Kennedy’s ascension to the presidency almost never happened, as the election of 1960 was one of the closest in U.S. history. Although a wealthy World War II hero with a glamorous wife, the Harvard-educated Massachusetts senator had far less political experience than his opponent, Richard Milhouse Nixon. Nixon, also a law-school graduate with military experience, entered politics in 1945 and served as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.
Kennedy’s three years in office resulted in a mixed record on foreign affairs: setbacks included the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and increased involvement in Vietnam. On the domestic front his legacy proved more positive. Initially a reluctant supporter of Civil Rights, unlike his brother Bobby, the grassroots efforts of Martin Luther King, for example, convinced him of the need for change. The administration promoted a Voter Education Project which led to 688,800 African-Americans qualifying to vote for the first time in the South. The administration also created the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and the Peace Corps, and endorsed increased housing, education, unemployment, and farm benefits.
Ultimately, Kennedy’s exuberance and optimism rallied a generation of idealistic young Americans during a period of profound social change. Many believed they could better the nation and the world in which they lived, inspired by the following words from his inaugural address, delivered on a bitterly cold January 20, 1961:
|“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.|
|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. . . . And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”|
Kennedy’s assassination shocked the country and the world—for many, the tragedy signaled the end of American innocence in a decade that began with such promise.
During this season of commemorations the Maryland Historical Society is immersed in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This week we remember President John F. Kennedy, fifty years after his assassination in Dallas, Texas.
Less than three months after the Civil War exhibit opened, MdHS library staff caught master document thief Barry Landau and his sidekick Jason Savedoff. The National Archives established provenance of the nearly ten thousand papers recovered during the investigation and placed the remaining pieces of history in our care. The images and ephemera shown below are from this collection. (Pat Anderson)