JFK’s legacy remains a powerful force nearly 50 years after his death


By Arthur I. Cyr

Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted the central legacy of the murdered leader might well be an “attitude,” a contagious spirit that all things are possible if only we have the vision and will. Kennedy’s White House tenure included the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In recent years, meetings between surviving officials from both sides in the missile crisis have revealed that Soviet generals in Cuba possessed short-range nuclear weapons, and for a time authority from Moscow to use them if the U.S. invaded.

During the crisis, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some others were convinced the Soviet response to an American invasion would be restricted to the level of conventional weapons. Kennedy, like others with direct experience of war, especially World War II, was cautious about employing our armed forces. In the end, he and his advisers were able to get the missiles out of Cuba through a blockade, combined with a secret Cuba-Turkey missile trade. Their perspective contrasts markedly with today’s war hawks, anxious to use force in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, while generally lacking any direct military experience. The administration’s disastrous failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs dogged President Kennedy from the start, and provided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with strong incentive to deploy Soviet missiles on the island. After the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy brothers greatly expanded efforts to disrupt Cuba and assassinate Fidel Castro. Top-secret “Operation Mongoose” was spearheaded by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and included recruiting the most violent mercenaries money could buy. The two domestic issues always on the front burner were civil rights and organized crime, the former pressing in from the turbulence of American society, the latter the focus of driven RFK. JFK was careful on race relations, addressing the subject decisively only when pressed to do so by a massive public march on Washington.

RFK was relentless in pursuit of the Mafia, and an exceptionally large number of gangsters had been convicted and imprisoned at the time of the Dallas assassination. President Kennedy’s death abruptly ended this crusade, and nearly a decade passed before President Richard Nixon’s war on crime and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation reignited the effort. After JFK was assassinated, people around Robert Kennedy were puzzled by his marked lack of interest concerning possible conspiracy. RFK avoided going down that dark tangled path at least in part because he feared coming face to face with himself. Senator John Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage,” about U.S. Senators who put principle above political expediency, received the Pulitzer Prize. Contemporary critics cracked that he ought to show “less profile and more courage.”

Scholarly Kennedy biographer Herbert Parmet, and now many others, have since documented exceptionally serious health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Despite this, he managed to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II, then volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty. Sevareid’s observation perhaps applies most directly to the American space program. Kennedy at the start of his administration made a dramatic public commitment to carry out a successful manned Moon landing before decade’s end. A number of technological innovations resulted from the space program, including extreme miniaturization of electronics. Every time you turn on a computer, or cell phone, you’re saying hello to JFK. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of the book “After the Cold War” (NYU Press). He can be reached at

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