Remembering John Kennedy and his Legacies


The Bellingham High debate team was mustering outside to head up to (then) Western Washington State College for a tournament when a shaken teacher came out of the building to tell us the news: President Kennedy had been shot and gravely wounded on a trip to Dallas. Minutes later, we learned the president was dead.

We, those old enough, will never forget our whereabouts at that moment 60 years ago, just as the country came to a halt 38 years later on January 6, 2001. “We will never laugh again,” columnist Mary McGrory told her friend Daniel Moynihan, to which he replied, “Mary, we will laugh again but we will never be young again.”

Sixty years after that dreadful day in Dallas, I look back with gratitude on our 35th president. The cool head of JFK brought us out of a nuclear confrontation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was supposed to be coming here to close the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair but begged off supposedly because he had a head cold. It was instead apex of the Cold War.

If Vice President Lyndon Johnson and some in the military had prevailed, the United States would have deployed an air strike on Soviet medium range nuclear missiles being deployed in Cuba – or “Cuber” as the president pronounced it – or mounted a full-scale invasion. Facing the threat of nuclear war, Kennedy gave old Bolshevik Nikita Khrushchev a way out.

“I speak of peace because of the new face of war,” JFK told a commencement at American University a few months later. “It makes no sense when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the second world war. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn.”

That sensible American University speech set the stage for an atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. It was signed that September. A few days later, the president embarked on an 11-state swing through the West. As a working politician, he was tasting the country’s reaction to his turn for peace and the treaty.

One stop was Hanford in Eastern Washington for dedication of the N-reactor. The dual-purpose facility produced plutonium for nuclear weapons and steam to generate electricity. It was touted as a harbinger of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, or as it was described in Eisenhower’s mangled syntax “the useful pieces of nuclear energy.”

“The atomic age is a dreadful age,” Kennedy told a crowd of 30,000. “No one here can say what the future will bring. No one can speak with certainty about whether we can control this deadly weapon, whether we shall be able to maintain our life and our peaceful relations with other nations.”

The U.S. Senate ratified the test ban treaty by an 81-19 vote. The N-reactor would manufacture bomb ingredients until the mid-1980s. Paradoxically, the Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl led to its shutdown. As with Chernobyl, the Hanford reactor was built around a graphite core without a containment dome. A president at times reckless in his weapons talk, Ronald Reagan chose the careful path and shut it down.

The death of President Kennedy produced hagiography, multiple conspiracy theories, and then revisionist history. There were revelations about the slain leader’s extracurricular sex life. The Kennedys, JFK and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were faulted for going slow on civil rights. They had worried about potential violence and counseled against the March on Washington, only to see a big peaceful turnout for civil rights. They had also introduced U.S. troops to Vietnam.

The Kennedy Administration had begun initiatives in the field of conservation. JFK loved the Atlantic Ocean. “To be on a sailboat, even in a cruel wind, provided him with a profound connection with nature,” historian Douglas Brinkley writes in his book Silent Spring Revolution, on the country’s great environmental awakening.

The president had used his trip west to call for protection of the unspoiled beaches of Lake Tahoe – “the gem of the Sierras” – and to call for creation of a national park in mountains of eastern Nevada.

A seven-year-old boy named Scott Turner had written to the president about vanishing wildlands in the West, saying: “We have no place to go when we want to go out because there are (sic) going to build (houses). So could you set aside some land where we could play? Thank you four (sic) listening.”

Kennedy promised the boy that a wilderness bill would soon be passed by Congress, and that young people should work to protect wildlands. He took a first step in halting a highway along the Potomac River and used executive powers to protect the old C & O Canal route between Washington, D.C. and Great Falls, Maryland. With leadership from U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, it would become a national historical park.

It is true, of course, that Lyndon Johnson’s skills were required to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights bill, and the Wilderness Act. But the civil rights and wilderness legislation had their impetus with Kennedy, and his visionary Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.  Establishment of the Great Basin National Park in Nevada was not accomplished until 1986.

As president, Kennedy dealt with Washington’s two long-serving U.S. Senators, the “gold dust twins” Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. He dangled the vice-presidential nomination in front of Jackson to get support at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. A faction of Washington’s delegation held out for Adlai Stevenson. Votes from Wyoming’s delegation gave JFK the nomination.

Magnuson was, however, a buddy of Lyndon Johnson. It hadn’t stopped Kennedy, during a 1961 visit, from poking affectionate fun at the pork barreling Maggie and bringing down the house at a Democratic dinner honoring the state’s long-serving senior senator. Of his former Senate colleague, Kennedy observed:

“In Washington (D.C.) he speaks so quietly few can hear him. He looks down at his desk. He comes into the Senate late in the afternoon. He is very hesitant about interrupting other members. When he rises to speak, most members have left the Senate. He sends his message up and everyone asks, ‘What is it?’ Senator Magnuson says , ‘Well, it’s nothing important.’ And Grand Coulee Dam is built.”

Of course, Magnuson did not build Grand Coulee Dam, although he was instrumental in securing the dam’s giant third powerhouse. The Kennedy most familiar with this Washington was Bobby, who explored Olympic National Park with Justice Douglas for company, and would later raft rivers in Idaho, Colorado, and Utah.

Still, the 35th president saw a problem with pollution as well as places needing to be protected. JFK was intelligent, memorably eloquent, sophisticated, and often very funny. He remained unfazed, whether it was by a blustering Nikita Khrushchev, a self-pitying Richard Nixon, or his imperious father Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.

He was also an optimist. Words spoken by Kennedy so long ago at Hanford resonate to this day: “Our problems are manmade. Therefore, they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable. I believe we can do so again.”

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.



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