Everybody remembers where they were when they heard about those moments frozen in time: Pearl Harbor (not too many left now, of course). 9-11. And of course the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
It hardly seems possible it was exactly 50 years ago Friday that I was in Fort Hood, Texas, cleaning my gas mask after returning from a historic airlift of an entire armored division to Europe for a major military maneuver. One of the guys came running out of the barracks yelling, “The president has been shot!” We all rushed in to the nearest TV set, not long before a somber Walter Cronkite announced, “I regret to tell you that President John F. Kennedy has died.”
Needless to say, all planned activity for the weekend was cancelled on the large Army post. The following Monday some of us wandered to post headquarters for the 50-gun salute rendered by the Fort Hood artillery cannons in memory of the fallen commander-in-chief.
“It could only happen in Texas,” one of my friends remarked wryly of the assassination some 175 miles north in Dallas.
Kennedy, of course, then was considered the hallmark of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. There’s a bit of irony in that statement, considering that the course JFK took during his three years as president would by today’s standards be more on the conservative side.
Especially so was Kennedy’s conduct of foreign policy, standing up to the international communist movement at every turn and in particular staring down the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis.
Many blame Kennedy for getting the United States involved in Vietnam (though of course Democrats in turn seek to cast the blame on President Eisenhower for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization alliance that paved the way for the initial American military advisers).
But with JFK’s assassination, we could never know if or whether the Southeast Asia tinderbox would have escalated into what became the debacle of the Vietnam War.
As history transpired, it was left to Lyndon Johnson to make those decisions. He would be opposed in the 1964 election by Sen. Barry Goldwater, icon of Republican conservatism, whom he portrayed as “trigger-happy” just months before he followed essentially the same course Goldwater proposed.
In another bit of irony, one of the soldiers in my unit was a former newspaper photographer by the name of Jeff Goldwater. By his own admission he was a distant relative of the presidential candidate.
The Kennedy mystique has continued over the decades. So has the family’s history of tragedy with another assassination, accidents, conspiracy theories, cancer and brushes with the law. Trouble in Camelot, it was dubbed.
Seldom in this country’s history have its leaders been more revered, reviled and revisited than the saga of John F. Kennedy and his family in the half century since his untimely death.
Jim Bailey’s reflections on Anderson’s past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.