WHY THE KENNEDY MEN MATTER
Until September 11, 2001, we Americans thought that we had opted out of the world's darkness. We fancied that our whole great nation was a walled community. Our soldiers, business people and diplomats might venture out beyond the gates but we stayed safely inside.
We know now that these walls can be easily breached, and in many respects we are back now psychologically in that world in which these five Kennedy men lived from 1901-1963. We are fortunate as Americans for we can go back to our past and find almost everything we need. Values. Political ideas. Strategies. Wisdom. Hope. Everything but the resolve that must be found within the individual human heart.
The Kennedy Men 1901-1963 is above all a story of manhood, of ideals of character and courage that were the common idiom of the early years of the twentieth century, and what happened to them for good and bad in the lives of the Kennedys. Joseph P. Kennedy did not fight in World War I. He connived to get out. But he taught his sons values that he had failed to exemplify. They listened well and long, and whatever else might be said about these Kennedy men, they attempted to live out these ideas.
Joe Jr., the eldest son and namesake was a fervent isolationist, and yet when war was imminent in 1941, he joined the navy reserve and as soon as World War II began, he sought combat. Jack was a sickly young man whose father had to help him cheat and lie to be admitted into the navy, and to cheat and lie some more to get into combat and to serve as a PT boat captain.
In August of 1943 Jack Kennedy was captain of PT boat 109 when was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer appearing out of blackest night. In the days that followed Jack acted with great courage, shepherding his men to a deserted island and seeking rescue. From a hospital bed, he wrote his parents: "On the bright side of an otherwise completely black time was the way that everyone stood up to it…Previous to that I had been somewhat cynical about the American as a fighting man. I had seen too much bellyaching and laying off. But with the chips down that all faded away. I can now believe-which I never would have before-the stories of Bataan and Wake. For an American it's got to be awfully easy or awfully tough. When it's in the middle, then there's trouble."
Jack Kennedy's older brother, Joe Jr., died in World War II piloting a plane loaded with explosives on a secret mission. Jack rightfully believed that his big brother was the true hero. Some have written that Joe Jr. volunteered and died either because of some twisted need to make up for his father's failures as ambassador to Great Britain or because he was in competition with his little brother Jack. We must beware of such cynical analyses lest we turn heroes into cowards, and cowards into heroes. No one knows what was going on inside Joe Jr's head. He died so that his country might live.
When President Kennedy was on his European trip in June of 1963, he took time to write a Fourth of July proclamation. This is the kind of statement that is usually written by the junior most speechwriter, words that are written quickly, rarely read, and soon forgotten.
"Bells marked significant events in modern lives. Birth and death, war and peace are pealed and tolled," he wrote in his own hand. "Bells summon the community to take note of things which affect the life or death of a community...On the Fourth of July when bells ring again--think back on those who lived and died to make our country and their resolve, achieved with courage and determination, to make it greater in our day and generation."
To Kennedy, patriotism was a bell that resonated with all the sounds of American history, pealing forth the triumphs and tragedies, the deaths and dramas. It was a bell that had to be tolled repeatedly, and when it rang those within hearing should stop and listen. To him the heroes of the past, men like Joe Jr., lived on in the continuing history of the nation, their lives resonating in these sounds. "Heroes of the past are watching us," he said in the proclamation. "If we remember them when the bells ring out...it will help us to live like heroes too."
By Laurence Leamer
THE KENNEDY MEN 1901 - 1963
On sale October 16, 2001