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“To Pay any Price, to Bear Any Burden” Remembering John F. Kennedy on the 56th Anniversary of His Assassination

 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fifty-six years ago President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas Texas. Despite his many flaws he was an inspiring American hero. Today I am taking the time to remember something that he said that is so lacking in our political discourse today.

Kennedy said:“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”


Some fifty-six years ago a young, handsome Irish Catholic from Massachusetts took the oath of office of the President of the United States. President John F. Kennedy had won an exceptionally close Presidential Race against Republican Voce President Richard M. Nixon, a race that some believe was decided by votes of the dead in places like Chicago and West Virginia. Despite the contested nature of the election Nixon was gracious and conceded the race to avoid deeper division.

Fifty years ago today that young President was gunned down in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald. It was an event that shattered our nation which helped in many ways to foment the deep and abiding cynicism that is the hallmark of our recent political landscape.

The Kennedy administration had a wonderful vision but was not always successful. In fact there were time its policies and actions in the case of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the Assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem, were mired in controversy. Decisions made by Kennedy to send more advisors to Vietnam would be followed by the Johnson Administration sending combat troops. Kennedy played a high stakes game of chess with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis where the world came perilously close to nuclear war.

That being said he also inspired and energized Americans and our Allies to greatness. Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall where he identified himself with the city saying “Ich bin Ein Berliner”inspired many in Germany who realized that in Kennedy they had a friend who would not abandon them.

Kennedy challenged us as Americans to put a man on the moon by 1970. He  supported NASA as they began to develop the Apollo program which did achieve that lofty goal when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 11th 1969.

Kennedy was a visionary. He supported the establishment the Army Special Forces, or the Green Berets.  He helped to found and promote the Peace Corps.  His economic policies were fiscally conservative but did not ignore the poor. He pushed for equal rights for African Americans against a much divided nation.

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As I said, Kennedy was a flawed man. A deeply flawed man. I have written about that before. He was not known for his sexual morality and the stories of him with various mistresses including Marilyn Monroe abound. At the same time he was a hero. He volunteered to serve on PT Boats in the Second World War when his political connections would have ensured him a billet in a non-combat area and his physical condition would have exempted him from any military service.

Kennedy died 56 years ago today. I was three and a half years old. He was the victim of an assassin’s bullet in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas with his wife Jackie at his side. His death stunned the nation and in a sense ended our innocence.  Since that time American politics has been on a slow but steady descent into darkness which both parties have aided and abetted to the point that they view each other as mortal enemies and along with it have devastated our body politic.

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In our divided state it seems that the nation has become nothing more than a collection of special interest groups. Each group is driven by their own wants and needs above that of others goaded into a frenzy by politicians who cater to those needs whether they be tax breaks, entitlements or “pork barrel” projects which only benefit the political benefactors of the politicians. I know that American politics has always had such elements but I don’t think that my parents or those other young people who heard and responded to this speech ever imagined that we would come to this.

While Kennedy still has critics, and was a flawed man, I find him still to be a great and compelling President, especially compared to Donald Trump. His greatness was not in his achievements, his Vice President and successor Lyndon Johnson has the courage to defy Southern Democrats and work with Republicans to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, as well Medicare, and equal housing laws. These were things that Kennedy paid lip service to, but did little to change by aggressively pushing legislation that would help average as well as disadvantaged Americans. This was a point of frustration for more progressive Democrats. He was too civil to rock the boat with the old Southern Democrats and the Dixiecrats. That didn’t mean that he lacked courage or commitment, he was, and that was proven in war, but Lyndon Johnson was a better master of the legislative process than Kennedy.

Despite his flaws, John F. Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents in large part because he understood that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” In our current poisonous political environment this is something that all of us need to take to heart, especially people of faith are the least civil and most hateful in our society.

Kennedy was one of those rare leaders who called us to better as individuals and as a nation. Today we remember his life and the tragedy of his death.

But today I think about Kennedy’s inaugural address. It is a speech that in my opinion calls us as Americans to higher and better ideals. It is a speech that if we actually listen to it can still help point us away from the abyss which we are staring into. I have posted the text of the speech as well as a link to the video of it here.

