“…we stand today on the edge of a new frontier-the frontier of the 1960’s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, and decision.”
Senator John F. Kennedy, Nomination Acceptance Speech, 1960.
I didn’t expect to recognize the place. After all, it was just something from my distant past. Something that happened fifty-nine years ago. When I was only eight years old. Hell, it might have been mythology.
It certainly had the bright colors and cartoon angles of something viewed from an eight-year old’s perspective. Something you read in a comic book or see in a Ray Harryhausen film. Jason and the Argonauts. Kennedy and the New Frontier. It was just too phantasmagorical to be real.
Why was I here? Curiosity? Nostalgia? To see the wellspring of one of my earliest memories? Or a pilgrimage?
American people expect more from us…for the world is changing. The old era is
ending. The old ways will not do."
John F. Kennedy, Nomination Acceptance Speech, 1960.
The bus took me from the Arboretum on the edge of town to downtown Dallas. A thirty-minute drive. Through different neighborhoods, under many overpasses, and down many thoroughfares of the breathing modern city of Dallas, Texas.
Alongside parks and past monuments to the city’s history and testimony to its greatness. We stopped numerous times to slurp up and disgorge the busy human corpuscles of the city. I watched from my window, drinking it all in.
“Let the word go forth…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”
President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, January 20, 1961.
We rounded a corner. I got off at the bus stop.
“So this is Dealey Plaza?” l asked the city as I was disgorged onto the sidewalk. “The birthplace of Dallas?”
The city answered me as all cities do-with a shrug and smug disinterest, totally indifferent to the newcomer and his ignorant questions. I walked about a bit. Read some informational plaques. Was, “God bless you’d” by some young women with signs, and good intent and informational literature to offer.
I marveled at the architecture, some outlandish, some traditional or even old fashioned, some outright garish as if the architect wished to violate every rule of geometry, mathematics, and symmetry from Phidias to Frank Lloyd-Wright. I glimpsed the statue of a man across the street. It was George B. Dealey, who gave the plaza its name.
And I walked along the sidewalk in meditation of it all.
I stopped on a pillared platform by a fountain on South Houston Street and looked down at the ramp of Elm Street curving and descending toward an overpass. I didn’t expect it to feel familiar. Or eerie. Or haunted by the entrails of history’s viscera, wrenched from its bowels and left in the dust. Or to feel anything at all for that matter, other than a busy intersection of traffic. A photo op. But it did all those things.
Down what appeared to be an on ramp of some kind, ushering traffic to another busy intersection. I looked across the street. Then further up to the right. Across an embankment and past a monument of some sort. To a building. And stopped.
I knew that building. Seven stories tall. All of brick pillars and arches. Hundreds of small, glass paned windows and early twentieth century architecture in the graveyard of the surrounding post-modern buildings. It looked solid. Practical. Municipal. It looked out of date and quaint as if it yearned to get back to Euclid and Archimedes. And it looked horrifying.
The Texas School Book Depository.
Just down the street where my eyes had recently scanned, was a hillock of lawn with a fence on top and a parking lot beyond. Next to it, between the lawn and the building, was a stone memorial overlooking the street. It must be. Yes, it is. I see it now. The Grassy Knoll.
“Americans are free…to disagree with the law but not to disobey it… no man…no mob…is entitled to defy a court of law.”
John F. Kennedy, 1962.
Half of the population of the United States at the time was under twenty-five years old. Truly a new generation. A new frontier. A passing of the torch to hands barely able to lift it.
“We and the Communists are locked in a deadly embrace all around the world.”
John F. Kennedy, 1960.
“We will bury you!”
Nakita Khrushchev, 1956.
In 1956 Nakita Khrushchev famously declared, “We will bury you!” speaking of the escalating Cold War between the two superpowers. He never banged his shoe at the United Nations, though he came close. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis was successfully ended by negotiations between the two leaders, Kennedy agreed to take US nuclear missiles out of Turkey and Khrushchev agreed to do the same in Cuba.We were only told about the second half of that agreement. That Khrushchev’s actions in Cuba were in response to American provocation wasn’t revealed for decades. The past is prologue.
A treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons was signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1963. The infamous Hot Line was installed between the Oval Office and the Kremlin as well as agreements on shipments of American grain to Russia.
These were the first stirrings of Détente which outraged the War Hawks, the Newcons of his day. Kennedy was considered by them to be a tool of the Kremlin. Too much butter. Not enough guns. He had taken their missiles away and given wheat and open communication in return. It might as well have been bread and salt-a universal sign of welcome and a hope for friendship to the Slavic people.
These all predated the ABM, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, negotiated by Richard Nixon, by a decade. A treaty that formed the basis of the fragile thirty-year Cold War peace until George W. Bush ended it in 2002 and began a new arms race, all too willing to rise from the ashes. Happy to incinerate bread and salt.
Kennedy countered communism in SE Asia, encouraging different provinces to form alliances and coalition governments in 1961, though he still supported the increase of American military advisors and elevated the position of the Green Berets as US special forces in Vietnam.
“…this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
John F. Kennedy, 1961.
The Mercury program. Gemini. Alan Shephard. John Glenn. The first Telstar telecommunications satellite. The Apollo program which eventually led to Neil Armstrong’s somewhat bumbled, “That’s one small step for (a) man. One giant leap for mankind.”
And his encouragement of physical fitness and gym classes in school, along with an emphasis on math and science.
These were his contributions to the new generation of Americans. All before STEM.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March on Washington, 1963.
Civil rights marches and clashes were breaking out. Kennedy pushed reforms of poll taxes that barred the poor from the ballot box and sent federal troops to integrate the Universities of Alabama and Mississippi. He submitted a civil rights omnibus to Congress. 1963 saw a peaceful march of 250,000 demonstrators in Washington, DC, led by the charismatic Dr. Martin Luther King.
The people were speaking. For once the leaders were listening.
His popularity was never supremely high, seeing as he represented something for everybody to be dissatisfied with. For the Marxist left, it was his opposition to communism around the world, including militarily. Conservatives thought he was soft on communism with his willingness to speak and negotiate with them. Labor leaders and the mob resented his rattling of their comfortable cages and big business despised his regulations on industry and minimum wage.
He was the ultimate chameleon of distaste to every party.
“The streets were lined with people-lots and lots of people-the children all smiling; placards, confetti, people waving from windows.”
Lady Bird Johnson, Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963.
Around 12:30PM on Friday, November 22, 1963, a man named
Abraham Zapruder started filming with an 8mm camera from his superior position
on a marble plinth along Elm Street. To his left was the Texas School Book Depository. To his right, a grassy knoll of no importance.
“Mr. President. You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
Nellie Connally, Dallas, Texas. November 22, 1963.
They called it Camelot. The Kennedy administration. Not just the presidency. Not just the occupant of the oval office. It was in reference to the family living there and the country that they represented. The whole zeitgeist.
A young family. A young nation. Its growing pains from an adolescence of war, depression, civil strife, and stagnation that lasted half a century. Into a decade that had known peace and prosperity and a phenomenon that would one day be called the Baby Boom, as such a one as I. And now…into a new frontier.
And it was something different. Something unimagined. It offered something with a place for everyone and a place where everyone had something to offer. Words like, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” were not empty rhetoric or fodder for late night mockers. They meant something. Words that inspired confidence, self-awareness, and resolve. These were words made flesh. The flesh of the new generation.
John F. Kennedy pressed for programs such as The National Endowment for the Arts and The National Endowment for the Humanities. Legislation to address mental retardation and to improve health, education, and housing. Medicare, Mass Transportation, The War on Poverty. The Wilderness Act and The Peace Corp.
Many were stymied by congress due to the usual suspects: Special interests, big industry, and conflicting power structures embedded in the architecture of the government, today referred to simply as: The Swamp. Kennedy wanted to clip the wings of organizations like the FBI and the CIA, unelected groups of ideologues with black budgets and even blacker agendas incompatible with the American people.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy pursued organized crime and corrupt labor leaders, including James Hoffa. The two men seemed unstoppable.
And they had a lot of enemies.
