Today, November 22, 2023, marks the 60th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. I remember it well. Our teacher got a phone call, after which she told us that President Kennedy had been shot. This tragedy was the focus of the next four days.
My memories of the early 60’s are spotty. I vaguely remember the 1960 Presidential election. In our school, Kennedy won our “election” by one vote, but the next day one kid changed his vote (his parents told him his vote was incorrect) changing the result to a one vote victory for Nixon. I also remember the day John Glenn orbited the earth. The heat went out at our school. We all kept our coats on and did as we pleased. The teacher turned on the radio and I listened to it and used the classroom globe to follow Glenn’s progress.
The Cuban Missile Crisis got my attention. For me, it was the point in time that separated events that are history to me and those that I view as part of my life. I remember seeing maps of the range of the missiles in Cuba. At first, that just included the southeastern US. The circle grew and my concerns increased when it included Wisconsin. The last map I remember indicated that Seattle was the only city in the lower 48 outside that circle.
I knew about rockets, atom bombs, mushroom clouds and bomb shelters. My family had a basement filled with canned vegetables that would give us the necessary two weeks of food. However, being only nine, I had no real comprehension of what war of any kind was like and certainly not nuclear war. When I look back on that time I am amazed at the calm. I never saw any trace of panic in anyone in my life. I also remember no evidence of panic in the country, even after watching Kennedy’s speech. I can’t imagine that being the case today. I am sure there are many reasons why there was no panic, but I think one reason was President Kennedy’s calm but firm demeanor, and the restraint he showed by choosing a blockade over invasion. We now know that decision saved us from a real war.
I have two positive memories of Kennedy — the space program and the first test ban treaty — which still inspire me. I closely followed the moon program. Many people today think it was silly. What I remember most is the idea that we were doing something great, and that the moon race was a far better way to show the world that the American approach to organizing society was better than the Communist approach.
I am sick and tired of economists bragging about how they came up with a tractable way to analyze an economic problem. The definition of “tractable” is “easily handled”. I can’t think of any economic problem which is “easily handled”, but the profession now demands that our models be “tractable”. I tell young people to listen to Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on the space program:
Why choose [the moon] as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
The second speech I admire is his July 26, 1963, address to the nation describing the agreement between the US and USSR “to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water.” This was the first time the US and USSR agreed to some limitation of the nuclear arms race. To understand its importance, you should watch the video of all nuclear explosions beginning in July, 1945. Nuclear tests did not end immediately, but this was the first step in a process that has resulted in no nuclear tests by the US or USSR since 1992. The success of the 1963 limited test ban treaty helped establish the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970. There have been only four new nuclear countries — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — far fewer than expected 50 years ago.
I recommend you listen to the entire speech. JFK was excellent at making the case for the agreement, acknowledging its imperfections but giving compelling reasons for its value. His arguments revealed an understanding of game theory that had not yet been articulated in academia.
The Kennedy presidency was not the mythological Camelot that his family and friends described after his death, but we should not ignore his positive contributions to history. The Rice University and Test Ban speeches remind me of what Presidential leadership could be.