This is the third installment of our series “Reconstructing Kennedy.”
In the years following the death of President Kennedy, many people often spoke of his presidency as an idyllic time. Picking up on Jackie Kennedy’s reference to the Richard Burton-Julie Andrews musical, they dubbed those pre-assassination days as “Camelot,” a noble, idyllic but ultimately doomed kingdom.
It is easy to imagine such a bright, innocent time existed on the far side of the tragedy. But was the country truly different before Kennedy’s assassination?
Excerpts from several Post articles in 1963, prior to the president’s death, demonstrate that in truth America was already in the midst of troubling times that little resembled the idyllic innocence of “Camelot.”
In March of 1963, the Post ran “Survival of the Fewest,” which informed readers that the U.S. could not protect them from a possible nuclear attack. Government strategists had calculated that nuclear weapons from a Russian attack would directly kill 21 million Americans. Radioactive fallout would kill an additional 13 million, they estimated, unless citizens had access to bomb shelters.
At the time of the article, the Kennedy administration had already called on the nation to construct enough fallout-shelter space for 240 million Americans over a five-year span, yet few Americans took action to protect themselves from nuclear holocaust. Only a small fraction of the necessary fallout shelters were built, because homeowners found them expensive, inefficient, and hard to assemble. Radio stations continued to regularly test their connections with the CONELRAD civil defense system, and school children still huddled under their desks when the town siren was tested, but by 1964, demand had disappeared and one California dealer couldn’t even give the shelters away.
At the same time that Americans worried about Russia’s nuclear arsenal, they learned that the U.S. was getting pulled into yet another distant confrontation with Communism. In September of 1963, the Post reported in “The Edge of Chaos” that, “President Kennedy, convinced that a Communist takeover of South Vietnam might mean the fall of Southeast Asia, has repeatedly promised to defeat the guerillas that dominate much of the country. He has backed up his words with a 16,000-man U.S. force in Vietnam—more than 100 have lost their lives—and with $1.5 million a day spent on the war.”
“But,” the article continued, “the spectacle of American-trained troops using American weapons to raid Buddhist temples made clear one fact that U.S. officials have long tried to evade: No matter how much the United States supports the unpopular regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, this regime’s chances of victory over the Communists are just about nil.”
Ever since World War II, the country had been opposing communist expansion, first in Eastern Europe, and then in Central America, Africa, and Asia. Its principal weapons in this fight were money, arms, and military supporters. But by the 1960S a new element had been added to the Cold War, instigated partly by a novel that had been serialized in the Post.
In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote The Ugly American out of their anger at seeing American prestige dissolving in Southeast Asia. They were outraged by the way American diplomats and advisors were “ doing the wrong thing, or doing the right thing the wrong way, or just doing nothing.”
Serialized in five parts from October 4, 1958 to November 8, 1958, their novel about a fictional diplomat in Asia drew a generally negative response from government officials. The State Department dismissed the book as a “distortion,” and it was criticized by President Eisenhower and several senators. But after Senator John Kennedy read the book, he bought copies for the entire senate, and the government began to respond.
In “The Ugly American Revisited,” [June 4, 1963], Burdick and Lederer reported, “American foreign aid is now a much more practical, tough-minded proposition than it was five years ago.”
In their article, the authors also admitted they’d been stunned by the public response to their book, which had sold nearly 4 million copies. Even more startling were the thousands of letters from individual Americans asking, “What can I do?” To the authors, this response reflected a deep concern among Americans about their position in the world. “They are often confused, often angry, but always willing to learn. They possess a quiet awareness of the deadly peril in which we live. And they are, more important, ready to ‘do something about it.’”
What many of them did about it, wrote Burdick and Lederer, was volunteer for the Peace Corps, which Kennedy had founded as one of his first acts, in 1961, and which had been a resounding success. “Indeed, it is quite without parallel in history,” they wrote two years later. “It is a source of great pride to us that a majority of Peace Corps volunteers indicated that their first interest in foreign affairs came from reading ‘The Ugly American.’”
Burdick and Lederer saw a new mood spreading through the country. “Americans, in both high and low places, are willing to be critical of themselves without falling into despair. On balance, America is surely moving with greater energy, more skill and more confidence in its overseas operations.”
But the America of 50 years ago could also be characterized by its entertainment, some of which did not especially resonate with the nobility of the knights of the round table. The most popular television show, The Beverly Hillbillies, was a prime target for reviewers’ abuse (the Post declared it was “deliberately concocted for mass tastelessness.”)
