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Nov. 22, 1963: A Turning Point for America

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Reginald Johnson       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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    For a long time,  I believed 9-11 was the worst thing that ever happened to America.

It was awful. Nearly 3,000 people killed and so many families left grief-stricken.

And 9-11 set the stage for the brutal (and in one case misguided) wars that followed, in Iraq and Afghanistan

But in the last few weeks, I've changed my mind.  When I saw the 50th anniversary shows on John F. Kennedy's assassination, and saw the old footage, it all came back. As bad as 9-11 was, I don't think anything shook this country as much as the death of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. I don't know what it is, but it doesn't seem like this country has ever been the same since that day.

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  I've heard phrases thrown around recently to describe the meaning of that day: "The day we lost our innocence,"  and another, (the title of a blog by Ira Chernus) "The day truth died."  These are both right. It was such a shattering event.

Maybe it's because I was a naive 16-year-old in private school when this happened. Very idealistic, and, like a lot of  people my age at the time, a great fan of JFK. Here was this dashing young president who was bright, witty and inspiring. He seemed to say and do all the right things: urging young people to get involved helping their country and the world with efforts like the Peace Corps; working to promote the movement for integration; backing legislation that would eventually become Medicare; signing the nuclear test ban treaty; supporting the space program and sending men into space.

   In those days, we were in a Cold War with Russia, and we were proud when Kennedy stood up to the Soviets over the placement of missiles in Cuba and spoke out for freedom while visiting the Berlin Wall.

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   And he came to be president  at a time when the country was booming economically and was the most admired country in the world. Our standard of living was tops and there were plenty of jobs --- particularly manufacturing jobs.

   It seemed like America and our young president could do no wrong.

   It was in that cocoon of innocence that I returned from lunch on Nov. 22, set to go to another class, when I overheard someone say, "Kennedy was shot.' Stunned, I rushed over to a  building where older students socialized and were allowed to smoke.  I lit up a cigarette and listened to a radio blaring the news. Minutes later, there was silence. Then a somber voice announced, "The president is dead.' The Star Spangled Banner began playing. I couldn't believe it.  Just total disbelief.  But I was also pissed. I threw down my cigarette, stomped on it and left. I didn't want to talk with anyone.

   The next several days, I was glum and kept to myself. I missed the 24-7 television coverage, missed Oswald getting shot, missed new President Lyndon Johnson's announcements and much of Kennedy's funeral. How could this happen here? The United States?  It took months for me to get over the shock.

 I was able to get over it in part because I was reassured by Johnson's statements and actions. He pledged to follow the Kennedy program, particularly with civil rights. When the following fall came around, Johnson seemed downright saintly compared to the crackpot Republican candidate for president that year, Barry Goldwater, who had talked about dropping an atomic bomb on Vietnam!  Johnson, meanwhile, said he would not send U.S. troops to Vietnam. Seemed like a good guy.

  But within months, it was clear Johnson was lying. In early '65,  the U.S. had started bombing North Vietnam. By the spring, the first troops were sent to South Vietnam. Within a few years, we had hundreds of thousands of troops there, all in the name of "stopping communism." Many of our soldiers died. But many, many more Vietnamese died. We pulverized that country with bombing and poisoned it with napalm and Agent Orange. When all was said and done, we had lost 55,000 people; the Vietnamese had lost 3 million.

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   And during the Vietnam era, a lot of ugly divisions in our society began to surface, between hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hippies and hard hats, religious types versus non-religious. A lot of that divisiveness is still out there today.

  After Johnson, we got the corruption of Richard Nixon and Watergate.  A few years later, the downward curve continued with the coming of Ronald Reagan, and his backwards notion that "government is the problem."  Reagan began the process of chipping away at the safety net and the New Deal, and undermining unions --- more trends we're still dealing with today.

  More recently we've had George W. Bush and his disastrous war on Iraq and two vacillating small "d'  democrat presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Their vision of government is almost as limited as the Republicans.

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Reginald Johnson is a free-lance writer based in Bridgeport, Ct. His work has appeared in The New York Times, BBC-Online, the Connecticut Post, his web magazine, The Pequonnock, and Reading Between the Lines, a web magazine affiliated with the (more...)

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