November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The name sounds familiar to most UW-L students, but few can offer many details about the life of America’s 35th President.
“I know he was president and that he was shot, but that’s about it,” admits David G., a sophomore and sports medicine major. “It happened so long ago that it’s hard to relate to.”
The Kennedys are an American legend, and their political legacy spans four generations. There was at least one Kennedy serving in an elected office over the 64 year-period until 2011. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline was recently appointed as US Ambassador to Japan.
JFK was a World War II Navy veteran decorated for heroism in the South Pacific. He entered public service in 1946 when elected to the US House of Representatives. In 1952 he would be elected to the Senate, then president in 1960.
A democrat, Kennedy won the election with a narrow defeat of his Republican challenger Richard Nixon, and at 43 Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected.
Entering office at the height of the Space Race, his presidency is in part remembered for his initiation of NASA’s Apollo project. The endeavor would beat the Soviets to the moon by the end of the decade.
A more dubious mark on the presidency of JFK was the attempted invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961.
In 1959 Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and established communist rule. Under Kennedy’s predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower the CIA had begun a secret operation to overthrow Castro, and an amphibious invasion was launched just four months after Kennedy’s inauguration. The landing force sent from US warships comprised pro-Western paramilitaries and Cuban exiles. The invasion was soundly defeated within days by Cuban military forces commanded by Castro himself.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion was an embarrassment to the administration, and the incident set in motion events that would culminate with the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later.
The Cold War was also at its height during Kennedy’s administration. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis ultimately defined his time in office.
Over a two week period in the fall of 1962, Kennedy faced the Soviets in a standoff over the small island nation. The USSR had deployed nuclear missiles there just 90 miles from Florida, and the threat of nuclear war has never been higher.
“I was growing up during the Cold War in the 1960s,” says Professor Thomas Pribek of UW-L’s English department. “Although I don’t exactly remember the missile crisis, I can say the early 60s was the only time in my American history when people were genuinely afraid. We were afraid of war after the assassination. All through my second grade class, every day one boy in the class wore a fireman’s hat and was supposed to be on the lookout for bombers covering over the bluff.”
“It seems ridiculous today,” Pribek says, “But my second grade teacher had us convinced that LaCrosse, Wisc., was going to be a major bombing target of the Soviet Union.”
Considered an enormous strategic victory, Kennedy’s opposition and tough diplomacy forced the withdrawal of the missiles.
Kennedy became solely credited for keeping Soviet military presence out of the Western Hemisphere.
Other noteworthy accomplishments of JFK’s presidency were the establishment of the Peace Corps in 1960 and the US Navy SEALs in 1961.
Kennedy is also remembered for his work concerning domestic labor relations and civil rights.
The loosening of monetary policy early in his presidency was deemed responsible for economic expansion and prosperity in the US during the 1960s. Kennedy’s fiscal policies also resulted in a marked increase in America’s GDP.
The only US President to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, his 1955 book “Profiles in Courage” chronicled the heroism and contributions to America made by patriots throughout US history.
President Kennedy’s life was cut short on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Riding in an open limousine, Kennedy was shot in the head by Lee Harvey Oswald. The shots were taken from the window of a building overlooking the motorcade, and the event shocked the world.
Oswald was himself shot and killed while in police custody before he could be tried.
Kennedy’s assassination would become the lore of conspiracy theorists for years. His policies and an infamous personal life of purported extramarital affairs have fueled speculation about the President’s death for decades. Questions of the identity of the shooter and debates over facts of the assassination still continue today.
The last US President to be killed in office, JFK was popular with many Americans during one of the most uncertain times in American history. His shooting shocked the world, and his life, death, and legacy continue to captivate a nation.