I was one of 88,000 wide-eyed, mostly white, middle class students that came to hear President John Kennedy speak on March 23, 1962 in Berkeley, California to commemorate the 94th anniversary of the University of California’s founding. We wanted to see and hear what our future might look like. We were ready to believe in Kennedy’s vision that the cold war with Russia could end and lead to more peaceful collaborations.
“…The processes of history are fitful and uncertain and aggravating,” said Kennedy that day. “There will be frustrations and setbacks. There will be times of anxiety and gloom. The specter of thermonuclear war will continue to hang over mankind; and we must heed the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes of “freedom leaning on her spear” until all nations are wise enough to disarm safely and effectively.”
We need such leaders as JFK with his unifying vision of cooperation over confrontation even more today. That is the most important question for me, a person who lived through the social upheavals and activism of those days. For if we do not find ways to grow that idealism to make the world a better place for all—both social and economic change that will preserve a livable planet and prevent future wars—then I cannot see a hopeful future.
Recognizing the many ways such a spirit of service is restoring communities and hope for a better future is the reason for this essay. In fact, the sense of community and common purpose that prevailed in the sixties via new technologies and shared values in community-building and peace-making is the path that can restore our faith in western democracies imperiled by the rise of authoritarian governments and immensely wealthy oligarchs.
Leaders have emerged in the upcoming presidential election—Senator Elizabeth Warren’s fight to curb Wall Street excesses, Senator Sanders call to right record income inequality—but they are leaders of factions fighting injustices without a unifying vision to bring younger Americans in particular together to make the changes that might save their future, as well.
One 30 year-old in 2013, 50 years after President Kennedy’s death, said “Though his goals were typically big, what he sought from individuals was often rather small. Not everyone was expected to join the Peace Corps or become an astronaut or participate in the Freedom Rides. But citizens were asked to do their part — to think about how they could improve their community or make another person’s life easier — to look past their differences and focus on our common humanity. We badly need this message again. I believe it is one that resonates very deeply with young Americans who are yearning for a time when we can search for new frontiers and once again be part of the same team.” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-d-reich/jfk-millennials_b_4263057.html
Many of us followed paths of alternative service, of selfless service that I learned was the shortest path to inner peace, as well as peace among communities and nations. President Kennedy’s most famous words memorialized worldwide were in his inaugural speech—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
JFK gave us the picture of a new future on that beautiful March day in Berkeley, Kennedy promised a peaceful settlement to the cold war with Russia, of scientific research and alternatives for peaceful service that could benefit all nations; while joking that Jackie was having all the fun riding on an elephant in India with Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith.
“Yet we can have a new confidence today in the direction in which history is moving,” Kennedy continued. “Nothing is more stirring than the recognition of great public purpose. Every great age is marked by innovation and daring–by the ability to meet unprecedented problems with intelligent solutions. In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power; for only by true understanding and steadfast judgment are we able to master the challenge of history.”
We did not know that the Cuban missile crisis would happen in just seven months—October 16-28, 1962—that could have turned into a nuclear war, if Kennedy and Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev had not negotiated a peaceful resolution.
JFK’s words may sound like the voice from a distant past to those who have lost their faith in service of any cause, when there is no general prosperity, or hope of a more peaceful post-9/11 world. Treaties are being ripped apart, and allies shunned that would maintain peace because there is no longer a national vision of one for all and all for one.
His vision of a new frontier of possibilities began an era of higher technological growth that has brought the world’s citizens closer together, of global warming threatening cities and countries causing mass migrations, of greater economic cooperation accompanied by greater income inequality in a revolution that hasn’t yet benefited the majority of its citizens.
Keeping that spirit alive is a daunting challenge, needless to say. Today we have a young population that is generating new, diverse communities having survived generational wars between red and blue states, between young and old ages, rich and poor regions that will find their own leaders.
John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez were leaders that gave our generations hope for greater equality and liberty in a new frontier of possibilities. It was a time when communities of the political and economic classes had a consensus that progress was possible, movements formed that swept one up in causes much larger than the individual—the environmental movement, anti-war, or non-violent civil rights’ protests, and a farmworker movement that advanced minority and immigrant rights.
The boundless optimism that Americans such as myself believed could accomplish anything, solve any problem is needed as much today because of the terrible cost of continuing wars, the drug culture, and those regions of America that no longer believe they live in the United States of America.
