What we can learn from JFK’s leadership
November 18th, 2013
08:30 AM ET

What we can learn from JFK’s leadership

By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace.  The views expressed are his own. This is the first article in a series on America’s identity and image since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

We celebrate John F. Kennedy a half-century after his death for the confidence he gave us in meeting great challenges.  “Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man,” he told us.  And we believed him.  At a moment when the U.S. government seems unable even to launch a website, we recall Kennedy’s boldest commitment: to launch a man to the moon and bring him back safely to Earth within the decade.  That remarkable moment in American history, one that virtually defined my own childhood years, still inspires us to shake off our dour pessimism today.

While it’s all too easy to believe in government failure today – what with the failed Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, NSA spying, the Obamacare rollout, shutdowns, sequesters, and more – the public perception was nearly the opposite a half-century ago.  The federal government was friend, not foe. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government had organized the New Deal, steered democracy through the Great Depression, and then triumphed over fascism in World War II.  The federal government had invented the nuclear age in the Manhattan Project, hardly the work of a technological slouch.  Most importantly for most Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. government was the bulwark against the aggressive designs of Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Kennedy won the 1960 election and governed on the basis that the federal government represented and embodied the skills and aspirations of the country at large.  Society would meet the greatest challenges of the age not through the works of our era’s supposed hero, the mighty lone entrepreneur, but through the efforts of the citizenry united in purpose and willing to take on the great causes.  We would do so boldly and unstintingly, and not just for ourselves but for all around the world who looked to us for help and support.  As Kennedy said in his inaugural address:

“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

The U.S. space program can also be seen in that light.  For Kennedy, the race to the moon was proof of what the United States could accomplish as a nation: winning the space race with the Soviet Union; demonstrating technological mastery to all the world; and developing new technologies and systems that would serve us in countless ways, from weather forecasting and communications to defense.  Yes, it was about pride and prestige, but of the real kind, won through great accomplishment.

More from CNN: Kennedy, Obama and the moon

Even at a distance of half a century, the panache of Kennedy in launching the race to the moon still startles. Following the Soviet Union’s triumph in Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbit of the earth in April 1961, which itself was followed within days by the U.S. military and PR debacle at the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Kennedy determined to step up the U.S. efforts in space to win the race of technological mastery and accomplishment.  That he did so was extremely bold.  How he did so was even more riveting.

On May 25, 1961, in an address to a joint session of Congress, Kennedy declared that

“[T]his nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Everything is remarkable about this commitment, everything that would make it nearly impossible today, until that is a leader of Kennedy’s ilk comes around again.  Most importantly, it was an incomparably huge goal, and with a date certain, but as yet without a clear plan to achieve it. Kennedy was leading not just the public, but also the engineers at NASA, backing them with ample financial resources and with his confidence that they could get the job done.

It’s remarkable that on that day in the spring of 1961, the engineers of the Apollo Project that would eventually fulfill Kennedy’s vision had not even settled on a sketch of how it might succeed.  Some engineers proposed what was called Direct Ascent, meaning a direct ascent to the moon and then back.  Others proposed an Earth-Orbit Rendezvous, in which components of the moon shot would be launched into Earth orbit and then assembled for the follow-up moon flight.  The third option, Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous, called for a direct shot to lunar orbit, followed by a module that would land on the moon and return to the lunar orbiter for the flight back to Earth.  It was more than a year after Kennedy’s address to Congress that the third, and ultimately successful, approach was settled on as the NASA strategy.

More from CNN: 5 things you might not know about Kennedy assassination

It is with this in mind that we can see the awesome truth of Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in 1962, when he considered the question asked by many, “Why…the moon? Why choose this as our goal?”  His answer is as remarkable as any we’ve heard from national leaders before or since:

“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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

What other leaders have told us to embrace national goals not because they are easy, but because they are hard?  Not many, and certainly not to the same effect.

The truth is that the U.S. government still accomplishes many great things, and can accomplish many more in the future.  In our own era, the U.S. government has deciphered the human genome, spurred the information revolution, deciphered the human impacts on the Earth’s environment, and furthered the exploration of space, including the remarkable exploration of Mars by unmanned Rovers.  Yet these breathtaking achievements are often obscured by the torrent of ideological assaults against government and its capabilities.

