Of the many thousands of biographies that have been written about the United States’ 35th President, the title of Robert Dallek’s 2003 work is perhaps the most revealing: John F Kennedy – an Unfinished Life. Of course, when you think about it, all lives tend to be unfinished, particularly famous ones. So many times when you hear of a public figure passing over, comes the cliché ‘S/he had so much more that s/he wanted to do.’ Rare is the famous life in which it could be said that they achieved everything they had ever wanted to. Of the British comedian and satirist Peter Cook it was said that he had achieved all his life’s ambitions and goals by the time he was 30 – which, if true, may go some way toward explaining why he spent much of the rest of his life, from the early ’70s onwards, on the bottle… Alternatively, there is the famous life whereby the celebrity in question took more pride in something totally unrelated to what it was that had made them famous: for example, the recently departed 007 actor Sir Roger Moore said in a number of interviews that he considered his finest achievement to be his work with UNICEF.
The “unfinished” nature of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life, however, takes on altogether more poignant implications when one considers just how unfinished it was. He was, of course, America’s first Roman Catholic to become president – defying still-extant undercurrents of religious prejudice to attain the country’s highest office, and offering fresh hope to the country’s non-WASP inhabitants. He was also the US’s youngest-ever head of state, assuming the presidency at the age of 43 years and 7½ months. At the time of his assassination in November 1963 he was still only 46, and it seemed like more than just their president had been stolen from Americans. It felt like the death of millions of dreams and hopes that had been encapsulated in his taking the oath of office just two years before.
Whether you want to call it tabloidization, or tall-poppy syndrome, the tendency nowadays is perform hatchet jobs on our rulers, focusing on their murky private lives that managed to stay out of the public arena while the subjects were still alive. JFK has certainly had his fair share of such treatment, with plenty of coverage since his violent demise of his seemingly countless flings, affairs, and womanizing. He also coolly made maximum use of his well-connected family, with his ambitious father Joseph Kennedy seeing in Jack the best political hopes of his dynasty, after the death in action of the eldest brother Joe Jr during the Second World War.
Let’s not forget, too, the foreign-policy mistakes that Jack Kennedy made during his presidency: the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 was about as big a fiasco as is imaginable, paving the way for the Cuban Missiles Crisis of the following year, which brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. The Berlin Wall of 1961 was another failure – though it is also difficult to imagine what, if anything, he or the rest of the West could have done to prevent it. Finally, despite the best efforts of Oliver Stone in his iconic (and very long) 1991 flick JFK, the idea that the Vietnam quagmire would never have happened if Kennedy had not been shot hardly stands up to much scrutiny. The truth is that he, and most Democrats and Republicans, were firm believers in the Domino Theory – that if Vietnam fell to the communists other neighbouring South East Asian states would follow. This ultimately turned out to be an exaggeration of the appeal of communism in the region, but it was nonetheless a widely believed idea in DC, wherein Kennedy would have been going well against the grain if he had thought otherwise.
That all said, however, it’s important, too, to think about JFK’s successes. He sped up civil-rights legislation aimed to banning racial discrimination in the South (begun tentatively under Ike in the 1950s), he relaxed immigration policy in favour of immigrants from Central and South America and Asia (where previously the emphasis had been on accepting immigrants from Western and Northern Europe), and he set up the Peace Corps (in which young Americans would have the opportunity to travel abroad to volunteer for projects in underdeveloped nations). Further, while he could do (and really could have done) nothing about the Berlin Wall, his speech at the Rathaus Schöneberg on 26 June 1963 was a stirring indication that he was far from happy about it, and still keen for American to take a lead in assisting the world’s free peoples:
Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “civis romanus sum.” Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”…
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lasst sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.
Kennedy was certainly an impressive speech-maker, with his inaugural address in DC heralding a new era of presidential oratory:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Perhaps the most poignant of JFK’s speeches is the one that he was scheduled to give but never delivered. On 22 November 1963 he was on his way to the Dallas Trade Mart when he was fatally shot on Elm Street in his presidential motorcade. A speech had been prepared for his visit to the Trade Mart, in which he would have said:
We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.
Wise words that everyone, whether American or not, and whatever their political standpoint, would do well to remember…