1950s and 60s in America

1952 was a presidential election year.  Both parties wanted Eisenhower.  Ike chose the Republicans.  For his running mate he selected a first-term Senator from California named Richard Nixon who had made a name for himself prosecuting some alleged communist spies while serving in the House.  So Ike and Nixon were elected in 52 and again in 56.

The Republicans won in 1952 and again in 1956.

The Republicans won in 1952 and again in 1956.

His Democratic opponent in both races was Adlai Stevenson former Governor of Illinois.  Honestly, his performance in the campaigns was lackluster.  He acted like he really didn’t want the presidency.  Didn’t stand a chance against Ike. Unbelievably Stevenson thought he still had a shot at the nomination in 1960 after failing the party twice.

To his credit, he did serve with distinction as JFK’s ambassador to the United Nations. You’ll remember it was Stevenson who threw in the face of the Soviet delegate the irrefutable evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962.  Adlai had an aggressive approach to confronting the Russians, in front of the world body, with evidence of their lies.  Stevenson died unexpectedly of a heart attack in London in July 1965.

Ike had been SACEUR -Supreme Allied Commander Europe.  He engineered and pulled off D-Day, Operation Overload.   Everybody, everywhere knew Ike.   He was a fair, reasonable and competent man.  So the world understood that with Eisenhower at the helm the United States government was in good, capable and experienced hands.  Some of our European allies (Britain) were already accustomed to “taking orders” from Ike so one could say he hit the ground running…and that paid off big time when the Suez Crisis came along in 1956.

There were a few situations to deal with vis-a-vis the communists.  The “Truman Doctrine” as it was known was a foreign policy initiated by Harry Truman that focused on  containing the expansion of communism.  Russia got the bomb and China had just ‘gone red’ in 1949.  The war in Korea was finally reaching a truce in mid-1953 shortly after Ike came to the White House.

Intercontinental ballistic missile technology was in its early stages of development.  In 1945 we grabbed all the smart Nazi scientists we could find.  The Soviets did the same.

Americans go to the moon in July 1969.

Americans go to the moon in July 1969.

Seems ours, particularly Werner von Braun, a former SS major, were really sharp.  Von Braun was the driving force behind the development of the Saturn V rocket that took our guys to the moon in July 1969.   When it to came to science and technology the Germans were brilliant.

They deployed the first operational jet fighter, the ME-262.  Given time, they would have come up with the atomic bomb.  We were able to prevent that through our bombing by disabling their weapons production facilities not to mention all the research and development that an atomic bomb program would have required.   Look at all the time, effort, money and brains we poured into our Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  It took us a couple years of intensive effort….and we didn’t have anyone bombing us while we were working on it.

Meanwhile, back to the mid-1950s the French were not doing well in what was then called French Indo-China, what today we know as Vietnam.   They basically got their ass kicked there in 1954 at a place called Dien Bien Phu.  The French lost, packed up and went home. They too had wounds to heal at home as did the British.

The Eisenhower Administration had a program of overflying the Soviet Union with U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.  They would take pictures of military installations, missile sites and the like.  One of our guys flying a U-2, Francis Gary Powers, got shot down in 1960 by a Soviet SA-2/Guideline.  An anti-aircraft missile designed specifically for high altitude planes.  Ike owned up to it, “Yeah, that’s our guy, so what?”  The incident torpedoed a planned summit meeting in Paris. After a show trial in Moscow we swapped him for one of their spies,  Rudolph Abel, we caught here in 1957.

SR-71: Top speed greater than three times the speed of sound.

SR-71: Top speed greater than three times the speed of sound.

Later came the development of the SR-71 an aircraft so fast (more than three times the speed of sound) it could outrun any missile the Soviets could produce.   The SR-71 was expensive to operate and was phased out when similar or better products could be obtained from satellites.

After we began using imaging satellites that more or less spelled the end of the manned spy plane.  The world of imaging satellites is fascinating.  But don’t ask me.  I can’t tell you anything.

It’s at about this point in time that I begin to remember things pretty well as they happened.  I was about nine or ten years old.  Every week we got TIME magazine, we got LIFE and LOOK magazines.  We got the city paper every day….I watched the news ~ if not Walter Cronkite on CBS it was the Huntley-Brinkley Report “Hello David, Hello Chet” on NBC.  This is when I began to be aware of and pay attention to what was going on in the larger world around me.  Because  I remember much of this more recent history first hand a lot of it has more meaning for me.   These were my early days as a news or current events junkie.

