Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’

Editor’s note: This is the 67th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
“The New Frontier” was the keynote of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, which he sounded at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco on July 15, 1960, in a speech accepting the party’s nomination to become President of the United States. He presented himself standing at the physical boundary of the continental United States looking west. In his mind’s eye, inspired by the spirit of Frederick Jackson Turner, he imagined before him a vast wilderness filled with an array of challenges, and he called upon the people to gather with him at this new frontier, and to join him as he crossed over.
“I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3,000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. … Today some would say that those struggles are over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier… But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric — and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party… I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age, to all who respond to the Scriptural call: ‘Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed.’”
Counterfactual history — speculation about how things might have been, if things had happened differently — is regarded unprofessional by most historians. Yet to reflect on a past that might have been need not be a fool’s errand; in such instances disappointment may rekindle hope. The Kennedy era seems ripe for such reflection. For the record: John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1961, and served until his death by assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. He was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, who was re-elected in his own right in 1964. Johnson left office on Jan. 20, 1969, and was succeeded by Richard Nixon.
So, I will ask, what if John Kennedy had lived to complete his presidency in the normal course of eight years. In 1960, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket must have seemed ideal to accomplish the goals that Kennedy laid out in his speech. In retrospect. Its ending was tragic. Kennedy’s presidency was ended by an assassin’s bullet; and Johnson led the nation into war. But what if Kennedy had lived. He was a political realist. And his realism enabled him to see the folly of armed ideological struggle. The fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 taught him this lesson. He took the blame for it and resolved never to make the same mistake again. 
Nine months later Kennedy became engaged in a conflict of wills with Nikita Khrushchev regarding the Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba; it became a war of words that Kennedy won and his victory prevented a catastrophic world conflict. It is also likely that Kennedy would have early disengaged in Vietnam. The Peace Corps is also part of Kennedy’s legacy; its purpose was “to promote world peace and friendship.” Had he lived, the Cold War might have ended sooner.
So much for JFK; and what of LBJ? That we remember them by their initials suggests that both saw themselves as heirs of FDR. Where Kennedy excelled in international politics, Johnson was a master of domestic affairs and practical politics. The civil rights legislation enacted during his presidency was already in the works before he became president; Johnson was the chief designer and mover of it. Domestically, he was to the left of Kennedy. And had Kennedy lived and served out his terms, it is likely that Johnson would have succeeded him and the Great Society might have become a reality and not just a dream. And the nation might have been spared the Nixon years.
But none of this happened. Back to reality, JFK was assassinated, and LBJ led this nation into a war that it subsequently lost. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, and two months later Robert F. Kennedy suffered the same fate, just after he won the Democratic Primary in California. Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, and re-elected in 1972, which brought us Watergate. His heir, Donald J. Trump, is now president, and paranoia reigns.
Postscript: The historian Robert Dallek, who is also a Kennedy biographer (“An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963”), has expressed puzzlement that many regard JFK as one of the nation’s greatest presidents, a judgment that cannot be based on facts, for there are so few of them. He attributes it to the myth that has grown around Kennedy since his death, a product of wishful thinking and romance infused with sex and glamour. Dallek believes that the attribution is undeserved, that the walls of Camelot were made of cardboard. Yet the New Frontier is still there, waiting for a great person to lead the nation across it. 

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