"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Friday, January 15, 2016

"The 1960s and Vietnam"

     I was visiting my sister in Jacksonville, FL, for a few days. On Wednesday nights she and her husband take an American history class at the University of North Florida called "The 1960s and Vietnam." It sounded kind of interesting, so I asked if I could go along.

     "The class is three hours," my sister told me.

     "That's okay." I swallowed hard. "I think I can stay awake that long."

     Later, I called B and told her what I was doing. "That's not history," she scoffed. "You lived it."

     "Yeah, I know. But it would be the same as when we were kids, and we took a course about the United States during the nineteen teens, under Taft and Wilson instead of Kennedy and Johnson. That's history, isn't it?" 

     So the other night we drove over to campus and found the classroom, filled with some 25 undergraduates and about ten seniors auditing the course. The topic for the evening:  John F. Kennedy. Of course, as B suggested, I already knew the general outline of the Kennedy story. But I did learn a few things.

     Kennedy had three main problems standing in the way of his election. First was his Catholicism. The professor had to explain to the wide-eyed students that Protestants, especially in the South and Midwest, were prejudiced against Catholics back in those days.

     (As an aside, my wife was from Ohio and she once confessed to me (I was raised Catholic) that her parents would not let her date a Catholic boy when she was in high school.)

     Kennedy addressed the Catholic issue in a famous speech to a gathering of Protestant clergy during the Democratic primary. He stood squarely for the separation of church and state, he told them, and no priest was going to tell the president what to do -- just as no minister should tell their church members how to vote. His campaign also made sure that the Catholic nuns who attended his rallies never sat up front where they might be photographed or appear in any news clips.

     A second problem was Kennedy's philandering, which was an open secret at the time. Fortunately for him, the press was more discreet back in that era. You were okay, so the saying went, as long as you weren't caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.

The official White House portrait of President Kennedy
     Then there was his health. He was chronically underweight; he suffered from constant pain from a bad back. He had colitis. But his worst problem was Addison's disease. According to the professor, Kennedy had been close to death and been given last rites three times in his life. He was given cortisone shots when he started running for president, which filled out his face and made him look healthy, even though he wasn't. He took barbiturates for pain on a consistent basis, and then took amphetamines to counteract the barbiturates.

     One of the causes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to the professor, was that Kennedy and Khrushchev had already met in Vienna in June 1961. Kennedy was not feeling well and was taking various medications, and he made a poor showing at the meeting. Khrushchev decided Kennedy was weak, and this emboldened him to send missiles to Cuba. Basically, he'd sized up Kennedy, and he thought he could get away with it.

     Well, the class was three hours long, and so there was a lot of information about JFK. He picked Johnson as his running mate because he was Protestant and would take "the stink of Catholicism" off the ticket. Johnson was from Texas and would help carry the South. And then Kennedy said:  Besides, what good would it do to win the presidency if Lyndon Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader? Kennedy wanted Johnson out of the way so he wouldn't block his legislative proposals in the Senate.

     The professor opined that Kennedy could probably never get elected in today's America. And it's entirely possible that, were he not assassinated, he would have died of his health complications before he could fill out a second term.

     He also pointed out that Kennedy was an avid Cold Warrior. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, not because he was interested in space, but because he wanted to beat the Russians.

     When Kennedy was sworn into the presidency, there were 900 American military advisers in South Vietnam. By the time he was killed, there were over 30,000 Americans in Vietnam.

     Yet the professor believes that Kennedy probably would not have ramped up the Vietnam War the way Johnson did, with over 500,000 American troops at the peak in 1968. Kennedy had already proved he was tough on communism; he could have afforded to step back in Vietnam. But Johnson felt he had to stand firm in Vietnam to prove he wasn't soft on communism. He gave the hawks what they wanted in foreign policy to allow him to pass the social welfare programs of the Great Society (including Medicare).

     And the professor also wondered, were it not for Kennedy's assassination, the Great Society may have never come about. Although Kennedy finally did come around and fully support civil rights by mid-1963, he was never the avid social liberal that Johnson was. Yet his death made him a martyr. And Johnson used that to inspire many in Washington to support his programs, as a legacy to the fallen president.

     Of course, we'll never know the what-ifs of Kennedy. And I guess I'll never know about the rest of the 1960s -- the Johnson years, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the music and the counterculture -- because I have moved on from Jacksonville and won't have the opportunity to attend any more of the classes.

     However, it's raining today in Florida. So maybe I'll read some of those handouts the professor gave us.


