JFK was killed pretty early on in his first term but he seems to have a pretty good reputation with most Americans. I think he was only in the white house for about 2 years, so what did he do in his time that was of significant note and gave him a good rep.

What did he DO? Not all that much. He’s loved for what he symbolized in many people’s minds, and for what many people are sure he was “just about to do” more than for anything he actually accomplished.

He was young and energetic and optimistic, and his optimism was contageous among many people, who saw him as a symbol for all they wanted to improve in America.

He convinced America to get serious about the space program, for one.

Space programme, standing up to big business over steel prices, not wading into Vietnam, letting his brother go after the mob, not destroying the world in the Cuban missile crisis, then getting cut down before his time. Recipe for popularity.

It wasn’t really that early in his term. It was three years after his election and he had been in office for two years and ten months. One of the big reasons Kennedy was in Dallas was early campaigning for his re-election run.

Sergei Korolev did that.

He was a handsome young man who gave great speeches. What he really did wasn’t much, Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missiles, but the contrast in who much better he did after the BOP with CM is a case study in how to learn from mistakes in every field of decision making. He is basically a President remembered for really great rhetoric that never faced reality while he was still alive. Nobody was disappointed. He never lost his luster for his purist supporters and he never implemented a major program for his detractors to still be bitter about.

But lest this seem like damning with faint praise, let me emphasize that his words were top notch, and we do remember our leaders for that.

The mystique of “Camelot” overshadowed (and still does today) what meager real accomplishments he did have. Two that come to mind are the space program (previous mentioned) and the Peace Corps (although the impetus was an earlier Midwest brainchild promoted by Sen. Hubert Humphrey (MN) and Congressman Henry Ruess (WI)).

Another where he deserves credit is the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although passed after his death under Johnson, it was Kennedy’s baby. There was no way it was going to even be brought up for serious consideration under Kennedy because his brother Bobby (as AG) burned too many bridges in Congress, and Kennedy needed the South for re-election. Johnson, as president, later arm-twisted Congressional leaders with his Texas charm and promoted its passage as part of Kennedy’s legacy.

The most famous book about his presidency is called The Thousand Days, and I believe he was in office almost exactly that term. His was a much longer “honeymoon” than even most presidents of that era and before, but the bloom was off the rose by mid-1963.

I have a colleague who makes an excellent case that (1) JFK’s greatest accomplishment was actually accomplished by his death and (2) the man who put us on the Moon was Lee Harvey Oswald. In a nutshell, records and memos show that Kennedy felt he had extracted maximum political value from the space program and was prepared to start defunding it almost immediately - much like was done in later eras, slashing the budget while praising minor accomplishments lavishly. His assassination made him a martyr, and LBJ had to reach for a proper monument - which turned out to be the space program. Canaveral was renamed in hours and a renewed commitment to Apollo was made. Otherwise, it would have been the President in 1968 who “let us all down” by not making Kennedy’s call come true, but JFK would have reaped the financial/political benefit during his terms.

I don’t know that I agree 100% with this analysis, but my colleague is a knowledgeable DC/NASA insider who has reams of JFK and era government papers to back up his contention.

I’m certainly no expert on the complicated Vietnam War, but this doesn’t seem right to me. During the JFK Administration, American presence in Vietnam increased from 1000 to 16,000 troops; this build-up was against Eisenhower’s advice. Some critics say JFK’s build-up in Vietnam was intended in part to demonstrate strength to the Soviets to counter the impression made by Bay of Pigs.

(Of course, the big build-up in Vietnam didn’t occur until about a year into LBJ’s term, and resulted from the aftermath of the November 1963 coup and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.)

I think of JFK as a Jekyll-and-Hyde President and have previously pointed to the book by award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. (Someone will be along soon to point to a “debunking” of that book which, on inspection, will be seen to debunk none of the book’s important allegations whatsoever.)

Eisenhower was 70 when he left office. He looked older and sicker than that, after three life-threatening health emergencies while in office. Kennedy was 43 with a ridiculously attractive 31-year-old wife and cute young children. He radiated youth, vigor, hope, and optimism.

The symbolic differences between them made his election appear to be spring after a long winter. Kennedy was all about the future, the better future that seemed to be America’s destiny. The 50s were not seen as a time of sleepy suburban peace and prosperity but a series of horrors from Communism, nuclear annihilation, the loss of the Space Race, three recessions, riots in the streets, and a failed education system. Calling his program the New Frontier was a brilliant catchphrase that summed up that optimism that we’d get past these crises.

There was a huge gap between that promise and what actually got accomplished, but that was inevitable. Then Kennedy got killed. Like a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, his image got locked; he would always be young with his promise intact and not beaten down by reality. Johnson milked that feeling to get through the Civil Rights Act and the other true accomplishments that transformed the country. That allows people to associate them with Kennedy even though there’s little chance he could have gotten them through Congress.

You can’t debunk public opinion. People really did feel that way about Kennedy while he was alive and a thousand times more so when he was killed. That Kennedy’s reality was different to his image is true and for this purpose irrelevant. Americans responded to Reagan’s sunny optimism in the same way, and his reality was just as divergent from that image as Kennedy’s. That matters greatly in some ways and not at all in others.

I disagree. Kennedy had very publicly committed himself to putting a man on the moon. Shutting down the space program would have been a defeat.

Kennedy can be criticized for messing up the space program. He had a major part in turning it away from developing a general capability of traveling in space and making it a means of winning races against the Soviets.

Kennedy set the priority of being first on the moon. The result was that once we reached the moon in 1969, people felt the space program was done. We’d have been better off with an open-ended goal of being “the biggest power in space” or something like that - something that would have encouraged us to keep going forward rather than feeling we had crossed the finish line.

I would agree with this, but substitute “the Civil Rights act” for “the space program”. Civil rights was at least as much JFK’s baby as the Apollo missions, and JFK’s death put LBJ into the White House - one of the most effective Presidents at getting legislation passed of the 20th century. LBJ decided that civil rights was going to be JFK’s legacy, and he pushed it thru. Add the majorities enjoyed by the Dems, and the sympathy vote after JFK’s death, and you get the Great Society. Unfortunately, you also get the Viet Nam war, but you have to take the bitter with the better.


His was famously the 1,000-day presidency which, if accurate*, puts it at 95 days short of three years.

*My own calculations put his presidency at 1036 days (twenty-eight more days would have brought him to the 20th of December, and a further thirty-one days to the 20th of January, 1964). So, 59 days short of three years.

Perhaps less bombastic, but he put a stop to the Army’s plan to abolish Special Forces and absorb them into the 82nd Airborne.

Big strike against Kennedy. Doing so would have prevented the horror that was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

You’re missing nearly all my points (my colleague’s, actually).

Yes, JFK made the public commitment… and was preparing to scale down the efforts once we’d had several successful two-man missions. NOT cancel it, but do the political fandango that his successors did so well, choking the financial life out of NASA and manned spaceflight while keeping up the meaningless rah-rah. You may be right that he saw it as nothing more than “beat the Soviets” and was stopped before he could implement “…now let’s move on.” He would have squeezed every bit of political capital out of it, while leaving the failure to his successor.

You’ll get no argument from me, whether or not the above contentions are true, that the US space program was poorly planned and poorly executed for anything but international bombast and showmanship, and continues to be so misused.

I mean, there are no plans to keep ISS in space another decade, nor (apparently) was it designed to last much more than another five years. To which I can only say, wearily, fuck me.

Perhaps we would have been better off if the space program as originally planned flopped around 1968 without getting to the moon, and a more carefully contrived plan and agency were built on those ashes. But that’s a lot of topic drift.


I understood your point and I disagree with it. Kennedy had established a very specific goal as defining success - landing a man on the moon before the Soviets and before 1970 - so he was not going to scale down on the basis of successful two-man missions.

After all that, there was no way Kennedy could take it back and say “You know what? Going to the moon was never that big a deal. We should be satisfied with what we’ve already done in space.”

Kennedy was mostly a public relations president. His real accomplishments were few, and the public adulation was more because of his youth and glamorous young wife. In reality, he was an amateur-his posturing in the “Cuban missile Crisis” almost brought the USA and Russia to war-and assisted in the removal of Kruschev (who might have been a far more moderate Russian ruler that brezhnev and Kosygin). As for Vietnam, JFK was enthusiastic about sending young Americans to war-he was quoted as saying “we have to make our power credible…and vietnam looks like the place”. Along with this, he allowed a cabal of South Vietnamese generals to stage a coup and murder the president. He also allowed federal workers to unionize-a bad decision that haunts us to this day. in short, he was young good looking, and largely incompetent. He also allowed the CIA to become a government unto itself-a development that would have major implications.:eek: