ANDERSON, Ind. — Promise unfulfilled. That's how historian Joel D. Shrock describes John F. Kennedy's presidency that ended by assassination 50 years ago today.
"He was so young and charismatic with a beautiful wife, and so energetic," said Shrock, professor of history at Anderson University. "He said these amazing things. Look at his inaugural address. 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' Stunning rhetoric."
However, Shrock wouldn't rank JFK in the top 20 U.S. presidents.
"This would be like rating Michael Jordan if he quit playing basketball before he won his first championship," Shrock said. "I think he could have been one of the best presidents we've ever had, but that promise went unfulfilled."
In 2009, 65 historians surveyed by C-SPAN were more generous. They ranked JFK sixth, up two notches from a 2000 survey when he ranked eighth among U.S. presidents.
Shrock compared JFK to 1950s actor James Dean. "The guy made three movies. Three," he said. "And yet he's this icon. You die young at the height of your power with so much potential and showing so much promise, that promise becomes mythologized more so than the reality of what you did. It's the promise that becomes part of the legacy."
In Shrock's class, "U.S. History from 1865 to Present," not a lot of time is spent on Kennedy's presidency. Shrock said it serves as a lead-in to President Johnson's Great Society.
Shrock's class will cover Kennedy and the Cold War, Berlin Wall, Berlin airlift, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy's commitment to stopping the expansion of communism internationally. They will also talk about how troops increased from 800 to 15,000 in Vietnam during the JFK years, he said.
"Given the evidence, I don't think Kennedy would have drastically escalated Vietnam," Shrock said. "It's very difficult to tell. For every time I see Kennedy say he was leery of growing the U.S. presence in Vietnam he says we have to stop international communism."
Shrock adds that Kennedy was a firm believer in the Domino Theory, the belief that if one Asian nation fell to communism, others would follow.
By 1963, domestic problems like poverty and civil rights had begun to occupy more of Kennedy's attention. But it would take Johnson's political talents to enact these ideas into law.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll this year showed that 62 percent of people polled believe a conspiracy contributed to Kennedy's death, while just 29 percent believe in a lone assassin theory. In 1983, 80 percent believed in a conspiracy theory.
Shrock doesn't buy it. He adds that it's human nature to believe "dark forces are moving out there."
"There's no convincing evidence," Shrock said of conspiracies. "This is where conspiracy theories thrive — in the absence of evidence. Whenever you have a sitting president killed, people want answers because it's so shattering."