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00PM Central Standard Time, 2:00 O’clock Eastern Standard Time. Some 38 minutes ago.” Pause for several seconds, visibly shaken.
“Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded, presumably he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
Walter Cronkite, CBS news anchor, November 22, 1963.
But Camelot always has its Mordred. Arthur always carries his fatal wound.
The assassination of President Kennedy shocked a government, a nation, and the world. People spontaneously held vigils and gathered at US embassies to express their support. From London to Paris to Berlin to Moscow to Kenya to Japan to Cambodia to the Dominican Republic to the Panama Canal. Lights were dimmed, dirges were played, memorial wreaths were tossed into the sea, trains and airplanes stopped and were grounded.
“When the news came through shortly before eight o’clock last Friday night, more than a thousand people all over London caught busses or tube trains, took taxis, drove or walked to the American Embasy…they had to do something.
BBC Television, “This Was the Week that Was,” November 23, 1963.
Representing their nations and organizations, 220 Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, Vice Presidents, Chancellors, Premiers, Kings, Emperors, Governors, Military Commanders, Secretaries General, Mayors, High Commissioners, United Nations Representatives, Ministers, Apostolic Delegates, the Brother of the Shah, Chiefs of Staff, Chiefs of Police, Hereditary Dukes, Princes and Princesses representing their Monarchs, Attachés to the Cabinet, Ministers of Justice, Inspectors General, Directors General, Crowned Princes and Princesses, First Ladies, Undersecretaries, Deputy Chairmen, Chiefs, Consort representing the Queen, and Party Leaders from 92 countries attended the funeral.
French President Charles De Gaulle spoke for every foreign leader attending the funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, “(the) people send me here.”
“The year 2000 will see men still arguing about the president’s death.”
Harrison Salisbury, New York Times journalist, 1964.
An investigation was conducted by the city of Dallas as it was in their jurisdiction. Their suspect was Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been placed on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository at the time of the murder, for murder it was and was to be treated as such.
Rifle shells and a rifle belonging to him were found by a corner window with a clear shot to the president’s limo from a ‘Sniper’s perch.’ Oswald, an ex-marine sharpshooter, had defected to the Soviet Union and advocated for Castro and Cuba. It was a clearcut case.
Still, the law requires due process and counsel for the accused, which Oswald did not get immediately, due to his own request. The Dallas Bar Association offered him legal counsel, but he wanted an American Civil Liberties attorney to represent him, delaying any legal procedure. Meanwhile, the Dallas police force was inundated with reporters, barking questions and filing reports, making prejudice toward Oswald difficult to avoid.
“I think the case is cinched.”
Dallas Police Chief Will Fritz, 1963.
“Don’t believe this so-called evidence.”
Lee Harvey Oswald, 1963.
The Dallas police force announced that they would transfer Oswald to the county jail on Sunday morning. Crowds of reporters were there, as they had been since his arrest. Out of the milieu Jack Ruby, a local night club owner who was known to the local police already, and who had been infiltrating the reporters all weekend, broke out of the crowds and shot Lee Harvey Oswald point blank with a pistol.
He died in the Parkland hospital a few hours later. Ruby was tried and sentenced to death for first degree murder, but an appeal got him a retrial. Before he could be retried, he died of cancer in 1967 in the same hospital as Kennedy.
But that was not going to be enough. President Johnson created the Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Case opened... again.
In 1964 they issued a voluminous report. Their conclusions were that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president of the United States. And that he acted alone.
“Police and a lot of spectators started running up the hill on the opposite side of the street from me to a fence of wood. I assumed that that was where the shot was fired from.”
Witness Hugh Betzner who stood on the South Elm Street curb. November 22, 1963.
That was simply not enough. People started viewing the Warren Commission Report with increasing suspicion and disbelief. How could Oswald have been the only shooter? One of the shots supposedly went through Kennedy’s neck, Governor Connally’s right rib cage, out again, and then through his left thigh, exiting, and landing on the floor of the limo. They even had what they believed to be this bullet, almost pristine, which critics started referring to as ‘The Magic Bullet,’ since it showed little sign of hitting anything after going through not one, not two, but three entries and exits of flesh and bone and landing on the floor of a limousine. Another shot missed and a third shot hit Kennedy in the head, killing him.
