Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Kennedy Years

We've been watching "The Kennedys" on Reelz TV. The series was originally produced for the History Channel, but they declined to air it since they felt the producer was too harsh on the family, especially poppa Joe. They paint him as a controlling, micro-managing fanatic who would stop at nothing to get one of his sons elected President of the United States. It is rumored that, partly because she has a new book coming out on her family, Caroline Kennedy and the rest of the clan exerted pressure on A&E, the parent company of the History Channel, to yank the series because it portrayed her family as manipulating schemers. I found it ironic that in pulling the rug out from under this fine series, the Kennedys acted in exactly the way the producers characterized them in the show.

But I'm not out to bash the Kennedys; they have suffered enough. I really wanted to write about the crises I lived through during the Kennedy administration. I never really thought about it because it just seemed like part of growing up, but President John Kennedy faced some big time challenges in his short time in office. There were many issues facing the country, and it seemed unfair somehow that all would come to a head on JFK's watch. It was the height of the Cold War, with Russia and the United States circling like two Summo wrestlers over who would be the 800 pound gorilla in the world. Racial tensions were tearing the country apart, and the newly liberated island of Cuba, just 90 miles off our coast, was cozying up to the Russians. It seemed as if real life was playing out like in the movies Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May.

First. there was the crisis in Berlin. In November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev issued an ultimatum giving the Western powers six months to agree to withdraw from Berlin and make it a free, demilitarized city. Kruschev and Eisenhower talked but no agreement was reached. In 1961, alarmed by the steady flow of citizens from to East to West Berlin, the border to West Berlin was closed and the Berlin Wall erected. President Kennedy responded by calling up nearly 150,000 National Guardsmen. My Army reserve was on alert but never activated. My pal Lefty from Hull Street was called up with his reserve unit and spent a year in North Carolina making Raleigh safe for Democracy. The Berlin Wall stood until the great Ronald Wilson Reagan made his famous: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in 1987.

Most southern states had "separate but equal" rules for whites and blacks in the early sixties for schools and other public facilities. A black student named James Meredith, who had attended an all black junior college for two years, applied in 1960 to get a degree at the University of Mississippi. He was denied entry twice, with the leading opponent being the state governor, Ross Barnett. After winning a case brought on his behalf by the NAACP, Meredith thought the matter had been settled. But Governor Barnett, despite telling President Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy that he would stand aside, broke his word and incited the locals to riot, resulting in injuries and death. The Kennedys, infuriated at the betrayal, called in the National Guard who led Meredith through the university's door. This was a shameful incident in American history, and JFK, despite knowing he would lose Southern reelection votes, ultimately did the right thing.

With hardly time to catch his breath, Kennedy was up at bat again. In September 1962, after some unsuccessful operations by the U.S. to overthrow the Cuban regime (Bay of Pigs) the Cuban and Soviet governments began to surreptitiously build bases in Cuba for a number of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles with the ability to strike most of the continental United States. On October 14, 1962, a United States Air Force U-2 plane on a photoreconnaissance mission captured photographic proof of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba. The U.S. announced that it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed in Cuba and remove all offensive weapons. Cuba and the Soviets backed down after the United States agreed never to invade Cuba.

I voted for JFK when I was young and foolish, and a registered Democrat. I was greatly saddned when he was killed in 1963. Although history may have taken some of the bloom off the Camelot legend by revealing JFK's human frailties, I think he did a credible job in dealing with all the world-shaking crises he faced in so short a time. I have also gained a measure of respect for his brother Bobby. It was his job to play bad cop to JFK's good cop. Bobby was the hammer in JFK's velvet glove. Together they bullied and cajoled the Congress and the Cabinet, with able assistance from one of the world's greatest political persuaders, Lyndon Baines Johnson. I don't know how anyone stands up to the pressure of being the leader of the free world. I don't envy them their job of running this country, and though I often violently disagree with their policies, I applaud them for having the courage to try.


Children's Craniofacial Association 

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