Even for those of us who were very young the Kennedy Assassination was a milestone in our lives. People who were seven or eight years old in 1963 can answer the “where were you when it happened” question. I am always moved by the fact that citizens of other countries, especially people older than myself, will also recite where they were when he died. They have the same misty eyes as many Americans as they recall the events of the day. Countries around the world, including Ajman in the UAE issued stamps in his honor and created John F Kennedy avenues and boulevards, particularly in Europe where he was very, very popular.
I have lived in two European countries, France and the UK where individuals commonly speak of the Kennedy era as one that infused them with optimism. Thinking back to his brief time in the White House revives a precious nostalgia for that optimism – or a time of innocence as they will sometimes call it. I notice that many older Europeans think of one as entailing the other. For the adults at the time an intelligent, young, handsome leader was the personification of optimism and a tremendous psychological lift especially following the leadership of older men with the ordeal of World War II etched on their faces. The US election in 1960 was not that long after the war. The president was a veteran of course and the Marshall Plan had ended only 9 years earlier in 1951. The European economies were recovering but people were still scarred from fighting, from picking up the pieces of their cities, from remaking their former refugee lives and of course from grieving. An American president telling his citizens to go out into the world, not with weapons but with tools to help and engage with others in the Peace Corps was indeed inspiring to the rest of the world.
However, even as people will evoke Camelot and the glamorous Kennedy White House they cannot exclude the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two are linked. And just as the knights of the Round Table at Camelot were armed to the teeth and ready for conflict at the drop of a glove, in the 1960s even as children we knew we had horrific weapons and that war might be imminent. That is the Camelot I remember with the greatest clarity. Every Sunday the Emergency Broadcast System tested the network in the event of nuclear war. My father put supplies of canned food in our basement, which would serve as our bomb shelter. At school we had regular drills – not for fire but in case the Soviets dropped a nuclear weapon on the city — where we walked quietly and quickly to a hallway in the school and crouched in two lines right next to the wall behind our teachers. I have no idea if European children had similar drills but their parents with memories of the war must have been petrified. We all were. Therefore I suppose everyone alive and conscious of events at the time also recalls the worldwide sigh of relief when the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved in favor of President Kennedy and the United States – then referred to as the “leader of the free world.”
A Pew research center poll has described the US world image in the years since the assassination as a “roller coaster ride.” I am not surprised. What the Kennedy era offered Europeans sandwiched between two superpowers was both a clear choice and a president who was obviously on their side. The clear choice collapsed with the end of the Cold War when things became murky and as far as being on their side, the US and its European allies have clashed over the environment, the International Criminal Court, attitudes to religion and politics, the Middle East, trade policy and many other issues. But mostly the Europeans have feared being dragged into war by the United States – a reversal of the situation before the world wars where it was the American public who dreaded that entanglement in European affairs would force them into wars.
For the Europeans, President Kennedy inspired and he was admired but mostly he kept them out of war. The French newspaper Les Echos states it best. “Kennedy a su marcher au bord du précipice et ne pas y tomber et nous entraîner dans sa chute.” Kennedy knew how to walk along the precipice without falling in and dragging us in as well. An American friend pointed out that Americans do not appear to commemorate the heros of other countries in the way that others commemorate our heros. I think there is a lot of truth to that and it is very touching when a local community like Dulwich in London organises a concert in honor of President Kennedy after fifty years. In reflecting on his impact on the world it is important for students abroad to look beyond the superficial and oft stated reasons of President Kennedy’s youth and the glamour he and Jackie brought to the White House and understand that above all the President kept the world out of war. And that is why the world still loves John F Kennedy.