In the hope that we can learn at home and abroad from John F Kennedy I print his inaugural address.

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge – and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do; for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom; and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress; to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support, to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course – both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.

So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms – and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the Earth the command of Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.”

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.

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I do hope that we can after a half a century finally learn something from John F Kennedy.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“All Stop” Pausing to Remember the End of An Age

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In the midst of a very busy “day off” due to the National Day of Mourning in honor of the late President George H. W. Bush, I stopped everything to watch his funeral. On a ship the command “All Stop” involves taking all engines off line by disengaging the engines from the propeller shafts, where they are neither driving the ship forward or in reverse. For landlubbers it is like one puts a car with a manual transmission in neutral or park. The engines may continue to run, but the ship is not being driven forward or reverse.

For a bit over two hours I did that today. I stopped. I didn’t look at email, didn’t answer telephone calls or texts, and didn’t check Facebook or Twitter, instead I stopped to watch, listen, and reflect during the funeral for President Bush. I had other things that I could have done, but as a historian I knew that it was the end of an age.

State funerals are something special in the United States, unlike our mother country we are a republic, and democracy. While Great Britain is a Constitutional Monarchy, it is still a monarchy. State funerals in the United States serve to remind us of our heritage even in times when many people either pay lip service to it, or actually despise it, longing for some form of autocracy. The funeral of President Bush served as a reminder of that better and more noble heritage, what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the better angels of our nature.

Earlier in the morning I had taken Judy to her first physical therapy appointment in two weeks since she tore a Quadricep muscle while doing at home physical therapy after her first knee replacement surgery. She is making great progress but the pain is still pretty bad and she has a hard time getting comfortable in bed, something that makes sleep difficult. After that we went out to breakfast before coming home.

As a Priest, Chaplain, military officer, and historian I thought that it was important. President Bush had been out of office for around 26 years and only had served one term as President, however, those four years were among the most critical in the history of the modern world. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany as a Westen oriented member of NATO and the European Union, and the liberation of Kuwait and defeat of Iraq by a disparate coalition of 29 very different nations under the authority of the United Nations all within a period of barely two years time were remarkable, and something that we will probably never see again in our lifetimes.

Whether one agreed or disagreed with individual policies enacted by him or his administration; and I did have my share of disagreements one had to admit the basic decency, humility, and respect for political opponents that enabled him to build relationships and keep friendships.

Today’s funeral dealt with history and what it is to be an American: friendship, family, faith, a dedication to the ideals written in the Declaration of Independence, spoken of by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, which referred to that ideal and pledged to build a more perfect Union, as well as a belief in an ideal of service to something greater than ourselves.

Historian John Meecham, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, former Senator Alan Simpson, and his son, former President George W. Bush, speaking as a son and not a President, were a portrait and a biography of a man who loved life, loved his family, loved his country and who had the courage to defy Party hardliners if it benefited the county, and who could take the time to care about children afflicted with the Leukemia that killed his daughter Robin at the tender age of three.

His was the story of a man who defied affluence and privilege to serve his country by volunteering to serve as soon as he could after the nation went to war, and who at the tender age of 18 became the youngest Naval Aviator in our history. Shot down over Chuchi Jima, he mourned the loss of his flight crew and was always aware of the human cost of war. He did not commit the lives of young Americans, allies, or coalition partners without reflecting on the loss of his flight crew. When he committed the nation to war in 1991 he did so only under the mandate of the United Nations and with a coalition that would be unimaginable today. I could never see our current President doing what George H. W. Bush did to keep the world from plunging into an abyss of disorder and irresponsibility.

This isn’t to say that he didn’t make mistakes, couldn’t go for the jugular as a politician, or who didn’t change his positions on various issues out of political expediency; but he always remained a fundamentally decent man who had great empathy for others.

