John F. Kennedy’s Thanksgiving Ideals, 1962– How different they are from Ours

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has brought forth a flood of books and documentaries.

On this Thanksgiving, what strikes me is the ideals JFK put forward in his Thanksgiving proclamations, and how different they are from today’s discourse in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy wrote in November of 1962 that

“It is fitting that we give our thanks for the safety of our land, for the fertility of our harvests, for the strength of our liberties, for the health of our people. We do so in no spirit of self-righteousness.”

Kennedy talks of giving thanks for the “health of our people.” The people’s health was of concern to him. Today, we have a vast disinformation campaign against the Affordable Health Care Act, a campaign aimed at ensuring that 40 million Americans remain without health insurance, at danger at any time of losing everything. Our liberties were enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which since 1962 has been more or less gutted. They are no longer strong. The Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches of our private papers and effects has been gutted by an out-of-control National Security Agency. Our freedom of speech is threatened by surveillance and dirty tricks, which has already induced self-censorship in many American authors. As for self-righteousness, it pervades the atmosphere on Capitol Hill.

Kennedy said,

“Let us renew that spirit by sharing the abundance of this day with those less fortunate, in our own land and abroad. Let us renew that spirit by seeking always to establish larger communities of brotherhood.”

There is nothing in Kennedy of the hatred of the foreigner or the punitive attitude toward the poor so prominent in the discourse of today. JFK wanted to see America’s bounty shared with the disprivileged not only in the United States but abroad. Nowadays, the Congress is obsessed with punishing the working poor and reducing government assistance for them, including food stamps. Mitt Romney revealed their thinking when he referred to the 47%, the portion of the population he said depends on government help. But that 47% includes Veterans, who deserve all the help they can get. It includes retirees, who paid into Social Security all their lives and are not getting a handout but their due.

We haven’t cared about the fate of the working poor, who make as little as $9000 a year despite all their labor, and who are food insecure. They need a raise in the minimum wage. That is how we would share the abundance. All the solid economic studies show that raising the minimum wage increases employment, since it draws people into the work force.

As for the poor abroad, what an outlandish idea JFK put forward. The US is outspent per capita on foreign aid by Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and even by Japan, Britain and Belgium. An urban myth circulates among the American public that foreign aid is a big item in the budget. It is not. We are not pulling our weight per capita in dealing with poverty.

“Let us renew that spirit by preparing our souls for the incertitude’s ahead–by being always ready to confront crisis with steadfastness and achievement with grace and modesty.”

We haven’t confronted the uncertainties we now face with “grace and modesty.” We have not risen to the challenge of climate change; rather, we have allowed the debate to be dominated by the multi-billionaires and their sock puppets. We haven’t confronted the crisis in health care with grace and modesty but rather with misrepresentations and false flags. We didn’t deal well with the 9/11 attacks, going off in our anger to strike an unrelated country, Iraq. The US public was manipulated into blaming Muslims in general, whereas it was the work of a tiny, extremist fringe.

JFK concluded with a hope that Thanksgiving might go global as a holiday:

Let us renew that spirit by concerting our energy and our hope with men and women everywhere that the world may move more rapidly toward the time when Thanksgiving may be a day of universal celebration.

Let us renew that spirit by expressing our acceptance of the limitations of human striving and by affirming our duty to strive nonetheless, as Providence may direct us, toward a better world for all mankind.

A better world for all mankind will require that we deal straightforwardly and expeditiously with climate change. It will require that we address hunger and vast inequality.

Kennedy thought that precisely because so many of us have so much to be thankful for, we should be compassionate toward and help the working poor. At the least, we should make sure that they aren’t bankrupted by an illness just because they don’t have insurance.

We can’t hope for a universal Thanksgiving Day until we honor the aspirations and values put forward by President Kennedy.

20 Responses

  1. With the kind of people you have in charge in your Country and the shower we Brits have over here in England, there is no chance of generosity of spirit, peace or harmony. The politicians we have are like Locusts devouring everything in their path. Their greed makes the swine in my local farm seem positively genteel by comparison. Men like Kennedy are few and far between and I think he was unique and a one off. Over here in Britain our politicians are basically: the upper class school types who think they are born to rule, the self serving greedy ones, criminals and clowns. People like Tony Blair are in a class of their own and it would take a professor of psychiatry to classify them.

    • President Lyndon B. Johnson is most remembered for the Vietnam quagmire, but much of the key legislation – including the Great Society efforts – was pushed through Congress under his administration’s guidance.

