Distinguished historians David M. Oshinsky and James T. Patterson delivered the keynote presentations at Humanities Texas's June 2014 teacher institutes on America in the 1960s. Dr. Oshinsky's lecture, "America in 1960," opened our institute at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, and Dr. Patterson's lecture, "JFK and the Early 1960s," launched our program at the University of Houston. These presentations set the stage for examination of the decade's monumental changes in civil rights, health care, and federal aid to education and poverty, as well as in popular culture and social attitudes.
In 1960, America had 180 million people. We have 300 million plus in 2014. What was remarkable was that the period from 1950 to 1960 saw one of the greatest population growths ever, and what was equally remarkable about it was that it came from high birth rates and people living longer. There was virtually no immigration into the country, which is so different from today. Most of the population still lived in the East, though the major westward expansion had begun. Indeed, half the population increase between 1950 and 1960 was in the West. Only four states had populations exceeding ten million—California was second and New York was first, and then you had Pennsylvania and Illinois. And what is really interesting today is that California is so far and away number one, Texas is number two, and New York is still number three, but it will be taken over by Florida very, very soon. New York and Pennsylvania and Illinois, in the years since 1960, have barely moved the needle. In other words, they virtually have the same population today that they had in 1960, which means that the great population growth really has occurred in the West and the Southwest.
Major League Baseball in 1960 had sixteen teams, eight in each league. In the American League, there was no team west of Kansas City, and in the National League, there had been no team west of St. Louis until the late 1950s when the Dodgers and the Giants moved to the West Coast. What about Texas? Texas had a population of about nine and a half million, about a third of what it is today. There was no Major League Baseball team. There was no NBA basketball team. There was no National Hockey League club. It did have one football team. The Dallas Cowboys had played their first season in 1960. I wouldn't call it pro football. They were one and eleven. I don't know what you would call that, but pro football is not the description I would use. . . .
The 1960s were really the height in terms of church membership: those who regularly attended, those who contributed financially to the church, and those who described themselves as "very religious" and said they believed in God. The figures from the 1960s are about as high as you can get. Today, about 75% of the American people claim to believe in some higher being, 40% claim to attend church services regularly, but that is a lie. The figure is somewhere around 20%. If you look at those who consider themselves the most religious today, what you find is really no surprise. The top ten states, which include Texas as number ten, are all from the South, with one exception, and that of course is Utah. It's Alabama, Mississippi's first, and you go down that list. What is really interesting about religion in 1960 is that it was bookended by two really extraordinary events, both of which I remember very, very well from my elementary school, and then later my high school days.
The first was that in 1954, the U.S. Congress put the words "under God," into the flag salute. I remember that so vividly. I was in the fourth grade, in New York City, in a public school, and my teacher was Mrs. McGurney, a very religious Catholic. She got us around in a circle, and she said she had some very good news for us, and the good news was that God had chosen sides in the Cold War, and he had picked us in his wisdom. I was really impressed. And I went home and told my father, who was a school principal. I said, "Pop, I've got some really good news for you, I don't know if you've heard it, but God has chosen sides in the Cold War, and he has picked us." And I remember my father, who had a way of looking at me when certain things came out of my mouth. Well, that look was there. He was a school principal, but he never confronted the teacher. In other words, this was her opinion, it was a very strong opinion at the time, and he was going to live with it. When I was bad in the fourth grade, Mrs. McGurney would look at me and she would say, "David, you go to Siberia," and I would trundle off to the back of the room, and sit there, and about fifteen or twenty minutes later, she would recall me from the gulag, and I would retake my seat, thankful that I lived in the United States of America, where apparently there were no Siberias.
In 1962, eight years later, the Supreme Court, in a very, very important decision, Engel v. Vitale, ruled that school prayers were unconstitutional, and they ruled it on a prayer that I took and said every single day. It was a New York State Board of Regents' prayer, and it said, quote, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country. Amen." What is interesting is that the Supreme Court took two very different tacks. One, the flag salute, they said, must be voluntary—and some of you may know that that goes back to the Jehovah's Witness cases in the 1940s. But it also said that "under God" in the flag salute was ceremonial, and of a patriotic nature, and therefore it passed muster, and did not violate the separation of church and state, while a prayer in a public school did.
In the United States in 1960, a gallon of gas sold for thirty-one cents. A postage stamp was four cents. The Post Office didn't yet need a Zoning Improvement Plan, known as a ZIP code, which came in in 1963. Phone numbers in 1960, like my own, used a two-letter, five-number code. My phone number was Illinois-nine-four-nine-six-four, IL9-4964. There were no area codes. When you called long distance, you went through an operator, and it was expensive. . . . A McDonald's hamburger cost fifteen cents. And fries were a dime. The Dow Jones was at 685, and many thought that was too high. It's now at 16,800.
Cigarettes cost forty cents a pack, and more Americans smoked more cigarettes than at any time in our history. Why? There are many reasons for this. Mass production, you didn't have to roll your own cigarettes and there were safety matches. They were put in the mess kits of soldiers during World War I and World War II. And of course, mass advertising was by far the most important single factor. Filtered tips, which were useless, came in in 1955. If you were a mature American, you smoked Kool cigarettes, which had a menthol flavor and meant that you were sophisticated. If you were a rugged man, you smoked Marlboros, and that was of course the incredibly important and popular mass advertising of the Marlboro Man, which comes just around 1960. For some of you real history buffs, it was modeled on the face of Clarence Hailey [Long], a ranch foreman from the Texas Panhandle. Then, of course, there were Virginia Slims for women, and they went as far as to have their own tennis tour for a tobacco product, which was quite extraordinary. Now this would all change in the mid-1960s. The Surgeon General's report came out tying smoking to deadly diseases. Advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products were banned from radio and television. There was a dramatic rise in the price of cigarettes, caused by the federal excise tax. And smoking went down—many more men smoked than women—but smoking went down from more than fifty percent of the adult population, and now it's under twenty percent. . . .
America in 1960 was a hard-drinking country. And that is an honorable part of our tradition, I might add. Americans consumed oceans of beer and spirits. What they didn't drink much of, compared to today, was wine. In 1960, Americans consumed about fifty-three million gallons of wine. Today, that figure is 800 million gallons, a sixteen hundred percent increase for a country that has grown thirty-three percent.
Americans appeared to love history. The leading best-seller in fiction in 1960 was Advise and Consent, a very exciting novel about the United States Senate. The best-seller list contained nonfiction books, like William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Barry Goldwater's ghostwritten Conscience of a Conservative. Hollywood got involved with Ben-Hur, sweeping the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Male Actor, Charlton Heston, and Best Director. There were no Beatles or Rolling Stones, or Jim Morrison, or Janis Joplin, certainly no Led Zeppelin. They were yet to arise. The biggest selling forty-five [record] of the year 1960 was Theme from a Summer Place, the movie starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Elvis was on the ropes, with only one Top Ten hit, "Now or Never." And the other top hits of 1960 were loaded with novelty songs and events, like "The Twist" and "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." There were some great songs: "Handyman," by Jimmy Jones, "Stay," by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. Those are classics. But it was very, very different than what would come.
We were, in retrospect, a very healthy nation. And that kind of goes against what we teach in terms of suburban culture—more Americans driving everywhere, more people working in offices rather than on assembly lines. The use of labor-saving devices like electric lawnmowers and washer-dryers. Eating increasingly fatty foods and smoking like chimneys. There were no such things as health clubs. And yet Americans were living longer than ever. The average lifespan in 1900 for an American was forty-eight years of age. It was fifty-nine by 1930, sixty-six by 1950, and sixty-nine by 1960. As always, women lived longer than men. It was sixty-six for men in 1960, and seventy-three for women. The average lifespan was based on medical discoveries and public health, in terms of the increase. Lifespan is deeply tied to infant mortality, which really drops that median or mean very, very dramatically. And by the 1950s, we began to have a number of things that really changed the course of medical history—vaccines: for polio, for rubella, for the measles, for mumps, for hepatitis. These just saved millions upon millions of lives.