His funeral was attended by more heads of state, former heads of state, or royalty since that of John F. Kennedy. As I watched the hearse which bore his body from the funeral in which the current President and four other Presidents gathered along with so many heads of state or former leaders gathered I was reminded of the words of historian Barbara Tuchman speaking about then funeral of British King Edward VII:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Not Just Words but Actions: My Support for LGBTQ Civil Rights

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am often asked why I write on the topics of civil rights and human rights and why I have over the past few years gone beyond writing but speaking and engaging in peace public protests for these rights. I guess it is because I have to. Writing is easy for me and apart from the occasional death threat from a Neo-Nazi or KKK sympathizer there is little risk. However, getting out in public and speaking or marching with others in support of their rights is not without risk.

As a historian I have always impressed by the struggle for equality and resistance against tyranny. It matters not to me if the cause is that of the African American fighting against slavery, Jim Crow, and continued discrimination; the Native American against whom genocide was committed in the name of a supposedly “Christian American” Manifest Destiny; the Jew targeted by Nazi Race hatred and genocide, or so many others who due to their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or political beliefs have been targeted for subordination or elimination by governments, or mass movements.

One man who inspired me is Charles Morgan Jr., a lawyer in Birmingham Alabama had the courage to confront the people and the culture that allowed the brutal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that killed four little girls attending Sunday school and wounded many more. Morgan noted: “It is not by great acts but by small failures that freedom dies. . . . Justice and liberty die quietly, because men first learn to ignore injustice and then no longer recognize it.” I have embraced his example to speak out publicly when I see the rights of my fellow citizens and other human beings trampled by those who only care about their power and privilege.

On this site I have frequently written about those subjects. Likewise, within the confines of still being a commissioned officer in the United States Navy I continue to support those discriminated and oppressed by people whose political, religious, or ideological beliefs support policies, measures, and ideas that go against the basic guarantees of the United States Constitution, as well as the bedrock ideal of the American experiment, the belief written in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” and reinforced by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address that this Republic was dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” 

I know that there are many times that people wonder why I continue to write about and even take an active role in promoting the liberties of people who because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity are the targets of discrimination, legislative actions, threats, and violence. As such I write about these issues all the time, however, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became an actual participant in rallies and marches on behalf of any persecuted group. In my case it was making a deliberate move to openly support my friends in the LGBTQ community.

My support of my LGBTQ friends has perplexed many people who predominantly knew me through church or military settings. The sight of a Christian Navy Chaplain and carer military officer supporting people who until 2012 were forbidden to even reveal under threat of criminal prosecution and discharge from the military that they were Gay, or condemned by the church to discrimination in this life and damnation in the next was anathema to many people who I counted as friends. Since I came out as a straight ally to my LGBTQ friends, many people who I believed were friends have long since written me off simply because my stand contradicted their religious beliefs. That bothers me by I have to move along. Likewise there are others who regardless of their beliefs have remained close friends and been supported even if they disagreed with me. That is a hallmark of true friendship. I honestly believe that if friendship is predicated on religion, political beliefs, or anything but on true care for one another it is not friendship.

It is interesting that almost all of my LGBTQ friends are people who I went to high school, college, attended church with, or served alongside in the military. In fact I didn’t know that most of them were Gay for years because the were closeted and that the act of coming out could cause them incredible harm. Over the years as I came to support them more and more have let me know that they were Gay, knowing that I would both protect their confidence and fully support them and they have come to trust me, and I cannot betray their trust by failing to support them in my words and in my deeds.

Knowing their stories and holding them sacred is important to me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to hold fast to the creeds of the church yet suffer the pain of excommunication because of my sexual orientation. I cannot imagine what it would be like to swear and oath to defend my country and go to war yet still be forced to be silent about the people that I love under the threat of punishment and discharge. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be evicted from my home or denied the opportunity to buy a house because I loved someone of my gender. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be able to be fired from a civilian simply because I was Gay. I don’t have to imagine what it would be like to have your best friends and your life partner forbidden to be with you on your deathbed, because as a hospital chaplain I have seen it happen even as the pastor of the man’s parents screamed at him to repent as he died with a ventilator in his throat.