      This would include the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Equal Housing Act of 1968, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Medicare and Medicaid enactments, and even federal law imposing fire retardant standards on clothing marketed in the U.S.

      While much can be attributed to JFK, including the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, diligent civil rights enforcement, and the Apollo program, LBJ’s list of legislative accomplishments were unparalleled in the 20th Century, except for FDR, and especially his New Deal programs.

  2. Nice sentiments, but Obamacare is a cruel hoax. It keeps in place a dysfunctional and unaffordable insurance system. Most will buy high deductible plans. What this means is that if an insured gets sick, s/he is likely to go bankrupt from deductibles and copays, about %9500 per individual and $12,500 per family of 4 making <$95,000/year. (The experience in Massachusetts is virtually no reduction in bankruptcies due to medical insurance which account for one half of all bankruptcies). The upside with Obamacare is that at least you will have a doctor and healthcare network to access, however inadequate. The downside, you can't afford to use it. In sum, Obamacare is a rube goldberg plan designed by neoliberals to insure rentier income to the 1%.

    • There is a semi-leftwing econoblog called Naked Capitalism which has run posts on ACA among other subjects.
      Some of those posts analyze in great detail the various hidden traps and restriction of access to degraded care which the Insurance Industry very carefully wrote into the law. The readers might ask themselves why Justice Roberts performed so many legal-logic contortions to uphold ACA (especially the Forced Mandate) when he realized it would not get 5 other Justices to uphold it without his help.
      It is easy enough to go to Naked Capitalism and find those posts and comments.

    • your deductibles are way off the mark geoff.
      and you can make payments on those deductible bills and may even qualify for community care to get those reduced.
      do you live in america geoff ?

    • I was paying $755×12=$9060 just for my wife, a million lifetime cap (under $50K annual income, and I am on Medicare). Now that goes down to $395 a month, about $4800 a year, no cap. Same doctors and hospitals accessible under the new ACA plan. I’ll take the “hoax” as you call it anytime, over what we had.

  3. Professor Cole, I really enjoyed your essay about JFK in light of our national holiday on this Thanksgiving Day. As with many baby boomers of a certain age, I still remember that fateful day when I was a junior in high school and how I reacted with shock and dismay to his assassination. He offered such promise and hope for our nation.

    But I feel compelled to offer to you a reasonable dissent on JFK’s historical legacy, because several years as a rather naive and young working-class guy, I was caught up in out last national draft and ended up serving as a medical corpsman in Vietnam.

    Of course, one of the big questions concerning his presidency was, Would JFK have actually started his gradual withdrawal of the 16,000 troops stationed in the Republic of South Vietnam had he not been killed? And therefore would the United States have avoided the worst foreign policy debacles in out nation’s history? At the time, he ststed he would have begun our withdrawal from Vietnam with a 1.000 soldiers. But we will never know the answer to this question.

    But what I do know is on November 21, 1961, JFK signed an executive order, National Security Action Memorandum #111 (as David Halberstam noted in his classic critique of the war, “The Best and the Brightest”), in which he authorized the military use of napalm and Agent Orange in the war. LBJ used this executive order to prosecute the war against the VC guerrillas and NVA soldiers starting in 1964 or 1965.

    In September, 2010, the VA finally awarded me a modest disability compensation for my specific heart disease due to my exposure to Agent Orange during my tour of duty. But I actually dodged a bullet. I see other Vietnam veterans at the local VA clinic who were exposed to Agent Orange and have far more severe health concerns from their exposure. So despite my personal situation, I am in relatively good health.

    Therefore, my thoughts and feelings this Thanksgiving Day toward JFK as our fallen King of Camelot are tempered by that fateful day when he signed that executive order as a Vietnam veteran. That old adage,the pen is mightier than the sword, holds true in his case.

    This highly personal and ironical observation on my perspective in no ways diminishes JFK stature in our collective national memory. And perhaps I will have to admit he had no idea how the widespread spraying of Agent Orange would affect so may people involved in that war many years later.

    There are around 100,000 other Vietnam veterans who also have my specific type of heart disease of which 68,000 are still alive who qualify for disability compensation.

    And I read several months ago in an article in The Washington Post that over 3 million Vietnamese were also exposed to the effects of Agent Orange and around 150,000 Vietnamese children were born with serious birth defects.

    I seriously doubt these innocent victims of that war will ever get any king of compensation or reparation from the United States for their exposure to this herbicide. But according to this article, joint American and Vietnamese teams are presently supervising the clean-up of the worst toxic sites in the country, which is progress.

