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.
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.
Among the many domestic issues which President Kennedy had to face, the most serious was that which has been called the Negro revolution of the 1960s. This, too, he faced courageously, and, I may add in no pejorative sense, politically; for he knew that in the framework of our federal system there are limits to what the federal government can do. What the Kennedy administration did in this respect fell short of the demands and expectations of many liberals and Negroes, yet went far ahead of what the southern white Democrats regarded as wise or even possible. On this subject the president made his own fresh estimates and decisions. He saw clearly that after a century of freedom, and in an era when native Africans were becoming independent, the American Negro could no longer be denied the full rights and privileges of American citizenship, which actually had been promised to him almost a century ago.
President Kennedy was remarkable not only for his courage and wisdom in meeting the challenges of our day; he chose to take the most important steps ever made by a president of the United States to foster literature and the arts. A product of Boston and of Harvard, he did what John Quincy Adams tried but failed to do: he transplanted the cultural values of that community to Washington, D.C. Mrs. Kennedy, his fair partner in this enterprise, by her excellent taste and boundless energy transformed the White House into a residence worthy of the chief magistrate of the republic, which it never had been. At the presidential inauguration, Kennedy gave a principal role to New England’s and America’s favorite poet, Robert Frost. At a party in the White House for the American Nobel Prize winners, which my wife and I had the honor to attend, and which was conducted with an elegance that no European court could have surpassed, he entertained American writers, artists, and scholars of all races. And, as an example of his wit, the president addressed his guests thus: “This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone!”
In view of the fact that previous presidential administrations have been largely indifferent to the arts, President and Mrs. Kennedy’s effort has been of vast significance in making the cultural aspects of American civilization respected; within three years the capital city, hitherto an artistic and literary desert, has become one of the leading cultural centers of the United States. And all that Kennedy did was done with such grace and humor …
Incidentally, I wish to point out that, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, the presidents of the United States who have done most for the people, who stand highest in the estimation of historians, were gentlemen born and bred—aristocrats in the proper meaning of that much-abused word. These presidents were Washington, both Adamses, Jefferson, both Roosevelts, Wilson, and Kennedy. Is it not significant that all these great presidents were well-educated men of gentle background and upbringing? …
Alas, that we shall never again see that bright, vivid personality, whose every act and every appearance made us proud of him, and who gave us fresh confidence in our country, even in ourselves. Alas, that we shall not again hear that ringing, virile voice, those words, so well chosen and phrased, in such perfect diction. With his death something died in each one of us; yet something of him will live in us forever.
So I close, thanking God for giving us a president such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy, praying the Almighty to have mercy on this whole land.