John F Kennedy
In the life of this great nation, a few of its presidents have emerged from the pack as truly historic and memorable even more than others. Of course, the presidents from the generation of the founding fathers certainly fit that bill including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And presidents that served the country in times of great crisis also are deeply honored in memory. But in recent memory, there probably no other president that brings up emotions of respect and admiration as much as that of John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy seemed to capture the hearts of the American people in a way that was unique in presidents before or since. Part of it may have been the era in history that the country was in when he became the President of the United States. The historic time between 1950 and 1970 was a time when the largest generation of youth, now known as the "baby boomers", was coming of age. With them a new youth movement brought a sense of optimism, a "can do" attitude and to some extent a sense of revolution. They were looking for new ways of seeing things, a new vision of the future and new leadership and John F. Kennedy was the perfect man of the hour to provide that leadership.
So much about Kennedy's presidency has an aura of romance and almost a fairy tale excitement of it. From the naming of his family estates "Camelot" to the love affair that the public had with the strikingly beautiful presidential couple, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy. That touch of magic extended to everything he did and virtually everybody in his family including his younger brother Robert who was idolized as well and almost certainly would have served as president had he not been tragically assassinated during his early bid for that office.
But this was not to say that Kennedy was not a phenomenal leader. He faced serious challenges. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have been one of the most frightening show downs between a nuclear Russia and a nuclear America that has ever happened in history. When it became clear that Russia was beginning to build bases in Cuba and arm them with those terrible weapons, this was no time for a weak president. Had Russia been able to bully Kennedy or intimidate the young president and put those missiles in Cuba, it seems certain that the outcome of the cold war would have been one of failure rather than success. But Kennedy was not bullied or intimidated and using the power of his office, Kennedy stood his ground and stood ground for all Americans and forced the Russians to remove those missiles.
But this was not the only great accomplishment of Kennedy's administration. It took a leader who had great vision and ability to inspire a nation as nobody else than John F. Kennedy could to set the sights of the nation on landing on the moon. But Kennedy put that desire and that high calling in the hearts of his people and the nation rallied to finally see that man step out on the moon and declare, "This is one step for man, a giant leap for mankind." That was one of the proudest days in American history and it was Kennedy who inspired us to that kind of greatness.
As much as the life and leadership of John F. Kennedy perfectly exemplified the optimism and youthful zeal of a generation, his tragic assignation changed the country forever as well. On that sad day of November 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down America's beloved president, the hearts of Americans changed forever.
This was one of those days that almost everybody who was alive at the time, from school children to grandfathers remembered where they were when they heard the news. Since we laid to rest this great leader, the presidency itself has never been the same. While Americans will always respect their presidents, that sense of adoration for the man in the White House disappeared forever. But the thing that did not disappear was the ongoing adoration of the man, John F. Kennedy, who inspired a generation and a nation to look forward to greatness and in the famous words of his inaugural address in 1961...
"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
America is a vast country covering thousands of square miles of land that traverses tremendously diverse climate and landscape. From high and majestic mountains, to wide deserts to vast fruitful plains that seem to go on forever, the sheer size of the physical landscape of America is breath taking.
Obviously, this was not always the case. When those earliest settlers landed on the east coast and carved out their stark settlements, they had no idea of huge expanse of land that lay to the west. It took the bold explorations of surveyors such and Lewis and Clark to report back how stunningly huge the amount of physical space that was available for America to inhabit.
At first, the very idea of becoming a nation was seemingly impossible for the early settlers to grasp. They came here to escape persecution, tyranny or to make a new home for their families. If they could have looked a few hundred years down the line into the future and seen the powerhouse of a nation that would grow up from their work in those early years, they would have been stunned that this country grew to be such a world force. So the earliest challenges of settlers and early leaders of the citizens of the young America was to grasp the scope of what they were about to set about to achieve.
But grasp that scope they did. It seemed that the physical majesty of what was to become the nation of America inspired a concept that was just as grand as the land itself and that was the concept of Manifest Destiny. Manifest destiny was the force that drove those settlers and explorers to drive their wagon trains across sometimes impossible terrain through difficult weather conditions and facing many dangers from animals and Native Americans alike to build a nation that spanned form the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
This was the dream of the early settlers of this country. They did not just see a new nation but one of importance, of an almost holy calling to become a virtual utopia of democracy and opportunity. And part of that utopian vision was the idea of a nation that spanned ocean to ocean and from Mexico to the Canadian border as well.
When you think about it, its phenomenal that a people who did not have space photographs of a landscape or high speed travel such as is common today to get a vision of a unified nation of such vast size and scope. But it was more than just physical size that spoke to the hearts and souls of those early Americans. Manifest Destiny spoke to a vision of greatness for America that was birthed in the hearts of even these early citizens.
