Like most people who are old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I recall exactly how & where I first heard the news and what I was doing at the time.
On July 1, 1963, I had reported to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, as a new plebe. By November, I had survived Beast Barracks and the first few months of the academic year. I was assigned to Company I-2, which was housed in barracks we referred to as “The Lost Fifties” because they were numbered in the 50’s, were the northernmost of all cadet barracks and, unlike most, faced away from the cadet area, across a road and toward the gymnasium.
Because I was the company clerk, I was assigned to Room 5114 on the first floor of the 51st division, directly across from the company orderly room and at the top of the stairs coming up to the barracks stoops from ground level.
During the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I had returned to my room from class and was working on company clerk duties when I heard two upperclassmen talking as they came up the stairs and walked past the windows of my room. I was stunned to hear one of them say that President Kennedy had been shot.
By dinner that evening, we knew that the president had died and a mood of shock and sadness had settled over the Corps of Cadets.
I was then and remain to this day a great admirer of JFK and was particularly distraught over his assassination. It is my opinion that his death marked the start of a long downhill slide in American politics which continues to this day.
In a previous blog, I ranked the 12 presidents of my lifetime:
I ranked JFK 2nd of the 12, behind Harry S Truman, though I suspect that, had he lived, Kennedy would ultimately have proved the best president of my lifetime, in fact, of the entire 20th century, and one of the best in our country’s history.
How might history have been different if JFK had lived to serve out two full terms as president?
First and perhaps most important, I doubt that he would have escalated American involvement in Vietnam as his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did. This would have had far-reaching effects, saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and altering the course of American politics for decades to follow.
Much of the domestic turmoil of the 1960’s and 1970’s might well have been avoided. Certainly the anti-war protests which divided the country over Vietnam would not have occurred. LBJ, even if retained as Kennedy’s running mate for a second term, would not likely have ever become president. Ditto the man who was arguably the worst and unarguably the most-disgraced president of the 20th century, Richard Nixon.
JFK probably would not have enjoyed the same success with respect to civil rights as did Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy would have faced tougher challenges in this regard than LBJ, himself a Southerner. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s ability to bridge political differences might well have ameliorated the most extreme animosities of the civil rights era.
In this potentially different political atmosphere, it is possible that neither JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, nor Martin Luther King Jr., would have been killed. Following two successful JFK terms, Bobby Kennedy might well have been elected president in 1968 and held the office until 1976. Nixon would have remained in obscure retirement and the affable but ineffectual Gerald Ford would have remained where he was most useful, in the House of Representatives.
JFK had earned the respect of Russian leaders and might well have brought about cold war detente much earlier than ultimately proved to be the case.
Certainly, American successes in the space race would have continued apace, and his visionary approach to the space program might well have motivated even greater achievements in that program.
And, in my view, the spiritual darkness which descended on the United States in the years following Kennedy’s death would not have occurred; national spirit and pride would have remained high; and social advances for minorities and women would likely have come more quickly.
It is, of course, difficult to project the effects of a two-term Kennedy presidency into the distant future. Would the ripple-effect of a completed JFK legacy have lasted until now? Perhaps not, but I am convinced that the United States would have been a better country throughout at least the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Having lived through the past 50 years without benefit of a complete JFK legacy, I cannot help being wistful about what might have been.
Some of my favorite JFK quotes:
Particularly apt today: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
More JFK quotes are available here: