John Fitzgerald Kennedy, A Eulogy

"It is in keeping with the Atlantic tradition that we should strive to give the long view of our late president," the magazine noted shortly after Kennedy's tragic death. "We turn to Harvard's leading historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, for an estimate of President Kennedy's place in history."
Three-year-old John Kennedy Jr. salutes his father's casket as it leaves the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., en route to Arlington National Cemetery. (Associated Press)

Courage Mr. Kennedy never lacked: courage to differ publicly from the appeasement ideas of his father and elder brother; courage as [a motor-torpedo-boat] commander in the last war, when, his PT‑109 sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer and sunk, Skipper Kennedy assisted in rescuing the floating survivors; even towed one of them, his burned engineer officer, ashore by gripping the tie-ties of the man’s life jacket with his teeth. After reaching shore, Lieutenant Kennedy did not relax but swam out into the sound in the hope of intercepting a rescue vessel, was in the water all night and just able to make shore in the morning. A severe injury to his back resulted from that brave night’s work, but Jack Kennedy never let it keep him from active life. His courage, however, was not the bullheaded courage of Theodore Roosevelt; he had patience, he could wait, and work quietly for his New Frontier program. Witness his patience with the slow-moving Congress; TR would long ago have exploded and called names. Kennedy added serenity to courage, and that quality made him all the more effective.

Courage alone is not enough qualification for a president of the United States, but it is one of the qualifications of a great one, like John Quincy Adams, the president whom Kennedy most admired. Calvin Coolidge, the one Massachusetts president between Adams and Kennedy, won his reputation in history, such as it is, by evading great issues. John F. Kennedy, on the contrary, made his reputation by meeting them head-on. He came to the presidency at a crisis in the Cold War; and whether future historians will say he was right or wrong in refusing American aid to the 1961 invasion of Cuba, I do not dare to predict. But there can be no doubt that his courageous confrontation of [Premier Nikita] Khrushchev in the matter of the Russian missiles in Cuba not only saved our country from a deadly menace, but convinced the Soviets that they had best be wary in the future. It was a turning point for the better in our relations with the communist world.

In a high degree Kennedy had the power of decision, and of correct decision, too. For him there were no hesitations, no faltering, no sleepless, tossing nights; but a quick, intensive study of all possibilities, conferences with members of his inner Cabinet who were best cognizant of the situation, and the decision was made.

Defense was one of President Kennedy’s weightiest problems. He inherited a situation in which the Soviets had atomic capability at least equal to ours, and at a time when the shibboleth of “massive deterrent” was obsolete. He had to decide between differing estimates of Army, Navy, and Air Force officers, and of many civilians and leaders of industry too, how best to spend what the country could afford on weapons. With a keen sense of reality, he opted for paring down the strategic bomber force and building up the [intercontinental ballistic missiles], yet not neglecting mobile naval and military striking forces for limited objectives. No other president, except [Abraham] Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, has had to make so many decisions vital to his country as Kennedy was forced to make in the two years and 10 months of his administration.

Alas, that we shall never again see that bright, vivid personality, whose every act and every appearance made us proud.

Amid conflicting issues of foreign policy and defense, Kennedy always kept before him the objective of world peace, with the premise that we can only maintain peace through strength, not weakness. He consistently, insistently, sought détente with Soviet Russia. The test-ban treaty may in the future be considered the crowning glory of his short administration; but he knew very well that it was only a beginning. Although I do not claim to be privy to his thoughts, I believe that he felt there existed a certain community of interest between the United States and Russia, upon which he must build; that the really great menace to our civilization is Communist China; and that by careful diplomacy we may gain Russia for the side of the free world.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In