Fifty years ago, a young senator, John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States of America. Winning a close victory against his opponent, then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Senator Kennedy made history by becoming the first Roman Catholic president. As the years pass by, the memory of President John F. Kennedy still seems to capture the imagination of historians and scholars.
President Kennedy, with all the promise of a new generation born in the twentieth century taking power, inspired his fellow Americans and the world with the words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. It seemed better days were before us and that feeling was shared beyond the borders of the United States. Kennedy, a war hero and part of what newscaster Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation, assumed the reigns of power at a crucial time in history as two dramatically opposed ideological powerhouses were engaged in what was called the Cold War—each with diametrically distinct political and economic views of the world. And each capable of destroying each other.
It did not take long for the young president to be tested. A failed military operation against Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, the construction of the Berlin Wall by the East German Communist regime and a major nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union about the installation of offensive nuclear missiles just 90 miles from the U.S. shore demonstrated the dangers facing the world following his election and during his time in office.
On the domestic front, the economy was maintaining steady, post-war prosperity despite the usual economic cycles of growth and recession. There was, however, growing unrest. The civil rights movement was gaining in numbers and momentum but encountering significant resistance from segregationist leaders in the South. It was not long that the Kennedy Administration had to address the issue of civil rights and in so doing unleashed a movement toward transformational change.
Beyond these world and domestic issues, the Kennedy administration will be remembered for some major achievements. The space program, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and his success in having the Soviets back down during the Cuban Missile Crisis did much to influence the politics of future generations. Landmark social legislation such as Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights also began under his watch and was completed by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The youngest man elected president, he was also the youngest to die. Those who remember that fateful date on November 22, 1963, will never forget where they were and what they were doing. Those of us outside the U.S. also felt the pain and the sorrow of his assassination. Fifty years after the election, we need to remember and ask why?
John F. Kennedy called on the world to meet the challenges of the day, face our responsibilities to each other and work to make this a better and safer world. Granted, the problems he faced have largely been addressed, albeit with mixed results. The world is different now. But the character and the vision he held remain as relevant as ever. JFK was a hero to me, not so much for what he did, but for the dreams he initiated for future generations.
He taught us the value of public service and the fact that we are all interconnected. He made us see the importance of engagement and caring, and how one individual can make a difference. Just that makes it worthwhile to remember this man some 50 years later.
* John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec's Delegate General in New York, the province's top ranking position in the United States.