Barbara said...

Tom, sounds like a wonderful class. Even though I lived that time, and I do remember the Catholicism being a negative factor, you do not always see the present as clearly as you do when it is the past. Maybe you can get your friends to record the lectures and send it to you. I wouldn't mind hearing them myself. My kind of evening.

DJan said...

I would have loved to be one of the seniors auditing that class. It sounds fascinating. I knew about Kennedy's philandering much later, but I didn't know how precarious his health was! Sometimes looking at the "What Ifs" makes it almost impossible to fathom what our life would be like today with just a few changes in history, :-)

Dick Klade said...

"JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President" is about three down from the top of books on my nightstand. Maybe I'll move it up after reading your account of the class material. It's not a bad thing to have lived through history. While we had thousands of troops in Viet Nam and were training thousands of Vietnamese troops, when I was in the U.S. Army (1958-1960), many official statements said we weren't involved. Right then, a naïve small-town lad learned not to trust top-level government, especially military, pronouncements.

Tom said...

Considering this experience, and my new-found interest in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, I'm thinking I should really take a class. When I get home from Florida I'm going to check out the spring catalog at our community college. Barbara, I don't think the prof. would let anyone record the class -- he won't even let students bring an electronic device into the classroom! But I'm going to see if I can find a good podcast on the subject. And Dick, I do not know where the prof. got the figures for American advisers in Vietnam. But I don't think people believe official Vietnam figures any more than they believe the official report on the Kennedy assassination.

Olga said...

Well, I learned something new--really had no idea that Kennedy's health was such an issue. I remember that time well since my parents were always very interested in politics so there was lots of discussion in our house about elections.

Anonymous said...

I recall people's saying that a Catholic could not win the election. They were wrong.
Cop Car

Janette said...

I have always contended that Kennedy got the credit for LBJ's work. LBJ was not a very nice man- but he knew poverty and oppression. He is the one who pushed all of the civil rights bills and created a real safety net for families. Bobby Kennedy would have been a great President. He seemed much more in tune with where the country needed to go. I think Jack was a hawk and got us into a mess difficult to get out of.
At least that is my humble opinion….
I am looking forward to taking classes at the University next year- finally- for free!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion. I got arrested for participating in an anti-war sit-in at the University of Hawaii in 1968, and did travel with other students from Columbia University to Washington, DC in 1971 to protest the war.

Mac n' Janet said...

Sounds like an interesting class. I knew a lot about Kennedy including the illnesses. Johnson was a far more effective president than Kennedy. I think, in ways, Kennedy was trying to make up for the Bay of Pigs by his build up in Vietnam.

Jono said...

Vietnam really dominated our lives and the news in the 60's. It was the source of so many "discussions" on many levels, but you are right that if Johnson hadn't shown a military commitment it is not as likely all the social legislation would have passed. I knew most of those things about Kennedy and remember that his Catholicism was a bone of contention. I remember my parents having Catholic friends, but questioning the wisdom of a Catholic president.

Tom said...

I was at the Washington protest in '71 -- I think I saw you there!

Rosaria Williams said...

Fascinating info about Kennedy and Johnson and how little information leaked to the public back then.
Thanks for taking the class and sharing it with us.

Rosaria Williams said...

Fascinating info about Kennedy and Johnson and how little information leaked to the public back then.
Thanks for taking the class and sharing it with us.

b+ (Retire In Style Blog) said...

Wow! While we lived that era in the front seat it is interesting to hear about it through histories eyes. I did not know Kennedy was that ill and certainly did not know he was taking such a vicious round of drugs. I think we would all agree that his lifestyle would not fly in today's presidential race.

Anonymous said...

Kennedy was my kind of Democrat, cold warrior and all. Yes, I knew about the Catholic thing. We were Catholic, lived in the South, and worked in his campaign. The venom was palpable.

I was too young to vote, being only 18 when he ran. The Democrat party was mostly a disgrace in those days, and the campaign was bitter. The South was solid Democrat you know, so LBJ mattered and probably helped win the election. It was said that Daddy Joe "bought" votes in the North and the Mob was behind the campaign.

The sad thing about Kennedy/Johnson is that they got us into Vietnam, believing the war was necessary to keep communism away from freedom loving people. Did you know that most of the men and women who served in Vietnam were voluteers or career military like John McCain, and not draftees? Most people don't know that. Hollywood sure doen't.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article here: http://www.vietvet.org/jeffviet.htm

Tells a long and sordid story of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam