Thursday, November 21, 2013

Nov. 22, 1963: A Turning Point for America

By Reginald Johnson

                For a long time, I  believed 9-11 was worst thing that ever happened to the United States.

    It was awful. Nearly 3,000 people killed in those terror attacks and so many families left grief-stricken.

    And 9-11 set the stage for the brutal (and in one case misguided) wars that followed, in Iraq and Afghanistan

          But in the last few weeks, I’ve changed my mind.  When I saw the 50th anniversary shows on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and saw the old footage, it all came back. As bad as Sept. 11 was, I don’t think anything shook this country as much as the death of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t seem like this country has ever been the same since that day.

     I’ve heard phrases thrown around recently to describe the meaning of that day: “The day we lost our innocence,”  and another, (the title of a blog by Ira Chernus) “The day truth died.”  These are both right. It was such a shattering event.

    Maybe it’s because I was a naive 16-year-old private school student when this happened. Very idealistic, and, like a lot of  people my age at the time, a great fan of JFK. Here was this dashing young president who was both bright and witty and inspiring. He seemed to say and do all the right things: urging young people to get involved,  helping their country and the world with efforts like the Peace Corps; working to help the movement for integration; backing legislation that would eventually become Medicare; signing the nuclear test ban treaty; promoting the space program and sending men into space.

   In those days, we were in a Cold War with Russia, and we were proud when Kennedy stood up to the Soviets over the placement of missiles in Cuba and spoke out for freedom while visiting the Berlin Wall.

   And he came to be president  at a time when the country was booming economically and was the most admired country in the world. Our standard of living was tops and there were plenty of jobs --- particularly manufacturing jobs.

   It seemed like America and our young president could do no wrong.

   It was in that cocoon of innocence that I returned from lunch on Nov. 22, set to go to another class, when I overheard someone say, ‘Kennedy was shot.’   Feeling stunned, I rushed over to this small building where students could socialize and smoke cigarettes. Some of my friends were there listening to the radio. I lit up a cigarette as  the news came over. Minutes later, there was silence. Then a somber voice announced, ‘The president is dead.’ The Star Spangled Banner began playing. I couldn’t believe it.  Just total disbelief.  I was also pissed. I threw down my cigarette, stomped on it and left. I didn’t want to talk with anyone.

   The next several days, I was glum and kept to myself. I missed the 24-7 television coverage, missed Oswald getting shot, missed new President Lyndon Johnson’s announcements and much of Kennedy’s funeral. How could this happen here? The United States?  It took months for me to get over the shock.

 I was able to get over it in part because I was reassured by Johnson’s statements and actions. He pledged to follow the Kennedy program, particularly with civil rights. When the following fall came around, Johnson seemed downright saintly compared to the crackpot Republican candidate for president that year, Barry Goldwater, who had talked about dropping an atomic bomb on Vietnam!  Johnson, meanwhile, said he would not send U.S. troops to Vietnam. Seemed like a good guy.

  But within months, it was clear Johnson was lying. In early ’65,  the U.S. had started bombing North Vietnam. By the spring, the first troops were sent. Within a few years, we had hundreds of thousands of troops there, all in the name of “stopping communism.” Many of our soldiers died. But many, many more Vietnamese died. We pulverized that country with bombing and poisoned it with napalm and Agent Orange. When all was said and done, we had lost 55,000 people; the Vietnamese had lost 3 million.

   And during the Vietnam era, a lot of ugly divisions in our society began to surface, between hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hippies and hard hats, religious versus non-religious. A lot of that divisiveness is still out there today.

  After Johnson, we got the corruption of Richard Nixon and Watergate.  A few years later, the downward curve continued with the coming of Ronald Reagan, and his backwards notion that “government is the problem.”  Reagan began the process of chipping away at the safety net and the New Deal, and undermining unions --- more trends we’re still dealing with today.

  More recently we’ve had George W. Bush and his disastrous war on Iraq and two vacillating small ‘d’  democrat presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Their vision of government is almost as limited as the Republicans.

   Maybe I am idealizing the Kennedy years, but things were better then. Since that period there’s been progress only in few areas. Women’s rights are certainly better today than they were in the early ‘60s. Legal and political rights for blacks are better, though the economic struggle for most blacks still goes on.

  But what else? Our middle class has sunk, quality jobs have evaporated, and our nation is constantly at war.

  I think if Jack Kennedy lived, I think the late 1960s would have been better, and that would have provided a good foundation for the future. It is a fact that he signed a memorandum a month before he died that he intended to pull all U.S. advisors out of Vietnam by 1965. Supposing there had been no Vietnam War? And supposing Kennedy had followed up on feelers to bring a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and end the insane arms race?

   It should be said Kennedy had his failings, and there are certainly a lot of skeptics out there who downplay what he would have done if he had lived. He was a philanderer and dishonest to his wife; though publicly pushing integration he was friendly with southern segregationists for political purposes; and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 was a boneheaded move.

   But I believe if Kennedy had lived, there would have been no Vietnam War, and he would have achieved lot at home, in the end compiling a domestic record that would have rivaled FDR’s.

   I think it’s definitely fair to say if JFK, his brother Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had lived, America would be a much better place today.


I’ve always felt there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.  Lee Harvey Oswald may well have been part of it, but he did not act alone. Too many people heard too many shots that day in Dallas, and eyewitnesses saw some shots come from the front of Kennedy’s motorcade, something the Warren Commission denied happening. (The Warren Commission, charged with investigating the assassination, concluded Oswald acted alone, and shot Kennedy from the rear, firing a rifle from a 6th-floor window).

 While Kennedy was quite popular in general,  he was hated by some, including right-wingers and anti-Castro Cubans. He also had a lot of detractors in the military and the intelligence agencies, who thought Kennedy was ‘too soft on communism.’  I believe people from the intelligence sector and the military, as well as some anti-communist Cubans, were part of the conspiracy. Oswald was on the fringes. Jack Ruby was sent to shut Oswald up. The fact that Ruby, a nobody, could waltz into the Dallas police station while the most important criminal suspect in American history was being transported, then walk up and shoot Oswald dead, tells you all you need to know about this case. It’s been a total cover-up.

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