Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Petkov: John F. Kennedy left behind a complex legacy

Petkov: John F. Kennedy left behind a complex legacy

On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we see a resurgence of interest into not merely his assassination, but also his legacy. Some of us have romanticized notions of the man. Others might be inclined to label him as the youthful, idealized president whose shortcomings were largely overlooked due to the circumstances of his death. Although it is true that many of his initiatives came to fruition only after Nov. 22, and that his youthful, healthy, wholesome image was questionable due to both his numerous ailments and extramarital affairs, it would be a mistake to go straight from idolizing to trivializing.

The truth is always somewhere in the middle, and when it comes to history, especially when it comes to monumental historical figures like JFK, even the best historians are hesitant to draw definitive conclusions. History is filled with uncertainty, subjectivity, relativity, and interdependence.

JFK certainly wasn’t quite the president we made him out to be. Despite his eloquent oratory, wartime record and Harvard education, his inexperience was noticeable. The fact that he allowed Robert McNamara’s Whiz Kids to dictate Vietnam strategy was not surprising given his faith in the efficiency of educated youth, but it cost the lives of many U.S. soldiers.

That being said, what many of us fail to remember is that experience was no guarantee of efficiency either in that chapter of U.S. history. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was engineered by the Dwight Eisenhower administration. Even Ike, who needs no introduction when it comes to seniority and experience, didn’t think the plan through when he handed it to Kennedy to execute. After the aforementioned failure, Kennedy made one of his least-known but fairly significant decisions, which demonstrated that he would no longer accept hand-me-down plans from the previous administration: He fired the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles. For those of you who are not familiar with the aforementioned, Dulles was director all throughout the Eisenhower years, and his brother, John Foster Dulles, was the secretary of state. They were bona-fide members of the old guard, and frequently directed foreign policy decisions based on business interests. Kennedy’s move is in keeping with his image of reshaping politics, even if some of his other decisions are not.

Kennedy’s eventual willingness to reach out to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, and the candor of their correspondence, also marked a departure from Eisenhower’s relations with the Kremlin. Kennedy did not fully relinquish the ideology of his predecessors, but he was progressive enough to realize the flaws of the methods used by the old guard to conduct the Cold War. Kennedy’s qualms about the U.S.-approved assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, ironically only 20 days before his own assassination, also demonstrated that he was not merely a peon of his advisers. Both he and his brother were wary that they would have no one to replace Diem as leader of South Vietnam, despite Diem’s numerous shortcomings. Kennedy was also appalled by the brutal manner in which the coup was carried out. Even Communist Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed upon hearing of it “I can scarcely believe the Americans could be so stupid.”

These are just a few instances demonstrating the complexity of the JFK presidency and help underscore his significance as an independent leader rather than merely a hollow image or an empty promise. As new documents emerge, our perceptions of Kennedy will undoubtedly change again. The important thing to remember is that they will change, and we should always be ready to re-examine our evaluations of historical figures while remembering that said new assessments are by no means the final answer.

Antonio Petkov is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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Petkov: John F. Kennedy left behind a complex legacy