Fifty-two years ago today, President John F. Kennedy made the first of two seminal speeches recalled in riveting detail by noted journalist Andrew Cohen in this masterful volume, based on meticulous historical research. Although focused on just two days among the 1,036 days of a tragically abbreviated presidency, its themes resonate powerfully at a time when nuclear threats and racial turmoil still haunt a conflicted America.
Like Cohen, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the Kennedys. As a young Catholic boy, JFK was a hero. I had a scrapbook of clippings about him. Now 63, I’d just turned 11 a few days before June 10, 1963, when he gave his famous “Strategy of Peace” commencement address at Washington’s American University.
As Cohen recounts, the first years of Kennedy’s presidency had been rough, rocked by the disastrous invasion of Castro’s Cuba and the subsequent missile crisis. In this “age of anxiety,” nuclear Armageddon was narrowly averted when the Soviets backed down. But by 1963, the 35th and second-youngest president was coming into his own. Having challenged fellow citizens to “ask what you can do for your country,” he began to act decisively on their behalf. In space, America would put a man on the moon. Abroad, America would promote peace to break the Cold War stalemate. At home, America would make the constitutional assertion of equal rights a reality for all.
JFK’s packed schedule gives the impression of a man in a hurry, despite the affliction of chronic back pain. On that June 10 Monday, he had just returned from Hawaii, where he had spoken on civil rights — a key domestic preoccupation as protests raged amid confrontations with segregationists. Internationally, the nuclear arms race with the USSR was the greatest challenge. Kennedy was intent on making a bold overture. He bypassed the bureaucratic establishment, relying on a circle of close advisers that included the brilliant, loyal wordsmith Ted Sorensen. His appeal for world peace promised an end to the Cold War threat of annihilation. Is not peace, he asked, “a matter of human rights — the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation — the right to breathe air as nature provided it — the right of future generations to a healthy existence?”
His words were attacked by conservative cold warriors but welcomed in the Kremlin, which allowed the speech to be broadcast and published uncensored. Negotiations led to a nuclear test ban treaty that summer. However limited, the first successful nuclear arms control agreement was a major step forward.
Kennedy’s agenda was a non-stop parade of issues. Right after the peace speech, he signed into law an Equal Pay Act. Throughout, he and brother Robert Kennedy, Attorney General and confidant, were watching Alabama’s defiantly racist governor George Wallace, who vowed to stop the court-mandated integration of the University of Alabama “at the schoolhouse door.” Time had to be found, too, for naps, swims, soirées with socialites (and on some days, liaisons with lovers).
Cohen’s almost minute-by-minute observation of events and personalities is enriched by having had access to many hours of videotapes from the archival collection of Robert Drew, the pioneer of documentary “direct cinema.” Drew had made a seminal film of JFK’s campaign for the 1960 Democratic nomination entitled Primary. Now, assisted by the D.A. Pennebaker among others, his cameras had unprecedented access to the White House during these crucial days. The result, the landmark Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, was broadcast on television a month before Kennedy’s assassination.
On the morning of Tuesday, June 11, JFK faced the headline news of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation to protest Vietnam’s corrupt Diem regime. (The fall of Saigon 40 years ago is revisited in his niece Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam.) One can speculate how JFK might have avoided the disastrous quagmire that left behind so much destruction and trauma.
As usual, much else was on Kennedy’s plate in a succession of meetings that day, including one on immigration reform (he had published a 1958 book A Nation of Immigrants). Most pressing was what to do about Wallace. In the brinksmanship to make him back down, Alabama’s National Guard was deployed, under federal control. Robert Kennedy, almost alone among advisers, urged the president to seize the moment. JFK requested an 8:00 p.m. airtime on the main television networks to address the nation from the oval office. The hours leading up to it reveal an incredible sequence in which the president squeezed in two swims, met with the heads of important agencies (including NASA) and a star French journalist, discussed how to deal with Indonesia’s Sukarno, and more. Sorensen had two hours to prepare an unfinished draft; Kennedy had two minutes to review it before going on air!
This partly extemporaneous televised speech promised civil rights legislation, calling for a peaceful “revolution” to realize equal rights and freedoms for black Americans. As Cohen puts it: “In less than a quarter hour, Kennedy had addressed race a century after Lincoln, in a voice worthy of Lincoln.” Hailed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a critic of the president’s previous caution on civil rights, it also infuriated Southern Democrats. While there were big Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress, Kennedy faced intense opposition from conservatives in his party on this issue, among others. JFK became the enemy and the Democrats’ hold on the South was shaken. It was a dangerous time. Indeed, just hours after the speech, Mississippi’s leading civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Jackson. It would take three decades before his assassin was brought to justice.
Cohen’s impressive achievement in “Two Days” isn’t just to illuminate the intimate drama of June 1963 as never before, it is to remind us how the inspirational ideals of the Kennedy legacy still matter. For all the changed circumstances of our day, America still wrestles mightily with distant wars and the spectre of nuclear proliferation. Although an African American has been president for six years, in the wake of race-related police violence, tensions have exploded on America’s streets.
Confronting those ongoing challenges, the causes that JFK championed — peace, equality, justice, freedom at home and abroad — have lost none of their currency.