Clearly the JFK assassination was a defining moment for the generation that was coming of age in the early 1960s, just as Pearl Harbor had been in the 1940s and as 9/11 has been for the current generation. One of the commonalities of each event was the extent to which it came as a complete surprise — and yet we realized afterward that perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
In each case there were signs misread or ignored that could have been warning signs — about the intents and capabilities of the Japanese in World War II; about the intensity of the hostility to what JFK represented in the early 1960s, with the passing of a torch to a new generation; about the intents and capabilities of the terrorists associated with Al Queda.
In each case there was a strong feeling of violation: a flagrant attack on American soil; a flagrant attack on a personification of youthful vigor; a flagrant attack right in the middle of America’s largest city against symbols of American economic strength. And in each case there was a special impact on the young: in 1941 because it meant that they would now be going to war; in 1963 because the young so fully identified with the country’s young president and his young family; in 2001 because this was a generation that had grown up (especially after the Gulf War) believing in the invulnerability of the U.S.
In November of 1963 I was a junior in high school in Staten Island, New York. I went home from school on the 22nd to prepare for a ceremony scheduled for that evening in Manhattan for those of us who had been elected to our high school’s honor society. I learned the news when I got home, the event in Manhattan was canceled, and I became riveted to the TV coverage. In all those respects, I don’t think my experience was very different from many others.
What was different was what happened next. My mother recognized this as a defining moment in our history and felt a need for us to "bear witness." So she packed my three younger sisters and me into the car and drove us to the home of an aunt who lived in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs so that we could (a) stand on line for seven hours to pass by JFK’s coffin as he lay in state and (b) witness the funeral procession as leaders from around the world came to march with members of the Kennedy family and the riderless horse, Black Jack, with riding boots in its stirrups faced backwards.
I climbed a lamp-post during the procession and still have vivid memories of the horse, the Kennedy family, and world leaders I never imagined I would see in the flesh, including, most vividly, a resolute Charles DeGaulle.
In the days and months that followed I collected every publication about JFK, the assassination, and his presidency that I could find, much of which I still have. Several years later, as a sophomore reporter for the Daily Princetonian, I had a chance to conduct an exclusive interview with Robert Kennedy, and a photo commemorating that occasion still hangs in my office.
So how did any of this affect my, or the University’s, reaction to 9/11? I’m not sure I can point to an explicit connection, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it was clear that this was, for this generation, a similarly defining moment. While it had a deep and devastating impact on everyone, coming to terms was particularly difficult for young people just coming of age and, in the case of our students, away from home.
And, importantly, what everyone felt was a powerful need to do something — perhaps the analog to my family feeling a need to bear witness. This desire to do something, and more specifically to do something meaningful that contributed in some measurable way to healing and renewal, is what led to the two major projects that the University undertook: the Arts Alive program that allowed some 300 of our students to conduct workshops and accompany more than 15,000 schoolchildren from specially impacted communities in New York (and some in New Jersey) to theater productions, museums, concerts, and other live cultural and artistic productions that, at the same time and in a modest way, helped provide economic support for the cultural community in New York; and the creation of a fellowship program at John Jay College, which lost more alumni on 9/11 (roughly 65) than any other college or university and that specializes in training students for careers in law enforcement, firefighting, emergency services, and criminal justice. Our other two (much smaller) programs, provided support for some of the families of 9/11 victims and provided support for scholarly work by some of our students and faculty working on issues related to the 9/11 attacks.
If there is one other connection between the experience of the JFK assassination and our response to 9/11 it may have to do with the degree to which we were reminded in both cases of the importance of family. This is where we turn for comfort and strength at times of national trauma and tragedy, and certainly the Princeton University community came together as family in the aftermath of 9/11. This was seen in the responses on campus, in the ways that alumni reached out to each other, and in the ways in which the University has sought to bring at least some comfort to the families of the 13 alumni we lost that day, through the memorial service we held in November of 2001 and through the memorial garden that we dedicated earlier this fall.
Bob Durkee, Princeton Class of 1969, is vice president of public affairs at the university. On January 1 he will assume the title of vice president and secretary.
#h#A Chum from Choate & Old Nassau#/h#
A piece of wood on display at the Historical Society of Princeton has special meaning for Hugh de Neufville Wynne. It’s the bannister of the dormitory where John F. Kennedy lived when he was a freshman member of Princeton University Class of 1939.
Wynne had met Kennedy when they were students in prep school, Choate, in Connecticut. "We took a liking to one another and enjoyed hanging around together," says Wynne, who lives in Princeton with his wife Irene and, for two decades, has been the president of Princeton University Class of ’39.
"Jack was a very optimistic, very happy, cheerful individual, who couldn’t help but impress you. I visited his home in Hyannisport on numerous occasions. The old man was into moving pictures and had in the basement of the house rigged up as an auditorium, so after dinner you would go downstairs and see a movie. I crewed with him, on occasion, sailing to places like Martha’s Vineyard."
Kennedy, who enrolled at Princeton along with Wynne, became ill and missed most of his freshman year. Wynne says that his friend was pressured by his father and brother, who were Harvard men, to enroll at Harvard. "I kept up the friendship after he moved into the Senate, but we did not go to his wedding — we were living overseas."
As a geologist with Esso (now Exxon) in Venezuela, Wynne met and married his wife, Irene, in 1941. Wynne had executive positions with Exxon in Argentina, Libya, North Africa, and Spain. As an undergraduate he had been the regimental commander of the ROTC, and, as a reserve officer, he spent World War II in Panama as an aide to one-star and a three-star generals.
By 1963 he was in charge of Esso’s operations in several South American countries and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "It was the day I was being transferred to Tripoli, Libya. The Associated Press called me, said he’d been shot. I had my bag packed for the company car to take me to the airport to fly to Tripoli. When they said they didn’t know if he had been killed, I was stunned. They called back and said he was assassinated. That was a terrible shock. I had no choice but to continue with my plans. But it was amazing, wherever we stopped, to see the reaction of the people. In Colombia they were also stunned, and they immediately prepared to memorialize Kennedy with wreaths and flowers."
As a result of the assassination, some company regulations were changed. "The senior officers were encouraged to not follow the same route to their office. Security was increased. You became more alert to what was going on immediately around you."
"After the assassination I didn’t answer questions from anybody. I was so affected that I didn’t care to — not until the author of a book, years later, came to see me, and I helped him with a lot of information about Jack."
"What affected me more than September 11 was Robert Kennedy’s assassination. I thought, `What is this world coming to?’ By the time 9/11 came along it was a whole different scheme." — Barbara Fox
#h#From an Old Hand, Praise for the Young President#/h#
George Kennan served John F. Kennedy as ambassador to Yugoslavia, part of a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Kennan lives with his wife in Princeton, and a centennial exhibition celebrating his life (he will be 100 years old in February) will be on display at the Firestone Library through April.
Featured will be Kennan’s 1946 "Long Telegram," an 8,000-word document in an 18-foot case that Kennan sent from Moscow in an effort to convince American officials not to try to collaborate with the government of Joseph Stalin.
"George Kennan is an example of how government can work," says Dan Linke, head of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, which houses Kennan’s papers. "He was trained since the 1920s as a Soviet expert, and, at a critical point in time, he was able to step up."
As ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963, Kennan had corresponded and met with Kennedy on a number of different occasions. In this excerpt from his "Memoirs, 1950-1963," he describes Kennedy on the occasion of the Yugoslavian president’s visit:
I was impressed, on the day when I escorted President Tito to the White House, with the political sensitivity and skill with which President Kennedy edited and improved the luncheon speech I had drafted for him, and the tactful courtesy with which he treated this unusual guest. I could not suspect, of course, that this was the last time I would ever see him.
Our personal relations, the most-favored-nation hassle notwithstanding, had remained good. I had always been grateful to him for his patient attention to the things I had written. During the period of my service in Belgrade, he had given orders that all my messages of substance were to be sent to the White House, and he had evidently read them quite faithfully. I had also seen him on a number of occasions, and had never failed to admire the quiet youthful gallantry with which, as it seemed to me, he bore the strains of his high office. He had always treated me, as an older person, with a mixture of courtesy and respectful curiosity.
Shortly after the Tito visit, on October 22, to be exact, precisely one month before the President’s assassination, I had occasion to write to him, giving him my impression of the visit. But thinking of him as I last saw him there in the White House, stumbling with this ineffable gallantry through the dark forest of pressures so cruel and choices so hard, I was moved to add a brief personal note. The note read as follows:
Dear Mr. President:
You get many brickbats, and of those who say approving and encouraging things not all are pure of motive. I am now fully retired and a candidate for neither elective nor appointive office. I think, therefore, that my sincerity may be credited if I take this means to speak a word of encouragement. I am full of admiration, both as a historian and as a person with diplomatic experience, for the manner in which you have addressed yourself to the problems of foreign policy with which I am familiar. I don’t think we have seen a better standard of statesmanship in the White House in the present century. I hope you will continue to be of good heart and allow yourself to be discouraged neither by the appalling pressures of your office nor by the obtuseness and obstruction you encounter in another branch of the government. Please know that I and many others are deeply grateful for the courage and patience and perception with which you carry on.
Very sincerely yours.
He replied, on October 28, addressing me for the first time as "Dear George." "Your handwritten note of October 22," he wrote, "is a letter I will keep nearby for reference and reinforcement on hard days. It is a great encouragement to have the support of a diplomat and historian of your quality, and it was uncommonly thoughtful of you to write me in this personal way."
"The receipt of this personal note, from a man who had less than four weeks to live, redeemed in large degree the disappointments of this generally enjoyable assignment."