Strait On–America’s Changing Lifestyles, Part 5: A lost generation

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Rusty Strait

Vietnam: A general’s legacy

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower brought us victory over the Nazis in Europe. He ended the Korean War, and most believe that his administration was a peaceful one. Also, you may have thought that our war with Vietnam was the only one. But wait a minute—a conflict had been raging between the French and North Vietnam since 1946. It was known as the Indochina War. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 brought about peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, resulting in the Geneva Accords.
The country of Vietnam was divided. The north was led by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party. Hanoi became its capitol. The French transferred their interest and control to the State of Vietnam which had its capital in Saigon, nominally under the Emperor Bao Dai. A demilitarized zone was to be created by mutual consent of the north and south.
President Eisenhower did not agree with the Geneva Accords. Ike, unwittingly, set up the situation that plunged us into America’s disastrous venture in Vietnam, which ended in escape—with tail feathers on fire—from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. The French transferred their interest and control to the State of Vietnam which had its capital in Saigon, nominally under the Emperor Bao Dai. A demilitarized zone was to be created by mutual consent of the north and south.

Not another war, please
The United States supported South Vietnam with advisors who trained their troops and covertly were said to engage in military assistance. The war endured through the administrations of five presidents if you include Eisenhower’s. It split America apart at the seams and contributed highly to American social views today.
With our assistance to Vietnam soon to become a full-fledged war, trouble was brewing off our Florida shores on the Island of Cuba. In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power, pretty much with a wink and a nod from the United States. Earl E. T. Smith was appointed Ambassador to Cuba by President Eisenhower in 1957. He resigned after the fall of Fulgencio Batista’s government.
Ambassador Smith was on record warning against Castro as Batista’s successor. He said, “I believe that Mr. Castro could not have come to power without the aid of the United States, and I so warned the President.”
John F. Kennedy inherited these situations when he was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1961 as the 35th President of the United States. Not long after he became president, he discovered a relationship between Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the Soviet Union.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was already planning an invasion of Cuba. In March 1960, Eisenhower approved a program that permitted the CIA to set up training camps in Guatemala. By November, a small army intending an assault landing was ready to go ashore. As secret as our plans were, Cuban evacuees in became aware of it and it was not long until President Castro also was aware of the planned attack.

Anchors away

In February 1961, shortly after he had taken the oath of office, the newly elected President Kennedy authorized the invasion to begin on the southern coast of Cuba where a night landing force would come ashore more than 80 miles from any refuge in the Escambray Mountains, which could be needed if anything went wrong.
The idea was for a 1400-man invasion force to disembark under cover of darkness and launch a sunrise attack. The first negative happened on April 15, 1961. Eight bombers disguised as Cuban air force planes began to bomb Cuban airports. They missed most of their targets.
Two days later, as the Cuban exile invaders landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs, Castro’s forces were ready and waiting. Air support was late, and when the disguised B-26’s arrived, they were in disarray. The invasion was over by the afternoon, crushed by Castro’s 20,000 troops.
Prisoners were incarcerated for 20 months until Castro finally released them in exchange for $53 million worth of baby food and medical supplies.
Kennedy, stung but not maimed, had a plan for revenge. The Bay of Pigs fiasco did not just die away. The president planned to get even. Operation Mongoose, a plan to sabotage and destabilize the Cuban government and economy with the possibility of assassinating Castro was set afoot. It never was completed due to more important issues with the island nation.

Camelot is here
Our new president was a handsome man with a gorgeous wife and a wonderful family. We were in love with the idea of an almost royal family. Whatever Jackie wore was duplicated and sold in Sears and J. C. Penny’s. If she came up with a bouffant hairstyle, every teenage girl in America copied it. The Kennedy’s were not only our royalty, they were our rock stars. We thought we were on a roll.
The Kennedy era introduced an American social revolution that brought back memories of the roaring twenties. We had our first president born in the 20th century. A young man in the prime of his life gave hope and promise for our future. A man on the moon by the end of the decade. The Peace Corps. A romance bloomed between citizens and their government, even if only for a short spell, and we enjoyed it to the utmost.

