1963 in History - a Personal Perspective

John F. Kennedy was born in 1917, the same year as my father. He was a Navy officer in WWII, my Dad was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps. His wife Jacqueline was approximately the same age as my mother. Their son JFK Jr. was the same age as my baby brother.

I remember Sister Adele at school almost unable to contain her hopeful pride when he ran for president, even though she allowed that she was voting for Nixon. My Dad, a union man, brought home campaign buttons with "wiggle pictures" that alternated between the initials "UAW" and "JFK". In my hometown there were still lingering traces of a time when "Catholic" meant "Irish", and I remember my Dad showing me a deep cut where the Barge Canal was dug near Jordan, NY, where the Irish laborers went through the hill with shovels and wheelbarrows.

Working men would never have it as good again as they had it with JFK. My Dad, my uncles, my neighbors, all worked in the factories in Syracuse, factories that closed in the '70's, when Syracuse became part of the Rust Belt. Just before JFK was elected in 1960 there had been a severe recession in the auto industry; my Dad was out of work for a good part of the year, and our family struggled. But in 1963 working men were very proud. They had hopes of sending their children to college, to a future where they could make a living without having to grind their bodies down in the factories.

My Dad was still at work that day in November 1963 when they sent us home early from school; a typically chilly grey day in late fall. It seemed incongruous that in Dallas it was warm and sunny. Oh, if we could have traded our weather for Dallas' that day. All of us kids were standing outside the school waiting to get on the bus, unable to think clearly. It was only a year or so before that a neighbor boy and I had been walking on the road where we lived, walking and talking and agreeing that we were probably seeing the end of the world. It had been the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when Kennedy and Krushchev had dared and stared each other down.

These were times of great hope and times of fearfulness, when being a child meant learning to duck under our desks if the sirens signalled nuclear war, and lining up to get polio shots.

In 1983 I visited Dallas, Texas, and the Texas School Book Depository, which was now closed. It was twenty years since that chilly day in November. The dark brick building looks like countless other dark brick buildings in the older parts of cities all over the East. What struck me was the smallness of the place. All of my mental images of the place were from television, the Zapruder film, from which stills were taken for Life magazine. The camera always stretches perspective, translating smallness into distance. The reports of the time talked about Oswald's gun having a scope, which led me to assume it was a distance shot. He could have dropped a rock into the back seat of that car. The "grassy knoll" was nothing but a little side slope as the street dipped under the crossing street ahead. The whole scene could be walked in a minute or two. I couldn't comprehend that this lousy little place was where he was killed.

In 1963 Martin Luther King said "I have a dream" in front of the Lincoln Monument. Medger Evers was killed in Mississippi. Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in Viet Nam and replaced with a more compliant regime, one that would cooperate more closely with America's plan to stop the communists from the North. A few years later, in 1968, I would be walking the streets of the Bronx with petitions to get Bobby Kennedy on the presidential primary ballot in New York state. We were cheering when LBJ conceded defeat and backed out of the race. Then King was dead, Bobby was dead, and the cops in Chicago were cracking hippies' skulls open. I watched longshoremen get out of cop cars and file through the gates of Columbia University, escorted by cops who stopped all others from passing. We were chased away by cops on horses. The next day the longshoremen picked the occupying students up bodily and threw them down the stairs from the second floor of the admin building.

I would grow up to resent the generation that sent us to Viet Nam, to learn that Kennedy and his brother were humans, not gods, and to come to the opinion that JFK's charisma had a downside - it was largely responsible for fostering the naivete that kept us from clearly seeing the trap we set for ourselves in Viet Nam. But the Kennedy brothers should have been given their own time to show us they were human, and time to see their children enjoy what they had worked for. I believe that had they lived, they would have been capable of getting out of Vietnam, unlike Lyndon Johnson, who let his ego enslave him. I believe that had they lived, the reaction of the Establishment to the coming social upheavals would have been a lot more civilized. They would have used leadership to advocate tolerance, and humor to help both sides step back from confrontation. Kennedy would never have allowed Richard Daley to attack the Chicago protesters. Humphrey was a toady, Nixon was paranoid, and both Nixon and George Wallace were appealing to the baser instincts of anti-intellectualism, class envy, and racial mistrust. For Nixon it was a winning combination. For us it meant Kent State and Watergate.

1963 was the end of a Golden Age, and the beginning of a slide toward the cynicism, incivility, sputtering economic failures and cultural vulgarity of the 1970's. The events of 1963 and the ensuing years have left me with a split view of our government, one that alternates between the feeling that it is either irredeemably corrupt, or completely incompetent. But with the unfortunate recent revelations, for example, that the State Department was busy renewing the visas of known Islamic terrorists, I am now moving toward a unified view, that its incompetence may be the only thing that saves us from its corruption.

To end on a more hopeful note, 1963 had another historical milestone, one of great significance to those of us born in the decade after World War II. A group of four young men had returned from months of grueling work in Hamburg, Germany, playing and singing themselves hoarse in the bars, learning how to make a room full of people get crazy with their music. They would tour all over England and Scotland, work every room where they could get a booking, record twenty takes of a song until they got it right, relentlessly driving their music to the top of the charts. On December 29, 1963, the Beatles were played on radio for the first time in the United States.