The JFK legacy: Memories of a grateful nation

Fifty-three years ago, Nov. 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated right here in Dallas. It was a day that shocked a nation and forever changed a city and the world.

Kennedy had a short-lived presidency but arguably one of the most iconic.  In the midst of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were fiercely competing in space, travel, technology, defense and espionage for global influence. It was capitalism versus communism; freedom versus tyranny, and fear of nuclear war was on the minds of most Americans. 

In came Sen. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, World War II veteran and Cold Warrior. He was youthful, charming and easily distinguished himself from his republican opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon.

One of Kennedy’s greatest talents was his ability to speak to people. He used the English language skillfully to convince the country it could do much better than it thought. He proved it when, in 1960 at 42 years old, he was elected the youngest and first Irish Catholic president.

His famous inaugural speech called on the American people to get involved in order to secure peace abroad and create a role model for the rest of the world. He said, “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.”

Kennedy inspired an entire generation when he said, “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

As president, Kennedy responded to the burgeoning civil rights movement by sending federal troops to desegregate a school and calling for legislation to end public discrimination on the basis of color. He created the Peace Corps, an unprecedented agency, to send young Americans to poorer countries and provide social and economic development. While the U.S. trailed behind the Russians in space, JFK summoned the country’s most imaginative people to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was one the country’s darkest moments. Americans prepared to ration food and hide in bunkers when they discovered that the Russians were building ballistic missiles in neighboring Cuba. The president spoke directly to the people and sent a naval blockade to Cuba. Despite immense pressure from the generals to invade and start a nuclear war, Kennedy kept his cool and stared down the Soviets until they backed off. The young president may have saved the human race and demonstrated best why we elect our commander in chief.

In June 1963, Kennedy gave his last memorable speech calling for a better understanding between the U.S. and Soviet Union. He praised the Russian people and said, “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” In August he signed a test ban treaty with the Soviets to prohibit testing nuclear weapons.

When JFK came to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, re-election was on his mind. He planned to serve another four years in the office he cherished. That was cut short when accused communist sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald hid in the Texas School Book Depository and shot the president as he was parading through Dealey Plaza. The nation and the world mourned the loss of this inspiring man.

Still, years later, it seems we as a nation have not recovered, yet it’s humbling to know the United States is capable of producing such visionary leaders. Kennedy’s moral purpose of conquering human challenges can best be summed up when he said, “A man may die. Nations may rise and fall. But an idea lives on.”

The Sixth Floor Museum’s permanent exhibit, “John F. Kennedy and the Memory of a Nation,” is open seven days a week, Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Monday from noon until 5 p.m. The special exhibit “Amending America: The Bill of Rights, A National Archives and Records Administration Traveling Exhibit” opens Jan. 24 and runs through March 16, 2017. More information is available at www.jfk.org