The Defining Generation
Defining the New
Defining the New
F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address
John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917, to a family that exemplified the capitalistic success of the American Dream. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, he served with distinction as a Naval Officer in the Pacific as a part of the Greatest Generation which fought and won World War II.
In 1946 Kennedy was elected to Congress and six years later defeated Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., to become a United States Senator. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were born of the same generation. Both had similar histories in terms of World War II military service and post-war political resumes. Even so, the Presidential election of 1960 marked Nixon as representative of the old, traditional political genre. John Kennedy presented himself as someone fresh, new, and perhaps even revolutionary.
On the night of their first historic debate the issue wasn’t that Kennedy made Nixon look bad so much as it was that Nixon that made Kennedy look GOOD. The Vice President was tired, recovering from illness and a hectic campaign schedule, and was pained with the unexpected trauma to his injured knee. With the machismo that was characteristic of Nixon, the Vice President refused to wear makeup for his appearance. On the television cameras he looked a generation older than the vibrant young Senator in the sharply tailored suit seated opposite him. That was only the beginning.
While Vice President Nixon brought to the debates a tired and worn appearance and a traditional political commentary that smacked of status quo, the Senator from Massachusetts brought a charming, youthful vigor, and some rather revolutionary new ideas. In his opening statement, Kennedy looked directly into the camera; his gaze meeting the eyes of 80 million Americans watching their television sets. In a strong voice that exuded confidence he stated:
"In the election of
1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question is whether this nation could exist
half slave or half free. In the election of 1960, and with the world
around us, the question is whether the world will exist half slave
or half free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the
direction of the road that we are taking, or whether it will move in the
direction of slavery."
Those words set the tone
for the night. For the remainder of the debate the Vice President found
himself responding to the challenger, while Kennedy looked directly into
the camera to challenge the viewers across America. NBC’s Sander Vanocur
was among the panel of broadcast journalists who posed questions to the
candidates. After the debate he reflected that, "It seemed as if
Kennedy talked to the people and Nixon talked to Kennedy."
By the time the debate ended Richard Nixon’s fate was all but sealed. Those who heard the debate on radio felt the Vice President had won the match, but the television audience was overwhelmingly attracted to the handsome, vital young man who spoke challenging and inspirational words. Six weeks later the United States had its youngest president in a half century and the role of broadcast media in the political climate of America was forever changed.
In the debate Kennedy not only railed against the shortcomings of the present (Eisenhower/Nixon) administration in his attack on the status quo, he called American society to a new sense of ACTIVISM. Citing illustrations such as West Virginia school children taking their lunch home to feed a hungry family, and pointing to the poor prospects facing "Negro babies", he challenged:
"The question now is:
Can freedom be maintained under the most severe attack it has ever known?
I think it can be, and I think in the final analysis it depends upon what
we do here. I think it’s time America started moving again."
Combined with that call to a cause was a seemingly innocuous but effective rejection of established authority. It began with the Senator’s opening remarks. When it came the Senator’s turn to give his opening statement, he began with:
"Mr. Smith (moderator
Howard K. Smith), Mr. Nixon…"
Those four simple words indicated something far beyond the Senator’s effective break from the tradition of referring to the incumbent as "Mr. Vice President". In those four words John Kennedy reduced the man who had been second in authority behind President Dwight D. Eisenhower for eight years to the same status as a television newscaster. It was a practice the Senator maintained for the entirety of the debate. Mr. Nixon, despite his authority and position as Vice President, was to have no executive privilege in the debates. He would stand or fall, as any ordinary man, on the merits of his beliefs and his performance.
But John F. Kennedy also became a part of the Defining Generation, if not its father, despite his maturity and membership in the establishment. He looked far too young to be associated with the same, staid generation as the parents of those teens now entering high school. On November 25th, just three weeks after the election and two months before the inaugural ceremonies, the president-elect’s young wife gave birth to John, Jr. Two days later Kennedy's oldest child, daughter Caroline, celebrated her third birthday. In the Whitehouse of the Kennedy years, for the first time in half a century, there was a new sense of youth and vitality.
Teen girls of the baby boom found in the First Lady an almost mythical character. Twelve years younger than the President, the woman behind the man in the Oval Office a was no longer a grandmotherly figure of sober and staid personality. This young socialite with the exotic sounding name Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy was simply "Jackie". In the adoring eyes of both the older and the younger generation she was America’s First Princess and the halls of government assumed mythical proportions in a dream world called Camelot.
