"Not because it is Easy - but because it is Hard" - Kennedy's words in the age of COVID-19
America is still the shining city on a hill
[Note: I highly recommend watching the embedded videos in their entirety, but if you are pressed for time, make sure to watch the MLK & RFK ones at the end - combined, they total less than 10 minutes & can impart the takeaway message.]
The older I get, the wiser John F. Kennedy appears in retrospective.
A week ago, this article sat ready to be published when I decided to watch President Kennedy’s two speeches again. JFK’s Inaugural speech from January 1961 & his “Moonshot” speech from September 1962.
A year ago, this was my son’s history lesson for the day, but I would offer it here for a different reason. John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech hearkens back to a time when hope seemed eternal, and America was at its peak. As stark as the contrast between 1961 and today might seem, life has taught me that the only difference between any generation is the courage and hope of its leaders and citizens. If our leaders will not lead, then the answer is simply that we must do it ourselves.
In 1961, most segregation was still in effect, nuclear tension was about to peak, Russia beat us into space and the Berlin Wall cut Berlin in two pieces. And yet, Kennedy didn't spur us into action with guilt and shame - he told Americans that there was a lot to do and told us to get started.
What? The President of the United States said WHAT?
You may want to sit down.
That’s correct; President Kennedy told Americans to stand up and sacrifice. We weren’t even in a war. We weren’t even in a recession. The youngest man ever elected president stood up in his first minutes as president and told a bunch of Depression survivors and World War II/Korean War vets that it was time to work harder. In fact, a year later, he told Americans to suck it up, because he wanted Americans to land on the moon by the end of the decade!
I realize that these statements are painful and non-inclusive, but history is important.
What justification did President Kennedy give for this stupendously ambitious aim, one that would cost billions of dollars, and achieve very little for the 99%? [It’s important to point out that at the time, the Soviet Union had just put the first human into space, and the US was behind in the space race]. His justification was
"Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
I reject the idea that our country or our people are any less capable of leading the world than in 1961. I spent the last two years unemployed/working pro bono, and I've watched more than a million Americans die even as I prayed that my predictions wouldn't come true.
More than anything, my son needed to know that the response to tragedy must be resolve, not resignation. Oswald's bullets killed Kennedy, but it didn't have to kill his vision for our country. We did that on our own, but we don't have to repeat that history again, because hope and courage are far more contagious than a virus, and our kids deserve to see that in us.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, 1963 foreshadowed a dark period that sank the US into its greatest challenges since World War II and the Great Depression that preceded it. The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath represent the next great challenge for our country, and today there is no shortage of naysayers who predict that the United States has begun its period of terminal decline. We would do well to listen to the men who led us through those prior dark periods.
Our leaders of the 1960’s didn’t preach pessimism, despite the deep divides in our society. Martin Luther King, in his last speech before his assassination on April 4th, 1968, reminded us that what was coming was worth the sacrifice:
That same evening, Robert F. Kennedy spoke in Indianapolis, Indiana, and broke the news to the crowd gathered at one of his campaign stops [in the 1968 Democratic primary, during which he was the frontrunner]. He echoed the visions of his brother and of MLK, despite his own personal experience of having had his brother assassinated five years earlier:
“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will-we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”
I will never allow my son to grow up in a world in which he hears me disparage America, its founding principles, its history of sacrificing for the freedoms of others, and its profound impact for good upon the history of humanity. That doesn’t mean that I will hide America’s blemishes. I’ve always been honest about the failures, the evils and the injustices which, throughout our history, have prevented America from always living up to its own lofty ideals. What I reject is the notion that our failures are ALL that we are.
Besides, he could turn on a hundred channels if he wanted to hear others talk about why America is a failure.
Memorial Day and June 6th [the anniversary of D-Day, the landings on Normandy Beach in World War II] always spark memories of my grandfather, who died in 2006 while I was in Iraq. Two weeks before I deployed, I visited him for the last time, and during that visit he passed down his Mameluke sword [USMC officer’s sword], that had been passed down him by his father in early June, 1944, right after he graduated from the Naval Academy and just before he left for the Pacific theater; my grandfather ultimately landed in Okinawa as part of the invasion force there.
However, a week ago, I discovered something else which took place on June 6th, in 1968; just two months after Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated as he celebrated his victory in the California Democratic primary. Bereft of its likely nominee, the Democratic party suffered through a contentious convention and lost to Richard Nixon that fall.
And yet, despite the turmoil of the 1960’s, before the decade ended the United States had fulfilled the promise made by John F. Kennedy in 1962, landing 3 astronauts on the Moon in the summer of 1969. Americans didn’t give up because the challenges were too great, nor did we succeed because we’d conquered all other problems that arise out of the human condition. We simply refused to quit.
That’s the lesson I wanted to teach my son - that being a virtuous man doesn’t mean being a perfect one. It means to do what must be done, for the right reasons, regardless of what others may say or do. America sacrificed more than 400,000 men to defend the freedom of others in World War II, fighting a war largely in the other hemisphere.
I’ve sought to set that example during the COVID-19 pandemic, because I know that that is what must be done; the task is no different just because the fight is closer to home. I said the same thing in my very first article in April, 2020. I have no doubt that the same basic understanding is what fuels the efforts of our front-line doctors, DRASTIC and the son and nephew of two of the men mentioned above, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. It’s clear that he learned the same lessons I was fortunate enough to receive from the ‘Greatest Generation.’
It is time to fight back against the violence of institutions. America has seen its share of tragedy, but it need not be defined by it. If JFK, RFK & MLK refused to accept it, then I see no reason why we should.
Not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
Another excellent essay Charles. Semper Fi