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John F. Kennedy and the meaning of history

By Obadiah Mailafia

AT the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States lies a simple grave with a gas-fired eternal flame; a memorial to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963. This year marks the centenary of his birth. He was born on May 29 1917, scion of the East Coast Brahmin of Massachusetts. His father Joseph Senior came from Irish émigré stock as was his mother Rose Kennedy. The senior Kennedy made an enormous fortune, some would say, from things that were not entirely kosher.

John F. Kennedy

John Kennedy was born with a silver spoon. Their home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, was a palatial edifice fit for old European royalty.  Like his older brother Joe before him, JFK attended prestigious Choate, a boarding school in Wallingford Connecticut. He attended Harvard’s revered Department of Government. During those years his father was Ambassador  to the Court of St. James in London. JFK spent his year abroad as a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The 1930s were years of upheaval in Europe. JFK was privileged to accompany his father on several diplomatic missions to European capitals – Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Moscow, Brussels and the Balkans. His final year dissertation at Harvard was  published in 1940 with the title, Why England Slept; a precocious analysis of Britain’s disastrous appeasement policy that encouraged Hitler’s aggressive misadventures. It became an unexpected bestseller.

When World War 2 broke out in 1939, the Americans had remained ostensibly neutral. That neutrality ended when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Young Kennedy enrolled in the navy and was posted to the Pacific. In 1943 while on a night patrol off the Solomon Islands, the naval boat which he commanded was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer. Despite sustaining a severe injury, Second Lieutenant Kennedy was able to carry one of his injured comrades while swimming more than 5 km to safety. When the news of his heroism broke out, he became a national celebrity.

The Kennedy patriarch may not have been a great husband to his wife Rose; but he sure was a great mentor, provider and motivator to his children. From day one, he groomed them for high leadership. It was said that he made each one of them sign a contract promising that he would put US$1 million into their bank account if they had a college degree and did not smoke or drink by age twenty-one. Then as now, $1 million is a lot of money. It apparently worked!

The most gifted of the lot, Joe Kennedy Jr., the first son, perished in the war as a navy lieutenant in 1944. He had been a star student at Harvard, a successful athlete, and blessed with charisma and good looks. He was the one destined to be president. The second, JFK, was rather thin and sickly. But as fate would have it, he was the one who became president. There was also Robert, who became his brother’s Attorney General. He himself was a presidential candidate in the sixties and was assassinated by a Palestinian madman in the summer of 1968.  The other brother, Teddy, became one of the grandees of the Democratic Party, having served for decades in the Senate. He died in 2009.

JFK was first elected into Congress during the years 1947-53 before moving to the senate during 1953-60.  When he announced that he was running for president in January 1960, much of the public were sceptical. His youth and relative inexperience were factors that counted against him, as was the minor but significant  fact that he was catholic. Since the eighteenth century the High Magistracy of the American republic had been occupied by  WASPs. What turned the tables in his favour were his charisma, eloquence and intellect, besides the fact that his father was prepared to put all his treasure behind his son’s political ambitions. It was a new Gilded Age.  A new generation was eager for new ideas and new frontiers.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the Unite States at high noon on January 20, 1961. He was only 43. His Inaugural Address became one  of the most memorable in the annals of American political rhetoric, alongside Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. I am not an American, but each time I watch the video clip of his Inaugural Address I get goose bumps.

It was a summons to history and destiny. A handsome young president who spoke with the measured cadences of an elder statesman: “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle….rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation….””In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it….The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it, and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

John Kennedy’s presidency was tragically ended by an assassin’s bullet in November 1963. Within the few years in which he served his country, he proved to be a wise, compassionate and enlightened statesman.  His cabinet, the New Camelot, comprised some of the gifted minds in the history of American government. He inspired the successful mission by NASA to reach the moon:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

He also launched the Peace Corps that sent young Americans to help the desperate poor in the villages of Africa, Asia and Latin America. His calm and restraint saved the world from nuclear catastrophe during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. He cooperated with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement to bring more justice to the oppressed African-American people.

John Kennedy did not live long enough for us to be able to have a fair assessment of his place in history. This has led some revisionists to insist that he was a rather overrated statesman. I do not share those views. In the short years that destiny vouchsafed him, he left the earth with the glory of an Olympian god. Besides Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan, no other statesman has given Americans greater self-confidence regarding their destiny and exceptionalism.

A profile in courage, he was by no means without his own foibles. But it is not for us to judge. John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave his country purposeful leadership in a time of peril. He certainly left the world better than he found it. To us in Africa, he was a good American. And to me personally, a model of true greatness. Soldier, writer, prince royal and statesman, history will absolve him.


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