--The older generation grew up during the years of the Great Depression, trying times when families pulled together to survive with little. Perhaps it was the experience of those lean years combined with memories of both want and need, that generated the drive for success in the post-war years that spawned to the materialism of the Greatest Generation.
--The beneficiaries of that materialism were the young who were now maturing in a time of unparalleled prosperity and comfort. John Kennedy spoke to that comfort with a new challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what YOU can do for your country." It was a message that challenged the young to view their inherited prosperity, not as a privilege to enjoy, but a responsibility to share that wealth with those still in need.
--The older generation came of age on December 7, 1941, when isolationistic hopes and peaceful innocence was shattered by the realization that there was a real potential for evil within the world. That Greatest Generation responded by confronting that evil on fields of battle in both hemispheres, and overwhelmed it through great sacrifice and indelible courage.
--The younger generation was growing up during a Cold War that had no tangible enemy beyond Khrushchev. The only response to that evil was to "duck and cover", we were children cowering beneath school desks in helpless fear of an enemy we could neither see nor resist. In that context, the evil of our world became vague, as mythological as a childhood boogieman.
--During the tense week that ended in the month of October 1962, a strong and determined President Kennedy reminded us that "The path we have chosen is full of hazards…The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it." With the strength and determination that our parents had demonstrated in World War II, our President brought us triumphantly out of the missile crisis. Once again, the world was saved by the older generation. The young still sought for a sense of their own role and purpose.
--The older generation grew up in a United States largely isolated from the rest of the world, and concerned primarily with overcoming the problems of the Great Depression at home. President Kennedy reminded us that: "The world is very different now… man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." This was a challenge to a new generation to avoid war that might now include new weapons with unprecedented potential to completely extinguish life on our planet. It was also a call to worldwide activism on behalf of human rights and dignity.
--Unfortunately for the young, we had not yet come to the realization that sometimes the only way to preserve human rights is through aggressive force against those who would enslave others. Somehow, idealistically, we believed we could win the world with love and humanitarian aid. This eventually led to the call by one segment of the Defining Generation to "Make Love, Not War!"
--The older generation grew up in a time when, right or wrong, time honored traditions ruled rational thought. Segregation of the races was not only accepted, it was the way of life. During the World War military units had been largely segregated, and ethnic minorities stereotyped. -
--The younger generation was beginning to question these time honored traditions that traced their roots all the way back to the American Revolution. President Kennedy became a champion in the efforts to establish a civil rights program that recognized every person on the basis of their humanity, not on the color of their skin.
--The older generation grew up suspicious of advancing technology and wary of innovation. It had taken 30 years and the courts martial of one of air power’s greatest proponents, and victory in the Second World War, to convince the military establishment of the Greatest Generation as to the true value of the airplane.
--John F. Kennedy looked BEYOND advances in technology, urging the young generation to dream of even greater advances and challenging us with unbelievable hopes. He said, "I believe 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."
One example of these new frontiers was the President’s adoption of a new kind of American soldier. He was an elite soldier, highly trained in all manner of warfare. He was further prepared to defeat the enemies of human dignity by winning the hearts and minds of the world through positive programs of civic action. The same President who defined America’s responsibility to the world by establishing the Peace Corps, also became the champion of the Special Forces soldiers of the United States Army, more popularly known as "The Green Berets".
The military's Special Forces trace their heritage back to the French/Indian Wars of the 18th Century, and as a unit it was born out of the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) of World War II. Activated in 1952, the elite Green Berets made their home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. By 1958 they had developed a concept of special operations through the deployment of a 12-man A-team. Highly trained and highly motivated, these men were seeking to redefine warfare, as well as the term "elite". With the typical suspicion and cynicism that marks the tendency of any older generation towards the younger, these soldiers were fighting for acceptance by the traditional U.S. Army when John F. Kennedy became President.
A green-colored beret was adopted as the unofficial headgear of Special Forces soldiers as early as 1953, despite the reluctance of the regular Army to authorize or recognize it. For ten years the distinctive cover that marked a new generation of freedom fighters was worn only when they went in the field for prolonged exercises.
In 1961 President Kennedy planned a visit to the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, having already verbally indicated his support of this new breed of soldier. A few weeks before the President’s visit the Army at last relented and authorized the men of Brigadier General William Yarborough’s elite force official authorization to wear the green beret. They wore them for the President's visit.
After visiting the center on October 12, President Kennedy sent a message to General Yarborough stating: "The challenge of this old but NEW form of operations is a real one and I know that you and the members of your command will carry on for us and the free world in a manner which is both worthy and inspiring. I am sure that the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead."