But television in 1963 also had the sedate and reliable Walter Cronkite, whom the Post profiled in March of that year. Cronkite was still relatively young, just a few months older than President Kennedy. But he, too, was a veteran, having reported World War II from a B-17 and with the 101st Airborne division.
“He has conversed with queens and dictators,” wrote Post author Lewis Lapham, “lived under the polar ice for a week, seen governments fall and atomic bombs exploded.”
And he was now the trusted anchorman of the CBS evening news, a post he was to hold for another 18 years.
In that distant time, before Americans preferred their news heavily seasoned with entertainment, Cronkite won the loyalty of viewers with his fairness and adherence to facts.
“Cronkite’s detractors usually criticize him for this unwillingness to advance an outspoken opinion. They complain that he is too polite, too bland, too dull,” wrote Lapham. “He considers the criticism unreasonable. ‘Probably if I made a few more acerbic remarks, I might win a few more viewers,’ he concedes, ‘but I don’t feel like being funny with the news; I don’t think that’s my place.’”
Just a few months after Lapham’s article was published, Cronkite became part of the permanent memories of a generation of Americans when he delivered the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.
“If, in the search of our conscience we find a new dedication to the American concepts that brook no political, sectional, religious or racial divisions,” Cronkite observed following Kennedy’s funeral, “then maybe it may yet be possible to say that John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not die in vain.”
To read more from the Post‘s series on John F. Kennedy, click here.
This is the fourth installment of our series “Reconstructing Kennedy.”
“I myself believe that he will be remembered as one of the great Presidents.” So wrote Post journalist Joseph Alsop in “The Legacy of John F. Kennedy,” (November 21, 1964), as he considered the late president’s legacy. Kennedy, he asserted, had “courage, energy and common sense, clear-mindedness, practicality, a hearty dislike for slogans of whatever kind, and a flat refusal to admit defeat.”
Such praise seems overdone today, after half a century of investigations into Kennedy’s presidency and personal life. Today, we know he hid the facts of his precarious health from the nation; his many adulterous affairs are common knowledge. We suspect he wanted to assassinate Castro, and we have read of his seemingly reckless actions regarding the Bay of Pigs. Some historians still hold him responsible for our ultimately disastrous involvement in the Vietnam War.
Yet even in hindsight, it’s hard to evaluate a president without considering how his contemporaries viewed him. And a great many Americans in the early 1960s, as we’ve found in Post articles, regarded Kennedy with a limitless admiration. He had charm, humor, intelligence, and unflappable poise.
But there was something more to his appeal.
Although he was a conservative Republican, the Post’s political editor, Stewart Alsop, was just as captivated by Kennedy as his even more conservative brother Joseph, who was actually a personal friend of the president’s. In the September 16, 1961 issue of the Post, Alsop reviewed Kennedy’s first year in the White House (“How’s Kennedy Doing?”)—several months after the president’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. “He had done the impossible. At forty-three he was the youngest President ever elected, and the first Catholic. To do what he had done, he had taken a whole series of breath-taking risks. Often it had seemed that he might lose… But always he had won in the end. Is it any wonder that many of his followers had come to believe in a Kennedy star, to believe that, when the chips were down, Jack Kennedy would always win in the end?”
The next year, Alsop conducted a country-wide survey “to get some notion of how real Kennedy’s popularity is and how deep it goes.” The results of his interviews, which appeared in the Post as “The Mood of America” on September 22, 1962, summed the opinions of 500 voters.
According to the results, Kennedy was maintaining his support. More than half of the interviewees had voted for him, and said they would support him in the next election. Several people who had voted Republican also said they would vote for Kennedy’s re-election. Alsop believed many of these swing voters were people who had overcome their objection to a Catholic in the White House.
Kennedy’s supporters most often described him as “dynamic,” “straightforward,” and “well-educated.’” The chief criticism among those who didn’t support him was, as Alsop expressed it, “He’s rich and knows nothing about the problems of the poor.” The other common objections? “He’s reaching out for too much power”; “He flies off the handle too much”; “Too much family.” This last objection referred to Kennedy’s very politically involved family, including his brothers who served as a state senator and as the nation’s attorney general.
Many of these 500 Americans were also still concerned about the Cold War. Since the end of World War II, America had seen one country after another fall under Soviet rule; some by occupation, as in Eastern Europe, some by invasion, as in Korea.
