|JFK challenges Congress to send a man to the moon.|
Today is the 50th anniversary of the day the music died.
No matter how you may have felt about John F. Kennedy as a leader during his short span as the president of this country, no matter how you might feel about him as a man in recent times as we dissect his personal life with the scalpels of modern “journalism”, if you were alive and old enough to be aware on November 22, 1963, your life was forever changed by his murder at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
The nation was in shock for days, weeks, even months after that horrific event, waiting, perhaps, for the other shoe to drop. I was only ten, but I distinctly remember worrying that the Russians would take the opportunity to kick us while we were down. We were only a year past the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all, a time when the world came closer to nuclear war than we ever had. Without Kennedy to steer us out of that danger, we might not have survived. I wasn’t the only one thinking, “What’s coming next?”
It is a tribute to the foresight of the founders of the Constitutional government we so often malign nowadays and the not inconsequential leadership skills of Vice-President/President Lyndon Johnson that things did not fall apart after Kennedy’s death. Many of Kennedy’s dreams were brought to fruition, largely in his honor, and thrive today. The Peace Corps, for example, which Kennedy established as a way for young people to answer his call for service to their country, boasts more Volunteers serving in more countries around the globe than ever before. (Volunteers even serve in many former republics of the U.S.S.R.!)
Johnson expanded Kennedy’s reluctant support of civil rights into the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination in jobs, education, housing and other areas of public life, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, actively protecting the right to vote throughout the nation. It can be argued, too, that Johnson’s eagerness to follow through on Kennedy’s vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend democracy around the globe led to a doomed expansion of the war in Vietnam, a war there is evidence Kennedy planned to end.
The most unqualified successes of the Kennedy years, however, have to be the expansion and achievements of the U.S. space program. When Kennedy took office, the U.S. was woefully behind in the “space race” with our avowed enemy, the U.S.S.R. Four years after the Soviets successfully launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. When Alan Shepherd became the first American in space a month later, he only managed to arc out of the stratosphere briefly and back in, rather than making a complete orbit. We were losing on a very important front, and the young president, smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, needed to light a fire of inspiration under his “troops”.
On a speech before a special Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy laid out his plan: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man to the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
In what seems a miracle in this day of childish Congressional bickering, funding was appropriated for this ambitious goal and disbursed across the remainder of NASA’s Mercury program and through the Gemini and Apollo programs. Facilities were established. Factories were built. Thousands of scientists worked feverishly with their sliderules (yes, sliderules!) And despite the death of a president (and his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), the descent of a nation into despair and riot over civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, and even the discrediting of Johnson, the space program persevered. Until on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and, days later, returned safely home.
This one example can be held up as the reason why we mourn Kennedy’s loss. Where could you find a leader today who would be able to inspire with a few words an endeavor so daunting, so potentially overreaching, yet so fundamental to the human spirit? Yes, there were other needs here on Earth. Kennedy did not ignore them. In fact, his might well have been the last generation of rich Americans raised to believe “to whom much is given, much shall be required.”
Like so many of his generation, he gave the last full measure of his devotion to his country on this day, fifty years ago. But those of us who long for the stars can still look up at the moon, imagine the flag proudly planted there, and acknowledge John F. Kennedy’s living legacy.