The President’s support
of this elite fighting force, soldiers who within a few short years would
redefine warfare, is remembered well. Today the home of America’s
Special Forces is named the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center.
The "trying times ahead" to which the President referred included a wide range of worldwide problems stemming from the Cold War. Among them was a brewing conflict in the small country of Vietnam in Southeast Asia.
After the 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the United States Central Intelligence Agency established a military mission in the southern capitol city of Saigon. During that same year the Geneva Conference established a demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel, dividing Vietnam into the Communist North, and a would-be democratic southern republic. President Dwight Eisenhower pledged support to South Vietnam and the military forces of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. With that support, in 1965 the prime minister organized the Republic of Vietnam as an independent nation, declaring himself as its president.
President Eisenhower sent
the first advisors to Southeast Asia in support of President Diem. In 1959
two American soldiers were killed in Vietnam during an attack on Bien Hoa
by the Communist forces, our country's first losses. The following year
while Kennedy and Nixon were battling for the Presidency of the United
States, the National Liberation
Front (NLF) was organizing in South Vietnam as an insurgent force
that became known as the Viet Cong. When President Eisenhower departed the
White House after the inauguration of President Kennedy he privately
advised his successor, "I think you are going to have to send
Even as the new President was settling into the Oval Office, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was pledging the support of his own Communist country in support of "wars of national liberation" wherever they might occur in the world. In North Vietnam, hopes of a reunited country under Ho Chi Minh were bolstered by Soviet support.
In May 1961 President Kennedy dispatched his Vice President to meet with President Diem in South Vietnam. The President also sent 400 Special Advisors to train South Vietnamese soldiers in their fight against the Viet Cong guerrillas. In the fall of that year, 26,000 Viet Cong soldiers launched an offensive in South Vietnam. Two weeks after President Kennedy's tour of the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg he again pledged his support of the Diem government and began increasing the number of advisors sent to Vietnam.
In his January 11, 1962, State of the Union address, President Kennedy defended his policy of escalating the American presence in South Vietnam by challenging: "Few generations in all our history have been granted the role of being the great defender of freedom in its maximum hour of danger. This is our good fortune." Within 18 months the President backed up his commitment by sending 16,000 American "advisors" to serve in South Vietnam.
Most wars of American history have been wars of self-preservation, from the revolution that released our populace from the control of Britain, through the Civil War that preserved our union, to the World War that was initiated by the attack from abroad upon the American Territory of Hawaii. The Vietnam War was much different. The earliest stages of that war can be viewed from either of two extremes. The idealistic view is the one espoused in President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address when he said:
"To those peoples in
the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of
mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for
whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it,
not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free
society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are
To the other extreme was a more cynical view that, somehow, the conflict in South Vietnam was a political ploy to be exploited for sinister purposes. Regardless of which perspective you take when looking back at the war that divided our Nation and defined a generation, the real truth probably lies somewhere in between.
In 1961 President Kennedy announced that the torch of freedom had been passed to a new generation of Americans. Regardless of how historians view the Vietnam War, beyond dispute is the fact that the young Special Forces soldiers who went to South Vietnam accepted a unique and formidable challenge. They bore that torch of liberty, not only for the people of their homeland, but extended it throughout the world in a new sense of American responsibility to a global society.
Young, sheltered, and somewhat naïve, men and women of the 60’s generation grew up in a fairytale world of Camelot, of prosperity, and with dreams of exciting frontiers. Unlike their parents who had experienced hunger in the Great Depression, uncertainty in the face of a European campaign of conquest by Adolph Hitler, a dramatic exposure to reality in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the awesome responsibility of saving our world; we had yet to witness firsthand the full force of evil that could arise on our planet.
The passage from adolescence to adulthood comes when we see the fairytale world of our infancy supplanted by reality, when Santa Claus is exposed as myth, and when a world of labor and responsibility confronts us. The Greatest Generation came of age on December 7, 1941, when it was confronted with the reality of evil from outside our sheltered borders.
On November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy traveled to Dallas, Texas. Thanks to television, that same medium that gave us the captivating world of Rock and Roll in 1956 and the fairytale world of Camelot in 1960, we were able to witness one of the most unforgettable events of our lifetime. As the President’s motorcade passed a book depository on Elm Street, shots rang out. Camelot vanished as the blood of our President splattered across the pink skirt of America’s First Princess. In that moment our young minds came face to face with reality in what our President had once described as a "dangerous and untidy world".
In that moment, the Defining Generation came of age.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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