Goodbye to paradise, hello to hell and damnation

As a country, we seemed to be happily sailing along on moonlight bay. The cold war seemed so far away from our everyday lives. We were partying. Drugs were seeping into the lives of young people and sex was becoming casual. The country had been through so much during the past 30 years it deserved a vacation. Alas, there is always rain in a dark cloud. Nikita Khrushchev was making war signs towards the United States, but most folks thought he was just another loud mouthed dictator. We were the United States of America. We were solid as a rock.
That being said, on Oct. 15, 1962, one of our U-2 spy planes took photographs that indicated medium-range missiles had been placed in Cuba. The following day, The National Security Council advised the president of the situation.
On Oct. 17, more photos were taken and presented to ExComm (The Executive Committee of the National Security Council.) The following day, President Kennedy met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to confront him with our evidence. The next day, ExComm suggested we quarantine Cuba.
On Oct. 20, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, submitted all findings and suggestions to the president.
The president went on radio and television Oct. 22 to advise the American public what was going on. Still, Soviet ships with missiles aboard were 750 miles away from Havana when they were stopped by an American blockade. However, Soviet Premier Khrushchev refused to remove the missiles already planted on Cuban soil. Even Pope John XXIII tried to intervene to prevent conflict.
The president increased oversight flights across Cuba from two a day to two every hour, patrolling the Cuban air space. By Oct. 26, the President started drawing up plans to remove the warheads from Cuba. Pope John’s letter to the world was published in every American newspaper. Kennedy did not back off. The Soviet Union and the United States of America were only seconds away from a nuclear conflict.
Across the nation, citizens were alerted and warned to stock up on food, especially liquids and canned goods. The supermarket shelves were emptied. By the 27th of October, America waited for missiles from Cuba to be responded to with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union’s major cities and industry. We were frightened. Not knowing what else to do, we binged on 24 hour television.
Over a two day period, Oct. 27-28, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated. The president agreed not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing the missiles. And just as simple as that a nuclear holocaust was prevented. However, we were all in a state of fear and panic for 13 days. They called it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I remember those days, and I understand how the Hawaiians felt this week with the false alarm warning of an incoming missile. Folks, it sounds easy, but it aint. In seconds, we could become ashes as would anyone who attempted an attack on us. It is seriously nothing to joke about.

Just too good to last
Getting ready to start campaigning for a second term, President Kennedy and his advisors decided it might be a good idea to get out of Washington into the country and do some hand-shaking. He started out on the west coast, where his reception pretty much guaranteed him that he would easily be nominated again, and probably re-elected.
He had been advised, and was well aware, that Texas party leaders were feuding and hoped to pour some oil on the troubled democratic waters. He was assured by one and all that he would receive a warm welcome in Texas. So on Nov. 21, 1963, with his wife, he flew into San Antonio to begin a five city tour of Texas. He received a warm welcome led by Vice President Johnson, Texas Gov. John Connally, and Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas). The party moved on to Brooks Air Force Base for the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center.
Later in the day, he addressed a Latin American organization, ending the day in Fort Worth to attend a dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas.
He and Mrs. Kennedy spent the night there. He had a heavy schedule in Dallas on the 22nd. The presidential party departed Carswell Air Force Base, for a thirteen minute flight to Dallas. It was a bright sunny day when they arrived at Love Field. An enormous crowd of well-wishers crowded against the fence. The president and first lady walked along the fence for a spell shaking hands and thanking folks for coming out.
Jackie received a bouquet of red roses, which she had on her lap in the limousine that would take them on their route through downtown Dallas. Both were excited. Accompanying them was Gov. Connally and his wife, Nellie. The bubble top had been removed because of such good weather. Vice President Johnson and Lady Bird were in a car behind that which carried the president.

Packed with cheering crowds

They were heading for the Trade Mart where the president was scheduled to speak at a luncheon. The 10-mile route winding through downtown Dallas was packed with cheering crowds on both sides of the streets. The president and his wife enjoyed the throngs and were smiling and waving. Someone said, “You see Mr. President, they love you in Texas.”
The car turned off Main Street at Dealey Plaza about 12:30 p.m. As it passed the Texas School Book Depository, gunfire echoed throughout the plaza. Bullets struck the president in the back of the head and he slumped over. Gov. Connally was hit in the chest. Both were rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Gov. Connally would recover. A Catholic Priest administered the last rights, and at 1 p.m., President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead.
At 2:37 p.m., aboard Air Force One, with the president’s widow attending, District Court Sarah Hughes administered the oath of office to the 36th President of the United States. President Kennedy’s casket accompanied them back to Washington.
In an hour or so, Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the Texas School Book Depository, was arrested for the unholy deed.
I well recall where I was when the news broke over the radio. I was coming out of anesthesia from a pulled tooth. Things like that you never forget where you were.

Just sayin’
rustystrait@gmail.com

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