Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Day John Kennedy Was Shot

The author and first wife, The Bronx, autumn 1963
Ever the same,
unchanged by hue,
cherry blossoms of my native place.
Spring now has gone.
LIVE the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
---Rainer Maria Rilke
I wish that every human life might be pure transparent freedom.
---Simone De Beauvoir
In June of 1963, I was just out of university, didn't have any money left to speak of, hadn't ever held a "real" job in the world, had no set prospects for one, and was getting married. Five years later, that wife and her mother concluded I wasn't really ready to be a married person. A judge in Bridgeport agreed, so they took our 2 kids and went away. But that summer in '63, I felt ready and eager nevertheless. I remember red roses everywhere in full bloom and beautiful.
A job came through, in The Bronx. The principal of the school hired me to teach English to the upper grades at secondary level. In July he called to ask if I could teach some social studies. He knew I had taken courses in a number of fields in college. Frankly I had chosen English finally, because that thesis was the easiest to do. So I said OK. In August, a couple weeks before we were to have moved in our first apartment, the man called again and said the English teacher had decided to stay. Could I teach all social studies? Just married, my first job, I was nervous. I said I'd do it, but I needed the department chairman to get me materials immediately so I could prepare. He said, "You are the department chairman."
Thus did I stride into the wonderful world of love, marriage, and work---at least work in the weedy field of education. But there was much more to learn. In 1963, the New York World's Fair was getting started over at Flushing Meadows in The Queens. Elvis made a movie about it. Part of the place would end up the ball park for a new major league team in New York. Our school decided to take a field trip over to see it. We took the subway, a rather long ride. The principal had decided to come along. When we changed trains in Manhattan, he spotted a beggar at the stop and nonchalantly remarked, "There's one of my former students." I think I said something about government programs to enable the poor to enter the work force. The boss replied, "Oh, so you're a Kennedy pinko."
I remember just where we were when he said that to me, as one does when one's illusions are shattered. I had grown up during the McCarthy era and knew how serious a charge along those lines could be. This guy was kidding just a little bit, but I never had been called anything like that by someone in authority. I didn't tell him this, but the fact was I didn't even support John Kennedy particularly. I had seen him once, in 1960 during his campaign for the presidency, but the voting age wouldn't be lowered for another 10 I couldn't vote and didn't feel particularly committed one way or the other. A professor drove me to wherever it was in Maine that he appeared, and I know we waited forever for him so show up. But there was no doubt about it: the man absolutely radiated charisma.
I had participated in picketing his White House in March of '62. We were protesting his policy of continuing above-ground nuclear bomb testing---or at least I think that's what it was. We were up to our ankles in slush in Washington, and most of us wore beatnik tennis shoes with holes in them back then. Pete Seeger led the march from the Washington Monument to the White House. There we walked up and down, back and forth, had to keep moving. We were freezing as the sleet continued to fall. My fiancee had come along, and this was her first real dip into the world of radical politics. We knew Kennedy was inside, and ultimately a van came down the driveway and a guy in a suit got out. He said the President sent his greetings and wished us well. And here were cups of hot chocolate for everyone. That's how JFK dealt with protest.
Ten years later, Nixon would surround our White House with school buses to "protect" him from ongoing dissent by students. I guess we didn't know how good we had it with Kennedy. When we got back to Bates, where my girl friend and I were in college, she was asked to report on our trip in front of the entire school. I think the people who asked her knew she had been moderately normal up til then, and would be more respected than the rest of us. She accepted, the morning came, and she began her talk. Midway through, she was interrupted by an alarm clock going off. She stopped, and we all looked high up into the rafters of the building to see what was going on. Lowering down, wound around the knob on the back of the windup clock, came a thread, on the end of which was tied a brassiere. The place exploded in hilarity. Dean Zerby walked across the stage, removed the article of female apparel, and her talk continued. I guess the part about Kennedy's gift of hot chocolate was lost to the significance---and brilliance---of the prank.
I took it personally. I don't want to be grandiose, but the fact is my girl friend had been the special pet, before I came along, of the guys who I'm sure had pulled that off. They lived in a particular dorm, were mostly pre-law and business students, and were incubating a new brand of conservatism. The name William F. Buckley was bandied about and that man was declaring something called the Culture War against the "liberal arts." The bra on the alarm clock may have been an opening volley in that war.
The bra and the pinko remark could have tipped me off as to how much and what kind of resistance there was to John Kennedy and to folks thought of as liberals. But it didn't. And I guess most other people weren't on any kind of alert either. No one had tried to kill a president since an attempt made on Truman in 1950. It's true a 73-year-old man had packed some dynamite into his car and was going to ram into Kennedy's car a month after the election, but he changed his mind---and I don't think people even heard about it. No president had been assassinated since McKinley in 1901.
On the morning of November 22nd, I was teaching a class at 11:30 Eastern Standard Time. At about 20 til noon, I happened to glance out the window and I saw everybody in the junior high school across the street was running out of the building. Once out there they weren't really doing anything, just standing, some talking, others looking up at the sky or into blank space. At that point, someone came to my classroom door and announced the President had been shot. I turned on the radio, heard that he was dead, and then we too felt tragedy transform our bodies and being into something new, something we had no idea how to manage.
School was dismissed, students went their way and I went mine, home to my new wife. I guess we heard on WQXR or somewhere that people were congregating at Carnegie Hall, so we got in the car and drove down. Leopold Stokowski came out and conducted a concert with an assembled symphony. We went home and, like everyone, spent that Thanksgiving in front of the TV. But it was only the beginning of the shootings. Malcolm X would be gunned down in 1965, and an attempt made against civil rights leader James Meredith a year later. Martin Luther King was killed in April 1968, and Robert Kennedy two months later.
After that, no American president has gone through his term of office without an assassination attempt. There were threats made against Nixon in 1972 and 1974. Ford survived two in September 1975. A plot against Carter was foiled in 1979. Reagan was wounded in March of '81. A group allegedly employed by Saddam Hussein brought a car bomb into Kuwait where George H.W. Bush was giving a speech in April 1993, 3 months after leaving office. Clinton ordered a missile attack on Baghdad in retaliation. Two attempts were made on Bill Clinton in 1994, including the guy who landed an airplane on the White House lawn. At least two tries were made at George W. Bush.
It's hard to believe there have been 45 years since our bright prince was blown away in the streets of Dallas. All the bullets and bombs have kept us busy. Did we ever take the time to come to terms with tragedy? The ancient Greeks advised there are profound lessons a civilization should learn from it. The world stops and everyone just looks around, stunned, as we did that morning in 1963. One can lash out in rage, as perhaps happened in Viet Nam---and here at home in protest. On 9/11 2001, we went through it again. Maybe it was anger and resentment, instead of the wisdom in tragedy, that brought us to bully the entire world...a world that at first offered only condolence and support. Now, finally, have we learned something? Are we at a new beginning?