The size of the country was to be a reflection of the majesty of the human spirit and the magnificence of the American experiment to build a nation built on freedom, the will of the people and on democracy and opportunity. Today such concepts seem ordinary and for that we can thank the early founders of this country for catching that dream together and making it a reality.
Many have criticized Manifest Destiny as greed or empire building. And to be sure, mistakes were made and many people died or had their individual destinies hurt in the wholesale rush to the west that America experienced in its early decades. But what is not diminished is that sense of calling and that sense that America was put here for something great. That calling lives still in the hearts of all true Americans as we find out how we too can help our country fulfill its Manifest Destiny to be a voice for freedom and liberty in the world. Let's hope Americans never loose their sense of calling and destiny. Because if that dies away, something holy and magnificent will die with it.
The history of how America emerged as the premier superpower in the world is about more than just a great military or a homeland so rich in natural resources that we were able to become the breadbasket of the world. There are many forces that combined in the American experiment that has made this country so great. One of those great forces is the phenomenal inventive minds that have graced America virtually since its inception. Starting with the powerful mind of Benjamin Franklin, the history of inventions that started in America and transformed the world is lengthy indeed.
The computer has become so much a part of our lives that we forget that it was once invented. The history of the development of this "futuristic" device is long and filled with genius. The actual first prototypes of the computer were developed by the Defense Department, which is oddly the source of a lot of the great innovations in American history. But it was the early PC developers including Steve Wozniac, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that took the computer to the level of familiarity we know it to be now and made computers a part of our everyday lives.
Most world changing inventions have a profoundly positive influence on mankind's quality of life. But an invention that did not improve life but destroyed it is also an American invention that changed the world. That invention, of course, is the Atomic Bomb. Developed by the fabled "Manhattan Project", this bomb changed everything about war, diplomacy and the way nations relate to one another. And to find a positive amongst all the death the bombings in Japan brought about, that bomb may be one of the key elements that brought an end to a horrific war, World War II. And in the long run, that is a conflict that the world breathed a sigh of relief when it came to an end.
There is a joke that makes its rounds frequently during political jesting that "Al Gore invented the internet." If he had invented it, he would be a world changing inventor for sure. But it is not out of line to declare that America invented the internet. Again, the original primitive retypes for what became our modern internet was the work of the American Defense Department as a measure to insure that America's computer security was guarded by decentralizing the network. From this simple goal, the vast World Wild Web has emerged that has transformed everything about how we look at communication, information and knowledge. We have American ingenuity to thank for that.
But of the thousands of American inventions that have done so much in the fields of medicine, technology, research and communications, none can compare to an invention by a brilliant thinker by the name of Henry Ford. That invention, obviously, is the automobile. Just like with some of the other inventions we have talked about, we can hardly imagine a time where there was no such thing as an automobile.
Mr. Ford's amazing invention literally transformed society not just in America but around the world. From it came the freeway system and an overhaul to how cities and towns are organized and linked together. And while there are downsides to the widespread use of automobiles, it has been a huge leap forward for America and civilization as a whole. And Mr. Ford, like any of the inventors we have talked about and thousands we have not, would see the betterment of mankind as their greatest calling. America has hosted this great calling for centuries and will continue to produce brilliant inventors such as these for a long time to come.
The 22nd Amendment
On February 27th, 1951, the 22nd amendment was ratified which made permanent a tradition that has profound influence on the philosophy of government in the United States of America. This amendment may not be the most well known amendment but its place in the fabric of American history cannot be overstated. That is because the 22nd Amendment mandated that...
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
The limitation of service as President of the United States to two terms was one that up until the 22nd amendment was more a matter of custom than law. It began when George Washington refused to run for a third term. But by making the limitation of power in the presidency in the 22nd amendment, the American people made a bold statement about how their government would be run.
One of the most unique aspects to how the United States of America organized its government was the concept of citizen rulers. This concept was born in the very halls and pubs where the founding fathers gathered to discuss this new country that was just getting started. By reducing the idea of a "career politician", especially at the presidential level, the 22nd amendment dealt a deadly blow to the concept that America would ever be ruled by a king or a "president for life."
This was clearly a reaction by America to the abuses that had witnessed by the pilgrims and immigrants that make up this great country in their homelands. They reacted strongly and negatively to the deification of kings and the virtually unlimited powers that too many times systems of royalty tended to give to their leadership. This was one of the central themes that caused so many to flee Europe, Central Asia and other parts of the world to seek a land where it was the people who were the center of the governments will, not the arbitrary ideas of a king who was cut off from the real needs of the people he served.
