The aim of this essay is to consider different interpretations in attempt to reach a balanced conclusion to the question “To what extent was Kennedy a great American President? “. Alot of people may have different opinions on Kennedy. During his presidency, Kennedy was perceived as being a great, powerful leader and many admired him but after his assassination, people began to see his input for American society in a different light. During his presidency, Kennedy was shown to the world as a caring family man. “If youth and energy were the hallmarks of Kennedy’s public image, the key to his success lay with the media, particularly television.
The 1960 Presidential campaign was the first in United States history in which the television performances of the two main candidates were crucial in deciding the outcome in the election”. (Stephen Hoare, British Historian, ‘The Assassination of John F. Kennedy’ 1988) This is a secondary source but it is written by Stephen Hoare, a Historian, so he must have done a lot of research into Kennedy so it must include factual information. Stephen Hoare argues that television and the media was the key to his success as a great American President.
The following points could be made to support this argument. At the time, television had began to play an important role in putting an image, sometimes biased for their benefit, into peoples minds. Many Americans admired the president they heard and saw on television. This is shown in Kennedy’s debate with President Nixon which was broadcasted nation wide. Now, many years after his death, evidence has come to light of him having affairs and private deals with Russia to move weapons which was not shown to American’s at the time.
Also, after the grieving of his death, many people have began to question him. When he was in power, Kennedy supported many campaigns such as the civil right campaign but failed to act on any of his views. After he died, there was still alot of racism and discrimination towards minority groups. Many may argue that if he lived longer then he would have acted on these points. Many people believe that Kennedy came out of no where and fought his own way to American presidency. This myth is not strictly true. He was seen to the public as being unique due to his Irish background and being a Roman Catholic.
Kennedy’s father was one of the twelve richest men in America due to his father’s devotion to work. Joseph Kennedy wanted his son to become an important figure in the political part of American society but his eldest son died before Joseph’s dreams could be fulfilled. So, Joseph turned to his other son, John Kennedy. John wasn’t interested at all in politics but his fathers will and his riches made Kennedy elected as the Democratic Senator for the state of Massachussettes. Kennedy had a crippled spine and many medical problems and was not really interested in politics.
Slowly, he began to realise his full potential in politics. Soon enough, he became president of the United States in the closest vote in the history of America. It has been argued that he talked about the ‘New Frontier’ but did nothing to act on it. “Kennedy steered through the Congress a number of measures aimed at stimulating the economy. But his domestic record remains modest. Most of his New Frontier reforms – including medical care for the aged, urban renewal, federal aid for education and urban mass transportation, youth employment and migrant assistance measures – were not enacted till after his death.
His administration was notable for its commitment to the poor and oppressed, yet his proposals for a Department of Housing and Development, a ‘war on poverty’, and equal rights and opportunities for Negroes were unfulfilled”. (Alan Bullock, ‘Twentieth Century’ 1989). Even though this is a secondary source, Alan Bullock wrote it in a book so there must be a great deal of factual information in here. He argues that Kennedy was all talk and little action and many people agree with his view. This source is a good source to reach a conclusion in contrast with the others.
It has also been argued that if he had lived longer, he would further his actions on the ‘New Frontier’ and would build a greater America, he just didn’t have enough time to fulfill his dreams. Kennedy wanted the “New frontier” which was that people would continuously work harder for a long term goal and to released the true potential in people. People may argue that he wanted this for the good of America but others may argue that he wanted this so that he could look good in front of his country and the world and to want to be known as one of the greatest American leaders of all time.
Alot may argue that if he did not have any congressmen, which most were opposed to Kennedy’s views, that he could have fulfilled his dream and made America a much better place but others may argue that he was a coward and was all talk and no action. Kennedy wanted economic growth. He saw Soviet Communism as a great threat and wanted to be shown better and more well equipt than they did. Also, he realised that this could also benefit his richer voters because they will get alot out of it. He may have seen this as a great way of winning votes and have alot of American citizens backing him up.
Although there were the less fortunate and poorer side to America too and he needed to understand that they also played an important role in his presidency. Alot of Kennedys policies and talks were on the poorer side to America. He wanted them to all be equal and attack poverty in the US. This would be paid for by economic growth. Kennedy’s plan began to work brilliantly. The economy began to grow at an estimated 5% per year and many Americans benefitted greatly. The added cash was also used to help the Vietnam war which was on at the time. This perceived Kennedy as a great president and many adored him even more.
Remember, television was playing an increasing role in putting messages across to people and this was broadcasted greatly. One of the most important issues that Kennedy did not fully act on was indeed racial issues. Kennedy provided an opinion on these issues but held back to act on them eventhough America was deteriorating day by day in equal rights. At the beginning, Kennedy was doing hardly anything on racial problems. When Martin Luther King decided enough was enough, Kennedy expressed his views and willingness to go ahead with equal rights but he waited until he needed to take action before he did anything for civil rights himself.