There was a lot of news being made in the space program – the Mercury astronauts – John Glenn.   That seemed successful and gave us something to be interested in and proud  of.  A good friend from high school wrote a book on the US space program.  The perception then was that we were still behind the Soviets and had some catching up to do.

There began to be racial unrest in different parts of country: marches here, demonstrations there.  I really didn’t understand it at that age.  We had one or two black kids at our school.   Everybody liked them fine.  So what’s the big deal?  What are they so upset about?  At ten years old and growing up in a largely lily white world the whole question of race relations seemed foreign to me as it didn’t touch my life…..yet.

The 1960 election rolled around.  There was a lot of good TV coverage of that one.  My dad was a business owner and a die-hard Republican.   Life had been pretty darn good under Eisenhower – – we got a new car every other year, the economy prospered, no real serious wars.  I suppose it was natural to want a continuation of that….Nixon seemed like the natural choice.  The other guy had sort of an odd accent.  What’s this Cuber anyway?

In American politics the pendulum swings.  After two terms of Republicans many felt it was time for something different just because it was different.  The Eisenhower years had been good prosperous years to be sure and Nixon surely seemed capable.  The Nixon team didn’t know what they were up against.  1960 was the first time ever both candidates appeared together on TV.  That changed forever how American presidential elections would be decided.

Kennedy had something that was appealing.  It wasn’t just that he made a good argument about the Space Race, perceived Soviet advantages in this or that aspect of the arms race.  Yes, he had his facts straight and he was good at talking extemporaneously.  Besides being sharp he had an attractive physical appearance which many who watched the debates on TV picked up on.   Those close to him observed, “He made you feel like you were his best friend in the world” even if he if he had just met you.

Nixon was better known.  He’d been Vice President for eight years.  Those who listened to the debates on radio thought Nixon did better.  Many who watched on TV preferred Kennedy.

1960 was the first televised presidential debate

1960 was the first televised presidential debate

These two had been good friends when they first came to Washington in 1947 as freshmen Congressmen.  In fact, Joe Kennedy contributed to one of Nixon’s campaigns.

JFK and Nixon maintained reasonably cordial relations after the election even though each privately disparaged the other.  Nixon was a prolific writer, especially after he left the White House in August 1974.  I read in one of his memoirs that Kennedy called him during the Cuban Missile Crisis and asked if he would stop by the White House.  Nixon came to visit.  The President asked Nixon, “What would you do?”  Nixon writes he counselled Kennedy that he’d find a reason and invade Cuba.  Can you imagine where that would have landed us?  Knowing now what we do about what the Russians really had in Cuba?

Years later, during Nixon’s first term, he and Pat quietly and privately invited Jackie, Caroline and John Jr back to White House to see Jack’s official portrait.  It was her first time back since leaving it as her residence on December 6, 1963.   Anyway, back to the 1960 election……

Yes, it was a very close election.  It was the first election that included Alaska and Hawaii as states.  So now a candidate needed 269 votes in the Electoral College to win the White House.   Kennedy ended with 303 so he clearly won.  Nixon had 219.  In the popular vote Kennedy’s margin was razor thin: 118,500 out of roughly 68 million votes cast.  That’s like 15/100th’s of 1%.  Slim is the word.  Many Nixon supporters encouraged the VP to demand a recount.   Nixon was smart enough to know he couldn’t appear to be a sore loser, a poor sport.

A cardinal rule of American politics: We don’t like a poor sport.  If you lose, then you lose.  Don’t cry and whine about it.   So in January 1961 John Kennedy became President.  I remember watching that event live on TV.  My old man was having a fit saying the country was going to hell because the Democrats were back in.   One of JFK’s first moves was a tax cut, so that placated the conservatives somewhat.

The one inaugural address we can't forget

The one inaugural address we can’t forget

Kids my age….we were taught that the Russians were generally the bad guys – and they wanted to come and get us.  That was the reason we went through all those exercises in the basement of the elementary school.  Of course we did not know that it wouldn’t do us a bit of good.

As an adult, as a student of history, you look back on that era and you see the real danger.

If you have looked at the Cold War some of the most turbulent years were the very early 1960s. The Berlin Wall went up in August 1961.  The Soviets were threatening to conclude a separate peace with East Germany which would mean West Berlin would be threatened. Kennedy guided us through the Berlin confrontation with the Soviets and later the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.  JFK understood all too well that whatever we did to Cuba, Khrushchev would do to West Berlin.  It’s a damn good thing he was not as trigger happy as those brass hats over at the Pentagon.  They would have taken us to war in a second over Cuba.