The Soviet Union seemed to always be one step ahead of the Americans. We didn’t learn the Russians had stolen details of our atomic bomb plans until they detonated their own in 1949. And we only learned how far their space program had advanced after they had successfully launched the first man into space. Russia was training revolutionaries who were now stirring insurrections in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. And now their power had spread to Cuba, where the Russian army was pointing missile launchers at America, just a few hundred miles away.
But according Alsop’s interviews, “only one in five of the interviewees thought there was a ‘big’ danger of war.” Many believed “there would be no war ‘so long as we remain strong.”
Still, many Americans worried the nation was losing its global prominence, as well as the Cold War. They wanted a president who would be tough, someone who wouldn’t back down from a confrontation.
They got what they wanted just a few days after Alsop’s survey appeared in the Post when President Kennedy ordered the U.S. Navy to block Russian ships from delivering missiles to Cuba. He put all branches of the military on highest alert, anticipating the Soviets would retaliate for the blockade. The world never came so close to nuclear war as it did between October 14 and October 28, 1962. Kennedy remained firm but approachable, and ultimately maneuvered the Russians into withdrawing their missiles.
Voters liked Kennedy’s tactics against the communists, even when they weren’t successful. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco—an outright disaster—his approval ratings rose from 78% to 83%. And in the aftermath of the missile crisis, his approval ratings rose from 62% to 74%.
This sense of America regaining the initiative in the Cold War may explain why so many Post articles and editorials were generous with praise for the president. It might explain why Joseph Alsop believed Kennedy had ushered in, “a time of renovation and renewal, when our country found a new and better course after long years of search… He had a vision of this nation’s greatness, which he somehow conveyed to the rest of us.”
Many Americans were caught by surprise when they heard President Kennedy order a military quarantine around Cuba. They were just as surprised to learn that Russia was building missile sites in Cuba, within range of the United States, and how Russia and America were challenging the other to back down or face war.
The showdown had been coming ever since Fidel Castro and his communist rebels overthrew the government of Cuba. The U.S. had strongly opposed the new regime and, in 1961, had backed an invasion of Cuba by anticommunist exiles. The invasion at the Bay of Pigs ended in complete failure. Khrushchev saw this defeat as proof of America’s inherent weakness and was emboldened to build missile bases on the island to keep the U.S. permanently on the defensive.
In August 1962, a team of Soviet engineers arrived in Cuba and began hurriedly constructing launchpads that would enable the Soviets to drop a thermonuclear warhead almost anywhere in the U.S. If Khrushchev could get the missile sites working quickly, the U.S. would not be able to remove them without risking nuclear attack. Khrushchev planned to repeat the operation in Europe to force Americans from their outpost in West Berlin.
On October 20, President Kennedy took action, announcing the U.S. would block any Soviet ships from reaching Cuba, beginning at 10:00 a.m., Wednesday, October 24.
On that morning, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) began its long watch for the USSR’s response. As Alsop and Bartlett address, “Reports came in which indicated that some of the Soviet ships appeared to have changed course, and that others had gone dead in the ocean. No one recalls a precise and jubilant moment when it became apparent that Khrushchev’s ships were not going to challenge the American blockade after all.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk nudged an aide and murmured “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
Khrushchev might have hesitated, but he was still determined. On Friday night, he sent a letter to Kennedy that contained threats but also an appeal to be reasonable. The following day, spy planes over Cuba showed launchpad construction proceeding at full speed. In a Moscow broadcast, Khrushchev demanded that the U.S. dismantle its missiles in Turkey, which were pointed at the Soviet Union. Later that day, a U.S. spy plane was shot down with a Soviet surface-to-air missile—the first one fired from Cuba.
Khrushchev appeared to be stalling until the missiles were operational. “The next Tuesday, only three days away, was fixed as the [last] date for destroying Khrushchev’s missile and antiaircraft rockets with an air strike,” Alsop and Bartlett wrote, “clearly the next rung on the ladder to nuclear war.”
It was Robert Kennedy who came up with a way to move beyond the standoff. He suggested that the president publicly interpret Khrushchev’s Friday letter as a proposal to negotiate. President Kennedy agreed and immediately replied, explaining that the U.S. would take no action against Cuba and would end the blockade if the USSR removed its missiles.
What Alsop doesn’t report, and perhaps didn’t know at the time, was Kennedy’s secret offer to remove U.S. missile bases across the border in Turkey. With the message sent, ExComm’s meeting broke up and everyone went home that Saturday night not knowing whether the following morning would bring peace or—as millions of Americans feared—nuclear attack.