Many may argue that he was all talk and no action until he was forced to take action and then, the only reason he did was for more votes. “Kennedy entered the White House at the moment when the issue of racial oppression could no longer be dodged. He had to act, and so did effectively and (in the main) willingly. ” (Hugh Brogan ‘Kennedy : Profiles In Power’ 1996) This is a secondary source but Hugh must have done a lot of research and gained a lot of factual information to write this book. He did not know Kennedy so this cannot be biased.
Hugh argues that Kennedy dodged the racial issues until he was forced to take action but then did effectively. Others may argue though that he was just waiting so that he could crush the issue hard. “He was responsive, sensitive, humble before the people, and bold on their behalf”. (Martin Luther King talking about Kennedy). This quote was written by Martin Luther King, a great civil rights fighter. Eventhough Kennedy didn’t do much for Civil Rights, no one questioned him after his death. This supports this fact. It has been argued that Kennedy would not have embroiled the USA in the Vietnam War.
Far from being a confrontationist, Kennedy was by temperament a conciliator.. He had the capacity to refuse escalation – as he did.. In the Berlin crisis of 1961, in the Cuban missile crisis, and as surely would have done in Vietnam.. If he had followed his own plan, he would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam in 1965, instead of Americanizing the war that year as President Johnson did.. Kennedy’s commitment to politics as the greatest and most honourable adventure touched and formed a generation of young men and women in the 1960’s.
They were moved by his aspirations and shaped by his ideals”. (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , A historian and special assistant to President Kennedy, writing in 1986. ) This source was written by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, a assistant and friend to Kennedy so this source obviously must be biased. He argues that Kennedy would not have embroiled the USA in the Vietnam War but this is not factual, he is just giving his opinion but this could be useful because it is still a source that we could use to come to a balanced conclusion.. It has also been argued that he created the situation in Vietnam.
As President, Kennedy assumed a greater degree of personal control in foreign policy than any of his predecessors. For this reason, he must accept a large part of the blame for creating a situation in Vietnam that was ultimately disastrous for the USA”. (Stephen Hoare, a Historian). Stephen Hoare is a Historian so he must have done research for factual information so this provides a strong argument to for us to reach our conclusion. He argues that Kennedy created the situation in Vietnam which affected the USA greatly.
It has been suggested that Kennedy believed that foreign policy was more important than domestic policy. Kennedy believed that the biggest threat to him was communism. He strongly held views against it and did not, under any circumstances, want America to be threatened by it. He also believed that in order to do this, nuclear war must not be a risk either. In order to do this, Kennedy had to make sure that America was perceived as a great country to others. There were mass propaganda battles between the US and the USSR. The USSR had the first satellite to be placed in space and the first man in space.
There was great propaganda in the USSR saying that they were a greater nation compared to America. There was a competition between the US and the USSR. The US could not be perceived as being weak to anyone otherwise there might be a threat on their behalf. Arguably the most important part of America’s foreign policy was indeed Cuba. The thing that Kennedy was more scared of than anything else was communism. Cuba was mostly reliant on America. Most of it’s money came from gambling and prostitution but the Batista regime was defeated by Castro.
Businesses in Cuba began to deteriorate as Cuba was being turned into a socialist country. Cuba turned to the US for help but were turned down so they began a trade agreement with the USSR instead. This, to Kennedy, was the worst thing that could happen. He felt that communism was closing in on him so he decided to invade Cuba in the “Bay of Pigs” hoping that Castro was not popular with the Cuban people. Many may argue that this was a bad step by the US because Cuba felt threatened by the invasions and so signed more treaties with the USSR.
Many others may argue that if they did not carry out these invasions then Cuba and the USSR would think of the US as weak and then take further action with communism. Kennedy found that Cuba were storing nuclear missiles and straight away threatened nuclear war on Kruschev. The world stood on the brink of extinction. Thankfully, the USSR agreed to disable their weapons. Although the US had seemed to win, Kennedy did not gloat too much. He felt that this would only cause more problems with other countries.
Many may argue that it is Kennedy’s fault that the world was on the brink of nuclear war because he invaded Cuba without negotiating with them and the USSR but many others may argue that if he didn’t then America would be shown as weak and communism would break out. When Kennedy died, grief was worldwide. It is considered as disrespectful to question whether someone was a great president or not just after their death. Especially if their death was as tragic as Kennedy’s. Many people were blind after his death. Too taken up by misery and rememberance of what they saw on television to question him.
To them, he saved the world whilst caring for his family and he never broke one section of the law doing so. Remember, they did not know Kennedy. They just knew what they saw. Media can be very misinterprating towards people. The citizens saw what the president wanted them to see. Many years later though, people are now beginning to question him. Evidence has come to light that he was having secret affairs with numerous women. The so called family man was not much of a family man now. Also, evidence has come to light that he was involved with the mafia to kill Castro and Kruschev in the “Bay of Pigs”.
The innocent, sweet man that saved the world does not seem to be so innocent now. Many people may feel betrayed by him. That he could lie to a whole country when the world was at stake. Many others may argue that even though he may not have been perfect, he did save the world and the whole of mankind in whatever he did and he should be remembered for that. Overall, I believe that Kennedy was partly a great president but partly not. He was not honest to the world and he may not have been the most innocent man on the earth but if he had been, there would be no world today and we would not even be here.