John F. Kennedy, his presidency and his legacy have fascinated Americans for decades. The Dover Post reached out to Dr. Tony Armstrong of Wesley College and Dr. Sam Hoff of Delaware State University for their thoughts on Kennedy and his place in history.
Much debate has ensued over the past half century about John F. Kennedy's legacy and his place in American history. The Dover Post reached out to Dr. Tony Armstrong, professor of political science at Wesley College and Dr. Sam Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University, for their perspective. Do you feel JFK's influence still is felt in American politics today? Armstrong: Kennedy is an icon, someone who symbolizes the dream of idealistic, creative government for many baby boomers. The longing for that dream to come true is plausibly a lasting influence. The Peace Corps he created is a more concrete legacy. It continues to harness the idealism of youth to the cause of serving others. It remains a symbol of “good” America. And the alumna of the Peace Corp is a valuable resource for governmental and private aid efforts. Hoff: The Peace Corps was a product of his eloquent inaugural address to think about serving the country. In his run for the presidency, the issue of religion came up and as the only Roman Catholic president, he certainly dealt with that. There was the idea of the presidential debates, which we look at as ushering in a new way of campaigning and also the idea of televised live press conferences. Kennedy also had just one appointment to the Supreme Court, Byron White, but he served from 1962 to 1993 and wrote almost 1,000 opinions. He was very much in touch with the moderate ideas of JFK himself and his rulings have had a lot to do with history between then and now. Looking back over 50 years, what is your overall view of his administration? Armstrong: Kennedy didn't achieve much in the way of legislation, but he and his brother Robert abetted the civil rights movement and opened the door to more cooperation and crisis control with the Soviet Union. Vietnam is also part of his legacy, but Robert McNamara, his Secretary of Defense, insists he would have pulled out if he had lived to a second term. Hoff: I regard his administration largely as style over substance. There are some good things, for example, the space program. I look at his administration almost as an embodiment of the 1960s as a decade of youth and of change. He basically admitted that in his inaugural address. Legislatively, things were pretty gridlocked, even though he had a Democratic majority, they were pretty conservative and they locked up a lot of his legislation. I think a great president needs style and substance. His administration was an idea of promise and of aspiration, but we're left with looking at the 1960s as the decade of what might have been. What do you feel was his administration's greatest challenge? Armstrong: Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were prone to provocative actions -- the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, putting missiles and nukes in Cuba -- that could have very well led to World War III. Avoiding this catastrophe was without doubt Kennedy's most pressing challenge. Hoff: Domestically, it was civil rights. The black leaders were constantly pushing the Kennedy administration to do something about the violence in the South. He did send troops to the South and he gave a speech before his death saying there should be civil rights legislation. Lyndon Johnson later took advantage of that as a way to get sympathy and he used his own legislative skills to get what he wanted. We have to see that there was a recognition that the status quo was not longer acceptable. What do you feel was his administration's greatest accomplishment? Armstrong: I think institutionalizing the bilateral management of the Cold War was the most important accomplishment. Hoff: The nuclear test ban treaty. That came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think, and when the next spring when JFK made a speech in which he talked about the Soviet people being similar to the American people and how they wanted peace. The next thing you know, preliminary discussions got quickly on track for a ban on above-ground testing. I argue that in the area of foreign policy, that led to other agreements such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. What do you feel was his administration's worst failure? Armstrong: The Bay of Pigs fiasco, a plan he inherited from the Eisenhower administration, was Kennedy's most obvious failure. Waiting to wind down our involvement in Vietnam was also a failure in hindsight, though I don't think he had much of a choice considering the political circumstances. Hoff: A recklessness in foreign policy. I think you can make the argument that the early disaster of the Bay of Pigs and America's failure to take any action when [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev ordered the completion of the Berlin Wall. The third area, in my opinion, is Vietnam. Everyone points to an interview with Walter Cronkite when he said it was their war and that we're about to get out. But I just don't see that in the context of the Cold War and in looking back at Korea.