On Sunday, to everyone’s immense relief, Khrushchev agreed to the terms of Kennedy’s offer. In a Post article, written the following month, Stewart Alsop said, “This was, of course, the final, unmistakable blink. It proved once and for all that Khrushchev was not ready to go to nuclear war over Cuba.”
It was clear that war had been averted. The missiles would be dismantled. There would be no new threats to West Berlin. The threat of nuclear holocaust, which had been so close, had passed.
The entire crisis was covered in depth in the 1962 Post article “In Time of Crisis” (December 18, 1962) by Stewart Alsop and Charles Bartlett. Read the full story here.
1962. It all seems so far away: President Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Twist.” How can we relate to the time of the first Beatles’ hit, the first James Bond movie, and the first manned space orbit of the Earth? How did it feel to live in the year of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You?” and the film To Kill a Mockingbird?
Well, judging from what people were telling the Post, it felt a lot like today.
“We don’t have the family as a unit as we used to have. As a result, a lot of the kids have got out of control.”
“People seem to have lost something. They don’t seem to care anymore. Maybe what we’ve lost is Americanism. They don’t teach it to the kids anymore.”
“These teenagers that really scare you, with their gangs … and all. What’s got into our kids? I don’t know.”
“We’re all living too fast. … We’re all running and we can’t catch up.”
“We’re becoming decadent. … Moral values have declined. People don’t feel patriotism as they used to.
These quotes were typical of the responses from the 500 people interviewed by Stewart Alsop for his article, “The Mood of America.” Our country was in a “curious national mood” that year, according to Stewart Alsop. After talking to Americans in seven states, he concluded that the country’s odd mood was “balky, ambivalent, and contradictory.”
“For example, the American people, to judge from their talk, are in an essentially conservative frame of mind. The word ‘socialism’ to most of them is almost as bad a word as ‘communism.’ They are worried about Government spending, and instinctively resistant to what they call ‘too much government.’ A surprising number of them are firmly opposed to any tax cut unless it is accompanied by a balanced budget.
“In view of all this, one might suppose that there was a great tide of public sentiment in favor of the … more conservative Republican party. [Yet] most voters prefer the Democratic Party, and they prefer President Kennedy to any now-visible Republican rival by a big majority. And except in the Middle West, most voters like the President’s Medicare program, which is anathema to conservatives.
“There are other odd ambivalences. For example, most of the people we talked to fear nuclear war more than anything else, but only one in five thinks there is much danger of such a war.
“Finally, the American people are by and large a strongly moral, even moralistic people, who are deeply worried about … the morality of the American people.”
It seems strange now that Alsop expected more consistency among American voters. It was understandable, though; the country was entering an age of changes and challenges. In February of that year, America had taken another giant step into space with John Glenn’s orbit of the earth. In October it would confront Russian missiles pointed at us from Cuba. Ready or not, the country would have to consider how it would respond to the changes of the modern world.
Many responded with divided loyalties between the old and the new. The division had already begun to show in the change of presidents. While America had always revered and identified with Dwight Eisenhower, they were increasingly drawn to the more aloof, intellectual, charismatic Kennedy. They were still soundly against ‘big government’ but they were growing more supportive of the struggling NASA program and Medicare.
The ambivalence between the old and new loyalties was particularly noticeable on the question of racial equality. The basic view of White Americans, according to Alsop, was summed by a Baltimore housewife who said, “They got rights, just like anybody else. They ought to vote and have just as good schools and all that, but I don’t see why we got to mingle together.” Many could accept the new thinking about equal rights; they just couldn’t yet accept Black Americans.
It was a time of great challenge, not unlike today. And, like today, the uneasiness and uncertainty over the way forward lead some Americans to believe we have lost our moral compass. The economy had stalled, and some feared a recession was on its way. The Cold War was close to going ‘hot,’ and we were regularly conducting air-raid drills against the possibility of a nuclear attack. Yet, Alsop was “really surprised [by] the number of people who felt [our] greatest problems are moral rather than economic or political. … A surprising number seem to feel that somehow, somewhere, America has lost something—a sense of purpose, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of home and family … something that was good that has gone out of American life.”
If he was interviewing Americans today, Alsop would probably get the same sense of concern about our moral condition and the feeling of loss. He might feel the same atmosphere of “part nostalgia, part moral indignation.”
But would he find the character of the American people the same as he did in 1962: “a pleasant people, unsuspicious and openhearted”?