Sixty Years After His Death, USM History Professor Reflects on President Kennedy’s Legacy
Tue, 11/21/2023 - 05:40pm | By: David Tisdale
Six decades after his assassination on that fateful November day in Dallas, a University of Southern Mississippi (USM) scholar assesses the impacts President John F. Kennedy made in the realms of domestic and foreign affairs during his short-lived administration – and could have made had he survived and won a second term in office.
Dr. Heather Stur, a professor in the USM History program and co-director of its Dale Center for the Study of War & Society, reviewed President Kennedy’s legacy with her students in this fall semester’s undergraduate course HIS (History) 204: “Exploring History, The 1960s.” Early in the course, she and her students examined the challenges he faced at home and internationally, including with the American Civil Rights Movement and Cold War conflicts involving Cuba and Vietnam, as well as the inspiration he brought to millions epitomized in his legendary inauguration speech.
“Kennedy's inaugural address really set the tone for the start of the decade, and it was a tone of hope,” Dr. Stur said, recounting President Kennedy’s famous line in the address “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’”
“By calling upon Americans to commit to the nation's founding ideals, Kennedy inspired an entire generation to see itself as the start of a new era of U.S. history, an era that would solve the problems that previous generations had created -- racism, inequality, oppression, both at home and abroad.”
Dr. Stur is an expert on the history of modern America and the Vietnam War. In 2013-14, she was a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam where she was a visiting professor on the faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City; she has also led students on USM’s Study Abroad program there in recent years. For Dr. Stur and other historians, as well as her colleagues in the Dale Center, one of the enduring questions about President Kennedy’s legacy center on what he would have done about the Vietnam War had he served a second term in office.
“Documents from his administration indicate Kennedy wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from South Vietnam, but there was no plan for when, how, or what outcomes he expected following a withdrawal,” Dr. Stur explained. “There's also no guarantee Kennedy would have been reelected. He narrowly defeated Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, and it's impossible to know what level of popularity he would have enjoyed in 1964.”
For many Americans, President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy exuded a youthful charm and idealistic worldview, in sharp contrast to the preceding Eisenhower-Nixon administration, a political and cultural transformation at the outset of the decade that inspired the moniker “Camelot” in reference to the mythical, utopian realm of the legendary King Arthur’s Court.
“The promise of youth was never more appealing in U.S. history as it was in the 1960s, and the Camelot image played into that,” Dr. Stur said. “A young, attractive president and first lady, two adorable children, the family football games at Hyannis Port (home of the Kennedy family compound in Massachusetts) -- these images were part of a broader celebration of youth that defined the 1960s and the Baby Boomer generation's sense of self.
“We actually now know that Kennedy had some serious health issues, and he was a World War II veteran, a member of the generation against which many of the Boomers rebelled, but the Camelot imagery would have us think that Kennedy was of the younger generation, was one of them.”
However, as the decade wore on and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War grew among the American public, Dr. Stur says whether President Kennedy’s popularity would have held steady in the face of continuing disillusionment with U.S. leaders and their foreign and domestic priorities would have depended on his embrace of status quo policy or if he chose instead to pivot going forward, had he lived and been reelected.
“If we consider ‘what might have been,’ I wonder if the Baby Boomers would have rebelled against Kennedy and his ideals had he been elected to a second term,” Dr. Stur pondered, “or would he have been as inspiring in 1968 as he was in 1961 when he gave his inaugural speech? Or by then, would young people have seen JFK as part of the establishment like [Vice-President] Hubert Humphrey, President [Lyndon] Johnson, and [former Vice President Richard] Nixon? For sure, a segment of disillusioned youth would have seen Kennedy that way.”
Today, President Biden faces foreign policy challenges that include those in Ukraine’s war with Russia, the Middle East crisis involving Israel and Palestinian militants, and Taiwan’s resistance to Communist China’s opposition to its sovereignty. Asked how President Kennedy might have dealt with these crises, Dr. Stur says clues may be gleaned from his responses to those he encountered during his roughly 1,000 days in office.
“He took the world closest to the brink of nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his diplomacy with (Premier of the Soviet Union) Nikita Khrushchev also resulted in the removal of weapons from Cuba and Turkey,” Dr. Stur said. “Regarding the Middle East, Kennedy's speeches and communications with Middle Eastern nations indicate he hoped for peaceful coexistence in the region between Israel and its Arab League neighbors. While Kennedy affirmed Israel's right to exist, he also seemed to believe good relations with the Arab League were in America's best interest.
“As for Taiwan (ROC- Republic of China), Kennedy would have turned to the Domino Theory and warned of the threat of falling dominoes should mainland China get control of the ROC. I don't see him engaging China militarily, however. It would have been nearly impossible to drum up U.S. public support for that.”
A member of the USM faculty since 2008, Dr. Stur is recipient of the university’s prestigious Moorman Professorship in the Humanities, Buford Blount Professorship in Military History, and is the inaugural recipient of its Nina Bell Suggs Professorship. She is the author of Saigon at War: South Vietnam and the Global Sixties (Cambridge 2020), The U.S. Military and Civil Rights Since World War II (ABC-CLIO 2019), and Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). She is also co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins 2017).
Dr. Stur is also the author of numerous articles, which have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, National Interest, Orange County Register, Diplomatic History, and War & Society, among other publications; her latest book, 21 Days to Baghdad: General Buford Blount and the 3rd Infantry Division in the Iraq War (Osprey Publishing, 2023) examines the exploits of USM alumnus Gen. Buford Blount and his soldiers as they overcame enemy forces in record time during the 2003 war with Iraq while also capturing its capital, Baghdad.
For information about the USM History program and the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society, visit the College of Arts and Sciences’ School of Humanities at https://www.usm.edu/humanities/index.php