Friday, November 22, 2013

50 years

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy only confirms what my creaky joints and aching muscles have been reminding me for a few years now: the undeniable fact that I'm getting old. When I was a child, I saw fifty as the magic divide between youth and old age. Passing that divide myself a few years ago didn't phase me much as fifty is the new forty, or thirty, or whatever age you choose. But actually remembering something that happened a half century ago is different. I'm reminded of the old folks I knew as a child who used to say all the time: "You know I remember, years ago..." Now I'm one of those people.

This anniversary is something of a personal milestone, as the events surrounding the death of the president mark the beginning of recorded time for me. My memory before that event is fragmentary, bits and pieces of vague remembrances: riding on my father's shoulders as we walked through Humboldt Park, watching Black Hawks' games on TV, taking the L to the Loop with my mother. I even remember brief glimpses of President Kennedy. To me as a small child, his strident oratory style put me off, I remember thinking he was yelling all the time. Yet those memories are vague and without context.

However I can tell you exactly where I was from 12:30pm CST November 22nd, 1963, until the following Monday afternoon. Perhaps the most vivid memory of that terrible Friday was being at home with my mother in the late afternoon, well after the tragic events in Dallas earlier that day. She was particularly somber, although I don't remember her crying, as she did after Robert Kennedy was shot five years later. Our apartment was completely dark save for the TV that was tuned to Channel 11, the local public broadcast station. Their programming, if you could call it that, consisted of nothing more than a static shot of a portrait of the slain president, while somber music played in the background. It gives me chills just thinking about it. To add pain to the misery of that day, I vividly remember accidentally banging my head against the side of our couch. The TV remained on rest of the weekend as every moment of the president's elaborate funeral was broadcast. Just about the only thing I missed was Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby which was also shown on live TV. I may have taken a brief respite to play in the halls of our building when that happened, but I distinctly remember seeing the news report flash across the screen that he was dead.

This year, with the exception of thumbing through a commemorative issue of Life Magazine, which was essentially the same issue they ran shortly after the assassination with the exception of a picture of the president with Marilyn Monroe, I've managed to avoid coverage of the anniversary. I don't need to be reminded of it; the memory of the events that took place that late November long ago has been so strongly imprinted in my brain, that hardly a month or even a week have gone by when I haven't in one way or other thought of Kennedy and his tragic death. Not that I'm a Kennedy buff, far from it. I'd say hostage to the memory of the event is a more appropriate term. Nor do I obsess over who did it. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. It's not that I think a conspiracy is inconceivable, I just have never seen any credible evidence that points to anyone other than or in addition to Oswald. The fact that there are so many wildly divergent conspiracy theories out there is evidence enough that there probably wasn't one.

I suspect that people so vigorously support the idea of a conspiracy because they simply refuse to believe that one man's actions could so throw the world off kilter. Everybody knows that four US presidents have been assassinated, but it's less known that in US history there have been dozens of attempts on the lives of presidents, most of them planned and carried out by a solitary individual. As I heard pointed out in a recent radio interview, we're fortunate that so many of those would be assassins were simply incompetent.

Here another matter comes to light: the success or failure of such a diabolical act, depends greatly on happenstance. Case in point: it had been raining for several hours in Dallas on that fateful day, the sun came out only moments before President Kennedy's plane landed at Love Field. Had it continued to rain, the limousine in which the president and Mrs. Kennedy, and Governor and Mrs. Connelly rode past the Texas School Depository Building, would have had a rain (and bullet)-proof* bubble top, and Kennedy would have lived to see another day. If there's anything more disconcerting than the idea of a lone individual changing history, it's the idea that the course of human events can be altered by dumb luck.

As a lot of people, I've been thinking lately about how things would have been different had Kennedy lived. Some people see his murder as a watershed moment in American history. It's easy to divide the sixties into two distinct periods, before and after Kennedy's death. If you don't look too closely, you can view the early sixties as an idealistic, optimistic time with prosperity at home and relative peace abroad. After Kennedy was killed, all hell seemed to break loose. The late sixties became one of the most tumultuous periods in American and world history. Yet how much of that turbulence was a result of the assassination?