The recent book out by Hyperion deals with interviews Jackie gave to Arthur Schlesinger in the months immediately following the President’s death…spring of 1964.  In that book Jackie makes the interesting observation that JFK considered West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to be a real pain in the ass because he was always hounding the President about whether America would really go to war with Russia over West Germany’s (including West Berlin’s) security.

So one of the reasons why President Kennedy went to West Berlin in June of 1963 was to put that issue to rest and get Adenauer off his back. The now immortal Ich bin ein Berliner speech is a “must watch“.  The whole film is about ten minutes…best part is towards the end at 9:40, “All free men, wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin.  Therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner”.  I also like the remark at 5:06 “….we never had to put a wall up to keep our people in – – to prevent them from leaving us”.  Take the time to watch the whole thing.

A couple of points about this speech:

Ich bin ein Berliner

Ich bin ein Berliner

– other than his inaugural it’s probably his best remembered public address anywhere.

– his chief speech writer was Ted Sorensen who was absolutely brilliant.  He is the guy largely responsible for much of Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric.  Sorensen is rumored to have ghost-written Profiles in Courage, for which Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature.

 this nonsense about the jelly donut.  While living there nearly four years I spoke to many native Germans who told me that Ich bin ein Berliner is a perfectly correct way to express that “I am a Berliner”.  Yes, there was a local pastry called a Berliner.  One would go into a Konditorei, a bakery or pastry shop, and say Ich möchte ein Berliner, bitte or  ‘I’d like a Berliner, please.’  Sure, that’s correct.  But Kennedy was NOT saying, “I’m a donut”.  That’s some jackass throwing mud.  I’m sure some sorry soul at the State Dept would have paid with his job had there been that kind of error.

– can you tell by the way the crowd responds that they seem to understand even his accented American english? No interpreter was really needed.

– the fact that the leader of the Free World would go to this island of democracy amidst a  sea of communist supresion and commit the United States to its defense….still strikes me as remarkable.

I had a buddy, years ago, in Washington DC who worked for NSA ~ yes, the National Security Agency.  You know, those guys who are reading your email and listening in on your cell phone calls.   He was in that crowd that day in West Berlin.  He told me there had never been such a crowd in Germany, so large and so enthusiastic since the annual party rallies in Nürnberg.  And I don’t have to tell you it wasn’t Kennedy giving those speeches.

This is one of my favorite video clips. The Kennedys had a second home in Atoka, Virginia where they would spend weekends. Caroline had a pony and Jackie, an avid equestrian, was teaching the kids to ride. Kennedy was evidently allergic to horses and tended to keep his distance. On this particular weekend, in November of 1963, -less than two weeks before his death – they had Ben Bradlee and his wife to visit. Bradlee would later go on to become editor in chief of the Washington Post.

While enjoying some late-morning Bloody Marys on the back porch, the President had in his hand a few cubes of salt which horses apparently crave. To the great amusement of the staff and press corps, the pony went after the salt cubes in JFK’s hands with an aggressiveness that made the whole scene enormously comical. As the pony pushes the President to the ground in pursuit of the salt Kennedy exclaimed to press, “You’re about to see a President eaten by a horse”. It shows the common touch Jack had for natural instincts – the pony, of course, neither knowing nor caring, that the guy he’s pursuing is the President of the United States, leader of the Free World.  Here’s the clip: Virginia Horse Country.

Every generation has its landmark event.  I remember my dad telling me how he remembered the exact time and place he was when the news of Pearl Harbor broke.  For those growing into adults today it was Sept 11th.  Who can forget those images?  For my generation it was, unmistakably, Nov 22nd.

Public schools up North, at least back then -late 1950s/early 1960s- were pretty good.  I started at the neighborhood elementary school -I think- in 1957.  Back in those dark ages: telephones had dials, not buttons; televisions were black and white and got all of three channels: NBC, CBS and ABC.

The singular, defining event of our young lives back then was the death of President Kennedy in November 1963.

That shattered our sense of safety and made us all realize that despite all the power and strength of our country that the world was really not a safe place.  If they could kill the President, then no one was really safe.   I was in 5th grade that Friday afternoon.  The world came to a screeching halt. Time stood still. We were all quietly wondering whatever the fifth-grade equivalent was back then of “what the hell is going on?”

The way it broke was like this: we were having the typical afternoon lesson and another teacher came to our classroom door.  She called our teacher over and we saw her whisper something in her ear.  Our teacher reacted by gasping and putting both her hands over her mouth with that wide-eyed look of disbelief.   Moments later the school principal came over intercom, addressing the entire school at once, she said: “Boys and girls I have some very bad news.  President Kennedy is dead.”  That was the moment America lost its innocence.  That was the moment we began our descent from the mountaintop.

