We’ve just finished a week of television’s incongruous mixes of wallowing in horrific forensics juxtaposed with revealing tributes, of critical commentary and analysis mixed with half-century-old images and memories of genuine grief and hand-wringing angst.
A few more words beg to be said about John Fitzgerald Kennedy, because we don’t want questions of how he died to continue to overshadow the kind of leader he was. Sadly, even after five decades, society isn’t quite capable of separating those things.
It is certain that America lost its innocence and its faith in its leaders during the 1960s and 1970s. And it’s certain that began on November 22, 1963.
The 800,000 who lined the funeral route, and the 75 million who watched on television were processing the shock and the grief. Few, if any, could have understood the substance of what was lost. Even today, it’s almost overwhelming. And it is transcendent. We live in a time that looks nothing like the future we expected.
Would there have been a Watergate, a Vietnam quagmire, a preeminence of the Military-Industrial Complex, or even a Nixon Presidency, had there not been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? Would America have seen the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had JFK, instead of consummate-political-arm-twister LBJ, been president?
Would there have been a Cuban Missile Crisis if Nixon had beat Kennedy in 1960? Would there have been global thermonuclear war in 1962 had anyone but Kennedy been president? Would we have gone to the Moon without a Kennedy Presidency, and would we have gone had he not be killed?
Would the spirit of unity and common effort — and asking what we can do for our country — have vanished in favor of high-tech narcissism? Would today’s politics of “I’ve got mine, you’re on your own,” have been possible had the culture of suspicion and cynicism and distrust not developed from the post-assassination / Vietnam war world?
At last, historians are focusing on questions like these, instead of the titillating and salacious boudoir gossip and the assassination theory du jour.
Enough facts are emerging to clarify all these questions, and more. And what is clear is that the man who founded the Peace Corps and the Green Berets; who faced-down the Russians over Cuba; and challenged us to “choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” remains the most forward-looking American President since Woodrow Wilson.
After being one of only two men in history – the other was Nikita Kruschev – who looked into the face of hotter-than-the-sun destruction of human society and a radioactive wasteland for survivors, JFK was deeply committed to achieving lasting peace with the Soviet Union, three decades before it happened. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he was in the middle of quiet negotiations with the Castro regime to normalize relations – something that still has not happened.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Apollo program and its lunar explorations were possible only because of the Cold War. Was it just an exercise of the national ego after Russia launched Sputnik as the first artificial satellite and Yuri Gagarin as the first human in space? We now know that JFK had taken his overture beyond his UN speech, proposing that the US and the USSR go to the Moon together, in a cooperative venture.
How many conflicts, uprisings, revolutions, refugee crises, flood and drought and famine deaths, and individual and collective cases of human death and suffering were prevented because JFK founded the Peace Corps?
He has been found wanting in historical speculations as someone with the savvy to convince Southern Democrats that Southern segregation – the American apartheid – needed to end. It is conventional wisdom that only Lyndon Baines Johnson, as a prominent leader from Texas, a state more Southern than Western, a state of the Confederacy, had the political skills to pass President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act.
That may not be the case. JFK’s Texas trip, until the moment of the assassination, was a resounding success with the crowds and the warring factions of the Texas Democratic Party, who seemed to reconcile their differences with the visit by the President — and Jacqueline Kennedy, whose popularity and charm have never been exceeded by an any First Lady.
Internationally, President Kennedy had a proactive Latin America policy, a resounding success in the wake of Eisenhower’s Vice President Nixon getting stoned – it had a literal meaning then – in Latin America. No American president since JFK has understood the concerns of the Western Hemisphere south of Texas. And like the Europeans, the rest of the Americas loved him.
Not until George W. Bush took steps to fund AIDS prevention in Africa have we had a president that understood Kennedy’s “Africa for Africans” policy – and no president but JFK was proactively pro-African.
But we need not speculate simply on the basis of terrestrial perceptions. What enabled his global popularity was the largely intangible embodiment of one of JFK’s favorite words: vigor.
America was seen as a leader — happily, expectantly, peacefully and vigorously racing into a bright future, embracing it even before it was there, and inviting the rest of the world to come along.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk was on his way to Japan when the assassination turned his plane back home. Along with the many concerns of his trade delegation, Rusk had a personal mission: to arrange a reunion of mariners for 1964. It would have been a reunion of the crew of PT 109 with the crew of the Japanese destroyer that rammed and sunk them in the South Pacific during World War II.
Little things are often as important as big ones, when they are characteristic of outlook. And so many things about the Kennedy Presidency reveal a thoughtful, forward-looking leader who couldn’t wait to get to a brighter future.
When the trips to the Moon were achieved, Nixon omitted the name of the man who started us on humanity’s greatest voyage. There are plaques affixed to the descent stages of the six Lunar Modules, still on the Moon where they will last for millenia, and each bears the signatures of the crew of that mission and the signature of Richard M. Nixon. And Nixon’s complex personality of paranoia, petty resentment and retribution was no doubt at work when he cancelled the final three Apollo missions and began a long starvation diet to suck the vigor out of the manned space program.
Had Kennedy lived, there is good reason to believe the American presence in Vietnam would not have escalated. There is reason to believe we would have achieved détente with the Soviet Union, beyond Kennedy’s Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Those things alone would have freed billions of dollars for human empowerment and scientific exploration, two things dear to the Kennedy spirit and its dual sense of noblese oblige and bold adventure.
Perhaps the twenty-first century that Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick portrayed in their 1968 epic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” would have come to pass. Given the momentum that Nixon abruptly stopped, there is more reason to believe that we have achieved the world of “2001” than to believe not.
Without the assassinations and the personal threat of getting drafted into the pointless meat-grinder of Vietnam, could the hopeful vigor of the Kennedy years have soured into disillusioned cynicism, protest and riots?
And without the modern outlook of suspicion and mistrust, would we instead have presidents today who could challenge us to boldly go forth to explore and discover and take humanity to a realization of ever-increasing aspirations?
Barack Obama can’t even get enough congressional support to repair the infrastructure we inherited from the administrations of Roosevelt and Truman, or of Eisenhower and Kennedy. It is excruciatingly impossible to imagine President Obama challenging us to reinvigorate the human spirit by returning to the adventurous exploration of space.
November 22, 1963, was a singularity, one with implications so far-reaching we will never comprehend all that we lost: it was a specific moment in time when everything changed, when, transcending the shock and grief, the future of the future was forever stolen.
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