The two issues that tore this country apart limb from limb in the 1960s were Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Kennedy's theoretical impact had he lived, on the battle for Civil Rights in this country is easy to predict.

He would have had little or none.

It's true that Kennedy famously stood up to Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and Alabama Governor George Wallace in their attempts to prevent their states' universities from being integrated. He also gave an impassioned speech on the issue of Civil Rights to the nation on June 11, 1963 where he told the country:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue, It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution...
We preach freedom around the world, but are we to say to the world, and . . .to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes ...?"
Strong stuff indeed but Kennedy, who was preoccupied with his foreign agenda at the expense of any domestic policy, was forced into action by the brutal events that were taking place all over the country, especially in the South. In regards to the race issue in America, Kennedy given the chance would have preferred to have taken a back seat and let time heal the wounds of racial discrimination in this country.

In his well publicized letter from a Birmingham jail, written in April of 1963, Martin Luther King wrote:
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
In his letter, Dr. King was responding to the concerns of local clergy that the campaign he led of protest and peaceful, sometimes not peaceful resistance in that most racially divided of cities, was doing more harm than good to the cause. But King's words were also seen as a thinly veiled condemnation of the Kennedy administration's taking its sweet time in the matter of equal rights for all.

The tipping point for the president could very well have been a photograph. It was taken during a protest in Birmingham of a high school student, Walter Gadsden, being grabbed by a policeman by his sweater while a police German shepherd goes for the boy's midsection. The photograph by AP photographer Bill Hudson, made the front cover of newspapers all over the world and would become one of the chilling, iconic images of the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. Kennedy, ever conscious of this country's image around the world, worried that the photograph would undermine the credibility of this country, and the work he was trying to accomplish overseas. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy gave his aforementioned speech to the nation, where he echoed many of the points that King made in his letter.

But even though he jumped into the fray, Kennedy preferred to sit on the sidelines. As his daughter Caroline admitted this past August during the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, her father watched the unfolding events on TV a few blocks away at the White House.

Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency in 1960 promised meaningful Civil Rights legislation, but never delivered it during his nearly three years in office. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson on the other hand, put Civil Rights at the top of his agenda and managed to pass his own Civil Rights Bill one year after taking office. Being from Texas, a state not known for its racial tolerance, Johnson exhibited a great deal of courage in his actions. Yet it's one thing to change the law and another to change the hearts and minds of people. The new federal laws which made the disenfranchisement of voters and local Jim Crow segregation laws illegal, went largely ignored. It took the great struggle of the sixties and beyond to begin to turn things around. If Johnson, the architect of the Great Society, fully committed to the cause of Civl Rights, ultimately had little effect on the racial climate of the United States, it's unlikely that his predecessor  JFK who was lukewarm about those issues would have had more success.

Vietnam is a little more complicated. A good case can be made for Kennedy not following the same course in Southeast Asia as his successor. In his book If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History, ” Jeff Greenfield notes that while very hawkish toward communism early in his presidency, Kennedy's views were tempered by his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the flirtation with nuclear war that crisis provoked. He allegedly confided little interest in Vietnam with his close advisors and stern criticism for France's occupation of that country. Others point out that Kennedy had no qualms about rejecting the ideas of the more hawkish members of his cabinet, the same men who advised President Johnson to escalate the war. It is speculated that Johnson may have been intimidated by his brain trust, most of them Ivy League educated. Kennedy, himself a Harvard man, had no such misplaced awe. The theory goes that had he lived, Kennedy, tired of confronting the Communists and risking nuclear war, would have rejected the advice from his Cabinet to escalate the war. Johnson of course took the advice and the War in Vietnam would dominate all aspects if American life for the next ten years.

An interesting theory, however I'm not sure I buy it. Kennedy's rhetoric up until his death continued to  be staunchly anti-communist. While he may not have been particularly interested in Vietnam, I find it highly unlikely that he would have just thrown up his hands and given up the country as yet another "domino" to fall under the influence of communism. He may have had reasonable trepidations about directly confronting the Soviet Union and the inherent risks that would entail. The Cuban Missile Crisis was solved when Kennedy, much to the disapproval of his Cabinet, made a secret, tit-for-tat deal with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, agreeing to remove US missiles from Turkey in exchange for a Soviet agreement halting the installation of their missiles ninety miles from Florida.

