The Legacy of President Kennedy: A Thousand Days

By Ambassador Hans Klemm
University of Bucharest

Vice-Rector, Professor Iucu, Vice-Dean Dr. Deteșeanu, Professor Roske, distinguished faculty and students of the University of Bucharest, thank you for allowing me to visit with you today to discuss the legacy of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. With your patience, I would like to review briefly President Kennedy’s life, consider his legacy, and speculate on his continuing influence on both America and other parts of the world, including Romania.

On November 22 each year, Americans solemnly mark the occasion of the death of President Kennedy, killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1963.

Any American who was alive then, including me, can still recall exactly where they were when they heard the terrible news. In his Inaugural Address in 1961, when talking about the momentous task of moving the nation forward, he said it would not be finished “in the first 100 days” of his administration, nor indeed in the “first 1000 days.” He, of course, had no way of knowing when saying these words that he only had just slightly over 1,000 days left to live.

Those thousand days, however, have remained a source of great inspiration to many for decades. Today, 52 years from the untimely end of his presidency, we are still discussing, analyzing, and drawing from the legacy of President Kennedy.

Kennedy’s entire life was dedicated to public service. In World War II, he earned the United States Navy’s highest honors for his bravery and dedication to the men under his command. He went on to serve in the United States Congress, as a Member of the House of Representatives and later as a Senator from his native state of Massachusetts. Indeed, he proudly pursued a political life, and urged others to do so as well. In a 1957 speech at Syracuse University in New York, Kennedy urged the graduate students to run for public office, instead of entering into the private sector, in order that they apply their talents — through politics — to solving the great problems of their time.

In 1955, then Senator Kennedy drew inspiration from his predecessors in the Senate who had stood faithful to their causes during trying times in America’s history, despite the personal and political cost of their positions.

His book, Profiles in Courage, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. As my gift, I offer each of you a copy of President Kennedy’s book. I hope you too will be inspired and encouraged, as he was.

In 1960, Kennedy campaigned for the presidency against then Vice-President Richard Nixon, participated in the very first televised presidential debate in American history, and went on to win that election.

He was the first Roman Catholic to serve as President, which during the campaign caused many to fear that the Pope would heavily influence the United States. At 43 years old, Kennedy was the youngest elected President in our nation’s history. He was the first born in the 20th Century.

He succeeded President Eisenhower, a distinguished General from World War II, who was also one of our oldest elected Presidents. This contrast was not lost on Americans. Kennedy represented youth and vitality, and with it, hope and optimism. He noted this on January 20, 1961, when he took the oath of office and said, “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

One of his very first acts as President was to create the United States Peace Corps, a program that placed American volunteers in underdeveloped countries sometimes far from America. Focusing their energy and skills on education, healthcare, the environment, and development, Peace Corps volunteers also shared, indeed embodied, American values of charity and civic engagement.

Since 1961, more than 200,000 American volunteers have served in 140 countries, including Romania, in perhaps the most successful volunteer program of all time.

Despite the golden nostalgic luster that surrounds President Kennedy, mistakes were made. The Bay of Pigs invasion, in which the Kennedy administration backed armed rebels in an effort to end communist rule in Cuba, was an utter failure. His handling of race relations in the United States, especially in the early moments of his administration, is also seen by some as overly cautious or reactive. But, in 1962, when the world came to the brink of war as the Soviet Union sought to install nuclear missiles in Castro’s Cuba, Kennedy prevented the Soviet ships carrying those missiles from reaching Cuba though a naval blockade of the island. The Soviet Union backed down and nuclear war was averted.

President Kennedy stood fast against the Soviets and even went to their doorstep in Berlin in 1963 to show his resolve. In the shadow of the Berlin Wall, which then divided the free west from the communist east, he assured West Berliners of the Free World’s commitment to them and their struggle to maintain democracy in the face of imminent danger. Kennedy declared that, indeed, “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”

Resolute as he was to prevent further Soviet influence in the world, he nevertheless sat down at the table with the Soviet Union to sign a partial nuclear test ban treaty to limit nuclear weapons.

He would say at American University in Washington, DC in 1963, “World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance.”

In the United States, when Alabama Governor and staunch segregationist George Wallace refused to allow African-American students from attending classes at the University of Alabama, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. The Governor moved aside when these federal troops escorted the first African-American students through the doorway of the university under direct orders from the President of the United States.

President Kennedy saw our struggle with racism and civil rights in America as contradictory to our very origins as a republic.

In 1961, he said, “the denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race – at the ballot box and elsewhere – disturbs the national conscience, and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage.”

Kennedy pushed America beyond its limits both conceptually and physically. In 1962, he declared that, “No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In July 1969, that dream was realized, when American Neil Armstrong became the first man on the lunar surface.

In brief, I have recounted some of the milestones of Kennedy’s time as President, but why are we still discussing them over fifty years after his death? For me there is but one reason, inspiration.

Kennedy embodied youth and vitality and, through his actions and rhetoric, he inspired the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young people to participate in civic life, engage with the world, and fight for equality. By issuing a mandate for public service and inspiring a nation to take on the challenges of a new era, Kennedy helped launch the major social, cultural and political developments that followed.

Kennedy’s famous quote during his 1961 Inaugural Address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — challenged Americans to have pride in service to their country and to their community. He was asking everyone to do their part to make America great.

Through examples such as the creation of the Peace Corps and the promotion of civil rights, Kennedy was asking Americans to share its blessings with all, the disadvantaged at home, and the underdeveloped abroad. He wanted a strong America leading the formation of a better world. And, because of these aspirations, his memory in the minds of Americans is remarkably strong. In public opinion polls, Kennedy is routinely at the very top of the list of America’s best presidents.

To me his legacy is a simple one. We have a duty to serve humanity, and our countries, and our communities, and promote a better world for the next generation. And isn’t this – a duty to serve – what you, the citizens of Romania, recently demonstrated to the politicians and people of Romania?

You are the new generation of this country. The Romans wanted this land, as did the Ottomans, the Greeks, the Russians, and the communists. Now it is yours, and you will become the leaders of this beautiful place, this place we know as Romania. So I ask you, what will you do with your leadership? Are you going to make Romania into the place you want, free of corruption, guided by the rule of law, prosperous, with a capable, efficient public administration, and more like the rest of Europe? Will you answer the call of service when your country needs you?

Will you one day seek political office, as Kennedy encouraged, as a way to serve your country and to solve the great problems that face Romania today? Will you do this not because it is easy, as Kennedy said, but because it is hard?

President Kennedy inspired generations of Americans to be civically engaged and active participants in our democracy. His own family continues to heed his call. Brothers, nieces and nephews have served in Congress or as elected officials in their respective states. His daughter, Caroline Kennedy, upholds her father’s legacy of public service as a colleague of mine as the American Ambassador to Japan.

Ambassador Kennedy once said, “All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives; that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals. Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things.”

So let me end with this borrowed appeal — ask not what Romania can do for you, but ask what you can do for Romania.

Thank you.