Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How did Kennedy's assassination change the world?

By Tony Badger, Special to CNN
updated 10:38 AM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
President John F. Kennedy greets supporters during his visit to Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday, November 22, 1963. This year marks 51 years since his assassination in Dallas, an event that jarred the nation and fueled a multitude of conspiracy theories about whether Kennedy was killed by a single gunman acting alone in the Texas School Book Depository. Here are some images from that fateful day as it unfolded. President John F. Kennedy greets supporters during his visit to Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday, November 22, 1963. This year marks 51 years since his assassination in Dallas, an event that jarred the nation and fueled a multitude of conspiracy theories about whether Kennedy was killed by a single gunman acting alone in the Texas School Book Depository. Here are some images from that fateful day as it unfolded.
HIDE CAPTION
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
John F. Kennedy: The day
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Badger argues it is not surprising that JFK's memory still evokes a sense of loss
  • It still resonate because contemporary American politics is dysfunctional, he says
  • JFK surrounded himself with intellectuals, made government service an honorable calling

Editor's note: Tony Badger is the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge University and Master of Clare College, Cambridge. He is the Chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust.

(CNN) -- The John F. Kennedy who was elected in 1960 was not going to change the world. His major charge against the Eisenhower administration was that it was not prosecuting the Cold War vigorously.

He believed that its policy of Massive Retaliation in the event of any attack meant America would be incapable of a flexible response to a non-nuclear communist aggression in the Third World, where, he believed, the Cold War would be won or lost.

He aimed to close any missile gap (actually non-existent) with the Soviets. He aimed to beat the Russians to the moon. He planned to calm business fears by appointing a Republican Secretary of the Treasury.

Tony Badger
Tony Badger

He wanted to avoid coercive civil rights legislation or the use of federal troops to enforce segregation because he put his faith in white southern moderate leaders.

The John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963 had begun to change the world. Admittedly, the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion did not lessen the enthusiasm of either the president or his brother, Bobby, for covert action and counter-insurgency.

The military advisers committed to Vietnam were part of a flexible response -- but so was the inspirational Peace Corps.

But chastened by confronting the Russians over Berlin and missiles in Cuba, and reassured by the knowledge that the missile build-up had guaranteed a measure of Cold War stability, Kennedy moved to lessen Cold War tensions and the dangers of nuclear war.

Fifty years later, JFK still fascinates
Remembering JFK at Arlington Cemetery
Was President John F. Kennedy a liberal?

He started a backchannel correspondence with Khrushchev. He negotiated, in the face of military opposition, a Test Ban Treaty which aimed to eliminate nuclear tests in the atmosphere. He was the first American president in the Cold War to talk about the Soviet Union as an adversary with whom the United States should peacefully compete, rather than an enemy to be defeated militarily.

Except in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 the world never again came close to a nuclear holocaust. Under JFK the first steps to détente were taken. Kennedy was the first president to understand the Sino-Soviet split.

At home, he proposed a tax cut, not as a result of a budget surplus, but despite a budget deficit, in order to stimulate the economy. As a result of the crisis created by violent resistance in the South to civil rights protest, the president was forced to do the two things he did not want to do.

He sent in federal troops to force the admission of a black student to the University of Mississippi. After the Birmingham demonstrations and the defiance of Governor Wallace on the steps of the University of Alabama, he went on national television to promise strong civil rights legislation and acknowledged for the first time that civil rights was an inescapable moral issue.

Kennedy's assassination and Johnson's masterly leadership guaranteed the eventual passage of the civil rights bill and the tax cut. It did not interrupt the progress towards détente.

But Kennedy's death did put an end to third-party efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. Kennedy might have gone on to re-orient policy towards China. Would he have avoided the Vietnam disaster?

Kennedy's defenders argue passionately that, protected by a big re-election win in 1964, he would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam. But his Vietnam policy in late 1963 in which he acquiesced in the overthrow of President Diem's government was already locked in a policy of sustaining a South Vietnam government that was ready to fight the communists.

He had effectively narrowed the options available to his successor. There is little evidence that he would have sanctioned the "loss" of South Vietnam.

