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An Unforgettable Legacy
Anyone born before 1958 can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news that the 35th President of the United States, John FitzGerald Kennedy, had been killed. Those chilling words by Walter Cronkite froze time: “From Dallas, President Kennedy died at 1 o’clock Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern.” That message stunned a nation that had been buoyed up with hope from JFK in several speeches that are still quoted today.
That day was November 22, 1963. He had only been in office 34 months, winning the election in November, 1960 over Richard Millhouse Nixon. When Kennedy took office in January, 1961 the war in Vietnam, although smoldering, hadn’t really taken off until 1962 when troop strengths reached 9,000, compared to only 800 in the 1950’s.
The Kennedy Years
America was the most prosperous place on Earth. Unemployment was low. Civil Rights wasn’t where it needed to be yet. There would be race riots starting in 1964. The biggest worry was nuclear war and if you were around then, you remember the duck and cover drills in grade school. The major antagonist to Kennedy was Soviet General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. His claim to fame was the leader responsible for stopping the Germans at Stalingrad, in World War II.
A major point of contention in the Cold War for Khrushchev was our capability to send a plane high into the atmosphere and take pictures with amazing clarity of anywhere in the Soviet Union. In May of 1960, Khrushchev would win a victory in this game that he and Kennedy played. The Soviet Air Defenses finally shot down an American U-2 spy plane. The pilot, Gary Powers, was eventually freed in a prisoner exchange. Although this was technically on Kennedy’s watch, it very much went into the mix of the give and take relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev, which was really a duel of western democracies and the communist world.
In the spring of 1961 the newly sworn-in President Kennedy attended a summit in Vienna where Khrushchev threatened to restrict access to West Berlin from West Germany. Kennedy answered this threat in July of the same year by proclaiming a military build up in West Berlin. JFK labeled West Berlin “the great testing place of Western courage and will.” With these words, Khrushchev backed down, but only for a month in August. East Germany, with Soviet help, erected a wall of barbed wire to separate East and West Berlin and to stem the tide of East Germans “yearning to be free.”
In October of 1962 during 13 tense days, Kennedy would win again, as Khrushchev balked and ordered his ships to turn around and return home. These ships contained missiles capable of striking major cities in America.This became known as the Cuban missile crisis.
June of 1963 would find Kennedy in West Berlin, where he would make his famous reference to being a Berliner at heart. There’s an urban legend that he said he was a jelly doughnut. The fact is, a jelly doughnut in Germany is called a “Berliner.” To say in German “Ich bin Berliner” implies that you were born and raised in Berlin, and obviously he wasn’t. With the help of an interpreter, he translated it from Latin. In that famous speech he connected with the isolated West Berliners when he said “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”