Then you also had antibiotics, like penicillin and streptomycin, for a host of deadly bacterial infections. So the lifespan was definitely going to rise, along with improvements in pure water, better sanitation facilities, all of this is going to help dramatically. But it really is vaccines and antibiotics that were the most important, and what is really interesting to me, if you look at medical journals in the early 1960s, you will find article after article telling physicians there is no longer a need to go into infectious disease; we have conquered that. So the time is now right for you to go into chronic diseases, and those chronic diseases could be heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and the like. And the arrogance of it is, look what's happened between 1960 and 2014: AIDS, Ebola, SARS. Influenza that now, in some variants, is extraordinarily dangerous. In other words, bacterial and viral infections are as dangerous as ever. We, as an American community, and a medical community, changed our priorities much too early.
The average American in 1960 was a bit shorter, and a lot thinner, than we are today. The average man was about five feet eight inches tall. That has gone up about an inch in the fifty years, and it probably would have gone up more had there not been massive immigration from parts of Latin America and Asia. For women, it's gone up from five foot three to five foot four—what is most striking is the weight gain among Americans. The average man in America from the age of twenty-five to seventy, weighed 163 pounds in 1960. Today, the average man weighs 191 pounds. The average woman in 1960 weighed 140 pounds, and today that number is 164 pounds. The consequences for our health system, as we move forward, will be substantial in terms of chronic illnesses like diabetes, strokes, heart disease, and even hip and knee replacements. Today, Americans are still living longer—it's up to seventy-six years for men, and eighty-one for women. But there's a real fear now among public health officials that we have plateaued, and this will soon be reversed.
What else stands out about America in 1960 that makes it so different than today? A much higher percentage of Americans married very young. The age of marriage was much lower. There were many fewer divorces. The number of children living in two-parent homes in 1960 was close to ninety percent. It has fallen like a boulder in the past fifty years. We can argue about these changes, how various liberation movements of the 1960s contributed to them, and whether some of these changes were overdue, and some were healthy. But America, for better or worse, was far more traditional in 1960 than it is today, and the 1960s were really the beginning of that particular change. Women worked in the 1950s, and up to 1960, but in much smaller numbers. About thirty-eight percent of women were in the workforce in 1960, but only about fifteen percent worked what we would consider to be full-time jobs—thirty-five hours a week, fifty weeks a year. And women made about sixty percent, working full-time, in 1960, of what men made. Today, that figure is at least eighty percent, and there are some controversies to exactly where it stands, but it certainly has gone up dramatically.
When I think about 1960, the role of women is so striking. Think of "I Love Lucy," by far the most popular television show of that era. Lucy, for most of that show, had no children, and when she finally had a child, they actually had to have a rabbi, a priest, and a protestant minister to determine how that would be brought before the American people, and whether she should be shown as pregnant. But what is most interesting about Lucy is that she was always trying to get a job, but always screwing up. Ricky would bring her back to the house and pat her on the head. You remember the time Lucy worked in the chocolate factory, with the assembly line going by? She was stuffing chocolates into her bra, into her mouth. She just couldn't handle it. She'd always try to get an act together in Ricky's nightclub, and it would always boomerang.
This was not uncommon. If any of you can remember the show "The Honeymooners," which was extremely popular, Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in this teeny one-bedroom flat in Brooklyn. They had no children, and yet Alice did not work, because Ralph saw it as it would shine negatively upon him that his wife had to go out into the workforce. Think of "Ozzie and Harriet." . . . We all know Harriet didn't work, right? And we'd watch "Leave it to Beaver," and we'd know that Mrs. Cleaver didn't work. And we'd watch "Father Knows Best," and we'd know that Margaret Anderson didn't work.
I'd like to tell you about one show in 1959, on "Father Knows Best," that really is striking in this regard. Mr. Anderson, the insurance agent, had a girlfriend in college who was coming back to Springfield to visit him. She is a well-known physician-anthropologist and works in Africa, and she is single. And she comes to the house, and Jim Anderson, of course, is delighted to see an old girlfriend and how she is doing, but Margaret Anderson, who was played by Jane Wyatt, for the first time is snippy and jealous on the show. It's clear that she is intimidated by this physician—which is incredibly rare for women—coming to the house. There are two final scenes in this particular show. In the first scene, the two women finally meet in one of the upstairs bedrooms, Margaret Anderson the housewife, and the physician-anthropologist who was working in Africa. Margaret says to her, "I feel so bad. I can't imagine Jim chose me over you. You have done so much more with your life." The doctor-anthropologist looks at Margaret and says, "No, Jim made the right choice. Look at this beautiful family you have created. I would give anything to trade places with you." The last scene, a remarkable scene, shows the woman doctor heading back to Africa, at night, on a darkened plane, sitting alone. You realize who the winner was in this situation. And I show that episode to my students, it is absolutely remarkable about the choices women had to make, and the way American culture valued one over the other, and made it an either/or, such that the woman physician could not also be married and have a family, and the housewife could not also have a profession.
