What Do, and Should, We Know About JFK?

Posthumous official presidential portrait, by Aaron Shikler, of John F. Kennedy. Credit: White House Historical Assn.

Professor of History Daniel Czitrom sat down with Questioning Authority to talk about the myths and realities surrounding President John F. Kennedy 50 years after his assassination.

Questioning Authority: Why does Kennedy still have such a hold on the country?

Daniel Czitrom: He was our first television president and our first celebrity president. The legend of Camelot [a term for Kennedy’s era] has been actively protected. Historians, journalists, and Kennedy loyalists eager to burnish his reputation have kept the flame alive.

And there’s that sense of an unfinished life and an incomplete presidency. There have been many attempts by authors, filmmakers, and TV producers to fill the gap. But a lot of that tends to obscure the actual historical record. A lot of people want to believe that, if Kennedy had lived, the upheaval and violence of the 1960s—particularly our involvement in Vietnam—wouldn’t have happened. The worst of this kind of thinking is Oliver Stone’s film JFK, in which Kennedy is presented like the hero in a fairy tale.


QA: Instead of the glamour and gossip surrounding Kennedy the celebrity, what should we pay attention to?

DC: Kennedy’s presidency is one of the best examples of how politicians sometimes evolve in office, even though we tend to think of them as frozen in time.

For example, when Kennedy was elected, he was diffident about civil rights. But he was forced by the power of the civil rights movement to adapt his views. In 1961, he tried to stop the Freedom Rides. But two years later, Kennedy announced his support for the March on Washington and introduced a comprehensive civil rights bill into Congress.

In foreign policy, Kennedy started out attacking the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for not being tough enough on international communism. But in the wake of the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he’s rethinking the Cold War and the arms race and is suspicious of his Pentagon advisors.


QA: Kennedy died 30 years before today’s college students were born. What do they know about him?

DC: Very little, I’m afraid. They tend to have a montage of famous images in their head picked up from news accounts and documentaries that treat Kennedy as a plaster saint. As a teacher, I fight against this all the time. Today, everyone invokes Kennedy’s promise, even greatness, but at the time he was the object of tremendous criticism and vitriol. So I’m always trying to peel away the “plaster” and get students to look at what really happened while Kennedy was alive.

It’s hard for students to get beyond the celebrity aspect of Kennedy. They don’t know much about his policies. One of the more notable aspects of New Frontier liberalism was the 1963 President’s Commission on the Status of Women. It helped revive interest in women’s rights and offered a partial blueprint for the feminist upsurge that came later, but who remembers that now?


QA: How do historians view the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination?

DC: The vast majority of scholars and journalists now accept the conclusion Gerald Posner reaches in Case Closed, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot Kennedy. The problem is that conspiracy theories too often have become a substitute for real thinking and real history.

QA: How should Americans mark this anniversary of Kennedy’s death?

DC: By paying more attention to history—what Kennedy actually did—and less to mythmaking. It’s important to look at Kennedy as a flawed human being who grew and evolved in office largely as the result of forces beyond the White House.


QA: There have been literally 40,000 books written about Kennedy since his assassination. Which would you recommend?

DC: Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. 

—Interview by Emily Harrison Weir