We of the so-called silent and baby boomer generations dealt with similar obstacles by looking at what we had in common; that we are all created equal, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, and desired the best for ourselves, our families and communities.
This is important because younger generations; like the 30-year old millennial on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death; say they want to continue to work. Studies show they wish to make the world they have inherited a better place to live. Their preferences will be influential for no other reason than they are the largest generation ever, born from 1980 to 1996, outnumbering even their baby boomer parents. They are also a much more diverse and tolerant population, which is why they are picking up where we left off in their preference for making worthwhile life choices..
“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”
It cites a 2013 survey of over 1,200 U.S. adults that found Millennials to be the generation most focused on corporate social responsibility when making purchasing decisions.
Almost all Millennials responded with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues (89 percent). A majority of Millennials reported buying a product that had a social benefit and 84 percent of a generation that accounts for more than $1 trillion in U.S. consumer spending considered a company’s involvement in social causes in deciding what to buy or where to shop. In 2013, 89 percent of all American consumers said they would consider switching brands to one associated with a good cause if price and quality were equal. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Brookings_Winogradfinal.pdf
“The sixties was a period of monumental social and political change, altering virtually every aspect of American life for future generations,” touts a popular CNN documentary film, The Sixties. “No other decade of the Twentieth Century has acquired the mythological status of the 1960s,” said British Historian M J Heale in his book, The Sixties in America, (2001, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, Edinburgh, UK).
The United States had already been through World War II, the Korean War, and was under the threat of nuclear annihilation in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Yet it was also a period of unprecedented economic and social growth, when many believed in a better future—not only for U.S. citizens, but those in the developing world.
America’s annual economic growth rates in the sixties equaled that of China and the fastest-growing, developing countries today. Annual U.S. Gross Domestic Growth rates—our best measure of national business activity—were as high as 8.9 percent in 1950, and consistently higher than 6 percent through most of the 1960s. Median family incomes grew 214 percent from 1945 to 1975, and haven’t grown faster than inflation since 1975.
It was also a time of protest against all forms of authority—against loyalty oaths that foreswore radical beliefs, against segregation in the schools and workplaces, and a government continually at war. The anti-war protests created Rock-n-Roll music and Bob Dylan; who was a poet as well as a musician that portrayed the times many Americans were living through. He warned of the hardships ahead, as had his mentor, Woody Guthrie, the dust-bowl folksinger who sang for those dispossessed by the Great Depression.
Dylan songs such as Blowin in the Wind portrayed a land without peace: “how many deaths will it take ’till he knows that too many people have died?” and a rebellion against the old order in The Times They Are a-changing when: “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.”
Then the euphoria was gone almost as quickly as it came; times had changed; but not for the better for many in America. Good paying jobs began to disappear; energy shortages and soaring inflation caused deep recessions.
Younger Americans now must deal with a world that seems to have limited possibilities, with the greatest income inequality in the developed world—which means today’s children may not be able to earn more than their parents. Studies show that only half the children born in the 1980s grew up to earn more than their parents. That’s a drop from 92 percent of children born in 1940. They also face a faster, more competitive world with challenging opportunities.
The larger economic picture is that successive recessions since the 1970s have led to catastrophic drug use and high suicide rates in regions of blue-collar America that lost entire industries due to modern economies charging ahead at warp speed. Blue-collar, high school educated Americans once earned enough to enter a middle class standard of living that meant homeownership and upward mobility.
The economic death of these regions has resulted in an un-civil war between its inhabitants that has torn apart communities and created a dysfunctional national government unable to meet the urgent needs that modern times require. The overall health and well-being of Americans has declined; Americans are no longer the tallest people, live the longest, are the best educated in the developed world.
Workers have had to travel farther and move more frequently in search of a decent paying job, and better education. Social scientists such as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam have studied the breakup of communities in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community. “Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work—but no longer,” he said in his portrayal of our fractured society.
Yet it is possible to rebuild broken communities in such difficult circumstances. The loss of national consensus—which at heart is the belief that Americans share common interests and goals—is at the bottom of most of our problems. It is the antithesis of a well-functioning democracy.
President Kennedy’s speeches moved us because nuclear annihilation was always in the back of our minds. I had read Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach. It was a terrifying tale of Australians awaiting the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud spawned by a nuclear war. World War III had just devastated most of the populated world, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all human and animal life in the Northern Hemisphere.
