at times standing alone in the face of their constant badgering for a military strike. He instead chose a different path: a naval blockade on Cuba. Although a blockade was illegal under international law, it was phrased as a “quarantine,” as he stated:
“I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately: … To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated.”
The President agreed with his generals that the missiles in Cuba had to be removed. This was his priority. However, they differed on the approach to achieve this objective. The generals wanted war as a first option, while the President, as a last option. As he stated:
“This Nation is prepared to present its case against the Soviet threat to peace, and our own proposals for a peaceful world, at any time and in any forum… We have no wish to war with the Soviet Union…”
However, there was the startling reminder of what was at stake during this perilous time: the inevitable nuclear option. As JFK had done so often during the campaign for the Presidency, he used the medium of television to portray himself as a youthful, charismatic and intellectual figure that could be trusted to lead the nation. This was his ultimate test. He now used television, not to appear youthful and charismatic, but strong and determined.
“It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
The young leader concluded his address with the same strength he began it with; while also including a somber reminder to the Soviets that he and the United States were on the right side of history.
“…[O]ne path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission. Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right…”
The reason why I have chosen this event in history to bring perspective to the JFK Presidency is twofold.
First, the President’s leadership during this crisis is open for public view. Undisputable facts are available for public debate, not opinions of admirers or critics, but facts. Ultimately, the greatest fact of all is that the missiles were eventually removed from Cuba without a shot being fired by the American military; while the United States openly agreed to never invade Cuba and secretly remove missiles from Turkey.
Secondly, the threat of nuclear war is still a pressing issue today and will remain so in the years to come. Historian Chris Mathews sums it up elegantly:
“In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of ultimate judgment, an American president kept us from the brink, saved us.”
History is the final judge. When his back was against the wall, the whole Military apparatus ordering a strike, the President said no. This was not appeasement, actually the opposite, and the Soviets blinked without a shot being fired. Soaring rhetoric aside, this is a defining moment, possibly far greater than any piece of legislation proposed or passed, because it concerned the world. While it is true that some circumstances require and must contain military force to save lives and stop brutality, this moment called for something far greater, a form of intellectual courage to think of the far-reaching consequences of all the options and choosing a path that incorporated future generations. A path that involved that most sought-after humankind ambition: world peace.
As a sad tale of a future that could have been, JFK is frozen in history as the intellectual, charismatic and handsome American President who aspired to reach the moon and even travel further. He was the most powerful man in the world and had the courage to defy his military advisers, as he thought about the consequences of nuclear war and the American troops in Berlin.
Historian Robert Dallek eloquently captures this sentiment in his international bestselling book, ‘John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life,’ as he states:
“The assassination and Kennedy’s martyrdom no doubt remain important factors in perpetuating high public regard for his leadership and importance as president. But this alone cannot explain his popularity.”
The President was a man who led whilst carrying the scars of World War II into the oval office. A man who, for all his physical and personal frailties, carried the burdens of the Presidency alone. A man who led with the tragedies of history in mind and the responsibilities owed to future generations. A man, and a President, that will be remembered.
 John F. Kennedy, Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba (Transcript), President John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, 22 October 1962, <http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/sUVmCh-sB0moLfrBcaHaSg.aspx> (last visit 3 December 2013).
 Chris Matthews, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero 448 (2012).
 Kennedy, supra n1.
 Matthews, supra n 2, at 446-47.
 Matthews, supra n 2, at 500.
 Robert Dallek, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 994 (2003).