    So, let us remember JFK and honor his historical legacy. But let us also be honest with ourselves and take off our rose-colored glasses of nostalgia about him. That’s what really disturbs me about this canonization of JFK and the myth surrounding his presidency. I categorically reject this cult of personality on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

    • if kennedy had not been assassinated you would not have been exposed to agent orange or for that matter not even had gone to vietnam. rfk jr. article in this months rolling stone is very informative.

      I RESPECT YOU AND THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE !

    • Thank you for this information on the status of Vietnam and affected individuals.

      So little is reported on the adverse consequences sustained by the Vietnamese people that continue to this day.

  4. An excellent post for Thanksgiving Juan!

    Kennedy’s words were simple and gracious enough. But how is it possible that we have become so willfully neglectful not just of Kennedy’s words, but of the teachings and wisdom of Socrates, of Jesus, of Martin Luther King? Why did we praise, only to dismiss, the warnings of the hero of D-Day about the military industrial complex? How can it be that the Founders are so revered even as the Constitution is so disregarded? How can the intelligence and hard work of our greatest minds in the scientific community come to be so maligned?

    Gott in Himmel! my grandmother used to say.

    The answer is simple: several generations of very hard work by very angry, hateful, and self-serving creatures – a foul stew of Kochs, Bushes, Atwaters, Roves, Ailes, and the like – who decided they did not like opportunity and equality for all and decided that by the time they were done with the country that most of us would not recognize it. And now we do not. That is why the great liberal media outlet NPR holds debates about torture (debate about torture? Really!?!?) That is why audience members at GOP “debates” cheer for people dying for lack of access to health care. That is why we give the 3% of scientists who deny human driven global warming equal weight to the 97% who view it as a virtual certainty. That is why Obama, who rules to the center right of Reagan, is railed at by the right as a Marxist.

    Ultimately, however, I think the best explanation for what has happened in the past 50 years or so is best summed up by our third president:

    “[W]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”

    A malaise has infected the deepest marrow of our people and society, and it is going to be a herculean struggle (if not a Sisyphian one!) to purge away the bad humors.

  5. “JKF’s Vision of Peace” subtitle: On the 50th anniversity of Kennedy’s death, his nephed recalls the fallen president’s attempts to end the cold war. By Robert Kennedy Jr.

    In Rolling Stone magazine. Here is a link.

    link to rollingstone.com

    Didn’t realize that JFK worked to end the cold war, and was planning to withdraw from Vietnam after he was elected to a second term. The military and the CIA fought him all the way. His major accomplishment was in the elimination of nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere.

    He was in contact with Khrushchev. He avoided nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missle Crisis. The military wanted to get the first strike against the Russians.

    The article makes a good case with evidence.

    The article does not discuss the reason for his assignation.

    To me, it makes clear that Obama and the political establishment, after the decades of building up the war machine and the surveillance state, and the corporate coup d’etat, and the media propaganda (along with capitalism) that has created American consumers rather than American citizens, all this makes the NSA documents so relevant.

    Recommend the short article.

    Something longer is the BBC interview of Glenn Greenwald just posted where Glenn demonstrates the role of journalism to hold people and institutions accountable. UK does not have legal protection of journalism like the US constitution.

    the link to the interview

    link to youtube.com

    I find out about these from Glenn’s twitter account which now has over 300,000 followers. Juan occasionally appears on Glenn’s twitter as well.

    link to twitter.com

  6. Thank you Professor for this article. Written with all the passion of a true American patriot.

  7. Whatever criticisms one has regarding the United States, and I have a few myself, we live in a pretty free and benevolent country compared to most. (If you doubt the US’s benevolence, I would be glad to supply figures ranging from US immigration statistics–approximately one million legal immigrants taken in each year–to disaster assistance–Tsunami destruction in Indonesia, Philippine typhoon, Pakistani earthquake, etc.). We have plenty to be thankful for. With that note, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    • This is the “look at the milk Johnny spilled” argument to deflect from one’s own defects. The issue is not the policy of other countries but our own. So let’s look at the past 50 years. Hmmm, hundreds of thousands of dead in SE Asia at the hands of the US on specious pretexts, goodness knows how many dead in Central America on a baseless fear of a communist beachhead, and lord knows how much devastation and destruction in the Middle and Near East as we attempt to maintain hegemony over the region. Let’s not even get into Iraq and Iran.

      Then there’s the deal-sealer: wasteful abuse of the human resources in this country on a breath-taking scale, and a political party that is effectively blocking any hope of saving the biosphere from lethal doses of CO2 and methane.

      It is duly noted that Bill has a strange sense of the word “benevolence”.

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