Friday, November 22, 2013

Thoughts on John Kennedy and the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination

"We were never innocent.
"That word is invariably used to describe what changed in America 50 years ago today when a dashing young president was murdered in Dallas. But the word has never been quite right.
"Anyone who was 40 years old the day John Kennedy died had already lived through global economic collapse, factories silenced, smokestacks stilled, bankers selling apples on street corners. She had seen the agricultural heartland dry up and blow away in towering black clouds of dust, the former tenants dispossessed and forced to flee. She had seen war on a scale that beggars the imagination, mass murder in numbers that blaspheme God and a nuclear sunrise over Japan. Just the year before, she had seen the world teeter on the brink of another nuclear catastrophe.
"We were not innocent.
"And yet, something did change when Kennedy’s motorcade executed that hairpin turn onto Elm Street and Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger of that mail order carbine. After that moment, something was different, something was lost — and it has haunted America ever since."--Leonard Pitts, Jr., columnist Miami Herald. 
A lot has been written about John Kennedy lately.  He is a man more memorialized in death than almost any other contemporary figure in the United States.  He has been both made larger than life and cut down to size by details about his personal life and decisions he made in the 994 days of his Presidency.  I have no personal recollection of what was once called "The New Frontier" but I grew up in the shadow of the  events in Dallas fifty years ago, with my parents and many of my friends feeling that something was lost that could not be replaced.
  JFK had a mix of  charisma, intellect and courage.  He was not universally liked by a long shot, but he seems in retrospect to have been growing towards becoming an important if not a great president who might have done more to bring the world further away from the threats pf nuclear destruction and started on the path to becoming the first President of the United States since Lincoln to use the "bully pulpit" of the White House to achieve a real new era in Civil Rights.

Too many questions remain unanswered about this man to say with certainty what the 1960's and the decades beyond would have been like had Kennedy lived longer.  We just will never know.  What we do know is that war abroad and riots and a loss of faith in government and all public figures came after his death. How would the personality and polices of John Kennedy have mitigated this loss of faith and national sense of optimism?   We can only speculate and watch television and read articles and books and wonder.  We who did or would support this man in office are left with a gnawing  unknowable anticipation that, in the end, will never be fulfilled.  

    Even the events of his death provoke sharp debate and this I feel is not the day or the place for me to add to that. I mourn his loss for my parents who admired President Kennedy and for those friends who do remember the events of that terrible day fifty years ago.  And I mourn for what might have been for my generation, a mourning without dewy-eyed sentiment but with a sense of something lost from a random and treacherous action. This president's cruel murder had nothing to do with courage or working for peace and equality and national security--things Kennedy I believe  would have continued to strive toward,  no matter what his poll numbers or his flaws would have revealed about him had he lived another thousand days or more. 


  1. A very interesting blog Doug, thanks for posting it and the archive footage of Kennedy's speech, which to me was tantamount to signing his own death warrant.
    I remember returning home with my parents from a family friend's home where the entertainment had been accordian playing and piano accompanied singing, so no television. When we got home my dad put on the telly and there was commotion. we couldn't tell what was happening at first and then my dad suddenly announced president Kennedy has been assassinated. I didn't know what the word 'assassinated' meant and needed it explained....I still remember the initial shock of the event. At my school morning assembley the following Monday we had a memorial service for the late president and I remember being moved by singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic in his honour. These were fraught times and JFK's murder added a new level of uncertainty and fear in a way quite similar to the immediate effects of 9/11....
    We had just got through the Cuba Crisis and now this terrible event unerved the world again and I think made everyone feel vulnerable. This happened at a time when I was afraid to go anywhere I could not run home from in 4 minutes, the length of the warning of a nuclear strike here on Airstrip One. I didn't want to be evaporated without being with my family. We lived on the flight path for Birmingham airport and I remember lying in bed listening to the planes flying low over out house convinced that this one was the one with the H-Bomb on board....collective PTSD hung on the land like a fog
    In reality I think John Kennedy was a compromised president and 'marked man' from before day 1 of his period of office. Speeches like the one you have posted here Doug was not going to endear him to the Pentagon's south east Asian war planners nor the CIA. JFK from the very start was outmanoeuvred by Messrs Hoover and Johnson et al who were very well connected of course.... especially in Johnson's home state of Texas. It seems likely JFK was being blackmailed from the time he took the presidency and could not find away of not having Johnson on the ticket...from that moment on, when he was outflanked by Hoover and Johnson his room to manoeuvre was greatly restricted I think.

    The whole sad tale is a telling story of who really runs the world I think and nobody gets away with crossing the military industrial complex and threatening the interests of the arms industry.

    I think Kennedy made some very serious errors the worst of which was allowing them to use his 'womanising' as a means of controlling him, he should have confessed to it, he'd have lost the Democratic nomination but it would have saved his life I think. At the end of the day JFK's enemies were a lot more powerful than his friends I think and nothing much has changed in Washington DC since then Doug.
    Thanks again for opening this interesting topic up for discussion. This was the world's first televised assassination of a head of state and still 50 years on even simple forensic questions like "was there more than one shooter (?)" remains unanswered and murky. Amazing that CSI Dallas is still struggling with that one Doug, when you'd imagine the video evidence alone would have made it 'a piece of cake' really.

    1. Thanks, AA, for sharing your personal and family thoughts and memories of those dark times, AA, and especially your recollection of singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in your school assembly. That moved me and brought tears to my wife's Shirley's eyes when I read your comments aloud to her. She remembers being in school when it happened and the sadness and tears on her teacher's faces were unforgettable.

      It is always personally moving to think that adults and children in another nation would take time to pay tribute to the USA when we face such a national tragedy. I remember tearing up myself when I saw the expressions of grief and memorials for the people lost in New York City and Washington on 9/11. Even people in republics of the former Soviet Union came to American embassies and consulates to pay their respects; ordinary people they were with candles and flowers brought from home, not dignitaries. I remember seeing an internet slide show from all over the world of tributes to the fallen, and then a picture of a little girl from Belarus holding a candle in front of a US building in Minsk. Tears welled up in my eyes.

      As a child of the Cold War, I too remember being up in my bed with lights out at night in my room, thinking about the sound of jet planes flying overhead. Were they headed for Hamilton or Travis Air Force Base? Would there be a tomorrow with all this talk on the news of the latest international crisis in Eastern Europe, The Middle East or Asia? I also recall vividly going through the Civil Defense drills of the mid-1960s, sitting all curled in a ball under my plastic chair and wooden desk with 25 or so other young kids, waiting for the school principal, Mr. Talent, to come on the speaker from the office to tell us the drill was over. (Mr. Talent, ironically, looked not unlike Nikita Krushchev, incidentally, though he had fewer public pronouncements on "virgin lands" agricultural programs, but his removal from power was more abrupt, for reasons the Board of the School District labeled, opaquely, as "retirement".)

      We have not always been a beloved nation in many places, as you know, so those testaments from regular people are all the more profound and moving to me and I dare say many others.

      What you say about President Kennedy's situation while in office I concur with, AA.
      Not for nothing did General Eisenhower warn of the "military-industrial complex", sadly very late in his own tenure. And, no, not as much has changed in Washington, as decent-minded Americans (and the rest of a peace-loving world) know all to well.
      Thanks again AA.

  2. I must have been about 5 or 6 years old when Kennedy was murdered (I like to use this real word rather than assassinated) and we didn't have telly in Blackball yet, nobody did of course so I don't really have memories of the event. there wasn't really any impact. Not like years later with the Twin Towers and tv playing the film over and over again all that day.

    Does the loss of one man, even an apparently powerful one like an American President have that much impact. I look now at President Obama's struggles to get through policy he wishes to be adopted in your country and it looks like an uphill battle to me.

    There was a wee song written by our Shona Laing (sometime in the eighties I think) called "Glad I'm not a Kennedy" with glimpses of JFK in the video, maybe you might like it.

    1. Thanks for sharing that video Iri Ani. You ask a great question, one that is very hard to answer in President Kennedy's case. He and Lyndon Johnson, the man who succeeded him, were very different figures. Kennedy did face an uphill battle on a lot of things, and no president can control events at home or abroad, especially the will of the US Congress and all the influencs like the US military industrial complex and big nbanking. But we know from his later speeches, like the ones at American University I placed on my blog, that JFK had a better mind-set to avoid the disaster that was Vietnam and I feel personally he would have been a less alienating figure to young people than President Johnson was. I think the world would have been a better place if Kennedy had become a two-term president and not been murdered. I just can't say exactly how much better. And that is the pain, the "what might have been' aspect that haunts many Americans even to this day.
      It was a different world back in the 60's wasn't it. We weren't so covered in instant analysis on the television and all over the Internet. It gave people more time to reflect on events more thoughtfully. It seems to me that whatever technology gives us it takes something away.

      Still, I'm glad I've been able to to share my reflections with you and others I have been lucky got to know on the old Multiply. Thanks for sharing your memories and thoughts.