Guarini Institute for Public Affairs: JFK 50 Years On

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On Monday, November 11h, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs hosted “John Fitzgerald Kennedy 50 Years On” a lecture by Professor Vincent Cannato, University of Massachusetts Boston. Professor Cannato offered a rather interesting perspective on the JFK experience, dedicating particular attention to the way in which Kennedy is remembered from the American public.

Professor Gray (JCU) introduced Professor Cannato’s speech by acknowledging that the actual story of JFK is very elusive, and objective assessments regarding his figure have been almost impossible to achieve.

Professor Cannato then took the floor by confirming the elusiveness of Kennedy’s figure, in light of the fact that most of what we know about those years depend on how Kennedy is remembered rather than on who he actually was. Kennedy is such an elusive figure that we see in Kennedy almost whatever we want. Progressives see him as the promoter of great social reforms and support for the civil rights movement. Conservatives remember him for his military commitments and his willingness to cut taxes. Such bipartisan support lived long after his dead. Still today, Americans name him as “the best recent president”. However, the academic community is much more skeptical about his presidency, and most historians agree that he was a good president, but not a great one.

Whatever the case, Kennedy was certainly the first media darling, celebrity president; introducing the notion that image is almost as important as policy. With his election, public opinion had the impression that “a new generation has arrived in the United States”. He was believed to be the right reaction after a passive government; he was embraced as a new Franklin Roosevelt. The assassination only contributed to the legend of his myth, making of him the “forever young president”.

The historical memoire of JFK seems to survive almost untouched, despite some major political defeats. For example, the episode at the Bay of Pigs is seldom remembered as an event that happened during the JFK presidency. However, it represented a moment of major disagreement between JFK and his political advisors, which lead to a great deal damage for the American image in the context of the Cold War. The same can be said about the failed Operation Mongoose, designed to assassinate Castro. Other episodes carry on a more mixed memory, such as the Cuban Missile Crises, and most notably the beginning of the operations in Vietnam. None of these controversial foreign policy decisions brought down the shining figure of JFK.

Of course, Professor Cannato could not avoid dedicating a part of his presentation to the Kennedy assassination, happened in Dallas in 1963. Most notably, he pointed out that public memory could not accept that the assassination of such a marvelous figure is not part of some grand conspiracy. While the most sophisticated theories argue that political opponents within the government were behind his killing, others believe that the murder was designed by right wing, Texan conservative groups. Yet, others argue that it was part of a USSR for a communist take-over of the United States. However, none of this seems to be true. According to most scholars, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man convicted for Kennedy’s assassination, acted alone out of his own mental instability. Oswald was indeed a communist and probably acted in response to the failed assassination of Castro organized by the CIA. However, the Cuban government was almost certainly unaware of the action. However, public opinion seems unable to accept that Kennedy’s assassination was just a random act of folly.

A long question and answer question from a large audience of students and professors enriched the discussion, making of the event an absolute success.