For Americans who remember Nov. 22, 1963, there is an understandable temptation to dwell on the nearly unbearable tragedy of that day. I remember vividly the shock and confusion of a 7-year-old, refusing to believe it was true until I ran home from school to find my mother in tears. The entire nation and much of the world was thrown into mourning for a young, charismatic president who had led us all too briefly. But with the passage of a half century’s time, it is possible now, and certainly more sensible, to reflect more on the life — and not just the death — of John F. Kennedy.
He has lingered long in our memory and imagination, especially here in Massachusetts where he was born. And it is remarkable that he remains to this day a significant figure in the national and global conversation. Witness the extraordinary number of articles and television retrospectives alone this anniversary week. Historians will ultimately deliver the final verdict on his promising but imperfect and truncated Presidency. Yet there are lessons we can learn from how he played the role he loved best — his stewardship of American foreign policy at the very height of the Cold War. Three come readily to mind.
First, starting with his memorable inaugural speech, one of JFK’s lasting achievements was to convince young people to see public service as exciting, worthwhile, and even ennobling. Many current leaders — from both parties — went into the city halls, state legislatures, and Congress due to a simple but compelling exhortation — “ask what you can do.” Those iconic words greet students at the entrance to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I teach. And Kennedy had an expansive vision in which, as he put it, “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” He proved it by challenging Americans to go to the moon. He represents, in this sense, a fascinating counterpoint to those today who disparage government and call retreat to a more isolationist future.
Second, JFK was a very different leader by 1963 than he was when he took office, especially in responding to the life and death challenges of the Cold War. He authored a string of misjudgments in his first year from the Bay of Pigs to a failed meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and hesitant leadership during the Berlin Crisis. But Kennedy’s self-confidence allowed him to learn from failure. He developed a healthy respect for the mortal dangers of the East-West struggle, growing wary of the lure of militarism, emphasizing restraint and caution instead in his war and peace duel with the Soviets. These attitudes turned out to be crucial during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Faced with the danger of a nuclear holocaust, Kennedy negotiated, creatively and courageously, a last-minute compromise with Khrushchev that kept the peace between two rattled adversaries, saving millions of lives on both sides of the Cold War divide. It was his finest moment.
And there is a third lesson to contemplate. In the last months of his life, Kennedy argued passionately and publicly for America to resist “demonizing our adversaries and thinking war is inevitable” — radical words for the time and a useful reminder for how we might view our struggle with Iran today. In his most important speech at American University in June 1963, he challenged Americans, with the near miss of the missile crisis in our wake, to commit to “the most important topic on earth: peace” because, he said, “we have no more urgent task.”
Fifty years after Dallas, Kennedy’s legacy lives on in his admirable daughter who arrived in Tokyo last week as the new American ambassador to Japan. And it is visible every day at the Kennedy School where young people from 90 countries seek to construct a new frontier of hope for a new century. They and we can be guided by something else President Kennedy believed about the human condition — “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.