As evidence came out that government agencies, such as the CIA and the FBI, withheld information from the Warren Commission, and that the CIA had colluded with Organized Crime groups in assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, plus the fact that the commission refused to look at the official autopsy, public opinion that more than one person was involved in the assassination grew.
And more pointedly, so did lack of trust in our government.
In 1976 Congress created the House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the killings of President Kennedy and Doctor King. They conducted forensic tests concluding that there were two shooters during the 1963 slaying. In 1978 the film shot by Abraham Zapruder from a marble plinth on Elm Street, with the Grassy Knoll to his right, was released to the public.
Case opened...once more.
“I never believed that Oswald acted alone, though I can accept that he pulled the trigger.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1973.
Based on two more government sponsored studies, the Justice Department concluded in 1988 that there was no persuasive evidence of a conspiracy, thus completely validating the Warren Commission report’s findings in 1964.
Case closed… once more.
“Depending on your point of view, [the Zapruder film] proves almost anything you want it to prove.”
Former Life magazine journalist Richard Stolley, 1983.
During this time the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ emerged
in-some say was introduced into-the public discourse. Conspiracy Theory came to
describe any narrative of a known event that is considered mentally unbalanced,
anti-social, or paranoid in nature. One who believes such a clearly ill-defined
and obviously insane theory is a ‘Kooky Conspiracy Theorist,’ and he, and everything he says, can be dismissed with ridicule.
This is a clear ad hominem response, and invites ridicule on both sides, completely derailing any meaningful discussion. The questions of whether or not the arguments presented are true, false, or contain elements of both, and if there is any evidence supporting them, are avoided. Public discourse was degrading into petty schoolyard bullying.
“…there are simply a great many people who cannot accept…that one rather insignificant person was able to assassinate the President of the United States.”
Warren Commission counsel Norman Redlich, 1977.
Maybe Americans just couldn’t accept that a crime of this magnitude could happen here. Not in Camelot. Not to us. Not in this modern time. Not in America. Maybe they were grasping for a reason. Something to make sense of the monstrous. So, like primitives drawing pictures on a cave wall, they slipped into a religious fervor of fantastic beliefs that gave meaning to their suddenly shattered universe.
Some believe that the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ was introduced by the CIA, being liberally fertilized by absurd distractions such as ‘tinfoil hats’ and ‘alien abductions’ and cultivated into circulation by well refined propaganda, a subject the CIA excels at. It has since been used to shut down legitimate debates about important issues and continues to be used to this day.
If you don’t like what someone is saying, just call it a conspiracy theory. The truth is nowhere, Mulder.
End of discourse. Shut up.
“In 1978 the House Select Committee determined that Oswald’s actions were part of a larger plot, but admitted that it could not identify any individual conspirators. In the interim hundreds of conspiracy theories were offered by critics of the Commission… Groups of individuals placed under suspicion have included the government of Cuba and the Soviet Union, pro- and anti-Castroites, organized crime, wealthy conservative oil interests, right wing and racist domestic factions, the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Dallas Police Department, government leaders and aliens from outer space.”
The Sixth Floor Museum.
Many did not want to shut up. Science is not a god, after all. It should not be worshiped as one. And insults are not rebuttals. There have been many reasons to doubt the Science. The fact that the government still refuses to release declassified information, for one.
After the Warren Commission report, the American people were pretty much split 50-50 on whether it was correct. By ten years later this number reached 80% according to Gallup. More than three quarters of the population believed there was a conspiracy.
Personally, I agree with President Johnson. Oswald was the main shooter, but not the only one. Beyond that? I can only speculate. We may never know.
I am more concerned about what that event did to my country in its aftermath.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States aboard Air Force One. A grieving Jacklyn Kennedy at his side. The casket of his predecessor in the rear of the plane.
President Johnson was able to implement many of Kennedy’s projects with the momentum of his martyrdom. The Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, or sex. The Twenty-fourth amendment eliminating poll taxes. The Voting Rights act eliminated literacy testing and the Open Housing Law outlawed discrimination in housing.