Sunday I participated in the Equality March in Washington D.C. I was with friends and I represented friends that could not be there. It was important. I have been to D.C. many times but I have never experienced it in such a way, I never dreamed that I would be in any civil rights march that went past so many places that symbolize who we are as Americans including the White House and in front of the Capital building. On the way back home yesterday Judy mention how proud she was that I marched. That meant a lot to me, she is an amazing woman who cares so deeply about others that it humbles me. As we talked I remarked that had I been an adult in the 1960s I would have very likely been marching in support of the civil rights of African Americans.

John F. Kennedy said “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” This is something that I believe with my whole heart and now have decided to back my beliefs and words with action instead of sitting on the sidelines.

Yesterday I had friends who took part in the commemoration of the slaughter of 49 people, including an Army officer at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was a crime directed at them because they were LGBTQ people and Pulse was a place that they felt safe. Sadly they were not the first to die violently because of their sexual orientation in this country, nor will they probably be the last. That is a reason that I have to speak out. If I don’t I would be complicit in the crimes committed against them by my silence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I will not be a silent friend ever again. This week was for my LGBTQ friends, but I will do so for others as well. I cannot be silent in the face of hatred, even that legislated against already marginalized and despised people by supposedly Christian majorities in various statehouses and Congress. I remember all too well the words of the German pastor Martin Niemoller who wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

As such, I cannot be silent. To do so would betray all that I hold dear.

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants: Do Dodging the Hard Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

General Omar Bradley once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”

As I hear President Trump rattling the saber in Asia and the Middle East, as I look at his incoherent and dangerous policy of “America First,” and his almost total disregard for the importance of diplomacy and soft power I began to think about the possibility of nuclear, chemical, or biological war. While the Sword of Damocles represented by the massive stocks of already existing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, has hung over our heads for decades, the current era seems more dangerous.

We have seen the persistent use of chemical weapons, including Sarin nerve agent in Syria by the regime of Bashir Al Assad, and the growing advancement of nuclear weapons technology, combined with bellicose rhetoric threatening the use of such weapons coming from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The problem is with both of these situations is that there are no easy or even good answers. The branches and sequels to any military action, the possibilities of a limited military action escalating into a regional or even worldwide conflict are all too real. It is in times like these that one wishes for cool heads and steady leadership, especially among the great powers. But I fear that that might not be the case today. The saber rattling, and the quest for regional dominance by Russia in Eastern Europe, and China in Asia are unnerving their neighbors, and becoming more dangerous with every passing year. But even more important is the dangerous attitude of the Russians in backing the Assad regime and the Chinese not doing much to control North Korea that are very concerning, not to mention the Trump administration’s lack of any coherent foreign policy or military strategy.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able to pull back from the brink of nuclear war. During the height of the Cold War President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were able to begin the process of reducing nuclear weapons and the numbers of intermediate range nuclear missiles.

I don’t know if President Trump, President Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping are able to curb their own sense of nationalism, nor the actors using or threatening to use these terrible weapons. There are hard choices to be made, but all too often leaders throughout history have shown a decided inability to make them. As Barbara Tuchman noted:  “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.” 

It feels as if we are sliding into an abyss, I just hope that one or all of these leaders acts with a measure of prudence and wisdom to keep us from sliding in to it.

The President’s decision to remove Steve Bannon from the NSC was a good start, and hopefully men like General McMasters and Secretary of Defense Mattis prove to be men like George C. Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower, men who understand the precious nature of peace and the tragedy of war.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Terrible Danger of Unreason and Demagoguery

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As the inauguration of Donald Trump as President draws near it is important to remember the words of the late Adlai Stevenson who once wrote:

“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.”

I have traveled to a lot of places, in this country and around the world where reason has been a scarce commodity and to me that has always been a frightening specter; a world where reason is all too often sacrificed on the altar of political, ideological or religious expediency. Over the past year, and more frighteningly over the past few weeks what was once a specter is beginning to look like reality.

But reason does matter, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril as Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” History shows us in times like this, where reason is tossed as primordial urges rise, that people all too often fall back on old hatreds and myth rather than seeking answers; instead of trying to figure out what is really important; instead of studying the details of the great questions; that frustrated people become intellectually lazy and gravitate towards angry demagogues who play to their often legitimate anger and frustration. As such we have entered an era where Facebook and Twitter memes with little truth but much emotion form the basic thoughts of many people.

But populist demagogues with authoritarian leanings like the President Elect do not need to appeal to reason. Instead they appeal to something more primal; they appeal to fear, anger, and the need of desperate people to find someone to blame.

Appealing to fear and loathing is so much easier than using reason. To call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or imperialist, unbeliever, heretic or even a racist; and then connect them to the evil we want to demonize them is far easier than it is to actually engage them in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context.

Too often we allow people of little learning but whose great charm and salesmanship ability, to sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum. That is a tragedy for all of us no matter what our political, ideological, or religious views.

Such salesmanship may comfort the true believer in whatever cause may be, and it may even make them feel superior to those that disagree with them. But it blinds them to reality and ensures that they never become aware of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The untruths they believe serve as protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them.  John F Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Thus we are inundated with fake news, fake history, outright lies and propaganda that go unchallenged by people who should know better.

In times like ours, it is most important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology.  As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.

Reason, it is important, and the dangers that we face as a nation, society, and world demand that we return to it, no-matter what our occupation or station in life. If we do not stand for truth and the freedom of thought maintained in reason and objectivity we will see freedom die. George Orwell wrote something that we should not forget: “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The First Duty: Speaking Truth in “Post-Truth” Trump Era

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me the past month has been one of constant amazement. I am not speeaking about politics, but what matters more than any political ideology, the very idea of truth. Because of this I write using history and as best as I can objective and indisputable fact as my guide.

Most of my readers know that in addition to being a Priest and Navy Chaplain that I am a historian and teach both ethics and about Gettysburg as a faculty member at a Staff College. Many of the men and women that I teach will lead our military as commanders, planners and staff officers. I will transfer in the spring but even so, as a chaplain, officer, and educator I cannot be silent.

Thus it is my first duty, whether it is in teaching, writing or in ministry is to the truth, politicans and pundits be damned to hell. I believe the words spoken by Captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek the Next Generation: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

I am not a Starfleet Officer, but a Navy officer and I have always believed that the truth matters, but sadly, I, like so many of us have turned the other way and not spoken out too many times in my life. That changed during my combat tor in Iraq, and now the older I get the more I realize that I cannot be silent about subjects that at one time I turned a blind eye to because they were uncomfortable, unpopular or might hurt my career either in the church or in the military, so when I see people in power and who are close to power saying that truth and objective fact no longer matters I become fearful, because I know that the path that denying facts and truth leads.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surroget Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued,“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Her words, as well as those of former Trump campaign director and CNN talking head, Corey Lewindowski, and Newt Gingrinch have maintained that truth does not matter, only what people believe does. The fact that so many of Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about facts, bodes ill for our country.

As such I have continued to write about subjects that many people are controversial and as such many people are uncomfortable with those topics. Whether the issue is civil rights, racism, Gay rights and marriage equality, voting rights, religious freedom and religious intolerance, and even xenophobia, or the connection of symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag to a heritage that goes to a hatred that extends far beyond the battlefields of the Civil War; I am speaking out.

I am fully aware of that many of these subjects are controversial and are now targeted by Trump’s supporters, Congressional Repiublicans, and GOP legislators in every state. I have been asked in comments on this site and on my various social media accounts, particularly Facebook, why I keep bringing up the uncomfortable past. But I have to, I have a duty to the truth, and as Oscar Wilde noted “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The late Howard Zinn, a brilliant historian whose work at one time I discounted, said: “But I suppose the most revolutionary act one can engage in is… to tell the truth.” Who would think that telling the truth could or would be a revolutionary act? However, when one lives in a society where the truth is bent, run over and shredded by politicians, preachers and pundits, what I call the Trinity of Evil; when state school boards whitewash history and force their religious views on children in public schools; where corporations and advertisers use the most crass means to deceive customers; and where established science is not met with denial under the guise of “skepticism;” telling the truth is a revolutionary affair.

