(Swans - November 18, 2013) November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We can expect many commentaries on, remembrances of, and uses and misuses made of this anniversary during this month of November. My contribution to that chatter is this look back at the last fifty years in American history, from my personal perspective. I make no claims of scholarship, inclusiveness, balance, or attitudinal and interpretive "correctness," only that the following characterizes how I remember what I've chosen to focus on with respect to the "big picture" of American history that I have lived through.
The America of November 1963 was a country that had seen the collapse of European colonialism in Asia and Africa during the post World War II period of 1945-1960. America's own imperialistic Monroe Doctrine presumptuousness was sorely tried by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which openly declared itself communist in 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had brought the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Russia) dangerously close to nuclear war, but was fortunately defused, and subsequent diplomacy led to a treaty limiting nuclear weapons testing.
There had been about 100 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, primarily by the U.S. and the USSR, during the period 1951-1956 (there had been about 9 between 1945 and 1950). The annual number of nuclear tests jumped to over 40 in 1957, and over 100 in 1958. There was a voluntary halt to testing during 1959-1960 (except for a few tests by France) in response to public fears about the radioactive fallout contamination of the milk supply. The peace symbol, which is now an icon of our culture, was designed by Gerald Holtom in 1958, and first popularized as a badge by Eric Austen, both nuclear disarmament advocates in Britain. In 1961 -- John Kennedy's first year as US president -- the USSR launched a major series of over 30 nuclear tests, and the U.S. mounted about half that number. This weapon's race accelerated wildly to a frenzied peak in 1962, with 140 tests performed (over 90 for the U.S. and nearly 40 for the USSR). Except for 1958 and 1962, there have never been more than about 90 nuclear tests in any year (and from 1971 usually under 60), and only very few since 1992, the last year of US testing (post 1992 testing has been by France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). The numbers I quote for nuclear tests in a given year are read off a chart and rounded. (1)
The environmental movement was born on September 27, 1962, with the publication of Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, on the ecological devastation caused by pesticide pollution.
The negotiations initiated in October 1962 to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis blossomed into the crafting of, signing (August 5, 1963), US ratification (September 24, 1963), and implementation (October 10, 1963) of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.
The Civil Rights (anti-apartheid or anti-segregation) movement for black Americans had been very vigorous in the southern U.S. from the beginning of John Kennedy's presidency in 1961. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream speech" from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963.
From 1961, John Kennedy had sent US military advisors to aid the anti-communist Ngô Ðình Diêm regime of South Vietnam in its fight against a communist insurgency (the will of the peasantry) allied with communist North Vietnam. By late 1962, there were 12,000 US soldiers in South Vietnam. Disappointed with Diem as an anti-communist unifier for North and South Vietnam, Kennedy approved a CIA program to aid Diem's generals in a coup to produce new leadership, which occurred on November 2, 1963, with the deposed Diem summarily executed.
Lee Harvey Oswald, a disaffected American seeking glorious recognition as a leftist hero, acted as a freelancing James Bond (the world's favorite fictional Tory) to impress the Dirección General de Inteligencia de Cuba (DGI, the Cuban intelligence service) by assassinating President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The DGI had been locked in a battle with the CIA to keep Fidel Castro from being assassinated, a project pushed hard by the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Kennedy's successor, stopped the CIA's Fidel assassination program shortly after taking office. The Soviet Russian intelligence service (KGB) had found Oswald too unstable to rely on as an agent, and happily let him return to America from his self-imposed exile in Russia (October 1959 to June 1962). The DGI had the difficulty of being a much less powerful organization situated far closer to its small nation's overwhelmingly superior enemy. Thus, the DGI unlike the KGB might be willing to exploit the improvisations of a volunteer useful idiot. Oswald spent the last week of September 1963 in Mexico City, visiting the Cuban and Russian consulates seeking a visa to travel to Cuba, and as a consequence met DGI agents. The DGI was too professional to compromise itself by inducting a delusional American outcast into its ranks, but the DGI seems to have been either gutsy enough or desperate enough to allow Oswald to imagine he would be welcomed in Cuba should he accomplish something of significant value for the Cuban Revolution. Oswald returned to Dallas on October 14, 1963. (2)
The Beatles conquer America by capturing the hearts of its teenage girls. We boys had no choice but to follow.