The way America set up its presidency was in every way an attempt to "fix" the flaws and abuses of the European models and refocus the center of power in government on the electorate rather than on the elected. Another aspect of the American federal system that was put in place deliberately to limit the ability of those in power to abuse that power is the system of checks and balances. This system assures that none of the branches of government, The Congress, the Presidency or the Supreme Court could dominate the other or take complete power and rule without challenge. By insuring that all in power had to answer to the opposing party and be prepared to answer to the American people for what they did and even said, this completely eliminated that chances that one part of the government would stage a "coup" over the other.
Accountability is a word that is not very exciting but it is the concept that has kept the American system of government healthy and in service to its people rather than putting them in service for over 200 years.
In addition to these several highly innovative methods the founding fathers gave to this young country to eliminate the abuses of past governmental systems, they also put a system in place that assured the orderly transition of power. The system of elections every two years stopped two evils, the occurrence of a politician who served for life without accountability and a system wherein the only way to loose your job in government was by violent overthrow. As a result the American system, albeit contentious and argumentative, has been and continues to be one of the most peaceful and orderly systems of federal administration in the world and indeed in the history of the world.
America Conquers The Air
If you ask any student even in elementary school why the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is significant to American history, they will know the answer immediately. They will know that this was the place that Orville and Wilber Wright made the first working airplane and discovered that man could fly.
Today, with thousands of airplanes taking to the sky at any given moment and the experience of flying high above the earth as common as riding a bicycle, it seems that a world where men did not fly is as far away as the ancient Romans. But we have to travel in time back to the days before the Wright brothers made their phenomenal discovery and the invention of the first aircraft when there was a time when it was firmly believed that man would never fly like a bird and indeed, man was meant to never fly but always be a terrestrial being. We can be grateful that the Wright brothers did not hold to that belief.
The date of that first successful flight was December 17, 1903. It was on that fateful day that Orville and Wilber successfully flew the first controlled, powered, heavier than air airplane. This break through ranks as one of the greatest inventions of American history and in truth, one of the great inventions of all time as man had been dreaming of being able to fly as far back as we have primitive drawings illustrating that dream.
The Wright brothers were well suited to go through the tedious research to finally create a machine that could accomplish this feat. We all know that great inventions are often the results of hundreds or thousands of failures and tests by which the inventor refines his ideas and makes new discoveries that take him step by step toward that final break through. That was certainly true of the Wright brothers.
Our reference to flight becoming as common as riding a bicycle is well chosen because it was the Wright brothers vocation as mechanics repairing printing presses, motors and bicycles that gave them the knowledge of the inner workings of such machines that was needed to create a machine that could sustain flight. Their work to perfect the design of the common bicycle lead them to believe that conquering flight was not a question of providing sufficient power to the aircraft as it was providing mechanisms of control and balance to properly keep the aircraft steady with sufficient consistency that it could take to the air.
Long before that first successful flight, the Wright brothers conducted their research. Using their bicycle shop as a makeshift laboratory, they first experimented with gliders and unmanned aircraft to refine their theories and their designs. But finally on December 17, 1903, they achieved their dream of manned flight, even if only for a short time. Orville Wright's account of that first flight is scientific and understated.
"Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o'clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds."
Little did the Wright brothers know that an entire new industry would be built around these simple experiments. Moreover, they had achieved a dream man had dreamed for centuries, to actually be able to fly above the ground and come back safely. It is truly one of the great accomplishments of American history.
Remember The Alamo
America remembers many great battles that represent a turning point in a conflict that helped shaped our history. We think of D-Day in World War II that turned the tide of victory toward the allies despite horrific losses. But it is a unique battle that is remembered with pride and patriotism but is also a battle that was lost and almost everybody on our side brutally killed. But that was the case in the battle for the Alamo in 1863.
The battle for the Alamo was not a conventional battle in the sense of two equally matched armies fighting back and forth to retain property. It was, to put it bluntly, a slaughter. But the brave stand of those few hundred Texans against thousands of Mexican soldiers continues to inspire us today because it was a stand against impossible odds but it was a stand that reflected the American ethic of never giving up or surrendering when there is a principle to be defended.
The siege at the Alamo actually lasted thirteen days. It began on February 23, 1863 and it was over by March 6th. It is hard to imagine today, with Mexico to our south a trusted ally of the United States but this was a battle to stop that attempts by Mexico to invade the newly forming country of the United States which was an act of war to be sure. The brave men who stood against that vast army have become American icons of bravery and the American spirit and the names listed among those killed in that fort included Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie, the commander of the unit Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. It was Travis that inspired his men to fight against insurmountable odds and his courage is what we celebrate whenever we say that famous rallying cry that come out of this battle which was "Remember the Alamo." Travis wrote in a letter how he defied the Mexican attackers on the eve of the final siege.
