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St. James Plaindealer - St. James, MN
  • What Might Have Been

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  • The 50 years that have passed since John F. Kennedy's assassination have done nothing to dim the tragedy of his death, but the decades have also given historians, observers, and pundits plenty of time to reflect on how history may have been different if the president survived. Dennis Stade, who teaches history at Butterfield-Odin Public School, said the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a watershed moment in American history, and it indelibly changed the country. “We lost our innocence, and America perceived itself differently,” he said. “The way the U.S. grew after that was different, as was the general direction of our country.” Stade said JFK was America's “first 20th Century president,” because he was well-liked and young--but also because he set out very specific challenges. In his famous inaugural address, he advised the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country,” but he also vowed to send men to and from the moon safely by the end of the decade, and he created the Peace Corps. “We had just come out of the 50s, which were very politically conservative, with enormous growth and an emphasis on the importance of the family unit,” Stade said. “Kennedy set out goals that were clearly defined.” In his Washington Post column Tuesday, Richard Cohen sounded many of the same notes Stade did. “It was (JFK's) dash, his elan, his humor, his sophistication, his effortless charm, his erudition and, finally, his fearlessness in the face of brilliance that mattered so much,” Cohen wrote. “Kennedy did not need to be the smartest man in the room. That's how smart he was.” After JFK's assassination, Lyndon Johnson became embroiled in the quagmire in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon disgraced the office, so “there was this huge loss of faith in the executive branch,” Stade said. “The perception of the presidency was different.” Had JFK survived, Stade believes, “Everything would've been different in terms of foreign relations and diplomacy.” To be sure, Kennedy took a hard line against any spread of communism. As Larry J. Sabato, author of, “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy,” wrote in The Washington Post Nov. 13, “JFK's early Cold War rhetoric was so hawkish that (Ronald) Reagan and other Republicans later quoted him at every opportunity to buttress their fight against communism.” But, Stade argues--as do many historians--that JFK's posturing was largely saber-rattling. Kennedy had won a very close election against Richard Nixon in 1960, and he was staring at a hard-right-leaning Barry Goldwater in 1964, so he had to appear tough on any communist threat--wherever in the world that might be. But, Stade said JFK likely never would've become so deeply entangled in Vietnam as LBJ did, allowing it to largely eclipse his presidency. “No one knows for sure whether Kennedy would have fully disengaged from Vietnam after his reelection, but almost no one believes that JFK, a wary incrementalist, would have committed 535,000 troops to Southeast Asia as Johnson did,” Sabato wrote. “Johnson carried through JFK's domestic policies, but he doesn't get that credit, because of what happened in Vietnam,” Stade added. “Plus, the perception was different with Johnson; he looked older, and he lacked the appeal JFK had.” Cohen concurred with Stade, writing, “On paper, in the ledgers of bills enacted and great stuff accomplished, Kennedy did not get that much done.” “Major initiatives were begun, but the greatest of them were completed by Lyndon Johnson, a man who never earned the inevitable Kennedy accolade of 'grace,'” Cohen added. “He was too much tinsely image, shimmering like a desert mirage and just as concrete — unless you saw him. I did from afar and then, like countless Americans, every morning in the mirror.”

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