Like most U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy left behind a mixed record of accomplishments and disappointments.
One of Kennedy’s greatest accomplishments was psychological. His election instilled in many Americans a sense of national rejuvenation and commitment to advancing social causes. The concept of “Camelot,” wherein the young, handsome president with the attractive wife and young children entered office with a regal bearing and aura of optimism encouraged many citizens, who embraced his challenge of “asking not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
President Kennedy’s more practical and substantive accomplishments included setting the tone for the U.S. commitment to advance its space program with his announcement that, by the end of the decade, man would walk on the moon and return safely to Earth; his successful negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere; his establishment of the Peace Corps, which remains a highly-visible and rewarding program for many Americans while advancing the interest of U.S. foreign policy; and his efforts at eliminating discrimination based upon race in areas like housing.
One of the most oft-cited of Kennedy’s accomplishments was the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most potentially dangerous moments in human history. While Kennedy was successful in defusing that crisis, one can argue that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would not have been emboldened to place nuclear weapons in Cuba in the first place had Kennedy not proven himself inept at dealing with U.S.-Soviet relations.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was the culmination of a rocky period in U.S.-Soviet relations, including with respect to Cuba, U.S. policy in Africa, and, most importantly, Berlin, where Khrushchev’s perceptions of Kennedy’s weakness convinced the Soviet leader that constructing a wall around West Berlin would not be met with resistance.
Additional disappointments included his decision to bolster the U.S. military advisory force in South Vietnam, which set the tone for the massive escalation of U.S. involvement in that conflict; his policies with regard to South Vietnamese politics, including the assassination of President Ngu Dinh Diem; the failed efforts at assassinating Cuban leader Fidel Castro; the failure to adopt a more vigorous stance on the pressing issue of civil rights; and the repeated instances of extramarital affairs with women directly linked to major organized crime figures.
Kennedy’s legacy is one of great promise brutally terminated by his assassination. His accomplishments in office were limited by Republican opposition and by the mere three years he served. His record on civil rights was perhaps his most disappointing failure, as was his determination to assassinate Castro and allow his administration to be complicit in a violent coup that removed President Diem from power. Some of his failures in foreign policy were understandable in the context of the times, and all presidents feel more empowered in their second and final term in office, so it is probable that he would have accomplished more had he lived and been reelected. On the whole, though, his legacy is more closely tied to that ephemeral image of “Camelot” than to any accomplishment or failure recorded during his presidency.