Sixty years ago on Wednesday, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas shook a confident and prosperous nation – an act that is still etched into the popular imagination.
Shrouded in conspiracy theories over the years, classified material about the shooting is still trickling out six decades later.
To examine Kennedy’s legacy, UVA Today turned to Marc Selverstone, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Selverstone, whose expertise involves presidents Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, is most recently the author of “The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam,” which addresses the long-running debate over Kennedy’s intentions in Southeast Asia.
Q. It’s been 60 years since the assassination. Why does it still have such a hold on the imagination?
A. Because Kennedy’s presidency was unfinished. He was an attractive figure with an attractive family, and it looked like the United States was on the cusp of great things. There was energy in the White House and his was an administration that was dynamic, activist. Kennedy wanted to “get the country moving again,” as he said during the 1960 campaign and he inspired legions of Americans to lead lives of greater purpose, and particularly to pursue public service. And then he’s assassinated at age 46.
Although his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was extraordinarily successful in launching the Great Society and its raft of programs that enhanced the quality of American life, by the middle of the decade, the country would be convulsed by the Vietnam War, civil unrest and further political assassination. Economic pressures were building and the country was forced to reckon with the limits of American power and prestige. The “American Century,” as media magnate Henry Luce described it, seemed to be coming to an end.
For many people, the “before and after” came with Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. Looking back, there was a sense that the promise of the 1960s was shot down in Dallas.
Q. Regarding Kennedy’s assassination, why is it that 60 years later we still don’t know completely what happened?
A. The U.S. government continues to produce materials related to Kennedy’s assassination, in accord with the Assassination Records Collection Act. But by and large, the narrative of what happened in Dallas hasn’t really changed as a result of all these documents coming out.
It’s not a research field of mine, but I’ve found the accounts critical of the Warren Commission’s work yet still claiming that Oswald acted alone as the lone gunman to be most persuasive. That’s not where the public is, as I believe roughly 60% think there was a conspiracy, but I do think the scholarly consensus skews toward the lone gunman theory.
Q. Why has it taken so long for these documents to come out?
A. Probably because the government invests an inordinate amount of energy in both classifying material and taking its time to declassify material. And probably also because the resources available to the government to move these documents through the declassification process are pretty meager. We’re still waiting on materials that have been classified for decades, aside from Kennedy assassination records. And the problem is compounded by the wealth of electronic records now being produced.
Q. Have you learned anything about Kennedy that has surprised you?
A. I began to study Kennedy after so much had already been written on him, and a few themes stand out. He was perhaps more reckless than we had imagined in foreign relations, but more subtle in his thinking about the developing world, more nuanced in addressing the impact of nationalism in formerly colonial states and creative in his willingness to support or at least engage non-aligned nations.
In domestic policy, Kennedy ultimately embraced civil rights legislation, though it took him a while to get there. But he teed up several other initiatives that Lyndon Johnson would ultimately enact – federal aid to education and medical care for the aged, for instance – and Kennedy should get credit for putting those on the table. The question remains, though, as to whether he would have been able to get that legislation passed in the form that LBJ did.
It’s also pretty clear that he learned on the job and grew into it, particularly in the aftermath of crises in Cuba and Berlin, and in addressing matters of social justice domestically – affirming the moral cause of civil rights, for instance, in the aftermath of Birmingham and Alabama in the spring of 1963.
Those qualities he came to display more readily – of empathy, circumspection, judgment, prudence and pragmatism would have stood him well in a second term in domestic policy, as well as in foreign policy.
Q. How will history look back on Kennedy?
A. Opinion polls have treated him quite favorably, and while Kennedy wasn’t able to pass much significant legislation, he did tee up for Lyndon Johnson key elements of what would become the Great Society, not only in the fields of health care policy and education, but also poverty. Kennedy is the first one to talk about “a war on poverty,” the phrase that Johnson would use in January 1964.
As for foreign relations, it’s inescapable that JFK escalated the war in Vietnam. The very nature of the program changed on his watch as he expanded the U.S. commitment, raising the number of U.S. military advisers from fewer than 700 to almost 17,000 and delivering hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. His actions narrowed Johnson’s choices later on, and his obsession with Cuba almost led to a global catastrophe. But once in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, he handled it with great dexterity. And his concerns over nuclear weapons also led to a landmark, if limited, treaty that banned certain forms of nuclear testing. He also inspired Americans to serve abroad, particularly through the Peace Corps, in an effort to help developing nations. Still, while he encouraged Americans to see the Soviets in a new light, he continued to operate from a Cold War framework that called for confronting the Communists throughout the developing world.
Q. So where does he sit today in the political firmament?
A. The Kennedy/Johnson period has been described as a liberal hour in American politics. Although Kennedy was not on the left of the Democratic Party – he saw himself as a liberal without illusions – he energized a particularly activist period in which presidents embraced the idea of the federal government being a force for good in people’s lives.
Big parts of that agenda have become woven into the fabric of American life. What would the country be like with no civil rights act, no Medicare or Medicaid, no federal aid to education? Although Kennedy wasn’t able to advance those bills into law, he did set an agenda that Johnson would enact, and then expand upon.
More recently, the COVID pandemic reminded us of the vital role the federal government plays in addressing major national and international challenges. And both Kennedy and Johnson recognized the value and necessity of Washington playing a leading role in national life, particularly in providing a social and economic safety net. In doing so, both were carrying out and expanding upon the liberal initiatives that came before them. That’s every bit a part of Kennedy’s legacy, as much as his commandment to “ask not what your country can do for you,” but what you can do for your country.