John F. Kennedy: Presidency


Figure 1.-- .

President Kennedy spent only 1,000 days in offices. He did not have the opportunity to persue many of the ininiatives he began. The Presidents detractors chrge that he was all fluff and image and that he was neithr a substantial figure nor did he have any important achievements. The vehemence of these asertions is string evidence that he did achieve something and that it is these achievements that critics dislike. The most important are thise in Civil Rights. He set in motion the Civil Rights legislation that President Johnson would finally push through Congress, But even without these laws, President Kennedy put the full force of the presidency behind the civil rights movement. Some argue that he was forced to do this. It is probably true that his focus was on the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, but he also came to see the moral issues involved with Civil Rights. This chabged the dymamic of the Civil Rights movement and the ability of white racists to use terror to prevent change. In doing so, he began a major shift in American politics. Blacks turned to the Democratic Party and conservative southerbners to the Republican Party. The President's economic policies also put the country on course for a period of sustained prosperity during the 1960s. There were other important initiatives in domestic affairs, especially food stamps. The President's masterful handling of the Cuban Missle Crisis overted what could have easily turned into a nuclear exchange. It also demonstrated American resolve to the Soviet leadership. President Kennedy continued the American policy of resisting Soviet expansion in Europe, speaking to the Berlin people before the Berlin Wall, but began the movement toward disarmament with an initiative on nuclear testing. Other important orogramd were the Peace Corps and Space program. While today somewhat forgotten, the American success in the race to the moon would change attitudes around the world about Soviet science and progress, It also laid the foundaion for the modern Amerucan leadership in electronics and computers.

Inaguration

Senator Kennedy was sworn in as President after a swirling snow storm (January 20, 1961). He spoke in his inaugural address of many of the issues he persued in his campaign, especially the Cold War issues. He mentioning Americaís commitment to democracy and liberty; calling for international peace and arms control. Furthermore, he asked that Americans serve their country by stating: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country". He also asked the world community to join together to oppose "the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself".

Administration Programs

President Kennedy was primarily interested in foreign affairs and the Cold war competition with the Soviet Union. The course of events, however, forced him into major actions on civil rights. Here is actions provided the great achievements of his shortened administration.

Domestic affairs

President Kennedy's domestic program was called the New Frontier. This follows a Democratic tradition began with Frabklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The New Frontier was a term taken from his acceptance sppech at the Democratic nominating convention (July 1960). It is probably fair to say that Kenndy was more engaged in foreign affairs. This was the case both because of his interests and the fact that while the Democrats held both houses, conservative Democrats often voted with the Republicans which meant that Kennedy did not have a working majority for expansive new proigrams. The course of events, however, forced him into major actions on civil rights. Here is actions provided the great achievements of his shortened administration. Another major ininiative was expanding the space race with the Soviet Union. Other initiatives languished in Congress, but would serve as the foundation for Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

The 1960 election had been very close. Kenndy's victory was settled in large messure by the televised debates between him an Vice-President Nixon and a economic down turn or recession. It proved to be one of four recession that had followed World War II. Business bankruptcies began to reach serious levels and farm income had fallen substantially. Unemployment levels were approaching worrying levels. The economic down turn was the most pressuing problem facing the prresident when he assumed office. Economics was not an area in which the President, who was a student of history, was unsure how to address the economic problem. Kennedy's assembled an economic team to advise him. The Administration's response was a program of lowering taxes, assisting the unemployed, increase the minimum wage, and government spending to stimulate business and housing sectors. The goal was economic expansion that would carry on during the 1960s. His economic advisrs thought it was possoible to "fine tune" the economy and aboid serious fown turns. Their tools were a mix of fiscal and monetary measures. They were policies which could be implement without Congrssional apprival or for which their was needed Congressional support. The policies worked and by the second year of the administration the recession had ended.

Progress on other domestic issues proved more elussive because of the lack of Congressional support. President Kennedy's New Frontier goals included new social programs. These included federal aid to education, medical care for the elderly, urban mass transit, a Department of Urban Affairs, and regional development in Appalachia, a particularly depressed area. Each oif these initiatives encountered cobnsiderable Congressional oppposition. Republicans here were joined by conservative Southern Democrats. The Food Stamp program was passed, largely because conservative farm state lkegislators saw the program as away of increasing food consunption and thus farm income. The President was also able to get a regional development program for Appalachia through Congrss. This was a program that would continue for three decades and substantially reduce poverty in the region.

