Why was JFK important

United States

Prof. Dr. Andreas Etges

To person

Andreas Etges is Professor of North American History at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. He studied history, German and journalism in Bochum, Madison / Wisconsin and Bielefeld and received his doctorate in Bielefeld in 1998 with a comparative thesis on German and American economic nationalism from 1815-1914. He is the author of the biography "John F. Kennedy" and was curator of the exhibition "John F. Kennedy" in Berlin and Vienna, as well as of "The Kennedys" in the Berlin Museum.

He delighted the masses with youthfulness and charm: at the age of 43, John F. Kennedy moved into the White House. He only had around 1,000 days to fulfill the hopes placed in him. In 1963 he was killed in an assassination attempt. John F. Kennedy's rise to myth began.

US President John F. Kennedy giving his famous speech ("I am a Berliner") on June 26, 1963 in Berlin, on the far right Willy Brandt, then Mayor of Berlin. (& copy AP)

The news of the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 shocked the world. People of different skin colors, denominations and world views were seized by the news as if a close personal friend had died. It was one of those rare moments when the world seemed to be united by a collective feeling. In West Berlin the grief was particularly deep. Shortly before, on June 26, 1963, Kennedy had received the greatest reception of his life here. In the divided city, the US President uttered perhaps his most famous words: "I am a Berliner".

First "pop star" politician

The "man for the 60s", as his election posters had announced, brought a new style into politics. At just 43 years of age, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was the youngest man ever to be elected to the White House - and therefore much younger than the other statesmen of his time. His youthfulness, his charm, his intellectuality and the spirit of optimism that emanated from his administration appealed to people all over the world. Kennedy became the first "pop star" of America's politicians, and he was the first president to make almost perfect use of television. Together with his wife, he knew how to stage the presidency in a glamorous way. Under the direction of Jackie Kennedy, the White House quickly shone back in its old splendor and thus also became a cultural center of the country.

Foreign policy most important task of his term of office

Above all, the foreign policy and international crises in Cuba and Berlin largely left the mark on Kennedy's term of office. The staunch Cold Warrior and anti-communist wanted to make America the undisputed number one, whether in space or in terms of the number of nuclear missiles. To defend the freedom of West Berliners, Kennedy himself would have been ready for war. The USA condemned the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. But secretly the US government was relieved because this helped stabilize East Germany and thus eased the dangerous situation in Berlin. In Vietnam, Kennedy increased the US military engagement significantly, even though he repeatedly rejected requests from his military advisers to send ground troops into the country.

Soviet missiles are withdrawn from Cuba on November 5, 1962. (& copy AP)

First "hot line" between Washington and Moscow

In the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. And the Kennedy administration was partly to blame for creating the crisis at the time. In order to overthrow the Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, the US president approved an attempted invasion of the Cuban Bay of Pigs in April 1961, which failed miserably. This was followed by secret US sabotage actions against Cuba and several attempts by the secret services to assassinate Fidel Castro. Not least to prevent a US invasion of Cuba, the Russian head of state Nikita Khrushchev had Soviet nuclear weapons secretly stationed on the Caribbean island, only 150 km from the American mainland. Concerned that they no longer had the situation completely under control and that a small, unintended incident could quickly have led to a third world war, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally gave in: Against the promise not to intervene in Cuba and against the secret promise To withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey, the Soviet Union eventually withdrew its missiles from Cuba. The happy ending of the Cuban Missile Crisis paved the way for detente initiatives such as the first limited nuclear test ban agreement and the establishment of the so-called hot wire, a fast and direct telegraph link between Washington and Moscow.

Kennedy especially inspired the young

Kennedy only had about a thousand days to fulfill the high hopes that his inauguration had raised in many people. Especially young people around the world felt personally addressed by his words: "Don't ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Young black people in the USA then became involved in the struggle for civil rights, for example. Thousands of Americans applied to work in the Peace Corps, a voluntary development service. Others went to Vietnam voluntarily as soldiers and were prepared to "pay any price to defend freedom against communism," as Kennedy had also called for in his inaugural address.

Few domestic political successes

It is thanks to Kennedy that many previously neglected topics moved into public awareness at the time. This applies to the fight against poverty, a health care program for elderly people in need or the reform of immigration legislation to abolish the antiquated quota system. Because of the extremely narrow and controversial election victory against the Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, Kennedy lacked a mandate for far-reaching domestic reforms. The impressive range of reform proposals and initiatives faced disappointingly few successes. For a long time he also lacked determination when it came to civil rights. Only his successor in the presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson, succeeded in enforcing a large-scale social policy reform program, the change in immigration guidelines and the important civil rights law that Kennedy introduced into Congress in the summer of 1963. However, Kennedy fulfilled his promise to get the country moving again - perhaps the greatest achievement of his tenure.

Kennedy myth to this day

If Kennedy had been able to complete his political career, many believe that American history would have taken a different, more positive course. However, the Kennedy myth is still nourished today by what remained incomplete due to his untimely death and thus unfulfilled for the people. Continuous revelations about Kennedy's illnesses and affairs, but also dark episodes of his politics, change that little. "The myth is very often the enemy of the truth," said former history student John F. Kennedy in a speech at Yale University in June 1962. His early death may also save him from being disenchanted while he was still alive.