WASHINGTON — The President John F. Kennedy that students learn about today is not their grandparents’ JFK.
In a high school textbook written by John Blum in 1968, Kennedy was a tragic hero, cut down too soon in a transformative presidency, who in his mere 1,000 days in office “revived the idea of America as a young, questing, progressive land, facing the future with confidence and hope.”
By the mid-’80s, that heady excitement was a distant memory, and Kennedy a diminished one. A textbook written in 1987 by James Henretta and several colleagues, complained of gauzy “mythologizing” about his tenure and said the high hopes he generated produced only “rather meager legislative accomplishments.”
The first — and for many the last — in-depth lesson American students learn about the 35th president comes from high school textbooks. And on the eve of the anniversary of his assassination 50 years ago, a review of more than two dozen written since then shows that the portrayal of him has fallen sharply.
In general, the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments.
Averting war in the Cuban missile crisis got less attention and respect. Legislative setbacks and a deepening commitment in Vietnam got more. The Kennedy-era glamour seemed more image than reality.
For example, a 1975 high school text by Clarence Ver Steeg and Richard Hofstadter said that in his handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, “Kennedy’s true nature as a statesman became fully apparent.” In “A People and a Nation,” they said his 1963 limited nuclear test ban treaty “was the greatest single step toward peace since the beginning of the Cold War.”
On civil rights, they said, his administration “did not receive congressional cooperation.” Even so, they wrote, inaccurately, “Buses, hotels, motels and restaurants were largely desegregated” in his presidency. Most of those changes came when the Civil Rights Act was signed by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1964.
Using the same title in 1982, Mary Beth Norton and several others took a very different approach in a college textbook widely used today in Advanced Placement courses.
They said he “pursued civil rights with a notable lack of vigor.” They blamed him for the missile crisis, saying Cuban-Soviet fears of invasion were stoked by the 1961 Bay of Pigs landing and other U.S. moves against Cuba. They said Kennedy’s real legacy was “a huge military expansion that helped goad the Russians into an accelerated arms race.”
In 2009, Joyce Appleby’s “American Journey” said of the missile crisis: “While it seemed like a victory at the time, it left a Communist government intact just miles from the U.S. coastline. The humiliation of giving in also prompted the Soviets to begin the largest peacetime military buildup in history.”
There are a variety of reasons for the shift. First of all, the dazzle of the handsome young president and the assassination in Dallas elevated Kennedy to a heroic level impossible to maintain.
Another is that new writers and editors added different perspectives. In particular, the Vietnam generation began writing and editing, and Kennedy’s role in the war began to matter more. Also, his extramarital affairs became known, providing fodder for criticism. And the release of White House tapes, beginning in 1984, showed a coldly pragmatic politician, not the idealist on issues like civil rights whom people had heard about or imagined.
Finally, the ’80s saw a shift in textbook historiography. Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a nonprofit organization that reviews educational materials, said the older approach concentrated on successes in American history. In the ’80s, he said, that was replaced by a “revisionist” approach that not only focused on injustices like the mistreatment of Indians but also highlighted flaws of those previously treated as heroic, like slaveholding among the founding fathers. “The Norton book brought this revisionism into a bright light,” he said.
On some aspects of his presidency, there has been little change. Textbooks offer positive views of the Peace Corps and the space program. And the failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs is labeled a “fiasco” again and again. But civil rights, Vietnam and the missile crisis all provoke changing views.
In his 1968 “National Experience: A History of the United States,” Blum said that at first Kennedy “concentrated” on executive branch actions, but that in June 1963, he “launched a new fight for new and more sweeping civil rights legislation.” That measure, he said, was on the “way to enactment at the time of Kennedy’s death.”
From the late ’80s on, words such as “dallied,” “straddled” and “fence-sitting” were commonly used to describe his early posture. His 1963 legislation was usually described as “hopelessly stalled,” “bottled up” or having “little hope of passage” in Congress before he died.
On the missile crisis, Henry Bragdon praised Kennedy in his 1981 “History of a Free Nation,” for exercising “restraint” and for not gloating over the Soviet retreat. Blum had written: “The American triumph was a tribute to Kennedy’s combination of toughness and restraint and to his precise understanding of the uses of power.”
Similar to the Norton book’s treatment, Carol Berkin and Leonard Wood’s 1983 “Land of Promise: A History of the United States” said that while “Kennedy had successfully called Khrushchev’s bluff,” his victory was “hollow” because the Soviet leader was ousted by hard-liners who “began the largest peacetime military buildup in history.”
That conclusion was mild compared with Andrew Cayton’s 1998 view in “America: Pathways to the Present.” Cayton wrote that while Kennedy seemed a “hero” initially, later critics found him “rash.” He wrote: “Kennedy had not used traditional diplomatic channels to try to defuse the crisis, but rather had proclaimed his willingness to move to the brink of nuclear war and even beyond. He avoided disaster, Dean Acheson later observed, by ‘plain dumb luck.’”
On the Vietnam War, some early books ignored Kennedy altogether, treating it as exclusively Johnson’s war. Others said simply that he “enlarged” U.S. assistance to South Vietnam. In 1981, Bragdon wrote that before he died there was “some evidence that Kennedy had decided that the situation in Vietnam was hopeless and had made up his mind to pull American troops out of the country.”
But later books labeled him a “Cold Warrior,” a derogatory term, and stressed that he expanded the Vietnam War. Many were skeptical about potential withdrawal.
Many texts from different decades, even those critical of him like the 1982 Norton book, acknowledged Kennedy as a leader who raised hopes. The often negative 1982 Norton book said “he inspired idealism in Americans.”
Moreover, there has been widespread acknowledgment that Kennedy became a better president during his 34 months in office.
Gary Nash, whose 1991 “American Odyssey” said Kennedy’s “scattered accomplishments” did not amount to much, still said Kennedy “grew into the job” and concluded: “As his term progressed, his initiatives became bolder, and his handling of Congress became more aggressive and assured.”