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country. Victory or Death.
It was this brave stand that actually turned the war against this invading army to the advantage of the Americans. The outrage from the slaughter of these men inspired that famous rallying cry that we remember even now centuries later when we hear those words "Remember the Alamo". Their stand against Santa Anna gave Sam Houston the time to organize a much more potent army which went on to deliver to Santa Anna a stunning defeat at San Jacinto which was the turning point for Texas which went on from there to victory in this war.
The spirit of Texas was never the same and to this day, Texas prides itself as a people of particular courage, boldness and a unique independence that even sets them apart from the already fiercely independent American spirit. Moreover, the entire nation looks to this battle as an example of how a few good men helped deliver a victory, even if it was at the cost of their own lives. That indeed is the true spirit of patriotism.
In the annals of American history, there may be no other country name that evokes such emotion as the country of Vietnam. The history of this conflict is more than just a military struggle. The impact that the Vietnam conflict had on American culture and foreign policy for many decades to come makes it a truly watershed war in the life of a relatively young country.
Vietnam was not, on the surface as clearly a moral battleground as World War II or the Civil War had been. That in itself made it more difficult for Americans to understand and become patriotic about as they had been in prior wars. Yes, as in past conflicts, we found ourselves defending our allies, the South Vietnamese against the attacks of a communist neighbor to the north. And in that way, it became a struggle to assist an ally, a military objective that America had long embraced.
But the war was not just with the North Vietnamese. To a very large extent, the war was against the Chinese and the Russians who were using the theater in Vietnam to wear down the American fighting force. It was a war that had been going on for many decades before the Americans got involved as a regional battle.
Many foreign powers had gotten involved and left defeated so when America entered this conflict, it was a very different kind of war than we had been used to. The armies mixed with the population. There were no uniforms and formations and battle theaters as battle could occur anywhere at any time. Combine that with a hostile jungle setting and the complete absence of any battle protocol and you had a formula for failure if not a very difficult road to success.
Vietnam also is a watchword for the tremendous resistance movement that rose up on American soil to try to stop the conflict. This resistance movement became deeply entangled with a huge change to the social fabric in the rise of the youth movement, the hippies and the fast moving surge of the civil rights and the woman's rights movements. This made the era of the late 1950s through the early 1970s tremendously difficult to navigate as a nation.
Vietnam did follow somewhat of a predictable path of invasions, major battles, set backs and regrouping of our forces. But the military faced a huge challenge in facing the many new war scenarios this difficult combat setting presented. As the casualty count grew, without a clear cut definition of victory and with very few clear victories to demonstrate to the American people our superiority, the ability of civilian leadership to sustain the support for the war effort became jeopardized.
Vietnam very much represents a transition in how America viewed conflict. We came out of the huge successes we had seen our military bring in battle. The defeat of Hitler and the axis powers in World War II gave America a sense of confidence, of divine calling to prevail militarily and the concept that we are the good guys and we will always win. But we did not win in Vietnam and that was and is a hard lesson to learn.
America demonstrated its devout dedication to the concept of supporting an ally in a warring situation when it committed troops to the Vietnam conflict. But there were many lessons to be learned about preparation and going into a conflict with a strategy that had a high probability of success. In wars to come in later years such as Grenada, the Balkans and the Liberation of Kuwait, we demonstrated that America had learned those lessons going in with a massive force and achieving victory before we got bogged down in a long civil conflict.
So we can applaud the bravery of our troops and the willingness of our leadership to learn from a tough war like Vietnam. The lessons to be learned from Vietnam are still being worked out. But in the end, we will be a better nation and a stronger nation because we put ourselves on the line for a friend, even if the outcome was not the desired outcome.
It is impossible to reflect on the truly great leadership that has been one of the real blessings of this nation without including the name of George Washington in that list. In fact, in almost anyone's "top ten" list of truly great presidents, Washington would almost certainly top the list. His stature in American history is legendary and the respect Americans have for this their first president borders on adoration of myth.
In fact, there is a lot of myth and some humor about our first president that reflects the love people have for this great leader. From the many quips about his supposed wooden teeth to the thousands of places around the nation that proclaim "George Washington slept here", to the mythical story of how he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac as a child or his response when he was caught cutting down a cheery tree and responded to the accusation "I cannot tell a lie", Washington's myth is strong in the national memory of this great leader.