If we cut through the blather and misdirection of our era’s corporate-fed propaganda, we’d indeed see an even deeper truth.  In our age, we will need the federal government’s leadership to fight human-induced climate change, old and new disease scourges, and the mobilization of technologies to raise the quality and lower the costs of healthcare and education.  These goals can be accomplished, and much more.  And as we take up these causes and win these battles, we will once again be inspired by Kennedy and his belief in the capacity of humanity to solve even the toughest problems.  As he put it in his Peace Speech in June 1963:

“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.”

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Topics: History • Russia • Space • United States

soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. David Polewka

    We need to increase the death rate, by stopping the prevention of
    measles, mumps, chicken pox, influenza, malaria, & tuberculosis,

    November 18, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Don't worry, David. The money now being for the prevention of the said diseases will sooner or later be diverted to the Pentagon to pay for more of their useless and unnecessary wars!

      November 18, 2013 at 11:00 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Indeed, Kennedy is turning in his grave to see how senseless the wars had been, that had been conducted by his country.

        November 19, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • banasy©

      How charming.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
      • ✠RZ✠

        Me gwine laff til my belly buss!

        November 18, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  2. google the bush family

    To find out who killed JFK.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  3. jdk47

    I guess Sachs completely missed that little inconsequential speech JFK gave saying..."ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country?"

    Perhaps he's also unaware that 82% of all bio-medical technical research is done in the USA, and that most of that is funded by private companies, not the government. And that the research is done here rather than overseas precisely because the government does not control it.

    November 18, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  4. Behrooz

    Any agreement with dictator regime of Iran must include the consideration of Iranian human right from government and releasing all the political prisons that arrested from 4 years ago demonstrations against faked elections.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  5. Tim

    The regime of Iran is the same that occupied the US embassy for 444 days and exploded the US army building in the Beirut and killed over 200 US officers.
    They showed the clips in TV that the us army were killed from the road side mines in Afghanistan and Iraq and they announced it a victory!
    How this regime could be trusted?
    Did you trust Ghaddafi or Bin-ladan?

    November 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  6. Rick McDaniel

    His greatest lesson was........having a lot of money, coming from a powerful family, being physically attractive and young, doesn't make you a good President. That was the lesson I learned from his Presidency.

    November 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Daniel Daronda

      Great comment! The son of a bootlegger will always be the son of a bootlegger............. I bet if we had to pull down their pants we would see the word "moonshine" stamped on all their behinds...... 🙂

      November 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        They say that Joe Kennedy was a bootlegger.
        So what?
        Prohibition was absurd, and it was repealed, just as segregation was absurd. JFK was instrumental in getting rid of that.
        Laws based on stupidity invite violation.

        November 19, 2013 at 5:56 am |
      • ✠RZ✠

        So if our more recent Presidents were perfect angels they would have seen to putting an end to the illicit opium/heroin production/trade in Afghanistan. Right ?

        November 19, 2013 at 7:49 am |
      • banasy©

        One should agree with that, RZ, given the hyperbole that apparently still follows the JFK legacy 50 years after his life ended.

        @JIF: agree.

        November 19, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  7. matslats

    "back and to the left."
    Kennedy's really bold move was to sack Alan Dulles, head of the CIA

    November 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  8. Kero

    In loving memory of a hero who saved the world

    November 18, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  9. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Much of the teaching of the Kennedy White House was metaphysical. Most of it cannot be received by most of today"s USA citizens.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  10. JAL

    This assassinations only create more problems. If that happened today, we should expect no progress for decades. Let the politicians do their job and vote when the time comes.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  11. JAL

    Assassinations only create more problems. If something like this happened today, we should expect no progress for decades. Let the politicians do their job and vote, when the time comes. Let the political processes work.

    November 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  12. Daniel Daronda

    Do we Americans realize that Joe Kennedy made over 90% of his money by smuggling Whiskey into the US from Canada during prohibition??? This entire Kennedy family got rich from bootlegging, nothing at all to be proud of, and everything in the world to be ashamed of! No wonder his sons were actually rather lost losers, who just happened to be shoved onto a stage and prance around in the limelight for a brief moment in history. If we care to look a little more closely at what they did when they were off the stage and behind closed doors, we would not be impressed at all..... 🙁

    November 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  13. chrissy

    So....sounds like a mob family! Hmmm that might explain plenty!

    November 18, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  14. ✠RZ✠

    Money, money, money. Trafficking in drugs comes down to money. Trafficking in weapons comes down to money. And practicing politics comes down to money. Clearly, if you tick off the wrong people enough that have the right amount of money you could get your head blown off. Seems rather simplistic to me. And unfortunately, poor Obama has gotten himself boxed in by too many people who are backed by hundreds of billions of dollars. And their all getting a bit ticked off.

    November 18, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  15. chrissy

    Now i sure can agree with that RZ! And hes ticked off all of the congressional brats and all their special interest groups, which just happens to be most of Corporate America! Greedy little puds that they are! And they dont give one big fat furry deal about the citizens of this country! Its all about money and how THEY can get their grubby little paws on as much of it as possible!

    November 18, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • ✠RZ✠

      Just don't forget the Obama also has plenty of close friends whose asses are too big to flail.

      November 19, 2013 at 7:54 am |
  16. j. von hettlingen

    Jeffrey Sachs is nostalgic and romanticised the Kennedy era.

    November 19, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      The world had only 3 billion people. Today there are 7.

      November 19, 2013 at 9:14 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        We all compete against each other.

        November 19, 2013 at 9:16 am |
  17. Daniel Daronda

    Fareed Zakaria, what can I say........... yes, we need government, of course we need government, because we need law and order, to live like civilized human beings............ we didn't need the son of a bootlegger, JFK, to teach us that............ what we Americans need to learn is: this whole "Gun Control" debate, and the never ending argument about the "Second Amendment", and our so-called "right to bear arms".......... 🙁 Well, let me tell you guys............ when all of us are armed, then ALL of us become dangerous, and then life in USA is not so different from life in Mogadishu.......... where most humans are armed, and life totally sucks............ so let's think about that........... and let's think about modifying our wonderful "Second Amendment", which was created on 1789 AD, when the British were still trying to prevent those "Virginia Farmers" from obtaining guns, and so Thomas Jefferson decided that his Virginia Farmers needed to own a "Lee Enfield 202" rifle, in order to fire bullets at the "Red Coats", that wanted to make the newly created USA defunct, and eventually herded back under British control................. you see guys, this is now 2013, the British have no desire whatsoever of taking back control of USA........... so what that second amendment is now doing is allowing a bunch of insecure, uneducated, sicko, misinformed, scared, criminal, losers, to own GUNS............... so that they can supposedly shoot at deers, and Bison, and Bears in Alaska............. yeah right, silly "Sportsmen" who think they are very Macho when they shoot a deer using a telescopic sight.................... let's think about changing the second amendment to read: You do NOT have the right to bear arms, for ANY reason, including sport.......... and the ONLY people allowed to carry a gun are the US military personnel and the city, state and federal Police. PERIOD.................. that would take us closer to the Nation of Australia, that way back in 1996, had their awful "Newtown" incident, and had the strength and courage and wisdom, to pass laws that disallowed all Australians from owning a gun, no matter what caliber and make and model, and disallowed all Australians from owning ANY bullets, no matter what their type or caliber................. this caused the crime rate and death from gun rate to go down by 99%, in Australia, from 1996 thru 2013...................... let us use these facts to help us to take charge of a situation in USA that is COMPLETELY out of control........... and that is the issue of Gun Control..................... thank you my fellow Americans.............. 🙂

    November 19, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  18. Allan Kinsman

    From my reading human beings have been experimenting with forms of social structure from the first moments we started forming communication. In it's current form we set a premise through a statement called the declaration of independence. A very difficult goal from my perspective. It maintains a proposition we human beings may evolve to understand when everyone is equal then all can pursue there own points of importance as long as they respect and do not harm others. Government provides a foundation in the interrum while the rest grow up. So far we are distracted from the ideal of justice and balance which keeps the playing field level. The rules are in a constant reajustment giving those in a position to manipulate an advantage. Therefore the original point is no longer. When men of integrity come along with open ideas which challenge these forces seeking power they are eliminated through violence. When our systems of social structure evolve to solve the problems of the human ego we may begin to find the means of calling ourselves civilized.

    November 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  19. sportsbocai

    jsimson, gaia2009,
    sportsbocai http://www.sportsbocai.com/

    May 18, 2018 at 8:52 pm |

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