THE END OF INNOCENCE, THE BEGINNING OF THE NIGHTMARE
Last Friday was the day. Now, fifty-six years later, I feel like that was the beginning of our national nightmare. At the time, everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. Then came 9/11 and now, 18 years afterward, kids don’t remember it and their parents don’t tell them. And of course, we’re grandparents and no one listens to us.
That day in November was the beginning of a nightmare. We didn’t see it then. We thought things were looking good, but really, they were getting worse. We didn’t know that the little scuffle that started while Kennedy was President and continued through Lyndon Baines Johnson who, had he avoided Vietnam, might have been one of our best presidents.
Then there was Nixon. All of this has coiled around and begun to choke us.
I was 13 when Kennedy was elected. I watched the inauguration on television, the first of many inaugurations I would watch. It was the greatest inaugural speech. I was naïve enough to believe he wrote it himself. I was impressed by his hair, the best hair of any President before or since. Especially after 8 years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower — who was very bald.
In 1963 I turned 16. I started college. Kennedy was shot in November and somehow, the world tilted slightly and it all changed. I’m sure every person old enough to know anything would remember where they were when they heard the news. It was a landmark event, a turning point in American history. For many of us, it was as if we’d bungee jumped and the elastic snapped. Then there was a long fall downward. I think it was the beginning of our national depression. Note that now we have a national case of high blood pressure. No, really. It’s true.
I was in the cafeteria at Hofstra University. I had a cup of tea in my hand and was about to sit. The public address system in the cafeteria went on. There was a lot of noise, but gradually it grew quiet. It was a news report and it took a few minutes to recognize what they were saying, to form a context and understand that this was real. Someone had shot our President.
A few minutes later, everyone fell silent. Hundreds of students, sitting or standing. No one moving, no one talking. I stood at the table. Frozen. I never sat. I stood in the same spot for over an hour, holding that cup of tea, cooling in my hand. Until the voice on the loudspeaker said “President Kennedy is dead. The President is dead.”
Gradually, everyone drifted away. Subdued. Silent.
I found my boyfriend. We wandered around for a few hours. We didn’t do anything. Just roamed the campus, dazed. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen, not in the United States. Eventually, when it was dark, I went home. My mother wanted to know where I’d been and I said, “Just wandering around.” She didn’t believe me but after a few hours of news, she did.
Kennedy was “our” president. He was young, attractive. So different from who we’d had before. I hadn’t been old enough to vote for him, but I was old enough to know what was happening. I watched the debates — the first ones on television. My friends and I discussed it. It was exciting. My mother kept referring to him as “such a young man.”
At thirteen, a 43-year old guy didn’t seem young. Those were the days, eh?
For the better part of the next week, all the channels on television — there were only seven — 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 — had wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral. Endless replays of the assassination. The subsequent shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The beginning of the conspiracy theories that still swirl around this piece of history, though at this point I don’t care whodunnit 50 years ago. There are many unsolved crimes in history. Just add this to the long list.
I went to hang out with a friend. We took long walks to get away from the endless, morbid reiteration of the life and death of John F. Kennedy.
Gradually, life returned to normal, whatever that is. Lyndon Baines Johnson was in office. It was all about civil rights and Vietnam. I finished college, got married, wound up in the hospital and had my first near-death experience. There would be a lot more assassinations in the near future. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. I never got used to them, but I stopped being shocked. Which is shocking. It’s like getting used to people shooting children at schools. You get numb after a while.
The 1960s were not about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. This was the decade of war, the draft, anti-war protests, and civil rights. This is when flunking out of college meant you were going to Vietnam and maybe wouldn’t come back. Strange how quickly we forget and replace history with mythology.
November 22, 1963, was the end of our political innocence, Democrats, Republicans, everyone. An abrupt turning point. The beginning of the road we find ourselves on today.
A president — our president — had been assassinated. Kennedy wasn’t the only U.S. President to be assassinated, but he was the first in modern times. The first TV president. A young, handsome guy. Especially important to my generation, a symbol that the torch really had passed to a new generation. We took that call to arms seriously.
It’s hard for me to look at politics today, see how petty we’ve become. Kennedy’s assassination was an end and a beginning. He was the last President to get a pass on his personal life. The first president to use electronic media to win an election. It was the beginning of a political divide that keeps getting deeper.
Politics isn’t about real issues anymore. It’s all about character assassination, insinuation, innuendo, lies, and rumors. How narrow-minded and hateful we’ve become. I want to believe it will pass. Supposedly, all things do. But when? Will I be alive when it does?
POSTSCRIPT: HOW LBJ INHERITED VIETNAM BUT GOT ALL THE BLAME
The history of Vietnam is enormously complicated. It actually began with the French who invaded it and were tossed out. At that point, Eisenhower was president and he sent “advisors” in and then came Kennedy who sent in a lot more advisors who were more like troops, but it wasn’t officially a war. Actually, it was never officially a war.
It was a military “intervention” which is a war without the title. LBJ inherited the war from Kennedy and he didn’t like it, didn’t want it, wanted to get out, but all the military guys told him he couldn’t do that, so he stayed and politically, it destroyed him. Which was a pity because he was a brilliant president — everything our current Bloated Orangehead isn’t. But the good stuff – Medicare and Medicaid and the Civil Rights amendment — got lost under the gigantic mess in Vietnam.
Nixon basically won the next election by telling everyone HE would end the war, but he didn’t. In the end, he did exactly what Trump did in Syria: he declared a victory and pulled our troops out leaving thousands of Vietnamese who had fought with us to be slaughtered by the North Vietnamese — which was exactly what my mother had predicted would happen. She said that’s what we always do. We go in, and when it’s obvious we can’t “win,” we declare a victory and leave. The difference between what Nixon did and what Trump did is that there were years of pointless negotiations before we pulled out the troops and left. Otherwise, it was the same story.
There were many thousands of refugees desperate to get out of there. Israel took in a few thousand and we got our first really good Asian restaurants as a result. They were such nice people. I’m sure they still are.
I remember when we first went into Vietnam and my mother, who was politically very sharp, said “The French just got whipped there and left. What the Hell do we think WE are doing there?”
Garry actually talked to LBJ about this when he was in Vietnam. See these two stories:
He was a great president, but he buried himself in a war in which he didn’t believe. He was right. We didn’t win it or even come close to winning — and used up every bit of political clout he had to get the Civil Rights Amendment, Medicare and Medicaid passed through congress. Other than Vietnam, he was probably the first really great president since FDR. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. No one was noticing the good stuff he was doing … just Vietnam. Since then, we’ve had endless pointless unwinnable wars and I swear, no one really cares anymore except for the guys who have to fight them and the parents who get to bury their kids. There’s much more to it.
Ken Burns did what I’ve heard is a brilliant documentary about Vietnam (PBS). I have not watched it. Too close to the reality I lived. Maybe one day I will, but not right now. I think it would just remind me of how we turned into the disaster we’ve become.
This piece started as a comment, but I’ve always felt that Vietnam is presented without any context. I don’t think most people realize LBJ didn’t start the war. No one reads history. We think everything we do is unique. Which is what happens when you don’t know the history.