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It has been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while on a political trip in Dallas, Texas. Last week, Dr. Marie D. Natoli, Professor of Political Science, held a panel in an effort to both commemorate and discuss the Kennedy presidency and its impact on civil rights and foreign policy. Those who spoke were Dr. Natoli herself; Dr. William C. Leonard, Dean of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Lenore G. Martin, Professor of Political Science; and Dr. Faina Ryykin, Professor of Chemistry. Each had the opportunity to speak on different aspects of the Kennedy presidency.
John F. Kennedy was a bright, young Republican from Massachusetts, elected President of the United States in November of 1960. If it wasn’t his family name or his good looks that got him elected, it was his charm and his “Camelot existence,” as Dr. Martin referred to it as.
“The Kennedy presidency lingers with us…his presidency was the first of many, many things,” said Natoli. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic to be elected as president, the first president born in the twentieth century, and the first “television president.” He was also the most photographed president; Americans adored him, his beautiful wife and their two adorable children. He was energetic and charismatic, despite suffering from chronic back pain.
During Kennedy’s presidency, civil rights movement was building and people were becoming more and more active against the racial- and gender- related injustices present at that time.
Dr. William C. Leonard explained that Kennedy was cautious with civil rights and only reacted on several occasions. For example, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Atlanta, Kennedy was cautious about getting him released (for fear of losing Southern support). Fortunately, Kennedy’s brother, Robert, was able to get him released. President Kennedy was, however, affected by what he saw in Birmingham and began to think more definitively about civil rights.
Dr. Leonard also recalled JFK’s 1963 Civil Rights Speech, delivered to the American people from the Oval Office. He called for equal opportunity amongst all races, and that such prejudices was not a regional or economic issue, but a moral issue. This speech seemed to be the highlight of Kennedy’s civil rights efforts. President Johnson would later push for civil rights during his own presidency.
Foreign policy also affected Kennedy’s presidency. Kennedy was left with many of the issues concerning the Cold War including Cuba, Germany, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America.
“JFK was a Cold War president; he campaigned as a Cold War president,” Dr. Martin explained. “His message to us was that this was a new time and for a new generation, but when it came to foreign policy, it was neither a new time or a new policy.”
In the first few months of his presidency he ordered the CIA invasion into Cuba, known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion,” which backfired and left many casualties. This was an obvious failure for Kennedy. Luckily, the Cuban Missile Crisis proved successful. Kennedy was able to convince Khrushchev to dismantle Cuba’s missile sites, and in return the U.S. promised not to invade Cuba.
Problems in Berlin also escalated during Kennedy’s presidency when the Berlin Wall went up. Kennedy spoke in Berlin in 1963, proclaiming that he was a “Berliner,” and that we would lend his support to the people of Berlin in their time of need.
Dr. Faina Ryykin spoke on the Sharashkas and the Soviet Union’s scientific research. She spoke about the Cold War, arms race, and space exploration. She also touched on the development of threatening weapons during this time and how that accounted for much apprehension and competition between nations during this time.
Purportedly, Kennedy’s favorite musical was Camelot, hence the name of the panel. In a lot of ways his presidency was seen as that: bold and beautiful, heroic and tragic.
Lily Welch is a Staff writer and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.