On the other hand, direct confrontation with the Soviet Union is a much different matter than sending troops to quelch an insurgency in a nation few Americans heard of let lone feared at the time. The armed forces of North Vietnam would certainly be no match for the weight of the US Military, or so it seemed. Historians certainly will be debating this issue from now until kingdom come, but my feeling is that Kennedy would likely have escalated the war just as Johnson did.

If my suspicion is correct and Kennedy would have escalated the war, then the impact of his death, beyond the personal, human tragedy, would have been negligible. If he had not escalated the war, I believe that the Civil Rights struggle would have completely dominated American life and politics, and much of the dissent of the sixties would have taken place regardless, although focused in a different direction. The times, as Bob Dylan sang, they were a changin', (in a song he wrote before Kennedy's death), and there would have been little or nothing that Kennedy, with all his charisma, could have done to stop it. Had he lived into the late sixties, as president and as a very privileged white male, he would have become the very personification of "The Man", that is, the ultimate establishment-authority figure, which for many in the so called Baby boomer generation, was the symbol of everything that was wrong with society.

I suspect the biggest historical impact that Kennedy's death had was on his own image. To this day we associate the Kennedy years with "Camelot", that brief shining moment (inspired by a Broadway musical), where the young and handsome president with a noble vision spelled out during his inaugural address, led this nation justly with his beautiful wife and family by his side, charming their subjects all the while. The whole Camelot connection was invented by none other than Jacqueline Kennedy as she gave an interview just after the assassination, to the author Theodore H. White which would appear in Life Magazine. That is how she desperately wanted her husband remembered, and it worked.

Since his death, historians have not been particularly kind to President Kennedy as many of his personal shortcomings have come to light in our own day of full disclosure. Had he lived, his indiscretions would have probably been revealed during his lifetime, perhaps even during his presidency. We now know that Kennedy was also a very sick man physically, suffering from numerous ailments that were kept from the public. How all that would have played out is anybody's guess.

Had John F. Kennedy lived and won a second term in office, like most second terms he would have faced adversities that he could barely imagine in his first term.  American cities would have still burned as a result of riots fed by anger and frustration over the lack of respect and dignity afforded to people of a different color. Struggles all over the world would have taken place with or without a President Kennedy. Who knows what conflicts we may have hypothetically engaged ourselves into had we not put so much effort into the struggle for Vietnam?

I suspect that today as the country observes the fiftieth anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, we'll be hearing a lot more about Camelot than about the trials and tribulations of a complicated man. That's entirely appropriate in my opinion. We need to have our heroes, even if they're flawed ones.

As the newspaper reporter of old once said: "When facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend."

*As my friend Michael pointed out in his brilliant comment below, the acrylic bubble top that would have been placed on top of the limousine in Dallas, was not bullet proof. Consequently it may or may not have spared Kennedy had it been employed, it just would have made for a harder shot. 

1 comment:

Michael Morrone said...

Once again, a very interesting POV. The media has been touting the assassination as the end of an age of innocence. Was it really? It had only been 18 years since the end of WWII and 10 after the festivities in Korea; events that presented horrors never before seen by mankind. There was no innocence to lose, at least not by our parent's generation. I like to think of it as perhaps the end of a period of cultural and social stasis and the opening of the flood gates of change. As you pointed out, had Kennedy lived there is a chance the civil rights movement and Vietnam war would have had completely different complexions. His murder was the event that shocked the boomers out of the protective cocoons so carefully spun by the "greatest generation" thus allowing a small fringe of radical/reactionary (it was a little of both) thought to come to the fore and attract followings among the mainstream of the middle class. It was only the boomers who had any innocence to lose. Only history will tell if that was for our ultimate good or not--fair pro/con arguments abound. I think civil rights, women's rights, the draft, gay rights, the sexual revolution,, would all have come about anyway but at a slower, more incremental pace thus stifling the revolution in arts and culture that was the 60s. One small point though. The bubble top for Kennedy's limo was, in fact, not bullet proof.