What These 3 Longstanding JFK Myths Reveal About America

Nearly six decades after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, myths and misunderstandings persist about the President. The tragic way in which the handsome political leader was gunned down so young, at the age of 46, is a big reason why there’s continued fascination with him and his administration.

“History in its most cursory form is a beauty contest, and as we look at John F. Kennedy, he’s a perfect President for the television age, because he shows up so well and he speaks so elegantly,” says Mark K. Updegrove, author of the new book JFK’s Presidency is a remarkable example of incomparable grace.

Here, Updegrove highlights, in his own words, a few common misconceptions about JFK‘s presidency—and what they say about how America chooses to remember his place in American history.

Myth: JFK “won” the Cuban Missile Crisis by staring down the Soviets

I would say that that the Cuban Missile Crisis is JFK’s greatest moment in his presidency. It’s certainly the most dangerous moment, not only during the course of his administration, but in the history of mankind, as we stared down the Soviets and found ourselves on the brink of possible nuclear annihilation. And it’s Kennedy’s coolheadedness and his equanimity that saves us at that time from what might have been the biggest tragedy in the history of the world.

But what is mythologized is that the Cuban Missile Crisis is a zero-sum game—that we stared down the Soviets, the Soviets blinked and then retreated from Cuba. This is certainly true. But we must also understand that it isn’t just the actions of Nikita Khrushchev (an aggressive and bellicose Soviet Union adversary), who recklessly sent nuclear missiles directly to Cuba, 90 miles from American shores. He did it because the Soviets had a disadvantage when it came to nuclear weapons. In reality, we actually had more nuclear arms than the Soviet Union. That was something that the Soviets also knew. Also, they knew that the U.S. had offensive missiles in Turkey. This was just shy of their Soviet border. What appeared to be recklessness by Nikita Khrushchev turned out to have been a calculated risk.

Ultimately, what happens, although the world didn’t know it at the time, is that yes, the Soviet Union retreated from Cuba, taking their missiles with them. We also withdrew missiles from Turkey six months later as part of a backdoor deal with Soviets. So it was really a quid pro quo to ensure that there weren’t nuclear weapons by the other side that were very close to the border of that country posing an existential threat.

Learn more A historian’s reflections on what John F. Kennedy Meant to Americans

Myth: JFK would not have left Vietnam

There’s wide speculation that JFK would have had the prudence to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. That’s because, privately, JFK had spoken to certain folks and said that he would pull out after his reelection in 1964. He didn’t say that to any of his military advisers and of course, Lyndon Johnson kept the same staff more or less in place when he became president and they gave him very hawkish advice on Vietnam. And we know what happened with Johnson; he doubled down on Vietnam, escalated the war to the nation’s detriment—to the world’s detriment, to a large extent. However, there is widespread consensus that JFK would have pulled the country out of Vietnam. It even became the subject of Stephen King’s novel and the subsequent Hulu mini series 11/22/63.

But while JFK’s pattern as President suggests that he would have taken a more prudent path, because he did so in averting military conflict in Laos, Berlin, and Cuba, there is no evidence that that we can see definitively that suggests that he would have withdrawn from the war. Kennedy did two television interviews in September 1963. In both of these, Kennedy says it would have been a grave mistake to pull out of Vietnam. According to his Domino Theory, countries that allow Vietnam to fall to the communists will fall more quickly than those that let Vietnam go to them. Of course this was at a time in which we were involved in a Cold War against the Soviet Union and were fighting for hearts and minds around the globe.

It seems that we often confuse John F. Kennedy’s 1963 views with the 1968 opinions of Bobby Kennedy, when he ran to be President. Robert Kennedy emerged in 1968 as an antiwar candidate. Bobby Kennedy, however, was an extremely hawkish adviser to his brother. This changed his view of Vietnam. They have nearly become one-dimensional in this way.

Learn more The enduring power of John F. Kennedy’s Message to the World

Myth: JFK was a mythAs a constant champion for civil rights

JFK was associated with civil rights, and became an iconic figure in the Black community. Many Black families had photographs of John F. Kennedy in their homes, sort of symbolizing governmental intervention in the area of civil rights and Kennedy’s progressivism.

But while Kennedy had very faithfully intervened in the release of Martin Luther King, from what may have been a very dangerous stay in a rural prison during the course of Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960—and he would go on to win the majority of the Black vote partly as a result of that—his commitment to civil rights was very slow in revealing itself in his presidency. He was initially very reactive. His attitude towards civil rights was very reactive. At the same time, the majority of Americans didn’t see the urgency in pushing civil rights and neither did John F. Kennedy. Foreign policy was more important to him. To him, foreign policy was the best way to become a great President. I think, frankly, he’s hoping the issue of civil rights goes away because it’s an embarrassment to the United States. At a time when we’re trying to say that we are morally superior—that democracy is a better way of life for its citizens than what we consider Soviet tyranny—we also have second-class citizens in our own country, living in a system in parts of the country that is, by and large, apartheid, and that doesn’t make us look particularly good.

When George Wallace stands at the University of Alabama administration building doorway, he steps in. [in June 1963]He refuses to permit the integration of the school, despite being ordered by a judge to. Kennedy realizes he’s got to go on television and preempt Wallace, and he does so and gives a largely extemporaneous speech, in which he elevates the civil rights movement to a moral issue. Kennedy also proposes a Civil Rights Act to end Jim Crow. But, when he’s assassinated, he has exercised very little political muscle in attempting to pass the bill, which has languished. Lyndon Johnson, with his extraordinary legislative ability, and exploiting John F. Kennedy’s martyrdom to push through the Civil Rights Act, 1964, takes the victory.

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