In 1943, George Orwell, wrote about the Spanish Civil War how the German and Italian propaganda about it had been accepted without question by most people in westren democracies. His words echo my feelings about the incoming administration:

“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history. How will the history of the Spanish war be written? If Franco remains in power his nominees will write the history books, and (to stick to my chosen point) that Russian army which never existed will become historical fact, and schoolchildren will learn about it generations hence. But suppose Fascism is finally defeated and some kind of democratic government restored in Spain in the fairly near future; even then, how is the history of the war to be written? What kind of records will Franco have left behind him? Suppose even that the records kept on the Government side are recoverable — even so, how is a true history of the war to be written? For, as I have pointed out already, the Government, also dealt extensively in lies. From the anti-Fascist angle one could write a broadly truthful history of the war, but it would be a partisan history, unreliable on every minor point. Yet, after all, some kind of history will be written, and after those who actually remember the war are dead, it will be universally accepted. So for all practical purposes the lie will have become truth. 

In spite of everything going on I will continue to speak the truth, which will likely will be called radical, revolutionary, and unpatriotic. That has happened over the past few years and I expect that it will happen on a more frequent basis, but I do not want the lie to become truth.

The honest truth is that I never expected to be a revolutionary in terms of defending civil rights. Truthfully, believing what authority figures, be they political, or religious say is much easier than asking the hard questions. Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” I guess that is why so many people would rather be content with obvious lies than to ask the really hard questions; be they about history, religion, and science or for that matter anything. One of the must uncomfortable things to admit is that truth is always evolving as we learn more, it is dynamic, not static and to attempt to force people to live by the “truth” of our ancestors is disingenuous, dishonest and denies the reality of the universe that we live. Thomas Jefferson recognized this and wrote:

“I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” 

So why I continue to write? I will write so that we never forget or push aside the great evils that human beings are capable of committing: The Holocaust, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans by the millions in the name of God and Manifest Destiny, the enslavement, exploitation, and sometimes the extermination of whole peoples by colonialism; the witch trials, the religious wars of the Reformation, the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee experiments, the Japanese barbarity in the Rape of Nanking and other places in Asia, the Srebrenica genocide and the Rwandan genocide, the inhumanity of the so-called Islamic State, just to name a few; and add to that whatever happens in the next few years that will be aided and abbetted by men and women who overthrow democracy by the democratic process, using people’s fear to establish authoritatian or totalitarian states.

All too often the perpetrators of those events and their descendants as all too willing to last the past lie dormant and allow present wrongs to persist and look the other way.

But at what cost do we do so? Do we sacrifice justice on the altar of prosperity and peace; do we sacrifice uncomfortable truth in order to remain undisturbed and comforted by myth? Do we condemn our descendants to live under the myths of our ancestors? Would we sacrifice the truth and justice in order to ensure obedience? Howard Zinn correctly observed, “Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

President John F. Kennedy spoke these words at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Personally I would rather ask the questions and confront the past so we might have a better future, because though I am a realist, I also believe in my heart that humanity is capable of overcoming hatred, prejudice and ignorance. The problem is that times get difficult those attitudes can overcome our better nature. As Spencer Tracy’s character in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg said:

“But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.”

That my friends, is why I write: for justice, truth, and the value of a single human life, even if that means being considered unpatriotic.

Peace

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John F. Kennedy and Civility

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Fifty-three years ago President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas Texas. Despite his many flaws he was an inspiring American hero. Today I am taking the time to remember something that he said that is so lacking in our political discourse today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

John F. Kennedy said:“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Some fifty-six years ago a young, handsome Irish Catholic from Massachusetts took the oath of office of the President of the United States. President John F. Kennedy had won an exceptionally close Presidential Race against Republican Voce President Richard M. Nixon, a race that some believe was decided by votes of the dead in places like Chicago and West Virginia. Despite the contested nature of the election Nixon was gracious and conceded the race to avoid deeper division.

