Fifty years ago, I was entering university when a tragic event with worldwide repercussions occurred: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many who lived through that day and the following three days can recall where they were, what they were doing and how they felt.
Besides the United States, Canadians probably felt the pain most vividly. JFK had visited us earlier in his presidency and described us as neighbors, allies, partners, and friends. No relationship was closer and more interdependent. He had effectively seduced us on that visit.
Since his death, numerous historical accounts have focused on the theories about his assassination, the myths about the Kennedy years in the White House—the so-called “Camelot” era—and the successes and failures of his presidency. Even after all these years, the JFK mystique still captivates our imagination.
JFK was, above all, a modern man. Elected president in 1960 at age 43, he was the first U.S. president to be born in the 20th century. Young, handsome and charismatic, he was the first president to do regular televised press conferences. With his natural charm, he was able to display vision, firmness and humor. By all accounts, he was a natural for the television age.
Above all, JFK knew how to use the power of words to inspire and to give direction. His words still resonate after all these years: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; “Never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear”; “Wherever we may be, all free men are citizens of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner”; We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
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.