The single most important change in America between 1960 and today is the dramatic change in the composition of our population. In 1960, there were more people living in America who had been born here than at any time since anyone had begun collecting statistics, meaning that the number of foreign born in the United States was absolutely negligible. The question arises as to why did this happen. You really have to go back into history and look at the change in immigration laws in the 1920s. . . . Until the end of World War I, if you came from anywhere in Europe, or Africa, or the Western Hemisphere, you basically got a free pass into the United States. There were laws if you were sick or had mental problems they could take you out but, . . . almost everybody got in. That was what America was about.
There was one group that was always excluded, and those were Asians. There were Asian Exclusion Laws in the nineteenth century, and throughout the twentieth century, and Congress really made it again and again a rule that you either had to be of white skin or African descent, to come to the United States, which meant that Asians were excluded. One of the things that was used as an exclusionary tactic was that anyone who was ineligible for citizenship could not immigrate to the United States. And under the laws, Asians were not allowed to become naturalized citizens. [There was] a very interesting Supreme Court case in 1922, Ozawa vs. United States. Takao Ozawa was of Japanese descent, and he had come here in the early 1900s, when a few were allowed to get in. Of course, if they had children, and they were born in the United States, they automatically became citizens. But there were very, very few of them. Ozawa wanted to become a citizen of the United States. He was a Christian, he had been educated at the University of California at Berkeley, he spoke perfect English, he was a model citizen who worked for an American company, and the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, as good as his qualifications were, it was up to Congress who got into this country and who did not, and until Congress changed the laws, Asians were not going to be allowed into the United States.M
Most immigration had always come from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany—but in the 1880s and '90s and up to World War I, it had begun to shift, so that lots of Italians, and Greeks, and Jews from Russia were coming in in huge numbers. So what Congress did in 1924 was to institute a quota system. And what that quota system did, in very general terms, was to set a limit of 150,000 people per year who were allowed into the United States. Up until then it had been over a million a year coming. And what the quota system also did was to break up that number—150,000—into various quotas based on the number of different ethnicities living in America in 1890. And the reason they picked the 1890 census was that that was the last census that did not reflect enormous immigration from southern and central Europe. So with this 150,000, the British were given about 80,000 slots, which they never filled. The Italians were given about 4,000 slots, when 200,000 Italians wanted to get in. And the British slots did not go back into the general pool—they were just gone. So what you had, from a period of about 1924 until 1965 was virtually no immigrants coming into the United States, and those who did come into the United States came almost exclusively from Germany, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.
In 1965, President Kennedy had talked about this. President Johnson was enthusiastic about this. Emmanuel Celler, the head of the Judiciary Committee, was a demon on this. The rules were changed. For the first time, people from parts of the world that had, in the past, been excluded were now allowed in. How did they do it? Under the law, 170,000 people from what they called "the East," were allowed into the United States, but every one of those people who came to the United States and either became a permanent resident or a citizen was allowed to bring in all the family members they could. They could bring in brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives, so in a sense, the system was thrown open. Then, it was based on professional skill, so if you were a doctor from India, you could now get in. It was based on a kind of political oppression, so if you were a Vietnamese boat person, you could get in. By 2000, there was a complete change in the demography of this country. In 1960, close to ninety percent of the American people were white, non-Hispanic. Twelve percent were black—and that number, by the way, has not changed—so from 1960 to 2014, the number of African Americans in this country still hovers around eleven or twelve percent. It has not gone up and it has not gone down. What has changed is that in 1960, three percent of the population was Hispanic, and virtually zero percent was of Asian descent. By 2011, the almost ninety percent white had gone down to sixty-three percent. Hispanics had gone up from three percent to seventeen percent. And Asians had gone up from zero to five percent. By the year 2050, if demographics remain on the same trajectory that they are on now, whites will be forty-seven percent of this country, Hispanics will be twenty-nine percent, and Asians will be almost ten percent. If you add in the African American population, we will have, by the year 2050, a white minority in this country. . . .