Nausicaa said...

New beginnings... and BRINGING FORTH NEW LIFE.........

There is something about ballots (or used to be, I think) that is evocative to me of origami. If not in the design per se of the ballots (new technologies have changed things somewhat since the folded paper ballots), at least in their intent: there is an ancient Japanese legend that promises that, to anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes, a wish is granted.

The jazz fusion band Hiroshima wrote a song called "THOUSAND CRANES" inspired by the story of Sasaki Sadako --- Laughter of children can be heard toward the end of the song.

"Bringing Forth New Life" is the title of a poem by Kurihara Sadako:

This is a passage from the poem:

It was night in the basement of a broken building
Victims of the atomic bomb
Crowded into the candleless darkness
Filling the room to overflowing
The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death
The stuffiness of human sweat, the writhing moans
When, out of the darkness, came a wondrous voice
"Oh! The baby's coming!" it said
And so, a new life was born
In the darkness of that living hell
We shall give forth new life!
We shall bring forth new life!
Even to our death

No family relation to Sasaki Sadako, the girl in memory of whom, a statue with outstretched arms and a folded paper crane rising above, is erected in a large park in the center of Hiroshima. No relation other than both were born and raised in Hiroshima and both were present on August 6, 1945: one was about just one mile away from ground zero and the other two and half miles away; one was only 2 years old, and the other was 32; one died of leukemia, as a result, and the other, who was a shopkeeper at the time, lived on to become one of Japan's bravest and most honest social and literary writers.

Kurihara Sadako died of old age, three years ago, at the age of 92, but her poems remain:

Let's bring back the lost smell of plants
and the voices on song,
lift up our eyes, and stride toward tomorrow.
---Let The Sun Shine On The Children

Kurihara Sadako didn't live to witness the change happening today in America.

President Elect Barack Obama won the popular vote by a six-point margin of 52 to 46 per cent: that's 62.98 million votes...

62.98 millions cranes...

Quite a lot of wishes to be granted.

Quite a great responsibility...

Does with great responsibility, great power come?

Anonymous said...

I'll just say this:

Klaatu barada nikto

Nausicaa said...