We were fortunate to live across the street from this rather large Irish Catholic family with ties to Boston.  When JFK was elected they were delighted.  Their ship had come in.  One of their own had made it to the top.   I went over there that Friday afternoon -they had a son exactly my age and he and I were pretty good friends -and I remember well the mother having a meltdown…really coming unglued…and who could blame her?  There I was a ten year old kid watching an adult I knew so well cry and sob uncontrollably  It ain’t a pretty picture.   There was a lot of that going on that day.  It was a very bad time for all of us.  After sixty years I can say probably the worst day of my life.

We spent the next three days glued to the television set.  The nation was changed forever.  We were no longer the country where things just kept getting better and better – bigger, stronger and richer.

It wasn’t until years….years….later when I was in college that I really began to understand what we lost that day.  Historical fiction is a fascinating topic for me.  If Kennedy had lived would we have had Vietnam? the uproar on the nation’s college campuses? Kent State? the race-riots that tore our cities apart in the 1960s?  Watergate?  I think the 1960s would have turned out differently.

In Kennedy the nation saw a fresh new vision for the future of America.  Whether it was

Official portrait

Official portrait

the eloquence of his speech or Jackie’s so-called ‘style’, his youth, his kids – -he gave us the idea that as a country we had a destiny to fulfill, to lead the nation indeed all of mankind, to a better life ‘where the strong were just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved.’ And we were the only nation that could do it, because we were Americans and nothing was beyond our reach.

Next thing you know, JFK is replaced by this guy who has all the charm, appeal and charisma of a tree stump.  What a let down.  No kidding.  LBJ had all the glamour and allure of door knob.

Would JFK had been able to pass much of the Great Society legislation that LBJ got through the Congress?  Remember Johnson was Senate Majority Leader during most of the Eisenhower years….and he -better than anyone else – knew how to manipulate individual members of Congress.  He could do it better than anyone.   I read recently one southern Senator was quoted saying, “We could have beat Kennedy on the Civil Rights bill, but not Johnson”.  Medicare, the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, Head Start, the War on Poverty, Affirmative Action….all those Great Society programs…..Is it true only LBJ could have pushed all that through Congress?

I give Johnson credit for being passionately committed to a range of well-intentioned domestic programs -the war on poverty, civil rights, aid to education, health care – all very noble goals.   But he sure screwed us on Vietnam.  And I blame McNamara, Rusk, Westmoreland as much -or more- than LBJ.  If all his advisers are feeding him bullshit ~ as they were ~ then how can he be expected to make intelligent, accurate decisions.  It was

LBJ and Sec Def Robt McNamara react to news of the Tet Offensive: "Holy Shit, what now?"

LBJ and Sec Def Robt McNamara react to news of the Tet Offensive:
“Holy Shit, what now?”

always, “We just need another 200,000 soldiers, Mr President, and we’ll have this wrapped up.”  And then Tet…Jan 31, 1968.  At that point Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America” said “there’s no light at the end of this tunnel”.  LBJ concluded correctly that “if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America”.

Lyndon Johnson despairs over the agony of Vietnam. He is listening to a tape recording from a Marine officer, Capt Chuck Robb, who would later become his son-in-law and Governor and Senator from Virginia.

Lyndon Johnson despairs over the agony of Vietnam

I remember eating dinner every night in front of the TV watching this.  The news just kept getting worse and the numbers of American dead going up and up.  And for what?  I recently heard some retired enlisted guy tell a bunch of high school kids (I’ve taught high school recently) that it was all “to preserve democracy in South Vietnam”.  I nearly puked.  Whatever that government was in Saigon it sure as hell was not democratic….so let’s dispense with that nonsense right now.

LBJ ran in the New Hampshire primary in 1968 against Gene McCarthy of Minnesota, the foremost anti-war candidate.   As the incumbent LBJ should have walked away with a nice fat victory in that contest.  He didn’t.  He squeaked out a small victory.  That was the handwriting on the wall.  If he were to run in 1968, he’d lose.   So March 31, 1968 he went on national TV and said….”I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as yer Prezdit”.  Lyndon was out.

That left Hubert Humphrey, who was now VP, McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, now a Senator from New York, who had just declared for the Presidency a few weeks earlier.  George Smathers of Florida was running but he didn’t have a real chance. So it was HHH, McCarthy and RFK.   Bobby was shot June 5th and died the next day.  That pretty much left Hubert.

