Fifty years ago on this day, on a crisp and clear Texas morning, three shots cracked from a mail order purchased Mannlicher-Carcano .30 rifle in Dallas’ downtown Dealey Plaza and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was mortally wounded.
He was just 46 years old. With it ended the hopes of an early thaw of the frigid Cold War and one of the world’s most enduring legends began. Kennedy held office for just a 1,000 days but the luminescence is still there after half a century. It owes as much to his personality as the promise of hope and idealism that he brought with him.
What made Kennedy so unique? The late John Kenneth Galbraith, a Kennedy confidant and his ambassador to India, explained “there was a magic about Kennedy which was very rare for a politician. He never had to worry about who he was.” And that it was because of this quality, so rare among politicians now, that Kennedy brought a sense of purpose and excitement to government.
Thus, when he demanded of his fellow citizens to “ask not what America can do for you, but what you can do for America” they listened to him. When he promised that “we will bear any burden, and pay any price in the defence of freedom and liberty”, America’s friends abroad believed him. And when he warned that he would “never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear” his adversaries heard.
Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric was matched by deeds, some worthy and some misguided, for above all he was a man of action. That first misadventure in Cuba, the Peace Corps, the race to the moon, and the entanglement in Vietnam were some. But Kennedy’s keen sense of history and his place in it served him well too. In 1961, he inherited a poorly conceived and morally indefensible plan from the Eisenhower administration to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro.
But when “the perfect disaster” resulted, Kennedy was quick to take the blame on himself, as he was to learn the pitfalls of trusting “experts”. “How could I have been so stupid” he publicly exclaimed and he was never to trust his “experts” again. The American people rewarded his candor with increased support rather than reproach. JFK learned from his mistakes. When the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in October 1962, he was prepared and ready. What followed is now a classic case of crisis management.
During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy made much of the ‘missile gap’ between the former USSR and the US. This was the time immediately after Sputnik and the 50-megaton bomb test, when Americans generally, but wrongly, believed that the Russians were ahead of them in the space and nuclear races. After the October crisis, JFK was quick to seek agreements on limiting and even rolling back the nuclear race.
The Test Ban Treaty endures even today. Ever a man in search of challenge, JFK while working to end the nuclear race was quick to begin another one. In October 1961, when the Soviets sent Yuri Gagarin aloft into space on the Vostok I, JFK vowed that the US would never again be behind in the space race. He wanted an American on the moon within the 1960s. Six years after he was killed, Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon.
Mohan Guruswamy is a political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal