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Last Updated: Friday, 6 January 2006, 17:21 GMT
JFK's legacy
By David Cannadine

The hope and optimism about the future that will forever be associated with John F Kennedy live on, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly column.

I'm just about to spend two of the most rewarding and stimulating days of what I hope I might describe as my "official" year.

They're the best possible pick-me-up after too much festive indulgence and holiday fatigue, and they never fail to get January off to what is, for me, a flying start.

Since 2000, I've been a trustee of the Kennedy Memorial Trust, which was established in the aftermath of the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

In May the following year, a nationwide appeal was launched by the Lord Mayor of London and a substantial sum of money was subscribed by the British public, for which I and my co-trustees are now responsible.

We're appointed by the prime minister, and one of our tasks is to maintain the Kennedy Memorial itself, which is located on the River Thames at Runnymede, near Windsor, the same historic spot where King John sealed the Magna Carta in 1215.


Two acres of the Runnymede meadow were made over as a permanent gift from the British to the American people, and there, in a beautiful and tranquil setting which encourages contemplation and reflection, is set a large block of Portland stone on which are inscribed some of the most ringing and inspiring words from Kennedy's inaugural address.

It says: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Here, then, is a monument not only to the late president, but also to what many see as a shared transatlantic ideal of freedom.

Our second task as trustees is to provide scholarships for bright young men and women, recently graduated from British universities, to spend an extra year studying at Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

President John F Kennedy
Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas

The first Kennedy Scholars were selected 40 years ago, in January 1966. Since then, more than 400 scholars have been appointed, and many of them now occupy prominent positions in politics and government, in the media and the law, in business and in academe. Among them William Waldegrave, Chris Smith, David Milliband, Emma Rothschild, Mary Arden and Yvette Cooper.

Early in January each year, the trustees spend two days interviewing and choosing the next cohort of scholars. They come from a wide variety of universities and social backgrounds, and from most parts of the United Kingdom, but they are all uncommonly bright.

One of these days, I regularly remind myself, these people are going to be running a significant part of the world, and it will be a better place because of that.

But meanwhile, the Kennedy Scholarships give them a year to broaden their minds and enlarge their horizons after the intense specialisation of a British undergraduate degree. And most of them go to Harvard or to MIT as Special Students, which means they can study anything they want, from maths to music, anthropology to psychiatry.


As these interviews proceed, I'm often reminded of some words of John Buchan - an author who, by agreeable coincidence, John F Kennedy rather liked. They're from Buchan's last novel, Sick-Heart River, in which the hero, Sir Edward Leithen, learns he is stricken with a mortal illness.

Determined to undertake one last adventure, he goes off to the snowy wastes of northern Canada to rescue a friend who, in more senses than one, has lost his way.

During what he knows is his final journey, Leithen looks back on his life, and one memory he savours is of his days as an Oxford undergraduate, when the world had seemed at his feet. "A place of long sunlit avenues, leading to marvellous horizons," he says.

I like to think that the Kennedy Scholarships are a way of providing some of that sunshine, some of the roadway, and some of that sense of possibility and opportunity.

In our own time, that brightly-lit path leads the gifted young from Britain to America, and so seductive and attractive are the possibilities and the opportunities on the far side of the Atlantic that nearly one quarter of former Kennedy scholars are now living and working in the US.

But when John Buchan was an undergraduate, at the end of the 19th Century, it was Oxford that was the intellectual capital of the greatest nation in the world.

One indication of this was the international scholarship scheme established by that arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, which brought bright young men (and in those days it was only men) from the British Empire to study beneath the dreaming spires, along with some of their equally talented contemporaries from Germany - and from the US.


When the Rhodes scholarships were established, Britain was the place to visit, to go to university, and to learn how the world was run. But by the time the Kennedy Scholarships were created, the balance of power between the UK and the US had significantly shifted, and America had become the place to go to learn these lessons.

So far as I know, John F Kennedy is the only US president who is commemorated in such a living and perpetual and self-renewing way - either in this country or, indeed, anywhere else.

To those of a sceptical inclination, this may seem rather strange, for Kennedy's was one of the shortest of 20th Century American presidencies, as he spent barely 1,000 days in the White House.

Apart from facing down the Russians at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and tentatively moving towards improving the civil rights of black people, Kennedy's substantive achievements were limited, both domestically and internationally.

President John F Kennedy and son John Jr
President Kennedy had two children
Throughout his presidency, his health was bad: he was often in pain, his back was constantly troublesome, and he suffered from Addison's disease. And while his White House may have been known as Camelot, it was scarcely a safe place for maidens or damsels.

All that's true, yet it's not the whole truth, and nor is it the most important truth. As it happens, Kennedy was exactly the same age as my parents, and as he made plain in his inaugural address, his advent to power signified that the torch had been passed to a new generation, who hoped to take the world forward to a brighter and better future.

Despite his physical infirmities, Kennedy was exceptionally good-looking, he was spectacularly photogenic, and he had shown genuine courage and bravery during World War II.

And he was eloquent, articulate, witty and charming: not only in his set piece speeches, of which his inaugural remains justly the most famous, but also in his press conferences, where he showed a capacity to think on his feet and speak off the cuff which no subsequent American president has remotely rivalled.

Hope and optimism

All of this is just another way of saying that when Kennedy took office, 45 years ago, in January 1961, he was the hero of the world's hopes in a way that has not been true of any Western leader since.

And that is not merely retrospective romanticism: even at the tender age of 10, as I was then, it was impossible not to catch the mood of what seemed to be this new time of hope.

Of course, we know that many of those hopes proved vain: Kennedy was killed, the 60s turned sour, the Vietnam War divided America, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy's successor, was forced from the White House in 1968 with his reputation in tatters.

Historians will always debate whether the 60s would have been any different or any better if Kennedy had lived to serve out two full presidential terms. But however tempting it is to speculate on what might - or might not - have been, the answer is that we shall never know.

The Kennedy Scholarships are a fitting monument to a bright man who died too young
Be that as it may, the fact remains that Kennedy took with him to his grave in Arlington Cemetery the hopes of more than one generation - not only those of my parents, but those of me and my contemporaries, too.

I shall never forget where I was on the day that he was shot, and I still possess the front page of the Daily Telegraph from the following morning, which ran the first headline I had ever seen that extended across the full width of the front page: "President Kennedy Assassinated".

Not surprisingly, the world has never seemed as young or as bright again. But in celebrating, as they do, those very qualities of youth and brightness, the Kennedy Scholarships are a fitting monument to a bright man who died too young.

And in providing such opportunities for other bright young people, they help sustain and rekindle that sense of hope and optimism about the future that will forever be associated with Kennedy's name.

Your comments:

Let us not get all rosey and sentimental here. Kennedey was as brutal as he was photogenic, his continuation of america's terrorist attacks on Cuba and other Central American countries continued under his watch. He talked of liberty while 1000's suffered under attacks he allowed and that his government funded. Do not talk of 'him' preventing the Cuban Missile crisis without recalling the full story - in so far that America had 'nukes' all along Turkey etc pointing at Russia(so if they had it, why not Russia in Cuba?), the USA mined harbours, killed innocents. So let us not make JFK a saint as yet, like most, if not all, of America's leaders this century his hands were covered in the blood of innocents in battles, in wars, in bay's and in places were the majority of the worlds people did not want them to be. The future to our esteemed leader may be bright and full of opportunities and I hope his sense of optimisim has been rekindled - but I would ask him to stand in Havana when he talks of this and ask them what happened to the bright young people that died in Kennedy's name.
Charles Blair, Glasgow

What a fitting tribute to an exceptional man; one who inspired an entire generation not just in America, but across the world. Kennedy was a anglophile, loved England and it's history and tradition and what finer place to have his monument than where Magna Carta was born. As an Englishman living in the US and a great devotee of JFK, I am particularly moved. Chris Watson.
chris watson, Olympia, Washington; USA

My husband, JA Semlyen, was a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford, Californa, 1964-66. He was allowed to research with any academic in the US. The professor he chose, Paul John Flory, later won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Before he died in 2001, my husband founded a new field of Polymer Chemistry: that of Large Ring Molecules. Our two years at Stanford was the most memorable, stimulating and exciting time of our lives. Kennedy and Fulbright: symbols of hope and cultural exchange that emphasise the highest ideals and achievments of our two countries. I trust that the Kennedy winners will come from a variety of disciplines, not just politics.
Rachel Semlyen, York

Am no an american citizen, am a mexican however Since I know stories about the Kennedy family, everytime a wonder wich such stories, and my admiracion for such popular wellknown family, in especial for the Sr, president Jfk., I don't know nothing a bout politics but i have a feeling that mr, President Kennedy was a very especial president of the unated states of america., god bless them
Sergio Ocegueda, Wilmington ca, usa.

Elise, Oxford, USA

it is heart warming to read your thoughts mr.Cannadine.Like you I remember the hope and optimism of that time.It is wonderful that young men and women have the opportunity of greater education through this wonderful scholarship. Thank you.
J Lescure, Sebastopol ,USA

Thank you Mr. Cannadine for your kind expression regarding President Kennedy and for helping to keep some of his ideals alive through your "two rewarding and stimulating days" each year.
George LeQuyier, Glenside, Pennsylvania,USA

Mr. Cannadine, very well presented, we are the same age, as a little boy in Canada and at near the same moment as you, felt hope and innocence fade...
don, Edmonton Canada

The Kennedy scolarships are a wonderful thing in their own right as well as helping to perpetuate the promise that the man represented. But let us remember that it was but a promise. He would not have been President without his family's influence and money and as a man, although an eloquent speaker, he was otherwise a miserable failure - dishonest and philanderous.
Derek, Burnley

I was in High School in India when JFK was assassinated. We Indians had such an admiration for Kennedy that whole of India came to a standstill to pay homage to this great man. His famous quotation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for the country" was infused into us by our teachers. These were so powerful words that till this day I quote them to my students.
Ashok Malik, Sunnyvale, CA, United States

Brilliant! Thanks for the perspective, wish our journalistic efforts could measure up.
Bruce Colman, Cumberland, Ontario, Canada

Thank you for an article that brought tears to my eyes. I, too, will always remember where I was when I heard that Kennedy was shot. And to his detractors, I would say, "His shortcomings don't matter. What matters are the dreams and hopes he brought to people around the world."
E. Clare Stewart, Hamilton, ON, Canada

A tremendous article extremely well written and described about j.f.k ;and no doubt to the importance of the facets of life valued then and valued to day and forever ; liberty and freedom they are not just words.
barry chadwick, kelowna canada

JFK came to be President because his father wanted one of his sons to be President and the first Catholic President of the USA. The reason started by being ┐wrong┐ but JFK turned out a fine President on his own cognizance and his wife a fine first lady who also conquered the admiration and imagination of the world.
Artur de Freitas, Johannesburg, South Africa

I think David Cannadine has the "JFK Thing" spot-on here. I too was only 10 when JFK was elected and felt that he was my President too. A lot of young people's hopes and dreams for a better world died with Kennedy on 22.11.63. Take a look at the poor crop of US Presidents who have followed, only Clinton measured up in some way and they tried to hound him out of office. Steve Connolly
Stephen Connolly, Dublin, Ireland

Despite any legacy, I find it surprising that the fact that his badly treated sister, Rosemary Kennedy, has just died but this didn't get much of a mention in the news.
Matt, Manchester UK

What a Mills and Boone description of JFK . No mention of his serial womanising, then ? Poor work for an alleged historian.

I remember that one public figure, a White House staffer - I think, summed it up thus: "We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again..."
Randy Suffens, Louisville, KY USA

This article has brought out some of the aspects I have always been wanting to see and read about JFK. From the time (in 1970)I read that JFK was the fastest reader (250 words/minute), I ever grew interest and love for him, by then I was 16 years old. Its true, as per your article, HE really possesed un-equalled leadership and magnetic power that drew masses to him. Kindly, keep updating me and others about JFK.
Moses Kholopah, Lusaka, Zambia

Well said! I couldn't agree more with your observations about Kennedy as "the hero of the world's hope". During Kennedy's administration a tangible sense of hope and optimism, possibility and opportunity was in the air. I recall being filled with the sense of "YES!" the world was on the brink of "marvellous horizons" for a brighter and better future. That sense was palpable in the early 60s. All this was dashed when he was killed. I was moved to learn of the Kennedy Scholarships celebrating this inspiration. Would that these bright young people carry Kennedy's torch of inspired leadership and vision! Oh! to rekindle that intoxicating spirit where the mind and heart once again believes it possible to take the world forward to a better future!!
Madelon, Cleveland, OH

