When President Kennedy took office in January 1961 his rhetoric about the New Frontier aroused hopes of significant reform. Were those hopes fulfilled by President Kennedy by the time of his death?
In John F. Kennedy's speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 15, 1960, during which he accepted his party's nomination to be candidate for president, he sought to appeal to what he saw as an electorate ready for a more vibrant leadership, one that would look to the future in both domestic and foreign policies, as well as in the race to space. In noting the country's continuing domestic problems and the growing threat abroad from communist expansionism, Kennedy express his ambitions as prospective leader of the Free World:
"Today some would say that those struggles are all over -- that all the horizons have been explored -- that all the battles have been won -- that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won -- and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960s -- a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils -- a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats."
Whether Kennedy could be considered to have accomplished his objectives -- to have realized his vision -- is highly questionable. His domestic policy initiatives, limited though they were, were consistently blocked by Republican opposition. There were successes, for example, expansions in Social Security and unemployment benefits, increased aid for housing, restoration of the Food Stamp program, and other programs for the poor. These legislative accomplishments were not insignificant. It is safe to suggest, however, that his assassination less than three years into his presidency precluded greater domestic accomplishments.
On foreign policy, Kennedy suffered by virtue of his relative inexperience and limited knowledge. His rhetoric as a senator and presidential candidate was very hard-line with regard to the need to counter communist aggression abroad. As president, he took steps that lead America into the morass that became Vietnam War. His efforts at assassinating Cuban leader Fidel Castro failed, as did the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. His crowning foreign policy achievement was the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, while extraordinarily important, nevertheless represented a significant error in judgement with regard to Soviet intentions.
Kennedy's most valuable and enduring legacy was less in any legislative accomplishment than in the psychological impact he had on the American public. His vision of a New Frontier inspired many people, both in the United States and abroad. His appeal to the country to achieve goals in space that seemed far-fetched helped propel the country forward on the technological front. All of his policies and actions set the scene for the presidency that followed, both in good (social welfare programs, Peace Corps) and in bad (the growing involvement in Vietnam, little on civil rights). If LBJ accomplished more, it was because he had more time, and more experience at dealing with Congress. He also, though, saw his legacy permanently soiled by the growing conflict in Southeast Asia.