Oh, how I remember November 22, 1963. It was the day that ended America’s love affair. In November, 1960 we elected a new kind of president. My parents hosted a voting station in our living room. I watched with much curiosity all of the neighbors coming to our house to vote for the president of the United States. At the end of the day my mother and her volunteers hand counted the votes that came in. Then, she would call them in. In the end, John F. Kennedy won the election by the closest margin in history. He was so handsome and the new first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier, was of star quality. America viewed them as King and Queen. Happy days were coming.
On January 17, 1961, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave us a warning during his farewell speech: “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex [Emphasis mine]. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
We ignored this stern warning by one of our greatest leaders in American history. We had Jack and Jackie and life would be just a “bowl of cherries.” Television and the news industry guided us down a path of make believe. World tensions were mounting – China, Indo-China, Soviet Union, Cuba, the Iron Curtain, etc. were hot but still we danced and smiled. I remember welcoming my cousin home from his military stint. He told me that this place called Vietnam was exploding. “They are blowing people away!” I like everyone else would ignore him.
In the spring of 1963, President Kennedy came to my home town to visit our military installations. The whole high school was bussed out to Point Mugu Naval Station. There, on the runway, he walked out of Air Force One and we all stood in awe. He walked past me and I froze like a rock – he was god like. My cousin Jeanie merged from the front line screaming and crying and then shouted, “He shook my hand! Oh Lord!!” That’s how we were – a nation in love with Jack and Jackie.
At 10:30 A.M. on November 22, 1963, my friend Charles Marion ran into our locker room where we were dressing to return to class. “Cicero, they shot the President. President Kennedy is dead!!!” I thought there must be a mistake. This doesn’t happen in “Camelot.” I walked outside the gym and there it was. All hell was breaking loose as hundreds of students were running in circles screaming at the top of their lungs. Teachers were shouting “Go home! School is closed!” I got home and turned on our black and white TV. There it was: The cold truth that our president was assassinated right in front of his beautiful First Lady and the nation was going into an emotional tank. Life in America has not been the same since that day.
We didn’t listen to President Eisenhower. We would soon be in a war beyond historical proportions. Other assassinations would occur: Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and anyone else who was considered to be in the way. At the time of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, we were receiving 500 body bags per week from Vietnam. Five hundred young Americans (disproportionately Black) were coming home dead. Richard Nixon, whom Jack Kennedy defeated, would soon become president. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would suddenly die and the assassinations came to an end – coincidental?
Camelot never returned and we are still at war with no end in sight. I pray that one day we can return to such times but that won’t happen until we put the Military Industrial Complex in its proper place. President Eisenhower was correct.