It is nice to read such kind words about one of our Presidents. However for a reality check; Kennedy was a terrible President and had terrible approval ratings, (in the 20's I believe). It is very unlikely that he would have been re-elected. I believe Nixon would have run again and beaten him; and that is what would have changed history.
Frank Hopper, Wichita Kansas USA

I heard David Cannadine deliver this piece on Radio 4. I'm not sure whether he was intending to mimic the style of 'Letter from America' or no. But in one Letter Alistair Cooke give his view of that "Let every nation know ... " speech which so thrills Mr Carradine. And Cooke reached a very different conclusion about the dawn of the Kennedy era. He wondered that Kennedy chose, in his inaugural address, to cast the United States in the role of a St George ready to slay the world's dragons - 43 in number in those days - no matter what the cost or what the burden. He questioned the wisdom of throwing down such a dangerous gauntlet, and how this sowed the seeds for the Vietnam war and many other ill conceived, primarily anti-communist, US iniatives. Cooke interpreted this speech not as an optismistic pledge, but as a threat.
Julie Aldred, London

What a Touchstone to the past and future. The same thing should be done for the bright young people and all the people of Iraq and Afganistane as a memorial and a warning to the future that there is a beter way to remember our dead and our hope.
Alex Bratmon, Monrovia,California,USA

Yes I agree with everything in your artical about J.F.K. I have never forgotten him,& remember where I was when he got shot.I can even go further than that.I was very lucky to be in Dublin Ireland when he made a visit there in June 1963.I seen him twice.He looked like a giant of a man,and his hair was golden.I will never forget him.
Patrick. J.Bennett., March. Cambs. England.

I was just 19 when JFK died, but I still remember vividly the great sea change in our expectations that came about when he was elected President of the US. Before that there was a deep pessimism engendered by the stalemate between the Russians and the Americans, there was a belief in the inevitability of a nuclear war with all the terrible consequences that would bring. Nothing in the dead diplomacy of the Eisenhower/Dulles years gave us any hope. And a Nixon victory would have kept us on that downward path. Kennedy's victory, and the rhetoric of his inaugural speech changed all that. Suddenly there was a new hope, a feeling that - after all - there was a way forward. Whatever the man's failings he will always be remembered by my generation as the man who gave us back a belief in our future.
Roger Mulberge, Bangkok, Thailand.

What a beautiful article. I was 9 1/2 when Kennedy took office. I am Roman Catholic of Irish decent, so it definitely was a magical time in my memory and in my household. On November 22, 1963, I came home from school to find my mother weeping in front of the TV. Many people throughout the world wept on that day. I have speculated on what would have happened if JFK had been president through 1968. Surely, the world would have been a better place. I also think that would have been true had Bobby had a chance to serve as prsident, and if Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been cut down in his prime. But the assasins were trigger-happy in the '60s, to the dtriment of us all. How could one decade hold such promise as well as such disaster? Thanks for your reminder of my past.
Donna Burds, St. Louis MO, USA

I was in New York city when Bobby Kennedy was murdered in L.A. We were all reeling from the murder of the President and Martin Luther King...and I thought the world is going mad. I loved the fact that Carl Sandburg read a poem at Kennedy's inauguration.... the love of the English language was so prevalent in both the Kennedy brothers' lives.... It was terrific to read this article which is all about hope -- a timely encouragement during these going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket days. Thankyou. I still have a Bobby Kennedy for president button on my bookcase.... and of course every book ever written about John Kennedy. I am quite sure Ben Bradlee will be thrilled to read your article too....and many others. Well done.
Dodie Smith, Toronto, Canada (but born in Cheshire, England)

One wonders whether the world would be a better place today if he had survived. Certainly a lot better at his job than the present variation!
Dave Williams, Bristol

As an African,who has never been anywhere near the States i have always been fascinated by JFK.May this monument see many generations.
Abdulsalam S badamasi, Kaduna,Nigeria

I was just turned 13 at the time of Kennedy's assasination and can remember where I was and who told me he had been shot.I didn't know who any of our politicians were at hte time but I knew who JFK was and what he stood for and the loss that everyone felt from his death.
Ian Murrell, Paignton UK