We're a very different country today—ethnically, culturally, geographically, technologically, but these changes also point to the extraordinary stability of the United States as a functioning democracy—the world's oldest, capable of endless reinvention and reform. Think of what has happened in those years politically. A president was assassinated, a president resigned in disgrace, a president was impeached, and yet the political system moves forward. We live in a remarkably stable political system. As a nation, however, we will always be a work in progress, and most of us, I like to think, wouldn't have it any other way.
Chase Untermeyer, former United States Ambassador to Qatar, Humanities Texas board member, and international business consultant, introduced James T. Patterson at the Houston institute keynote address. Click "Listen to audio" below to enjoy his opening remarks.
In the early 1960s, there were things happening that, in retrospect, you can see helped push some of the developments of the later 1960s, but people living through them really had a more optimistic and different way of looking at the world from what happened in the later 1960s.
There were, of course, signs of change. A number of key books, for instance. In 1961, Joseph Heller's Catch-22. 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. 1962, Michael Harrington's The Other America, an exposé of poverty, which was one of the many things that led the first Kennedy, and then Johnson, to push for a poverty program. . . . 1963, James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, a collection of essays. It, like Michael Harrington's The Other America, first appeared as a series of articles in The New Yorker magazine. And Baldwin helped bring the whole question of race even more close up to many readers than was already the case. In 1963, of course, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which went to paperback in 1964, was a huge seller and is often credited with being the seminal document, or a seminal document, in the development of a new feminist consciousness.
In 1960 alone, you have the founding of the Students for a Democratic Society, the SDS. This was a very small organization for a while. There were only a little more than a thousand dues-paying members of the Students for a Democratic Society at the start of 1965. By the late 1960s, some put the numbers as high as eighty or one hundred thousand. Then it fell apart, but it was the largest single anti-war student organization in American history, and remains that.
Also in 1960, the sit-in movement. There had been sit-ins before in the United States's history, over race and other things, but the first one that really garnered a lot of publicity was in February of 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina. It caught on, and by the end of the year, it is estimated maybe seventy thousand people had participated in sit-ins, usually at lunch counters and various places like that, challenging the discrimination that kept people from eating at lunch counters. . . . In April 1960, you also had the founding of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, about the same time as the sit-in movement was spreading. In May of 1960, the FDA approved a pill, which I need not say more about.
All these things that were happening in 1960, while Eisenhower was president, and all of them, also, before Kennedy was elected. . . . These developments, I think, did not really catch the imagination of people in ways that the cheerleaders for these people really were caught up in them. And the membership of the SDS is just one manifestation of that.
In May of 1961, the Freedom Rides started, in which CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and various other interracial activist groups challenged the segregation of bus terminals in the South. They were brutally treated, in many cases. I would mention, especially, the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations of April and May 1963, which resulted in the jailing of Martin Luther King, his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail", the Children's Crusade, and all the ghastly pictures on national television of what Bull Connor did to those children and various other demonstrators in the Birmingham campaign. Then of course, the March on Washington in August 1963, which drew some two hundred thousand people. . . .
During the 1960 campaign, the difference between Kennedy and Nixon on civil rights issues was really pretty slim. And it was not the major issue of the campaign. The major issues were the economy, which had been sluggish, and international relations, the Cold War. Civil rights was there. Of course, King was jailed, but I don't think it was the central thing. Until Birmingham in the spring of 1963, polls don't show Northern white people, for instance, let alone Southern white people, hastening to the cause. In short, I think people were relatively upbeat, and the polls, Gallup polls, indicate this.
I want to also emphasize that during 1960, when Eisenhower was still president, and until Kennedy's assassination, and into 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights Movement was overwhelmingly nonviolent, interracial, and Southern in its focus. There was no public talk yet of black power. That doesn't really get moving until 1966. And no serious urban disturbances. The first serious ones are in Harlem and various other Northern cities in 1964. The first really big one is in Watts, Los Angeles, in the summer of 1965. There was a lot of violence, especially in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, and in Birmingham, and the killing of four black girls in a Birmingham school in the fall of 1963, and the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. This was white-on-black killing.