Klaatu Barada Nikto?

Anonymous said...

Klaatu barada nikto!:
"The film updates Cold War themes like nuclear warfare to more contemporary ones, such as "humans vs. nature" and humanity's generally violent nature towards itself."

Keanu is Klaatu:
"Keanu Reeves dislikes remakes, but was impressed by the script, which he deemed a reimagining... He liked this interpretation because it lacked the contradictory message of Klaatu 'laying down the law [...] almost as though the alien had the bigger stick.' At Reeves' insistence, the classic line 'Klaatu barada nikto' was kept from the original, though in an "inverted" context."

jazzolog said...

Don't you just love the Internet? Where else could you encounter a reverie like Nausicaa's about the paper ballot? What a magnificent poetic notion!

I love movies...and especially the outer space ones from the '50s. Destination Moon changed my life...and I even had a Capitol 78 attempt to recreate at least the sound of the takeoff. (Who knew we'd actually go?) Forbidden Planet I didn't understand, but the soundtrack and visuals left me gasping.

But Earth Stood Still didn't get to me. I still don't like it, and maybe agree with Keanu Reeves as to why. When Worlds Collide: how about remaking that one?

PS Thanks for the link to the new movie too. But I have dial-up and so clicked it, and then went about other business in a few windows. A long time later, out of my speakers came this huge explosion. I think I jumped a foot.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean - LOL - I have a cable connection, but I jumped all the same.

All that reverie about Cranes reminded me of "Simorgh."

In his famous allegorical poem, "The Conversation of the Birds," Farid ad-Din Attar [Link] recounts the longing of a group of birds who desire to know the great Simorgh, and thus begin a journey toward the land of Simorgh:

Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the land of Simorgh — all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake — not the mythical Simorgh. The thirty birds seeking the Simorgh realise that Simorgh is nothing more than their transcendent totality.

In fact the word "Simorgh" in Persian means thirty birds.

As the birds realize the truth, they now reach the station of Baqa (Subsistence) which sits atop the Mountain Qaf.

The poem's title possibly served as inspiration for jazz bassist Dave Holland's 1972 album of the same name.

Attar also told the tale of a paranoid king who had a house of solid rock built for him to shield him from the world. One day the king noticed that there was an aperture in his house from which he could still see the daylight. He therefore closed the opening that was actually intended to be for breathing air. And thus he suffocated to death.

I am sure there must be somewhere in there some great lesson to be learned ;-)

If the scissors are not used daily on the beard, it will not be long before they begin pretending to be the head.
---Hakim Jami

Draw from your past, but do not let your past draw from you? Something like that.

jazzolog said...

I'm a great fan of Dave Holland, and had a chance to meet him socially some 35 years ago out on Long Island. His work still is not heard enough among us jazzers, and I don't know Simorgh. I'll look it up.

Now let me get this straight: if I don't use my mustache scissors everyday, they'll start pretending to be my mouth? What about toenail clippers?

Anonymous said...

I don't know. You'd have to ask some scholar who is well-versed with the saying of the "careless Sufi" :-)

Nausicaa said...


You guys crack me up.

"One who gives advice to heedlessness
is himself in need of an advice."
---Saadi of Shiraz

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Pshaw! According to Wikipedia, Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds has nothing to do with Farid ad-Din Attar. The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings says that it was merely a reference to "the birds that sang each morning outside Holland's London apartment."

Nausicaa said...

Jazzolog's article ends up on a question:

"Now, finally, have we learned something? Are we at a new beginning?"

In her book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness (2006), Alice Walker had this to say:

It is the worst of times. It is the best of times. Try as I might I cannot find a more appropriate opening for this volume: it helps tremendously that these words have been spoken before and, thanks to Charles Dickens, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps they have been spoken, written, thought, an endless number of times throughout human history. It is the worst of times because it feels as though the very Earth is being stolen from us, by us: the land and air poisoned, the water polluted, the animals disappeared, humans degraded and misguided. War is everywhere. It is the best of times because we have entered a period, if we can bring ourselves to pay attention, of great clarity as to cause and effect. A blessing when we consider how much suffering human beings have endured, in previous millennia, without a clue to its cause. Gods and Goddesses were no doubt created to fill this gap. Because we can now see into every crevice of the globe and because we are free to explore previously unexplored crevices in our own hearts and minds, it is inevitable that everything we have needed to comprehend in order to survive, everything we have needed to understand in the most basic of ways, will be illuminated now. We have only to open our eyes, and awaken to our predicament. We see that we are, alas, a huge part of our problem. However: We live in a time of global enlightenment. This alone should make us shout for joy.
"It was the poet June Jordan who wrote "We are the ones we have been waiting for." Sweet Honey in the Rock turned those words into a song. Hearing this song, I have witnessed thousands of people rise to their feet in joyful recognition and affirmation. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see. This does not mean we believe, having seen the greater truth of how all oppression is connected, how pervasive and unrelenting, that we can "fix" things. But some of us are not content to have a gap in opportunity and income that drives a wedge between rich and poor, causing the rich to become ever more callous and complacent and the poor to become ever more wretched and humiliated. Not willing to ignore starving and brutalized children. Not willing to let women be stoned or mutilated without protest. Not willing to stand quietly by as farmers are destroyed by people who have never farmed, and plants are engineered to self-destruct. Not willing to disappear into our flower gardens, Mercedes Benzes or sylvan lawns. We have wanted all our lives to know that Earth, who has somehow obtained human beings as her custodians, was also capable of creating humans who could minister to her needs, and the needs of her creation. We are the ones."

62.98 millions cranes...!

Could they be the ones they've been waiting for?

As the birds realize the truth, will they now reach the station of Baqa which sits atop the Mountain Qaf?

Anonymous said...

Mount Qaf is basically some sort of an earthly axis mundi: Tradition has it that "there is no one country amongst all countries, nor a city amongst all cities, nor a town amongst all towns but has a root of its roots," "nor is there any mountain of all mountains but has a root in Qaf."

Qaf mountain is said to encircle the world, and either of the above may refer specifically to the actual physical "roots" that connect one mountain range to another. But tradition also has it that qaf is a large emerald-like realm surrounding the physical world (Mount Qaf is also said to be the main abode of the Jinns.)

According to Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi, Qaf is the cosmic mountain constituted from summit to summit, valley to valley, by the celestial Spheres that are enclosed one inside the other. What, then, is the road that leads out of it? How long is it? "No matter how long you walk, it is at the point of departure that you arrive there again," like the point of the compass returning to the same place. Does this involve simply leaving oneself in order to attain oneself? Not exactly. Between the two, a great event will have changed everything; the self that is found there is the one that is beyond the mountain of Qaf a superior self, a self "in the second person." It will have been necessary, like Khezr (or Khadir, the mysterious prophet, the eternal wanderer, Elijah or one like him) to bathe in the Spring of Life. "He who has found the meaning of True Reality has arrived at that Spring. When he emerges from the Spring, he has achieved the Aptitude that makes him like a balm, a drop of which you distill in the hollow of your hand by holding it facing the sun, and which then passes through to the back of your hand."

jazzolog said...

It was about 12:30 p.m. on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. The Warren Commission published a report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting the president, a conclusion that less than half of all Americans believe. Don DeLillo wrote the novel Libra (1988) about the Kennedy assassination, and he wrote, "What has become unraveled since that afternoon in Dallas is ... the sense of a coherent reality most of us shared. We seem from that moment to have entered a world of randomness and ambiguity."

jazzolog said...

I knew John Kennedy had presided over inexplicable enmeshment in Viet Nam, but I did not know he tried to get us out with even greater vigor. Here's a comparison of that plan with Obama's announced intention, by Gareth Porter at Inter Press Service~~~

JFK Episode Suggests Obama's Iraq Plan at Risk
Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, Nov 27 (IPS) - The decision by President-elect Barack Obama to keep Robert M. Gates on as defence secretary has touched off a debate over whether Obama can pursue his commitment to rapid withdrawal from Iraq even though Gates has defended George W. Bush's surge policy and opposed Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawal.

Obama did not explicitly address Iraq at a press conference Wednesday, saying only that he would "provide a vision" on foreign policy and "make sure that my team is implementing" it. The appointments, which will be formally announced Monday, are expected to include Gates and Gen. James Jones as national security advisor, who has also been critical of Obama's withdrawal timetable.

But the one historical precedent of a president seeking to get an unwilling military to go along with a presidential troop withdrawal plan suggests that Obama will be unable to implement his plan for Iraq without the defence secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff fully on board.

That is the lesson of President John F. Kennedy's effort in 1962 and 1963 to get the U.S. military commanders in Vietnam to adopt a plan for withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam by the end of 1965 -- the only other historical case of a president who tried to pursue a timetable for rapid withdrawal of combat troops from a war against the wishes of field commanders.