This article is very similiar in tone and content to many other articles about President Kennedy that I have read. Like so many of these articles, it acknowledges that "Kennedy's substantive achievements were limited, both domestically and internationally", but then goes on to say "Kennedy was exceptionally good looking, he was spectacularly photogenic" & "He was eloquent, articulate, witty and charming." It is as though this article, and the many others like it, are trying to say that the these personal qualities somehow make up for this lack of substantive achievements.
Andrew Vennard, Irvine, UK

I found your story about John F. Kennedy's lasting influence to be very uplifting. As an American aged 13, I was immensely impressed and inspired by President Kennedy and his unforgettable images and messages. He made me feel proud to be American and to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. And he led me to think of how I could and should contribute to society, to make a positive difference and to perpetuate all that is good in America. JFK's famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you but rather what you can do for your country" should be remembered and repeated to each new generation.
Victoria O'Neill, Leeds, England, UK

This is a great piece. Had JFK followed the unanimous advice of his top military staff on Cuba, we know from declassified Soviet documents that a nuclear exchange would have been almost inevitable. This leadership is his main legacy. One correction -- he didn't have Hodgkin's disease, which is a form of cancer.
D. P. Keane, USA

Many people who were around when JFK was shot still feel that with his demise an era of prosperity and well being ended for America and that it's been on a slow downhill slide ever since in terms of being the shining light of democracy and freedom, and in terms of setting industrial and ethical standards in the world. America could use a JFK now.
Bob Eisele, Philadelphia, PA USA

Is it not now, forty years later, time for some objectivity? Kennedy was popular for three reasons. He was young, photogenic and had good speech writers.His only appreciable achievement was staring down Krushchev over Cuba. But most US presidents would have done the same I believe. His biggest error was getting the US much deeper into Vietnam. But most US presidents would have done that also, given the circumstances at that time, I believe. All in all his short record is unremarkable. But it is next to non-existent when compared with a giant like Roosevelt, who successfully handled the two greatest disasters of the twentieth century - the depression and WWII; or even Reagan, who single-handedly, and in the face of opposition from almost all 'the experts' at the time, brought down the Soviet Union.
Rodney, Toronto, Canada

I to felt the same amount of loss at this time, I was only 12 at the time, in later years all the scandle and background smut came out attached to the Kennedy name, and of course his father was a very dubious character, but the question still remains, if he had lived to serve 2 terms would the world be a better place because of it? He seemed to embody a lot of hope for my generation, the feeling still exists at the back of the mind in spite of the things that have come out since. The scholarships are perhaps a fitting reminder of what could have been.
Mike Boardman, Falmouth

Kennedy is my hero because of his abounding optimism and determination to conquer 9 illnesses, guide America to space(we choose to go to the moon speech) and indeed charisma. i was many decades after his death yet he inspires me graetly,the article gave me deep insights on his life.
Simon Wachira, Nairobi

I really enjoyed the opinion on JFK's legacy. For me the scholorship system (of which I was not aware) is a fitting tribute to the man himself. Even though I was born some time after Kennedy's time I can still pick up on the feelings of hope and lost opportunities that his life and death provided. Although not blinded to his personal life I do think the for the Cuban missile crisis he was truly the right man in the right place at the right time, as the White House recordings show. Another more impulsive leader may have followed the Joint Chiefs down a path to Nuclear War by invading the Island.
Brendan Doran, Ireland

Please. His term was 90% image and 10% substance. That he met such an unfortunate end and his successors were so awful shouldn't entitle hime to a free ride.
todd kulik, clifton, nj--usa

I was a seventeen year old high school student in 1963 and closely associated my own future with that of the optimism and energy expressed by President Kennedy. Upon graduation from university in 1969 I joined the Peace Corps, teaching English in Turkey. My life and travels around the world since then have been full of unexpected rewards and the company of people from more than 60 different countries. I still thank President Kennedy for his inspiration, courage and vision. Mr. Cannadine's article was a wonderful reminder of yet another legacy of that administration and of a time when the President of the United States stood for values first given expression at Runnymede those many centuries ago.
Craig Stevenson, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia



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