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But what was happening in the 1960s, starting in 1961, was the return of very good times. In fact, the 1960s were the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in modern American history to that time. And some of the growth was three percent a year. It was astonishing. Unemployment reached new lows. Television was taking over the country. Color television, by 1965, was moving in. It was a bull time, and people felt good about this.
This was also a period, in the early 1960s, when economic inequality, as measured by the shares of national income that various quintiles or deciles of the earning population get, was probably at an all-time twentieth century low. The problem we hear about today simply was not in the newspapers, this harsh combativeness between the classes that we sometimes find today was much less in evidence. It was also a time when issues of ethnic relations or immigration were definitely not front and center. There were a number of reformers who deeply resented discriminatory immigration laws, which dated to the 1920s, and which virtually excluded Asians, and these reformers obviously thought immigration was a major issue, as did Lyndon Johnson. One of Johnson's many accomplishments in 1965 was to get Congress to pass immigration reform in that year, which forms the basis, in some ways, of our immigration law today, and did away with the discriminatory aspects of the old system. . . .
We could also look at television or movies. . . . The television that's widely panned and lampooned by critics was still very popular. Shows like "Leave it to Beaver," which lasted from 1957 to 1963, and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which ran from 1952 to 1966. A program like "All in the Family," which was revolutionary, doesn't hit the screens until 1971. The top shows in 1962, for instance, were "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," and "The Lucy Show."
These shows were well done; they were popular. But they were not topical, they were not social, they were not political. They were entertainment. Critics thought that they were sort of a waste of people's time. They were good enough to hang around, and there was not a whole lot of effort made to change that. I can say pretty much the same thing about Hollywood. . . .
You may say, "well, wasn't the Missile Crisis a real source of tension?" And the answer is yes, it was the scariest single event of the decade. We almost had a nuclear war. But I would say this. It came as a sudden surprise, it was over quickly, it ended happily for us, and it enabled Kennedy and Khrushchev to establish a hotline between Moscow and Washington. And in September of 1963, the Senate actually passed a Limited Test Ban Treaty by a vote of eighty-to-nineteen.
That threat of nuclear war has never gone away but was far reduced after that, as Vietnam takes over the focus of the war against international communism. I think you could say that after the Missile Crisis was settled and the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed, the Cold War, although it cost 58,000 deaths in Vietnam in a proxy war, was never again so frightening. It had become less nuclear focused than it had been in the past. So all of this is to say, I think the early 1960s have to be seen as a time when, because of the economy and all of these other things, it seems very different from the later 1960s.
Now what about Kennedy? Where does he fit into all this? Can't we say that his eloquent calls for change, his talk about youth, vigor, and energy, his call for a New Frontier, galvanized Americans? I was stunned to read all the things that were said about Kennedy on the anniversary of his assassination last November, where he was basically elevated up to some kind of a pedestal, made to seem as if his death somehow ruined the world. Well, he was eloquent, he was vigorous, he was handsome. He really grew on the job. His handling of the Missile Crisis was not nearly as expert as Bobby Kennedy's campaign document Thirteen Days might have you believe, but it obviously prevented what could have been a horrible outcome.
And he was extraordinarily popular while he was president, and afterwards. A poll when he was alive in mid-1963 showed that fifty-nine percent of Americans said they had voted for him in 1960. He actually received 49.7 percent of the vote. After the assassination, another poll indicated that sixty-five percent of people said they had voted for him in 1960. Robert Dallek notes a Gallup poll in 2010 asking for Americans' opinions about all the former presidents from Kennedy on. . . . Up until 2010, Kennedy led hands down. Eighty-five percent of people picked him, and Reagan was second with seventy-four.
So he was popular, far more popular, following his election than he was as a candidate. Nixon almost beat him. There remains controversy as to whether or not corrupt vote counting in Cook County, Illinois, helped Kennedy win the crucial electoral votes of Illinois, and therefore the election. Nixon didn't challenge that, probably because there was corruption favoring Republicans in the downstate parts of Illinois.
I find it hard to understand that Kennedy gets such high ratings, and I don't set much store in them. . . . Kennedy was a six-year U.S. Representative and then a senator for eight years. While he was a senator, he was often absent, in part because he was sick. Some sources say he had the last rites read to him four times. He had Addison's Disease, which is a chronic endocrine disorder which affects the adrenal glands, and he was a very, very uncomfortable and not-healthy man throughout much of the 1940s and 1950s.
. . .
Kennedy did not regard himself as a real staunch liberal. While a senator, he once observed, "I'm not a liberal at all. I've never joined the Americans for Democratic Action or the American Veterans Committee." He was a liberal in the sense that most Northern Democrats were liberal. He supported various New Deal-type programs to help working-class people. But he was hardly passionate about it. He was not greatly interested in domestic affairs. His concerns were overwhelmingly with foreign policy.
In 1960, many liberals favored not Kennedy but Hubert Humphrey, liberal senator from Minnesota, in the Democratic presidential primaries, and they thought Kennedy was just a rich, young guy who bought his way, on his father's money, into the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a big Adlai Stevenson fan, using Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage—which by the way, he didn't write—as a starting point, said, "I would hesitate to place the difficult decisions that the next president will have to make with someone who understands what courage is, and admires it, but has not had quite the independence to have it." And she also got off a great one-liner, "I wish Kennedy showed more courage and less profile."
While president, he did push for various longstanding northern Democratic liberal efforts to get such programs passed, such as federal aid to education, increasing the federal minimum wage, and a program involving health care for the elderly, which was very much like the Medicare program. But he had an uncooperative Congress. There were Democratic majorities, but Southerners were very strong in the Congress in those days, and they were much more conservative. The party was badly divided between the northern, more liberal people and the southern, more conservative people. On the education issue, the Catholics and Protestants fought over the issue of whether programs should provide aid to parochial schools. For a lot of reasons, almost none of these programs got through. He did succeed in getting a small hike in the minimum wage, which went, in 1963, up to the colossal sum of one dollar and twenty-five cents an hour.
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He said to Nixon, "Foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn't it? I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is 1.15 an hour or 1.25, compared to something like [Cuba]?" You probably know that Bobby Kennedy, and others during Kennedy's administration, were very active in trying to figure out a way to assassinate Castro. That didn't happen.
In foreign affairs, Kennedy's views were very similar to most leading politicians of both parties: staunchly anti-Communist, willing to defend the United States and its allies in the Cold War. He was an ardent Cold Warrior. During the campaign, in fact, he charged Eisenhower with having permitted a "missile gap" to occur, increasing the lag that he said that the United States was undergoing compared to the Soviets in missile development. This turned out to be untrue, and his Secretary of Defense had to tell him so, and make him change his mind, but this was after the campaign was over. In Salt Lake City in September 1960, he said, "the enemy is the Communist system itself—implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination. . . . This is not a struggle for the supremacy of arms alone. It is also a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God, versus ruthless, godless tyranny." That's the kind of language people used in those days, and Kennedy did not hesitate to do so.
Now, what about civil rights? During the campaign, Kennedy had said that with a stroke of the presidential pen, he would issue an executive order—because it was hard to get anything through Congress—that would attack racial discrimination in federally-supported housing. But in 1961, he didn't do it. In 1962, he wasn't doing it. Whereupon an "ink for Jack" movement developed, and pens bombarded the White House. He was getting many of the civil rights people very upset by dallying on a campaign promise. Kennedy finally did this, but only after the 1962 election, and it was hedged about in various ways, so as to make no serious difference.
When the Freedom Rides started out in the spring of 1961, he told an aide, "Tell [the riders] to call it off." And he asked the Freedom Riders for "a cooling-off period," and he criticized them for embarrassing the United States by holding up its racist practices to the world as he was then preparing for a difficult summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna. When black African diplomats complained that they couldn't get served in restaurants on the roads going into Washington, Kennedy was upset, and he snapped privately to an aide, "Can't you tell these African ambassadors not to drive on Route 40? It's a hell of a road. . . . Tell those ambassadors I wouldn't think of driving from New York City to Washington. Tell them to fly."