Obama, like Kennedy, is an extraordinarily self-confident leader, and he may well believe that he can impose his Iraq policy on a national security team that is not sympathetic to it. He reportedly made it clear to CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus in a face-to-face meeting in Baghdad last July that he would not bow to military pressures to alter his plan, based on Iraq-centred concerns.

But the little-known story of Kennedy's timetable for U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam underlines the critical importance to a president of having his two top national security officials on board in order to have any chance of prevailing over the resistance of commanders in the field. .

Kennedy was trying to present himself to the national security community as centrist by striking a strong anti-Communist posture in public. But behind the scenes, he was trying to push through a timetable for withdrawal from Vietnam.

Obama also has political interests that will inevitably conflict with putting the full weight of his office behind his withdrawal plan -- mainly demonstrating to the national security bureaucracy and the political elite that he is really within the post-Cold War consensus on the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East.

Kennedy had a secretary of defence and a Joint Chiefs chairman who were prepared to cooperate fully with his strategy for withdrawal from Vietnam. Kennedy's defence secretary, Robert S. McNamara, was fiercely loyal to the president and Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the JCS, was a close personal friend of both McNamara and Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy used McNamara and Taylor to press the military to go along with his timetable rather than confronting them directly.

Even though the two top officials in his national security team committed to the 1965 deadline for complete withdrawal, however, military commanders in Vietnam and at the Pacific command in Honolulu refused for many months to adopt the withdrawal plan being urged on them. As early as May 1962, McNamara asked field commanders to come up with a plan for complete withdrawal from Vietnam by late 1965, and suggested the end of 1965 as the conclusion of the process.

McNamara insisted on such a plan in July 1962. But the military's plan for withdrawal would have left thousands of the troops in the country even in 1967. McNamara said that was too slow and told them to go back to the drawing board.

Nevertheless the Pacific Command and the commander in Saigon continued to drag their feet on the 1965 deadline. Like Petraeus and the top commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, in relation to Obama's plan in 2008, they argued that the proposed rapid timetable for complete withdrawal from Vietnam was too risky.

Kennedy made a strategic political decision in October 1962 to bring in Maxwell Taylor as JCS chairman, in a move decried by the military leadership at the time as White House interference in the normal rotation among the services in that post. As Kennedy expected, Taylor was willing to help McNamara and Kennedy to turn the Joint Chiefs of Staff into an asset on the Vietnam withdrawal timetable.

Kennedy's next step was to try to get the Joint Chiefs to endorse a plan to withdraw 1,000 troops from Vietnam before the end of 1963. But after months of maneuvering, and despite Taylor's support for the plan, the Joint Chiefs agreed in August 1963 only to accept an initial withdrawal for planning purposes subject to final JCS approval by Oct. 31, 1963. They were insisting on a "conditions-based" withdrawal, just like the U.S. command in Iraq in 2008.

Frustrated by the military's resistance, Kennedy sent McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam with the understanding that they would return with a recommendation for the plan for withdrawal by the end of 1965 as well as an initial withdrawal of 1,000 troops. Kennedy then maneuvered to have his entire National Security Council endorse their recommendation on Oct. 3, 1963, despite the fact that key NSC officials, including National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, opposed the plan.

Taylor then directed the military command to bring its planning into line with the previous McNamara proposal for withdrawal of all but 680 advisers. But six weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and within weeks the military began to reverse the commitment to Kennedy's plan.

Iraq, of course, is not Vietnam. The "Withdrawal Agreement" already signed by the Iraqi government and the Bush administration, and approved by Iraq's parliament Thursday, has put military leaders opposed to Obama's timetable on the defensive. Obama's decisive electoral victory based in part on his sharp differentiation between the Bush administration and his own position on withdrawal also strengthens his position.

Kennedy had relied heavily on his defence secretary and the JCS chairman in large part because he was not ready to campaign publicly for his timetable. If Obama is ready to go to Iraq to confront field commanders on the issue, he could still prevail.

But unless Obama acts to replace Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a more supportive senior military officer after his first term ends next September, he will not have support from either of his top two national security officials on his Iraq withdrawal plan. If his national security choices are any indication, Obama, unlike Kennedy in 1962, is reluctant to risk good relations with the military leadership by making such a change.

And if he becomes too distracted by his primary concern -- the U.S. economy -- or is reluctant to have a confrontation with his national security team over the issue, Odierno and Petraeus are likely to drag their heels just as U.S. commanders stonewalled Kennedy over Vietnam.

Then the cost of allowing opponents of his policy to exercise day-to-day control over this pivotal foreign policy issue will soon become apparent.

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.