Historians and the public often have different views on the presidency of John F. Kennedy, a Carthage College history professor said.
The public holds Kennedy in high regard but historians rate him in the lower half of the list of good presidents, said the professor, Tom Noer.
Noer, who has written a book, magazine stories and contributed chapters to books related to Kennedy, argued the conflict comes down to substance versus style.
“It’s the image we respond to more than the substance, and that’s natural,” he said. “That happens with other presidents, too.”
Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Kennedy was young, handsome and made good speeches, Noer said. He’s known for his lunar landing goal by the end of the 1960s. But the professor said to look at the record: The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was a disaster; the Berlin Wall caught Kennedy unprepared, and a meeting with Soviet Union Premier Nikita Kruschev left the president looking bullied.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962, is often viewed as a “win” for the U.S. and Kennedy but it also brought the country as close as ever to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Noer said.
There’s a division among historians, too, of course. Ed Schmitt, associate professor of history and interim chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said the road to civil rights legislation and the history of the Vietnam War might have looked a lot different had Kennedy lived. Noer disagreed.
Schmitt contended that after the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson “made decisions on Vietnam that some historians believe Kennedy would not have made.
“Johnson charted the course for a long and costly land war in Vietnam. It still would have been tragic, but not quite as costly, if Kennedy had lived. There’s a greater likelihood we wouldn’t have had the size of the military force that we did there.”
The road to civil rights during the 1960s likely would have been different, Schmitt said. Noer, again, disagreed.
Kennedy had sent a civil rights bill to Congress before his death but didn’t have a clear strategy to have it approved, Schmitt said. The bill was blocked by southern Democrats. Johnson, being from Texas, knew how to deal with southern Congressman.
“It’s hard to know whether the civil rights bill would have passed, might have taken longer to pass and maybe might have been watered down, if Kennedy had lived,” said Schmitt, who has written about Kennedy’s brother Bobby, contributed to a Johnson history, compiled a book on Johnson’s War on Poverty and is working on a book about comedian/activist Dick Gregory, who challenged the Warren Commission decision that Kennedy was assassinated by Oswald.
Noer said students are familiar with images of Jacqueline Kennedy spattered with blood or their son, John, giving a farewell salute during the funeral.
“Like most of the public, they’re fascinated with Kennedy,” Noer said.
Schmitt said his students are as fascinated as ever by the family and tragedy. One or two students out of 20 to 30 in a particular history class he teaches will ask to do research papers on the assassination, he said.
“They know him from pop culture, that he was a glamorous president, a womanizer,” he said. “The sense of tragedy is not there for them. But it remains one of the most compelling historical topics for our students. It never fades in interest.”
Schmitt said he recently attended a JFK forum where someone said there never would be another president as glamorous as Kennedy.
“That’s because of the way the media has changed and the way it probes into a political leader’s life today,” he said. “There can’t be that mystique any more.”