He and Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General, at the behest of FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, wiretapped Martin Luther King's homes in Atlanta and in New York City. Why did the Kennedys agree to do this? Well, many people think that Hoover, who was not only a keyhole peeper, but a nasty, nasty racist, probably had in his voluminous files, which he collected for years on people, information on Kennedy's incredibly varied extramarital sex life. And indeed, what Kennedy was doing was dangerous to national security. One of his mistresses, Judith Exner, was also the mistress of a Mafia figure, who was also involved in Bobby Kennedy's plot to assassinate Castro. So this was pretty bad stuff. So probably Hoover said, "You need to do this, or some of this stuff's going to leak out." So the government gets into the business of wiretapping Martin Luther King.
Most important, and most troublesome to black leaders, he was slow in seeking a civil rights act. From his perspective, this made sense politically, because there was not a huge public demand for this, at least not prior to Birmingham. It was not the major issue that you think it should have been, or was. It wasn't. And polls show this. It was not something that many Americans really thought a lot about. They did not capture the moral aspects of it. And so he knew he would have trouble. He would never get this through Congress. And so he didn't do anything.
He did so, finally, after the huge television coverage of the Birmingham business in Alabama and various other things in the spring of 1963, whereupon he said, in a famous speech, that civil rights was "a moral issue" that "is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution." It was an eloquent address, and it was heartening to civil rights leaders. Many of the civil rights leaders complained that his provisions were weak concerning voting, which they were. It was only later, in House consideration of the bill later in 1963, that a provision calling for a reasonably strong Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, was added to Kennedy's bill. When Kennedy was killed, the civil rights bill, which he had called for in June was still tied up in the House Rules Committee, nowhere near debate on the House floor, let alone passage in either house. Very few people thought, in fact, that any bill would ever have passed.
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When Kennedy died, there were roughly seventeen thousand American troops in Vietnam. They were called military advisers. When he took office there were about one thousand. Many of these military advisers were doing more than advising. They were transporting South Vietnamese troops to battle areas. Some got involved in firefights, a few had been killed. The newspapers reported this. Press coverage, in fact, by people like David Halberstam, was so critical of the corrupt South Vietnamese government and the whole war effort, that Kennedy actually called up the head of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, and asked that he take Halberstam off the Vietnam beat. To his credit, Sulzberger refused to do this. But it gives you some indication of how sensitive Kennedy was to criticism of what was going on there. Kennedy continued to insist that they were military advisers.
Now would he have escalated? How can I give a talk about Kennedy without asking the question that everybody asks: What would have happened if Kennedy hadn't been killed? And to me, the answer is obvious: nobody knows. . . .
But on this subject, [Kennedy made two very brief statements] in September 1963 about what he would do in Vietnam. First, "I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake." Second "In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it." He was saying things out of both sides of his mouth. His advisers didn't agree about what to do. Kennedy had not devoted great attention to the issue, nor had the American public, until 1963, and only then did Kennedy really get himself messed up in this. And finally, even the issue of Vietnam, at the time of Kennedy's death, was not something Americans thought a whole lot about. Some of the press did, yes, but it of course was nothing so important as it was to be later on in the 1960s.
Finally what difference did the assassination make so far as the subsequent history of the United States was concerned? Well, it was a horribly numbing event. It enabled Jackie Kennedy to get the Camelot myth started, in which we learned that his administration had been one in which virtuous and noble knights were leading the nation into a wonderful future. Some people have also argued, of course, that the assassination, and also the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, have created an enduring and thriving conspiracy industry. Not only that, but that somehow the killing of Kennedy wiped out a dream, wiped out something wonderful, whether you call it Camelot or not, something that was never replaced.
And many people, obviously, were stating this last year during the anniversary of Kennedy's death. Obviously, it was a horrible thing. Everybody remembers where they were. But if you look again at the primary sources, the newspapers, the magazines, the television, and so forth, after his death, into 1964, you find again, a lot of the same 1950s type of optimism and sense that the country's moving along and in good shape. I mean, the Missile Crisis danger was over with, and Vietnam was not yet a horrible issue. Johnson said he wasn't going to get us into the war. Johnson gets a civil rights bill passed and signed in 1964. He gets the War on Poverty through. Peace and prosperity are thriving.