Lyndon Baines Johnson wins a landslide electoral victory over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater (Au-H2O), who had said in his nomination acceptance speech, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." The Johnson campaign exploited Goldwater's strident public image with the most explosive political advertisement ever devised, the famous Daisy commercial. (3)
The Johnson administration bequeathed America the national tragedy experienced as the Vietnam War (between 1964 to 1968, after which the Republican administration continued it till 1975), but also the towering civil rights triumphs codified by three laws:
- Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by federal and state governments as well as some public places.
- Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits states and local governments from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
- Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, creed, and national origin.
Unsafe At Any Speed, Ralph Nader's book about deficiencies of automotive design as regards passenger safety, launches the consumer product safety movement.
President Lyndon Johnson sends American troops into South Vietnam; by July there are 75,000. On July 28, Johnson announces he is increasing the troop level to 125,000 and doubling the monthly draft calls (from 17,000 to 35,000). A gradual and sustained aerial bombardment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), Operation Rolling Thunder, had begun on March 2, 1965, and would continue until November 2, 1968.
Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) valves, which are simple pollution control devices, are mandated for internal combustion engines. This was the first regulation for automobile exhaust pollution control. Since Silent Spring in 1962, numerous concerns had combined into a broad environmental movement: the flooding of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River in 1963 behind the new Glen Canyon Dam, the logging of old growth redwood trees, air pollution -- smog -- caused by auto and truck exhaust gases, river and coastal pollution from industrial and farm wastes, and the danger of ecological damage by oil spills from offshore drilling platforms, which infamously occurred at Santa Barbara, California, in 1969.
The Six Day War, between Israel and the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, takes place in early June. Israel is victorious, and the present Palestinian crisis of Israeli occupation begins.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara is captured and executed on October 9, 1967, by the Bolivian military aided by the CIA. One of many blows by a perpetually petulant US establishment vainly seeking a satisfying vengeance for the Kennedy hit.
The Tet Offensive, launched by the Communist Party of Vietnam on January 30, stuns the Johnson administration as well as the US public. It was now clear that the American war for South Vietnam was futile, but nevertheless it would continue till 1975.
On March 31, Lyndon Baines Johnson announces that he will not seek reelection; it is a presidential election year. Robert F. Kennedy (John Kennedy's younger brother and attorney general) was a senator at that time, and had announced his own bid for the presidency on March 16.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated on April 4, in Memphis, Tennessee. Major rioting breaks out in many cities. Because of the extensive damage and fires caused during these urban riots, and the deployment of National Guard troops to restore order, the television images of these scenes on US soil had an eerily disquieting resemblance to images of Stalingrad in 1943, Berlin in 1945, and Hue and other Vietnamese cities besieged during the previous three months during the Tet Offensive. Many Americans became very frightened, and a diversity of Americans had their various prejudices deepened.
Robert Kennedy is assassinated after a campaign speech in Los Angeles on June 6 by a resentful Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, Sirhan Sirhan, who is still serving a life sentence for that crime. Robert Kennedy had captured the imagination of liberals, especially young ones, who were ignorant of his earlier political career (as a McCarthy-type commie chaser, and the zealous prosecutor of the Fidel assassination project) and crushed by his loss. Robert Kennedy had been deeply affected by John Kennedy's death and the politics behind it, and as a result he had undoubtedly become much more sympathetic to the aspirations and suffering of marginalized populations, like the Mexican-American farm workers that Cesar Chavez was organizing in California's Central Valley. However, the degree to which Robert Kennedy had become more "revolutionary," or "socialist," or just moral after 1963, and how such a presumed deepening of compassion and conviction might express itself politically, are matters of pure speculation mooted by his death. Hubert Humphrey, the vice president and eventual 1968 Democratic nominee for President, was the quintessential mainstream liberal politician of the 1960s.
Richard Milhous Nixon, a Republican from California, wins the 1968 presidential election with a campaign promoting "law and order" and appealing to anti-civil rights southern white resentment (Dixiecrats become Republicans). Nixon's winning concept was called "the southern strategy." It would become the formula applied by all subsequent Republican presidential contenders to this day, very effectively by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who vastly increased the formula's content of rhetoric and cant on fiscal soundness and the evils of taxation, but unsuccessfully by Willard Mitt Romney in 2012 because of the changed demographic composition of the American electorate since 1968 and 1988.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
1. Nuclear Weapons Testing, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_testing (back)