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From Kennedy to Obama: Recapturing America’s Greatness

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by Tom Hall –

The day after the election, another lawyer in my office asked, “Is this what it felt like in 1960?” When did I get old enough that people think of me when they want the wisdom of the aged? But it’s a fascinating question.


The euphoria over electing a black president, a Democratic Congress, and thoughtful, reform-minded people around the country has some similarity with the relief felt by many when Kennedy beat Nixon.

Obama brings to the White House youth, energy, and inspiration, as Kennedy did. But most of the world we know today did not exist in 1960. Most of the people alive today were not alive in 1960. And the inspiration Kennedy offered was very different from that which Obama brings. To understand how the feelings in 1960 differed from those today, it might help to reflect on the world of 1960 and how it compares to 2008.

The Shining City on a Hill
Obama inspires us to believe that we can reclaim American leadership of the world. We can be the beacon of freedom, represented by Lady Liberty in New York City’s harbor. We can be the shining city on a hill imagined by our Puritan forebearers. And we can restore the reputation that has been sullied and destroyed in recent decades.

Note that I say, “in recent decades”, not “in the past eight years.” The Neocon/Bush debacle was only the final act in a process of deterioration that took decades. For decades, politicians have lamented our crumbling infrastructure, our degrading schools, and our nonexistent health care system, but have done little more than prattle. And we haven’t held their feet to the fire and demanded better. The no-bid contract looting and bankrupting of our economy was only the last grasps of men who have long profited from our collective ignoring of reality.

Obama inspires us to believe that we can reverse this self-destructive course. Kennedy inspired us at a very different time, and to very different goals. The 1950s were a time of triumph for the U.S. We were the nation that had the resources and strength to save the entire world from fascism. Our auto industry dominated the world. Our electronics set the standard for innovation and quality. Our schools and medical science justified admiration around the world. People everywhere looked to us for inspiration. People seeking freedom flocked to the U.S. and we welcomed them as contributors to our great society.

The Dark Side of Postwar America
Yet all was not perfect in what seemed a perfect society. The 1950s began with a war in Korea. Korea was a single country – not North and South. Koreans had a civil war, and other nations aligned with different sides in that civil war. No one won and Korea was split, North and South. North Korea was left to domination by a brutal dictatorship of personal interest. The South was dominated by a government that, over the next two decades, revealed itself as willing to slaughter its own citizens as the northern dictatorship. Those regular slaughters came as the government pursued the interests of western corporations and governments over the interests of its own people. And we were told our taxes were needed to prop up this odious state.

While the Korean War raged, black men who had fought and risked their lives in WWII and then in Korea, in the name of freedom, demanded that they and their families receive freedom at home. Despite President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order desegregating the armed forces, the troops sent to Korea to fight for “freedom” remained partially segregated.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education was not the first case in which the Court recognized that black citizens had, or should have, equality with whites. It represented a basically optimistic national view. In 1954, the Court could honestly believe that ordering desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed” was sufficient to compel progress. In 1954, we had not yet experienced much conscious, intentional contempt for Supreme Court rulings. As the ‘50s wore on, and people, local governments and even churchmen fought against compliance with the Court’s order, we began to see a bleaker side of our national self-image of freedom-loving fair mindedness.

While we were imposing a national division on Korea, and beginning to resist integration at home, we also turned on our own soldiers. Men who had fought for freedom in the snows of Bastogne and in the sand of the North African desert, and in the jungles of Indo-China were accused of disloyalty when they spoke in favor of integration or union rights, or questioned our adventure in Korea or our use of troops to keep United Fruit in power in Latin America.

The McCarthy Hearings
A drunken sot, driven by personal greed, turned the U.S. Senate into a tool for helping corporate contributors ruin the lives of labor leaders, educators, screenwriters, and social critics. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s thoroughly dishonest and insincere attacks on decent people, including men who had been heroes in WWII, helped corporations argue that they should be given responsibility for things like operating the Voice of America” system which broadcast to the world, and to justify corporate decision making on “defense” issues.

But Joe McCarthy’s excesses, like the growing movement to prevent racial equality, and the stalemated war to inflict a colonial government on Korea also played out in the eye of the burgeoning new television industry. People had flocked to theaters to watch newsreels of WWII, for the first time seeing contemporary news of active warfare. Television executives, as desperate in the 1950s as today, to find programming that was both compelling and cheap to produce, turned their war correspondents loose on covering civil rights and the Army-McCarthy hearings.

During those hearings, a lawyer, Joseph Welch, asked Senator McCarthy to produce evidence to support one of his false accusations. McCarthy couldn’t, but on television he then attacked a young lawyer in Welch’s office. Welch asked the question that defined the 1950s: “Have you left no sense of decency?"

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Heading toward the 1960 election, that question resonated through the Civil Rights movement. It colored our perception of the massive contracts being awarded to companies to provide “defense” against the spread of communism. And it stirred in the minds of suburban housewives who had worked in factories and offices while men went off to war, but were unceremoniously kicked out of jobs when the men returned. They asked if that were fair – if we were fair.


By 1960, people were asking whether we were at risk of losing the values and freedom which made us a beacon to the world. But no one thought we had lost those values. The Civil Rights movement was growing. ‘Women’s rights’ was a new concept that would grow. Our courts still thought of themselves as defenders of the individual. And our greatest general could tell us that the “military-industrial complex” was only a risk for the future.

It’s hard to remember now that in 1960 many Americans still didn’t have television or “hi fi”. Almost no one had stereo (the first stereo LPs went on sale in late 1958). VWs and other small European cars were still a rarity even in the big coastal cities. No one even knew that Japanese companies made cars.

In 1960, Kevin Phillips hadn’t developed the “Southern strategy” which would redefine the Republican Party as the home of institutional racism. Jerry Falwell was just starting the “segregation academies” which would make him his first millions. And almost no one had heard of Vietnam.

When Kennedy beat Nixon, our optimism was that we would not lose our national soul. We did not know about the race riots to come. No one imagined anti-war demonstrations or national guardsmen killing college students. We didn’t know about “the pill,” or even (most of us) transistors. The men who would create the first personal computers were still in grade school.

In 1960, we felt that we had stopped a slide into fear and xenophobia. Schools were still assets, not the enemy. Education and science would lead to a better future. In 1960, Kennedy, and we, knew that we had the resources and the will, and that we could fly to the moon.

Today’s Audacity of Hope
Now, Obama, and we, have the audacity to hope that we can find the resources and the will to simply get back on track – to recreate the schools we used to have, to rebuild our disintegrated infrastructure, to restore ourselves to greatness. But that hope is not audacious because Kennedy was right. We do have the resources. And the election of Obama shows that we have the will.

The feelings in 1960 were very different from today’s. But they were each driven by candidates who inspired us to remember our greatness and our capabilities. Kennedy helped us overcome religious bigotry and Obama helped us overcome racial bigotry. Kennedy’s election led to a decade of positive change for the U.S., clouded by serious problems.

Tom Hall

Obama’s election should also lead to years of progress. The progress during his terms may also be clouded by serious problems, some of which we cannot yet imagine. But after eight years in a morass of denial and moral decay, the landslide of electoral votes affirms that we, as a nation, are ready to face whatever difficulties may arise as we turn back from decline to greatness.

Tom Hall

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