The Great Society, as it came to be called, was in large part the fulfillment of Kennedy’s dreams.
He also escalated the war in Vietnam, a conflict that many think Kennedy would have deescalated.
The latter half of the 60’s grew grim. With the Vietnam war growing more unpopular, hundreds of thousands protesting, not only in Washington but all over the country, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin L. King, jr., sparking the 1968 Chicago riots, Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia in 1969, the National Guard shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, it looked like the new frontier was burning into a desert.
The Great Society was failing.
"Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”
Timothy Leary, 1966
Some took up extremism and handbooks of anarchy like Saul Alinsky’s, “Rules for Radicals.” Some just took Timothy Leary’s advice to ‘Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.” Abby Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” celebrated the counterculture of the 1960’s while Jerry Rubin, the “annoying pot smoking hippie,” helped found the Yippies, bringing the radicalism of the times to politics and declaring that he “never trusted anyone over 30.” He was a suspect in the trial of the Chicago 7 in 1969 having been charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines to commit felonies. He was especially adept at teaching people how to make Molotov Cocktails.
The sexual revolution, a phenomenon that occurs every forty years or so in history, was supercharged during the age of advancement and chaos by drugs, birth control, and abortion, layered in rebellion. Illicit, illegal, and dangerous activities were all the rage.
Along with rage, of course. Rage is always all the rage. It’s what lies just under the veneer of civilization, biding its time, waiting for the cracks to appear. They always do.
Woodstock was the Sermon on the Mount of the counterculture. The new religion. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane was its unVirgin Mother holding a communion wafer laced with LSD. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was its seamy underside.
Underground magazine, The Rag, had a regular comic called, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. I would see it in Playboy magazine when I wasn’t looking at the, er, dangling participles. It chronicled the adventures of Phineas, Freewheelin’ Franklin, and Fat Freddy, three hippy brothers, as they practiced the dogma of turning on, tuning in, and dropping acid while being three depraved Aqualungs. The comic, ironically, originated in Dallas.
The torch had been passed to a new generation, who promptly threw it through a window.
By the time I was in high school, I was too young to have more than just longingly watched the obsessions, race riots, acid queens, wars, moon shots, love-ins, overdoses, conspiracy theories, and freaks that were rampant. I would later say that I was old enough to remember Woodstock but too young to go.
The Sixties was an institution. It spanned the lopsided decade from 1964 to 1973, bracketed by Dealey Plaza and the Watergate Hotel.
Food fights bubbled up periodically in the cafeteria of the Norwich Free Academy. Teachers were apathetic. Administrators were hamstrung. Student advisors were professional coffee drinkers. Mine didn’t know who I was, let along offer me anything remotely approaching advice.
It seemed as if our whole new Camelot had swayed, stumbled, skidded across the sidewalk, and rolled into a gutter. Our leader, our Ozymandias, now ruined before a sea of sand. As we blinked, bled, and looked around through the blood and the dirt, old demons of history flew around us, stabbed us and mocked all our grand ideas, turned at once into anarchy. The best we could do was to stumble around, lost, cold and in the dark.
This was our new frontier.
It could have been just the naiveté of the child or the hope of the innocent. But it had at first seemed to be a new world. A new, bright light shining in the middle of a tortured century. God only knew how much more tortured it would get.
It was the was that was supposed to be,
It was our Tomorrow,
It was our Now.
And the last bit of the was that was supposed to be vanquished.
It was the was that was different,
A world reborn that stretched, yawned, looked,
And said, “Hello, Old Friend.”
It was the was that was something unimagined,
Something tingling in the air,
It was the was that was Something.
It was the was that was under the skin,
In the blood,
On the fingertips.
It was Rebirth.
It was the was that was in our hearts,
In our minds,
In our muscles, sinews, and tendons.
was the was that made us think all things were possible.
It felt like I was there,
And so I was.
So were we all as it was the was that was at the heart of the American soul.
It was the was that was.
Until we all heard the shot that killed tomorrow.
“History, after all, is the memory of a nation.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963.