The icon of that age was the Peace Symbol designed by Gerald Holcomb, a British conscientious objector in despair over the possibility of nuclear annihilation. He is said to have combined naval signal semaphore codes of N with D that stood for Nuclear Disarmament into the symbol we know today. And perhaps because of the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, we preferred to make love rather than war.
What could be more disheartening than the disappearance of all life? We also lived through the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era that resulted in the House of Un-American Activities Commission hearings to weed out communists and other subversives, even though membership in the American Communist Party was legal.
But those problems could be solved, because so many believed the cold war and wartime institutions were based on outmoded beliefs and ideologies, as do the young today. Wars were fought because governments saw a world of scarcity, and conflict the only solution. The U.S. with just five percent of the world’s population maintained a large military in order to have access to 25 percent of the world’s resources; such as oil.
That is why many of my generation believed in President Kennedy’s vision of a new frontier of possibilities for peaceful coexistence. All things are possible with the spirit and mind-set that enabled us to serve causes that bettered the lives of others, as opposed to the ‘me first’ narcissism so prevalent in much of American culture today. This dedication to service in peaceful ways was first realized in President Kennedy’s call to form the Peace Corps, where I and more than 200,000 have served.
Brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps and many Great Society programs, added to that vision with his call to service above self, the Peace Corps credo, if one wanted to work to create a more peaceful and just world.
In his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National convention, Kennedy said, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. … Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus”
President Kennedy also benefited the poor and seniors by signing social legislation raising the minimum wage and increasing Social Security benefits. He heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for greater justice for African Americans by ordering his Brother and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to protect the freedom riders in the South supporting James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
This work in service is even more important today for the underserved. A better future for young and old is possible because of the lessons we learned; such as the non-violent tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King advocating peaceful coexistence. Cesar Chavez’s farm workers adopted those tactics as well, which promoted greater inclusivity and fairness among all races and ethnicities.
Working in service to higher ideals can be a spiritual quest. I learned the basic elements needed to build and strengthen communities because of the opportunities to work as a Peace Corps volunteer, with the US Environmental Protection Agency and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union. Implementing the community development principles first realized in those earlier efforts leads to a better understanding of how to organize our own communities and provide aid in other parts of the world that gives them the tools to develop their own communities.
Domestically, we have made progress in confronting some of the inequities of race and color, yet American society is still recovering from a Great Recession; the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression that has yet to benefit the majority of Americans. There is much more that needs to be done to aid the financial recovery of Main Street households, rather than Wall Street financiers. How much time do we have? The Great Depression of the 1930s lasted ten years and didn’t fully recover until World War II.
There are solutions to what may seem like unsolvable problems that came out of that era. The sixties brought out the best and worst of America, because it was a time of transformation; of new-felt social freedoms from old customs and cultures, greater civil rights, the environmental and peace movements. There were also the darker days of Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; which caused many Americans to lose faith that change could be beneficial, or even possible.
The differences between those who see a world of limited wealth and unlimited possibilities is understandable when looking at the growing disparities that have disenfranchised large parts of the Midwest and south—whose citizens tend to blame government for their problems, when in fact these states are most dependent on government aid due to their high levels of poverty.
The debate over who benefits from western countries’ capitalist model hasn’t been resolved between the followers of Adam Smith, who saw self-interested behavior as the path to a general prosperity, and Lord John Maynard Keynes’ model of shared wealth via government programs and regulation that was the basis of the New Deal.
Yet there is no country that hasn’t adopted some elements of the capitalist model with all its deficiencies because it is able to generate almost unlimited wealth—for the few, in many cases.
In fact, we no longer live in a world of scarcity with limited resources that was a basis for the eye-for-an-eye belief system Mahatma Gandhi opposed with his tactics of non-violent protest. Survival of the fittest in a world of brutal competition was the life earlier hunter-gatherer and tribal societies faced, as described by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in his best-seller, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
This is no longer the case, even in the developing world. Our modern, technological economies of almost endless innovation and invention have created the possibility of a world of super-abundance, but not how to share it equitably. In fact, many of the most developed countries, including the U.S., are suffering from the effects of overabundance—obesity, high rates of infectious diseases, cancer, higher suicide rates and the overuse of drugs.