Washington never set out to become the greatest president of all time or even to be in a position of leadership in the new country he helped to start. He was the one who originated the concept of a "citizen president" and he believed so strongly in that concept that he refused to run for a third term because his time as citizen leader was over. This tradition was sustained with little exception until it was codified into part of our constitution in the form of the 22nd amendment.
But before Washington was a great political leader, he showed his tremendous leadership skills on the field of battle. He learned the art of warfare serving honorably in the French and Indian war and his influence and the respect he had earned during that conflict netted him the title of commander and chief of the American Army when the continental congress created that role in 1775. Small wonder when he ascended to the presidency some years later, he carried the responsibility of commander and chief with him to the presidency where it continues to reside today even though few of our modern presidents have the military credentials of Washington.
When commanding the troops during the revolutionary war, a famous incident that has been captured beautifully by artists was his decision to cross the Delaware in New Jersey to stage a surprise attack and win the battle against the British. It was yet another brilliant maneuver that showed his firm grasp of military strategy and only served to add to his fame and reputation as an outstanding leader of men.
After the war, Washington again was interested in retiring from public life but he was never one to turn away when his nation needed him. And needed him it did as he presided over the Continental Congress to assure the successful drafting of the US Constitution. Of the many great accomplishments of his life, his ability to provide leadership and inspiration to that assembly to produce this masterpiece of American political ligature would certainly be ranked as perhaps his finest hour.
George Washington was rewarded for his superior leadership skills when he was given the awesome responsibility of serving as the nations first President of the United States. His wisdom and insight into what the nation needed at east stage of its early development made him the man of the hour for a struggling republic. Few recognize that one of his greatest contributions to the presidency was recognizing that the nation was torn and weary of war. So using his considerable influence and negotiating skills, Washington signed a number of important treaties that resulted in years of peace that were needed to turn the country from thoughts of war to thoughts of building a great nation.
Washington never tired of providing leadership for two terms as the first American president and it was he who decided not to serve a third term and returned once again to private life. But his impact on the nation and the world was profound and long lasting. It was the kind of nation shaping influence that truly earned him the title associated to him to this day of "father of the nation."
The Declaration Of Independence
If you had to think of one document other than the Bible that people can most easily quote almost without thinking about it, that one document would be the Declaration of Independence. The comparison to the Bible is apt. Not that the Declaration of Independence is holy in a religious sense of the word. But it has a place of reverence in the hearts of the American people and in the history of the founding of this great nation.
While not the first words of the Declaration of Independence, these stirring words have that kind of prophetic power that anyone who hears them in immediately inspired by the beauty, the poetry and the deep truths that were so beautifully expressed in that historic document.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This one statement from that famous declaration so beautifully demonstrates some core principles that show why this document has such a deep impact on the American mind and heart. The statement that the truths in this document were indeed truths is a profound statement in its own right. The Declaration of Independence does that suggest that what is being declared in those pages are theories, possibilities, even political ideology. These are truths which puts them on the same value as statements of values as often taught in a religious setting. Truths are eternal values and values that are not changed by circumstances, by whomever or whatever is handling the government of the land or by the whim of lawmakers. These truths exist above those temporal earthly ideas and live on that plain of the eternal.
"Self evident" is a powerful phrase and it reflects on the founder's belief in what was called natural law. Natural law is the belief system that there are laws that are part of our natural state of existence and that they cannot be taken away (inalienable). These laws are our rights as creations of the almighty and any government system must recognize these laws because they are above government. It is a basic belief system of the American system that ALL people are entitled to these rights and that they cannot be taken away.
The mention of a creator in the declaration of independence is very important because there are those who would maintain that the separation of church and state tells us that the government is at heart a secular institution. Clearly the founders did not lay the foundation of our country on that groundwork. They saw the inheritance we as Americans have in our rights and freedoms to be part of our legacy from God and as such, above the government and something the government must back off and leave alone as well as prettiest and defend.
The Declaration of Independence is truly an amazing document especially when you consider the "primitive" state of the nation when it was written by Thomas Jefferson and signed on July 2, 1776 to become the backbone of our American system of government. It became an often referenced and quoted document, even becoming a part of President Lincoln's famous inaugural speech when he said with such deep conviction...
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Because these words are such a deep part of our American heritage, American history and the American spirit, they are often a crucial center part of any study of history in the schools in this country. That is why school children in every state are so familiar with these words.
But it would do us all well to take some time once a year or so and take our copy of the Declaration of Independence and read it either as a private moment of reflection nor with our families. What a wonderful fourth of July tradition that would make. Then as you watch the fireworks celebrating the birth of the country and its independence, you will have those words fresh in your heart to remind you that it was our creator that gave us our freedoms and independence and nobody has the right to ever take them away.
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