The Dallas Morning News published a Wanted ad with JFK in full-face and profile like a criminal being booked. He was wanted for many sins, including daring to negotiate a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. There was the possibility that he might pull American troops out of Vietnam after the election. The extreme right wing was strong in Dallas, home of the John Birch Society and General Edwin Walker, a fanatic who was close to treasonous in his statements against the President. The hate was alive and well in Dallas. Only a few weeks before U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been attacked by protesters when he had made an appearance in the city.
I’m well aware of Jack Kennedy’s faults. I’m not happy with his constant womanizing or his rich boy background, but I judge him more on his record as President. I see a man who learned from his mistakes and who had looked into the face of nuclear war and knew that he would do anything in his power to prevent it if he could. He was pragmatic, sending American advisers into South Vietnam to try and stem the Communist tide from the North. The regime in power was corrupt and the assassination that took place in early November of 1963 left a bad taste in JFK’s mouth. He was skeptical of the CIA and military experts after his own service during World War II and the Bay of Pigs debacle in April of 1961. He would make a decision on Vietnam with as many facts as he could get. If it served the country’s interests to send more troops there, he would. If it served them to pull out the troops, he would do that. He was growing more disenchanted with our chances in Southeast Asia.
He had used his healthy skepticism to try and come up with a solution during the Cuban Missile Crisis that wouldn’t get us all blown up. He didn’t want to strike at the missiles with American air power except as a last resort. There were Russian technicians and troops in Cuba at the sites. Killing them would guarantee a retaliatory strike by the Soviet Union. He was afraid of events escalating beyond his control and was determined to come to a solution as quickly as possible, and pulled it off.
He was a man who allowed himself to grow intellectually. A staunch Cold Warrior at the beginning of his Presidency, he realized that there had to be a better way and set about to do that, installing a ‘hot line’ between himself and Nikita Khrushchev and proposing and negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. During a press conference he answered a reporter’s questions about the treaty and said that both sides would still have plenty of weapons to kill millions of people within minutes, spoken with an edge of sarcasm. Despite his own practicality he couldn’t help but sound like a bonafide liberal in this case, disgusted at the thought of man’s capacity to annihilate himself many times over.
By the fall of 1963, he was determined to lessen the tensions of the Cold War even more. His personal life had undergone a trauma with the birth and death of his son Patrick, who lived only a few days in August and died because of breathing problems. His birth had been premature. Friends and family said that he and Jackie had grown closer after that trauma. At any rate, she agreed to accompany on a political trip for the first time in his Presidency with Texas as the destination. Her previous trips had been overseas and state affairs in places like Paris and Vienna.
There was potential and promise in Jack Kennedy. And when people heard about the assassination, the shock was psychological: the country’s leader had been slain, and that made us all feel vulnerable. If Jack Kennedy could be snuffed out in a second, what hope did the rest of us have? He’d had everything and it was gone in the time it took to blow his head off.
It was for the best that he died in Parkland Hospital. What would have been left? A vegetable with half his brain gone, hooked up to machines? Horrifying.
It was a time of no cell phones, no Internet, and Government clampdown, confiscating cameras with stills and moving pictures. The infamous Zapruder film was bought by Time-Life and kept in a vault until 12 years later. The American people would not see the film until 1975 on national television, or had only seen grainy bootleg copies in church hall basements or college campuses.
And the American people’s belief and trust in their Government began to erode. To them, there were too many unanswered questions, too many cover-ups, too many lies. Vietnam built on that cracking foundation and the country split apart, and we still haven’t fully recovered. It was the Civil War all over again with families torn apart and civil unrest, though this time the war was fought half a world away.
November 22, 1963 should never be forgotten. The people who remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news never will. For the generations who didn’t know what it was like to live in an exciting era with the symbolic glamour and promise of the New Frontier, they only see a man known for constant womanizing and other unsavory things done in bare-fisted politics. They’ll never know the excitement and the innocence of an era sandwiched between the Eisenhower Fifties and the chaotic mid-to-late Sixties to come. They’ll never understand how he inspired people to enter politics, a profession now universally regarded as venal and corrupt. People don’t feel as if problems can be solved anymore. The prosperity of the early ‘60s for working-class and middle-class folks is gone. The wages that allowed young, working-class couples to raise two kids in a house with two cars will never be seen again.
I saw a photograph once of JFK on Cape Cod in a car. A Secret Service agent was driving. JFK had stopped to talk to two elderly ladies out for a stroll in their clam-digger pants and sandals, very casual clothes worn during a summer on the Cape. He wore sunglasses and casual clothes and simply talked to them. They, of course, were delighted, talking to him with big smiles on their faces.
Think of that for a minute. Can you imagine a scenario like that happening today? But back in the early ‘60s, the President of the United States could stop a car on the back roads of Cape Cod and chat with two old ladies without the Secret Service objecting at all. Of course that ease of interaction and minimal security caused the bubbletop to come off the limousine for the motorcade that slowly went through the streets of Dallas that fateful day, but I doubt Jack Kennedy would have traded the ease for security. He’d already been at death’s door at least half a dozen times in his life. He said to Jackie on the morning of November 22nd that they were in ‘nut country’ now and if someone wanted to shoot him, they’d do it. He refused to live his life afraid.
We’ll never see a free-and-easy time like that again, or a President like Jack Kennedy. Maybe some people think that’s a good thing, but I’d have to disagree.