Faced with the impossibility of finding a government that was both popular and willing to fight the Vietcong, how would Kennedy have avoided the commitment of ground troops in 1965?

Pres. Obama's tribute to JFK
What if JFK had lived?
Why we are 'rightly obsessed' with JFK

Advised by McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, who guided Vietnam policy under both JFK and LBJ, would Kennedy have been prepared to scale down the American commitment and see the South Vietnam regime collapse?

British Ambassador and friend of the Kennedys, David Ormsby-Gore, tried to console Jackie Kennedy by telling her that the late president, "had great things to do and would have done them."

The jury may be out on that judgment. But the British reacted with the same grief as the Americans to a lifer cut short, to the cruel death of a young man whose vigor and youth contrasted so markedly with the contemporary political leaders of an older generation: De Gaulle, Adenauer and Macmillan.

They established at Runnymede, the site of the signing of Magna Carta, a memorial funded by popular appeal and driven by cross-party consensus on an acre of land permanently ceded to the United States.

David Ormsby-Gore, as Lord Harlech, was the first chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust which also awarded scholarships to the "best and the brightest" of British students to do graduate work at Harvard and MIT.

On Friday, as current chair of the Trust, I will be laying a wreath at the memorial. Why does JFK's memory still resonate? Perhaps it is because contemporary American politics is dysfunctional and anti-intellectual fundamentalism is so rampant in American public life.

Kennedy was familiar enough with congressional gridlock and only too aware of the paranoid style of American politics on the extreme right. But he was the modern American president who was most comfortable in his own skin, who surrounded himself with intellectuals and delighted in their company, and who made government service an honorable calling after the ravages of McCarthyism.

Kennedy may not have changed the world and his assassination may not have significantly altered America's future, but 50 years on it is not surprising that his memory still evokes a profound sense of loss.

READ: What JFK learned -- and taught -- about leadership

PHOTOS: JFK's alleged affairs

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Tony Badger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:08 AM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
During the half century since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you may have heard about a few conspiracy theories.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
As the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible rolled down Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, three shots rang out in Dallas, their echoes lodging in the memories of America's youth for years to come.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
As the nation marks 50 years since John F. Kennedy's death, here are five things you may not know about the assassination of the 35th U.S. president.
updated 9:37 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
President Kennedy's alleged sexual encounters have been widely discussed and documented, though none have been acknowledged by the Kennedy family.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Wed November 13, 2013
Dallas, Texas, has transformed from the dark days of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
updated 9:40 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, there are very few down-the-line defenders of the Warren Commission to be found.
updated 9:37 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
Rep. Roger Williams, then 6, stood outside the Fort Worth Hotel with his mother and shook President Kennedy's hand right before he got on a plane and flew to Dallas.
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
This month marks 50 years since JFK's assassination in Dallas, an event that jarred the nation. Here are some images from that fateful day as it unfolded.
updated 10:17 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Secretary of State John Kerry says he has "doubts" Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
updated 5:05 PM EST, Thu December 4, 2014
They were history's power couple, a dashing Democrat and an elegant wife. Take a look back at the couple that embodied the image of a perfect family.
updated 10:35 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Filmmaker Ken Burns talks to CNN's Piers Morgan about who he believes is the best U.S. president of all time.
updated 9:33 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
From the assassinations of JFK and RFK, to the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., a look at the tragedies that have befallen America's first family.
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu November 21, 2013
I vividly recall those 13 days in the fall of 1962, watching President John F. Kennedy on our black and white television in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
John and Jackie Kennedy were a young newlywed couple much like any other newlywed couple -- with one notable difference: they were, in a sense, already superstars.
updated 11:19 PM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
Oliver Stone tells Piers Morgan why he believes the Kennedy assassination involved more than just Lee Harvey Oswald.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
50-year-old footage shows the Kennedys on vacation just four months before John's assassination.
updated 5:36 PM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
What does it take to play the president of the United States on screen? Jake Tapper reports.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
JFK's grandson Jack Schlossberg speaks on Inauguration Day about what went through his mind during President Obama's speech.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT