“Emperor” Kennedy

OK, Boomers—bring on the nostalgia

As of 1960, World War II had ended 15 years earlier—meaning that the Boomers were entering their teenage years during this pivotal decade. As such, the focus on “youth culture” during the 1950s became an absolute necessity for marketers of arts and goods alike during the 1960s. This focus on youth as the driving force of America was nowhere better represented than the new occupant of the White House, a Catholic man barely in his 40s with two young children (a boy and a girl, of course) named John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Both Jack and Jackie Kennedy came from aristocratic backgrounds, and, during their family’s brief stay, the White House became “Camelot,” a mythological place of both privilege and wholesome charm. Not since President “Handsome Frank” Pierce (an ancestor of the later President Bush [II]) had a president’s looks been so favorably commented on in the national press.

And yet, Camelot—as with King Arthur’s idyllic time with Queen Guinevere—could never remain for long. In this case, what came between the “king and queen’s” happiness was not an affair (though both spouses supposedly had them), but death. In truth, the national nostalgia for this era makes this history the hardest to tell now. For better and for worse, the bulk of the ‘60s had more in common with the ‘50s for most of the country, in terms of continuing the status quo. Yet the national cyclones that would land with greater regularity in the latter two-thirds of the decade—after President Kennedy’s assassination—color the entire decade as one of cataclysmic change, full of militants, protesters, and hippies running amok. This was the image of the ‘60s that I grew up with in the 1990s, but the real history—as is usually the case—is more complicated. Even during the 1970s, the Kennedy era became the subject of bittersweet nostalgia in such films as American Graffiti (1973) or, more bitter than sweet, Animal House (1978), the latter written by Doug Kenney (GA Class of ’64). The best option for ascertaining the range of views about this decade might be found in interviewing your own grandparents…

Overcoming the obstacle of the moon

For his 1961 inauguration (broadcast on newly-colorized television sets and with previous leaders Truman and Eisenhower as well as future leaders Johnson, Nixon, and Ford in the audience) the incoming “emperor” hailed the current generation of Americans as the best, unwilling despite the challenges of the times to switch places with any other generation, before or after, due to “the energy, the faith, the devotion” that Kennedy felt characterized the new ‘60s.

The energy most palpable in the ‘60s was, perhaps, the energy most opposed to faith and devotion. With the release of “The Pill” in the waning of the Ike Years, women suddenly had much more reproductive choice: with a daily supply of estrogen and/or progestogen, women could disrupt their “lunar cycles.” The sexually-repressed American society of the 1950s was beginning a process that would eventually become the “Sexual Revolution” of the 1960s—threatening traditional “family values” and attitudes.

Kennedy also hoped that the ‘60s would free not just women from “the moon,” but put men on it: his optimism was such that he promised, early into his term, that the United States would put a human being on the moon by the end of the ‘60s—an ambitious proposal for the nation that was still #2 behind the Soviet Union in terms of launching satellites and putting astronauts into orbit. While NASA nigh-miraculously achieved Kennedy’s promise just as the decade closed in July 1969 (under the leadership of the defeated candidate for the presidency in 1960), Kennedy would not be around to see it.

“A dream deferred”: delayed promises from the Eisenhower era

Given the tameness of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, segregation remained in the early 1960s an illegalized but still enforced institution. Borrowing a page from the playbook of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement—itself borrowed from taking Jesus’ command to “offer the other cheek” literally—civil rights leaders adopted a non-violent response to counter the increasingly-violent backlash against integration across the country, but especially in the South.

Given the focus on youth of this era, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or “SNCC”) paved the way to more direct confrontation than ever before by staging very simple demonstrations with widespread—and televised—consequences. SNCC would place a few African-American college-aged students at “whites-only” lunch counters, who would then wait to be served, responding with the utmost civility as the reactions turned from shocked to bitter to violent. Eventually, some of these students were indeed served—but only after countless beatings. The Congress of Racial Equality (or “CORE”) staged similarly-public demonstrations throughout the South, organizing integrated buses to travel to some of the most segregated regions. After the buses were attacked—and in some cases set on fire—CORE got what it wanted: national media attention.

Such attention was coming from a more “underground” movement—the successors to the Beats—in the folk-music scene. Originally adapting traditional ballads or Depression-era songs, musical artists like Bob Dylan turned their attention to the issues of the day in songs inspired by real events like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” about a woman of color beaten to death by a young white man in Maryland who then received a minimal sentence. Nonetheless, these records were not nearly as popular as the “pop rock” released in the style of the 1950s, written and recorded by black and white artists alike to serve as an escape from the present.

Kennedy, however, could not escape from the civil rights issue, no matter how he might have preferred a more Eisenhower-era approach to win over vitally-needed Southern votes in the 1964 election (the so-called “Dixiecrat” vote). The Kennedys—both the president and his brother, attorney general Robert—cautioned Martin Luther King, Jr., and others to be patient. Civil rights leaders responded that they had been patient for 100 years waiting for full integration as citizens in their home country. In fact, MLK called upon President Kennedy to issue a “Second Emancipation Proclamation” in 1962, the 100th anniversary of the original, calling for full freedom from institutionalized segregation. The courts had decided in their favor, but it was clear that the citizens and leaders across the country—in the cities of the North and South—would not act.

In the “Deep South,” particularly Alabama and Mississippi, the backlash turned violent, as civil rights activists, college students assisting African-Americans to vote, and even four little girls in church lost their lives due to attacks by hate groups. The response seemed to be well-summarized by Alabama Governor George Wallace, who declared on television “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” to cheering crowds. Wallace planted himself in the doorway to prevent African-American students from entering the University of Alabama in 1963 and this, at long last, prompted the president to act and deliver, if not quite the “Second Emancipation Proclamation” hoped for, at least the most direct address of the civil rights issue ever broadcast.

On June 11th, 1963, Kennedy called for national legislature to address the issue, saying: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue: it is as old as the Scriptures, and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated… 100 years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves; yet their heirs—their grandsons—are not fully free: they are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice; they are not yet freed from social and economic oppression, and this nation—for all its hopes and all its boasts—will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

This address on civil rights did not calm down the civil rights movement—far from it, the address galvanized it and Martin Luther King and others marched directly on Washington, D.C., to urge the nation’s lawmakers to follow through on Kennedy’s lead. King’s short but fiery “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered just a few months after Kennedy’s, has taken the place of the “emperor’s address” in the national memory as the statement of the civil rights movement.

Yet, sadly, it would take something more than marches and protests to get the law on the books—it would take the assassination of the “emperor.”

Promises, promises—the Kennedy legacy in the Cold War, and the “hot war” of Vietnam

Kennedy’s longest lasting legacy may be in the creation of the Peace Corps, an initiative to deliver his inauguration promise to assist citizens across the world—not with soldiers invading, but with volunteers serving. Despite the fact that former vice president (and later president) Nixon labeled it a “haven for draft dodgers,” the program proved popular with young people inspired by Kennedy’s example, eager to see “the real world” beyond their TV sets and make a difference. (Though the program has had its ups and downs, it’s been supported in some way by every president since and only COVID-19 has ever stopped it.)

Kennedy, like Eisenhower, hoped the “War Corps” would not be needed. We have seen an alarming trend throughout this history: the current “emperor” always seems doomed to finish the military struggles of the last guy in charge. For Truman, it was World War II and, for Eisenhower, it was the Korean War. This trend will only continue with the next four leaders and, one could similarly argue, with the next ten.

In the last days of his presidency, Eisenhower had cut off diplomatic ties with Cuba. Meanwhile, he was also giving his authority for the training of Cuban exiles to re-invade their home island and, with covert U.S. assistance, to “snatch back” Cuba from “the forces of Communism” some two years after Fidel Castro’s Marxist-inspired revolution. (We saw the relative ease of such “assistance” in Guatemala and Iran in the ‘50s.) As with Truman and the Manhattan Project, Kennedy was only made aware of these top-secret military plans when he entered office in 1961, just a few months before the planned invasion. Wanting to take a “tough stand” on the Cold War despite his youth, Kennedy gave the go-ahead—including the use of air support from the United States on the intended landing site of the counter-revolution militia, the Bay of Pigs.

The invasion was a disaster, and neither the Cuban citizens nor Kennedy offered any backup, as was hoped. If he had not been before, Castro was now on his guard against the U.S., just 90 miles north of Cuba. The failed invasion, if anything, made Castro closer in alliance with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who offered the new Marxist state support and—in 1962—nuclear missiles installed on the island, aimed at the United States across the waters.

The U.S. had earlier planted nuclear missiles (in Turkey) aimed at the southwestern Soviet Union, so this move seemed “calling the bet” in this high-stakes game of poker. When reconnaissance imagery revealed the missiles, Kennedy and Khrushchev squared off, sending tense messages back and forth. This standoff was not just between two countries, but would have consequences for human life on the entire planet if either side “shot first.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis, as it came to be known, revealed to the world (and especially the United States) how easy it could be for the Cold War to become “hot.” For instance, near Alaska, a U-2 surveillance plane—the same model that had been downed over Soviet airspace the year before—was dangerously low on fuel. The pilot was so disoriented by the Northern Lights that he crossed over Russia—luckily, he was then escorted back by U.S. planes. During the most tense days in October ‘62, a Soviet submarine close to the blockade of U.S. warships around Cuba was warned away by depth charges and, if not for the second-of-command, the captain would have fired a nuclear missile.

This was the closest the world came to WWIII, and the pop culture of the time revealed the anxieties that had always been simmering throughout the ‘50s. “Bomb shelters,” stockpiled with canned food and supposed to survive nuclear fallout, became the homes of some Americans during the thirteen days of the crisis. (That same folk/protest songwriter Bob Dylan wrote, “Let me die in my footsteps, before I go down under the ground.”) Luckily, Khrushchev and Kennedy rejected their bolder advisers and the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles—if the U.S. would not invade its “little sister” Cuba again.

Coming out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was clear that a “stand-off” could never happen again without dire consequences. Instead, covert “spy games” and undercover “assistance” were relied on for the next thirty years or so: the Berlin Wall went up as the CIA and KGB’s respective budgets went through the roof—all while the nuclear arsenals continued developing rapidly. (Thanks to the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the U.S. was clearly in “the lead” throughout most of the Cold War. The next time such a “close call” would emerge would be out of the headlines—disastrous war game scenarios and computer crashes throughout the early 1980s. We only discovered after the Cold War that the world nearly ended in September 1983 when a Soviet named Lt. Col. Petrov wisely ignored his computer telling him that five nuclear missiles were on their way. He reasoned that, if it were indeed an attack, the superpower of the United States would not send five missiles. As it turned out, it was a “glitch.”)

Despite the failure of the Bay of Pigs, in fall of 1963, Kennedy authorized a coup against the unstable leader of South Vietnam named Diem. Though the coup proved successful, the successor governments were even more unstable, opening the door to further American “involvement” needed to keep the North Vietnamese “contained” to North Vietnam.

In short: Kennedy’s final promises—for civil rights at home and for South Vietnamese independence—would not be delivered upon until the attempts of his successor, his vice president from the heart of Texas who took the oath of office not in the White House but on Air Force One about to fly out of Dallas.

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