Race is an issue that has bedeviled America from the earliest days of English settlement. It was not a burning issue with the President when took office. It was not an issue with which he was unaware, witness his call to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was incarcerated in an Atlanta jail. Civil rights activists were pressig for change. White racists including public officials in the South used vilience to prevent blacks from voting or exercising other basic rights which began to appear night on the television sceens to a northern public largely unaware of the full scope of segregation. President Kennedy's initial response was inaction, cinvinced that involvement in the issue would doom his entire domestic program in Congress. Without the support of southern Congressmen, none of the Administration's program would be passed. Kennedy attemopted to enforceng existing civil rights laws. but proposed no new initiatives. Despite the fact that his brother Robert was Attorney General. FBI Director Hoover's antipathy toward King and other civil rights leaders complicated the use of Federal power. Another problem was "senatorial courtesy" which meant that nominees for federal judges had to have the consent of southern Democratic senators who were adamently opposed to integration or black voting rights. Republican President Eisenhower had no such contstraunts because there were no southern senators. A major turning point occurred at the University of Mississippi--Ole Miss (September 1962). James Meredith, a black Mississippian and U.S. Air Force veteran attempted to enroll in his state university. Governnor Ross Barnett, defied Federal court rulings ordering that Meredith be enrolled. The President federalized the federalized the Mississippi National Guard and the Attorney General ordered federal marshals to escort Meredith to the campus. Students and racist nn-students rioted and came close to killing Merrdith who was protected by asmall group of marshalls before soldiers arrived to restore order. Meredith finally enrolled (October 1). Throughout 1963 the Civil Rights struggle grew and was met with racist violence. Dr. King and other Civil Rights leades demanded Federal action and an end to "tokenism and gradualism . . . We can't wait any longer." The Freedom Riders dramtically showed the violence which characterized segregation. The "March on Washington" dramatized the issue (June 1963). Here Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a quarter of a million people assembled on the national mall. King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Kennedy ordered the FBI to intervene when four little girls were killed attending Sunday scool in Birmingham, one of the most heinous acts of the Klan, But basically he wanted to delay action. His political calculation was that it was wisest to wait for his second term. He thought at that time he would risk a split in the Democratic Party and that he could obtain support from moderate Republicans. King and other Civil Rights leaders continued to press for action. Finally after the march on Washington and the Birmingham bombings, he decided to submit a civil rights bill to Congress. He addressed the nation placing the full force of the presidency on the side of civil rights and clearly setting the issue as a matter of basic morality. The President described how the grandchildren of the slaves freed by Lincoln "are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice." Spme historians believe that Kennedy's Civil Rights actions were one of the finest examples of presidebtial leeadership. [Beschloss] Despite public support, there was virtually no chance that the bill would survive a Southern filibuster un the Senate.

Foreign affairs

President Kennedy wanted America to resume its old mission as the first nation dedicated to the revolution of human rights. With the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, he brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations. But the hard reality of the Communist challenge remained. Many of these ideals are contained within his executive orders. An early E.O. established the Peace Corps, others that reflected his unique administration were the Presidentís Committee on Equal Employment, (E.O. #10925) and Equal Opportunity in Housing (E.O. #11063) . EO's such as the Presidentís Commission on the Status of Women (E.O.ís # 10980) and E.O. #11022, Establishing the Presidentís Council on Aging, and #10914, Providing an Expanded Program of Food Distribution to Needy Families, showed his concern for domestic issues. Even civil rights were acknowledged by E.O. #ís 11111 and 11118, which provided Assistance for the Removal of Obstruction of Justice and Suppression of Unlawful Combinations within the State of Alabama.

Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy permitted a band of Cuban exiles, already armed and trained, to invade their homeland. The attempt to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro was a failure. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union renewed its campaign against West Berlin. Kennedy replied by reinforcing the Berlin garrison and increasing the Nation's military strength, including new efforts in outer space. Confronted by this reaction, Moscow, after the erection of the Berlin Wall, relaxed its pressure in central Europe.Instead, the Russians now sought to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. This led to the Cuban Missle Crisis (October 1962), the most dangerous point of the Cold War. American reconisance aircraft discovered the missles and launching pads under construction. President Kennedy addressed the country and nnounced he was imposig a quarantine on all offensive weapons bound for Cuba. While the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war, the Russians backed down and agreed to take the missiles away. The American response to the Cuban crisis evidently persuaded Moscow of the futility of nuclear blackmail.

Kennedy now contended that both sides had a vital interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race--a contention which led to the test ban treaty of 1963. The months after the Cuban crisis showed significant progress toward his goal of "a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion." His administration thus saw the beginning of new hope for both the equal rights of Americans and the peace of the world. The President visited Germany (June 1963) there he dlivered perhaps his greatest speech of his presidency in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. While willing to work on agreenents with the Soviets to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, he made it clear that the United States stood behind its commitments to Western Europe. And after the Cuban Misske Crisis, no one in the Kremlin any longer doubted the strebgth of that commitment,.

1962 Congressional Byelection (November 1962)

The Republicans were generally hopeful to chip away at the substntial Democratic majorities in both houses. Since the New Deal, the Democrats with a few exceptions had remained in control of Congress. The elections were important fir the Kennedy Administration. Although it had Democratic majorities in both houses, conservative Deocrats ven without potential Senate fiibusters had bottled up their legislative agenda which included Medicare, a farm bill, Civil Rights, public works, mass transitand, and other bills. Conservative southern Democrats held key leadership roles in both the House and Senate and were oten more of a problem for President Kennedy than the Reoublicans. This of course was especially the case for Civil Rights legislation. The Administration had amaster lkegislator on their team--Lyndon Johnson. But they declined to use him him in any constructive way. Kennedy urged voters to give the Democrats more seats, arguing that it could make the difference for passage of the Administration social agenda. He did not, hoever, tke on consrvative southern Democrata as President Toosevely had done in 1938. Rather the President continue to speak out against the Reoublicans anf he had done in his successful presidenbtial campaign. At one of his press conferences he described Congressional Republicans as both negative and unimaginative on domestic matters (July 23). His personal popularity seems to have helped shoft the debate in the favor iof Congressiinal Democtats who began to think that they might avoid the normal losses sustained by the president;s party in these mid-term elections. The President was weakest in the south, but the Democrats there were among his critics. The Republicans primarily concentrated on foreign policy and national security issues. The raised the issue of both the Administration's will and competence to resist the Communists. This had been the very issue that Kennedy had raised in the 1960 campaign. The mishandled Bay of Pigs invasion opened Kennedy up to criticism. Since that time a flood of Cubans had sought refuge in Cuba and Castro admitted tio being a Communist. And adding to the ferment were reports of Soviet arms flowing into Cuba. Congressional Republicans charged that the Administration was weak on national security. Some Republicans, including California gubernatorial candidate and former Vice President Richard Nixon, called for a full-scale American invasion of Cuba to stop the Soviet military build up there. It is unclear how these changes ould have played out. Just weeks before the election, President Kennedy came on the television and announced that the Soviet were installing balistic missles in Cuba and ordered an embargo (October 1962). That was the beginning of the Cuban Missle Crisis, the most dangerous American-Soviet confrontation of the Cold war. Some Republicans charged that the Administration had manufactured a crisis. The Soviet decesion to withdraw the missles and the public's assessment that the President had dftly handeled the crisis undoubtedly had a major impact on the election. Americans had been terrified by the threat of nuclear war. Few incliding Administration officials themselves knew just how close they had come to a niclear holocaust. The election was held with the Cuban Missle Crisis and the President's handling of it very fresh in the minds of voters (November 6)., The Democrats only lost four House seats, far below the average losses. Their majority declined from 263 to 259. The Republicans went from 174 to 176 Repreentatives a still smll minority. And more importantly the Democrats gained four Senate seats giving them a comfotable majority of 68 Senators. One of the new Democratic senators was the President's brother Teddy. This gave the President a little more flexibility in Congress. The gubernatorial race did not change the destribtion of power with 34 Democrat and 16 Republican governors. One highly publicized race was in California. Democratic incumbent Pat Brown, defeated former Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon famiously after the election gowled at the press, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more." The 1962 mid-terms did not change the Congress sufficdmtly to have enabled President Kennedy to forward his legislative prigram. His tragic assasination, however, brought his side-lined vice-president to office. And President Lyndon Johnson would take that same Congress and produce the landmark Civil Rights Law of 1964.

Assasination (November 1963)

President Kennedy at the urging of Texas Democrats travelled to Dallas Texas on a campaign trip (November 22, 1963). Vice-President Johnson had helped carry Texas un the 1960 election. Carrying Texas was critical for the President's reelection. The administration actions in civil rights had hurt Kennedy's standing in the South where Blacks were not yet able to vote in many areas. Texas was a hybred Southern-Western state and the Somocrats still hoped to carry it in 1964. President Kennedy and the First Lady were accompanied by Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie as they motorcaded through Dallas. They were traveling in open cars. The President wanted as much contact with the local people as possible. Reaching Dealey Plaza, the presidential limousine was fired upon three times. Governor Connally was hit once. President Kennedy who was hit twice. He was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he was declared dead. The assasin fired from the Dallas Schoolbook Despository. He was an employee, Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was a mentally distubed former Marine who had earlier defected to the Soviet Union and had been in Cuba. The Soviets expelled him because of his mental problems, but he married while in the Soviet Union. He had become a champion of the Castro regime in Cuba. After his arrest, while being trabnsferred to another jail, he was shot and jilled by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Vice-President Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy flew back to Washington with the President's corpse on Air Force 1. Johnson took the oath of office on the flight. Peoples in the hundreds of thousands of people filed pass the President Kennedy's coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol (November 24). Mrs. Kenndy modeled the funeral on the that for Presidebnt Kincoln with a riderless horse. The President was buried at Arlington Cemetery (November 25). Representatives from 92 nations attended the services. As many as a million people lined the streets of Washington as the funeral procession passed. The assasination was for countless Americans the traumatic public event they experienced. s of their lifetimes. Conspiracy theorists have turned the assasination into a cottage industry. President Johnson appointed a Commission headed by Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren to investigate the assasination. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that there were at least three shots fired, not two as the Warren Commission had claimed (1979). It conformed that it was Oswald who fired all three shots.

Importance

President Kennedy spent only 1,000 days in offices. He did not have the opportunity to persue many of the ininiatives he began. The Presidents detractors chrge that he was all fluff and image and that he was neithr a substantial figure nor did he have any important achievements. The vehemence of these asertions is string evidence that he did achieve something and that it is these achievements that critics dislike. The most important are thise in Civil Rights. He set in motion the Civil Rights legislation that President Johnson would finally push through Congress, But even without these laws, President Kennedy put the full force of the presidency behind the civil rights movement. Some argue that he was forced to do this. It is probably true that his focus was on the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, but he also came to see the moral issues involved with Civil Rights. This chabged the dymamic of the Civil Rights movement and the ability of white racists to use terror to prevent change. In doing so, he began a major shift in American politics. Blacks turned to the Democratic Party and conservative southerbners to the Republican Party. The President's economic policies also put the country on course for a period of sustained prosperity during the 1960s. There were other important initiatives in domestic affairs, especially food stamps. The President's masterful handling of the Cuban Missle Crisis overted what could have easily turned into a nuclear exchange. It also demonstrated American resolve to the Soviet leadership. President Kennedy continued the American policy of resisting Soviet expansion in Europe, speaking to the Berlin people before the Berlin Wall, but began the movement toward disarmament with an initiative on nuclear testing. Other important orogramd were the Peace Corps and Space program. While today somewhat forgotten, the American success in the race to the moon would change attitudes around the world about Soviet science and progress, It also laid the foundaion for the modern Amerucan leadership in electronics and computers.

Sources

Beschloss, Michael. Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989 (Simon & Schuster, 2007), 430p.







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Created: July 25, 1999
Last changed: 1:35 AM 8/1/2012