A world of super-abundance is more suited to win-win outcomes, a term used in conflict-resolution and business negotiations. It is the opposite of a winner-take-all, win-lose mentality, because the possibility of a non-confrontational solution enables both sides to benefit in some way. That’s easy to see in limited purchase transactions between a buyer and seller, but not in more complex conflicts involving national entities.
All can profit from such abundance, as we find better ways of sharing this wealth. The sixties world believed in a sharing society, even though we had nothing like the super-abundance modern technology has provided. Only a more sharing and caring society can bring about greater peace and less conflict.
Many new developments are helping to solve the inequities generated by the enormous changes—including a new understanding of financial behavior that can mitigate the frequent recessions and growing inequities of the past four decades. It relates to implementing systems that encourage economic cooperation over competition; systems like the Green New Deal that younger leaders are beginning to propose during this presidential election season.
The U.S. became the technology leader in the sixties, a goal that President Kennedy first set at the beginning of his Presidency. We are the first (and only) nation to land on the moon, explore Mars, and send satellites beyond our solar system. But we are just beginning to develop the environmental and health sciences to create a safer, more predictable world, such as new alternative energy sources that help to mitigate the effects of global warming from the overuse of fossil fuels.
And we still fight among ourselves and in foreign wars. This is while earth’s temperature continues to rise; and why it is so necessary to participate in the efforts to restore communities, as well as strengthen organizations that seek a peaceful resolution to the environmental crises and decreased opportunities for the less fortunate.
Such efforts are succeeding because the legacies of those leaders we lost continue to resonate with the best of America. The Kennedys and King instilled the belief that service above self is more important than self-interested behavior underpinning today’s consumer-driven society of unmet wants and needs. They called for participating in the building of a more universal community that transcends loyalty to ethnic origins and political parties.
Writers from M Scott Peck to President Barack Obama since then have touted the importance of community development in bringing people together to accomplish what cannot be done individually.
A well-functioning community is able to live within the normal boundaries of peaceful coexistence. There are the usual disputes, but ways are found to compromise among the factions because a common sense of mission gives them the will to coexist, rather than become polarized into immovable opposites.
The agents of change usually include individuals that believe diversity is an essential component uniting a community or organization. This is what motivates volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps, and Rotary International that focus on service above self in the poorest communities and countries.
The recent proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also helps to address poverty and wealth-sharing issues in the U.S. and underdeveloped world. Rotary International’s 35,000 clubs have 1.2 million members in some 150 countries that include national leaders. More than 23,000 domestic community and non-profit organizations nurture local initiatives to further community goals and aspirations in the U.S.
The National Collaboration for Youth, an interagency council of the nation’s 50 major youth-serving organizations, notes that its member agencies serve more than 40 million young people each year, making this system second only to the public schools in the number of youths served annually. Indeed, nearly 50 percent of eighth graders in the nationally representative sample surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education reported participation in programs sponsored by one of these groups.
There are also more than 36,900 such youth organizations, according to Guidestar.org’s web database, including such long-standing programs as 4-H, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, YWCA, Girls Incorporated, Camp Fire, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Junior Achievement. These organizations are creating the leaders of tomorrow who will bring order to the seeming chaos brought about by the sixties’ tsunami of youthful energy that swept all before it.
How much time is left for Americans to come together in a more peaceful and caring way, a way that allows greater peace of mind and freedom of expression of our better angels? How much time do we have before 50 percent of Miami is under water; hurricanes and cyclones devastate whole regions and even countries, and North Korea or an as yet unknown terror group unleashes a nuclear weapon?
In reality, there are many methods of sharing that would mitigate the effects of growing populations and a changing climate—such as better trade agreements between the developed and developing countries, and the new Paris Accord to reduce global warming that the U.S. and Syria continue to oppose.
How do we build a world community that lives in shared values and recognizes common aspirations? It will take patience and a determined effort to find commonalities between the various races and religions, yet we all belong to Homo sapiens—the one species in charge of Planet Earth. Recognizing those commonalities will provide the vision of that new frontier of possibilities we glimpsed in the sixties; and which inspired many of us to find a path that leads to a better place for America and the world.
We know how much President Kennedy’s vision influenced other countries as well as our own from the countless memorials that honor him. They help to remind us what needs to be done, as much as what has been done. It will happen as the newer generations find their call to serve, just as we found ours.
Harlan Green © 2019
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