1968 was really a crappy year in America:

1. January: The Tet Offensive in Vietnam made it crystal clear we were  NOT winning that war like the military told us we were. Walter Cronkite said, “No end in sight”

2. February: highest one-month death toll in Vietnam since war started

3. March: LBJ nearly loses New Hampshire primary and drops out of race

4. April: MLK shot in Memphis

Senator Robert Kennedy might well have won the 1968 election.

Senator Robert Kennedy might well have won the 1968 election.

5. June: RFK shot in LA

6. August: Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia to suppress Prague Spring; Czech efforts to present “Socialism with a Human Face” are crushed by Soviet tanks.

7. July: Democrats convene in Chicago and nominate Humphrey.  Beatings of protesters by Chicago police make the Nazis look like Girl Scouts.

8. July: Republicans convene in Miami Beach and nominate Nixon, again.

9. October: Jackie marries Aristotle Onassis ~nothing really wrong with that. She was terrified that in America, “they were killing Kennedys” and her kids were next.

10: November: Nixon elected ~ four more years of the Vietnam War and then Watergate.

My take on Nixon

Now I know it’s popular to hate Richard Nixon. Yes, he lied his ass off to the American people on national television.  He prolonged the Vietnam War for four years.  Here’s my Cliff Notes version of the Watergate affair: The term “Watergate” refers to a small group of buildings along the banks of the Potomac river in Washington, DC.  It is a multi-use facility including retails shops, upscale apartments and office space.  The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had rented some office space in Watergate complex.

These DNC offices were broken into by operatives of Nixon’s re-election campaign on the night of June 17, 1972.  While attempting to install listening devices they were caught and arrested by Washington, D.C. police.  Just five days later on June 22nd Nixon is heard (over his Oval Office taping system) ordering the CIA to tell the FBI to back off their investigation of “the Watergate thing” for national security reasons.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is called Obstruction of Justice.

When you interfere with a law enforcement agency’s investigation of a crime you are obstructing justice.  That’s a crime in these United States.  People can and do go to jail for committing that crime.   Yes, that even applies to the president.

So now (August 1974) there’s a smoking gun….concrete proof that Nixon is guilty as hell.  He can be forced from office – through the impeachment process, or he can resign…..but one way or another – he’s leaving.

When this ‘smoking-gun’ evidence was made public, the Republican leaders of the Senate went to the White House and told Nixon, “Mr. President, given these circumstances you will NOT survive a trial in the Senate”….meaning that he would in fact be forced from office.

Did he want to be first President in the history of the United States to be forcibly removed from office?  Is that what he wanted for his legacy?  He asked for a few days to consider his options….the Congress paused the impeachment process, already underway, for a day or two to give the man some time.

On the evening of August 8, 1974 he went on national television and announced he would resign the following day.  His new Vice-President Gerald Ford was sworn in at noon on August 9th and we were done with Nixon.

The magnificence of our American constitutional system of government is that we have always had peaceful changes of our chief executive.  Whether power is transferred from one party to the other or in the midst of crisis like Watergate.  Nobody’s shooting at each other. It’s an orderly, respectful, revered process that has worked since George Washington was first inaugurated on Wall St in New York City on April 30, 1789.

For these reasons most Americans have dumped on Nixon for the last 40 years.  Let me just speak from a personal perspective for a moment.  There used to be this govt organization called the Selective Service, more commonly known as “the draft”.  Their job was to supply personnel for the armed forces.  They had the legal authority to force American citizens into the military if they were needed….whether those citizens wanted to go or not.

Nixon cancelled the draft at a time when the military was getting ready to induct me into the service and I was not thrilled with that idea…at all.  At the 11th hour, he cancelled the draft.  I had been down to the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) for the physical exam, done all paperwork, blood drawn – – nearly ready to go.  Then Nixon cancels the draft.  He saved my ass at the very last minute. You think whatever you like.  I don’t have a bad word to say about Richard Nixon.  We visited his home, presidential museum and burial site in Yorba Linda, CA.

If you can set aside Watergate and the other nasty stuff, the Enemy’s List, there were some positive accomplishments to his administration.  No one can deny he improved relations with the Soviets.  He opened a dialogue with communist China which can only be seen as a good thing.  He established the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the Office of Management of the Budget (OMB), the Office of Energy Policy supporting the Clean Air Act.  He expanded civil rights laws to include discrimination based on sex, expanded enforcement of Affirmative Action and he supported lowering the voting age to 18.

Okay, so the man had some faults….but he wasn’t the devil.