Fifty years ago today that young President was gunned down in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald. It was an event that shattered our nation which helped in many ways to foment the deep and abiding cynicism that is the hallmark of our recent political landscape.

The Kennedy administration had a wonderful vision but was not always successful. In fact there were time its policies and actions were in the case of the Bay of Pigs Invasion were mired in controversy. Decisions made by Kennedy to send more advisors to Vietnam would be followed by the Johnson Administration sending combat troops. Kennedy played a high stakes game of chess with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis where the world came perilously close to nuclear war.

That being said he also inspired and energized Americans and our Allies to greatness. Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall where he identified himself with the city saying “Ich bin Ein Berliner” inspired many in Germany who realized that in Kennedy they had a friend who would not abandon them.

Kennedy challenged us as Americans to put a man on the moon by 1970. He  supported NASA as they began to develop the Apollo program which did achieve that lofty goal when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 11th 1969.

Kennedy was a visionary. He supported the establishment the Army Special Forces, or the Green Berets.  He helped to found and promote the Peace Corps.  His economic policies were fiscally conservative but did not ignore the poor. He pushed for equal rights for African Americans against a much divided nation.

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As I said, Kennedy was a flawed man. A deeply flawed man. I have written about that before. He was not known for his sexual morality and the stories of him with various mistresses including Marilyn Monroe abound. At the same time he was a hero. He volunteered to serve on PT Boats in the Second World War when his political connections would have ensured him a billet in a non-combat area and his physical condition would have exempted him from any military service.

Kennedy died 50 years ago today. He was the victim of an assassin’s bullet in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas with his wife Jackie at his side. His death stunned the nation and in a sense ended our innocence.  Since that time American politics has been on a slow but steady descent into darkness which both parties have aided and abetted to the point that they view each other as mortal enemies and along with it have devastated our body politic.

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In our divided state it seems that the nation has become nothing more than a collection of special interest groups. Each group is driven by their own wants and needs above that of others goaded into a frenzy by politicians who cater to those needs whether they be tax breaks, entitlements or “pork barrel” projects which only benefit the political benefactors of the politicians. I know that American politics has always had such elements but I don’t think that my parents or those other young people who heard and responded to this speech ever imagined that we would come to this.

While Kennedy still has critics and was a flawed man I find him still to be a great and compelling President. He is one of my favorite Presidents in large part because he understood that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” In our current poisonous political environment this is something that all of us need to take to heart, especially people of faith who so often seem to be the least civil and most hateful in our society.

Kennedy was one of those rare leaders who called us to better as individuals and as a nation. Today we remember his life and the tragedy of his death.

But today I think about his inaugural address. It is a speech that in my opinion calls us as Americans to higher and better ideals. It is a speech that if we actually listen to it can still help point us away from the abyss which we are staring into. I have posted the text of the speech as well as a link to the video of it here.

In the hope that we can learn at home and abroad from John F Kennedy.

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge – and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do; for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom; and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required – not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress; to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support, to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course – both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.

So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms – and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the Earth the command of Isaiah to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.”

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again; not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility; I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.

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I do hope that we can after a half a century finally learn something from John F Kennedy.

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The Unfolding of Miscalculations: Syria 2015

russian jet in flames

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The tensions fuel by the incredibly complex and dangerous war in Syria just when up, as I like to say the “pucker factor” is very high, in fact it is getting close to stage ten. Barbara Tuchman wrote, “War is the unfolding of miscalculations” and it seems that right now there are whole a lot of miscalculations going on.

Yesterday a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was blasted out of the sky by a Turkish F-16. Reports conflict, Turkey say that the Russian aircraft had violated its airspace multiple times and had been given multiple warnings before the shoot down. The Russians claim that the aircraft was on the Syrian side of the border and that the attack was an unprovoked violation, and Russian President Putin called it a “stab in the back.” Russia is accusing Turkey of backing DAESH, while Russia’s forces, which are supposedly there to fight DAESH are spending more time attacking Syrian President Assad’s non-DAESH Syrian opposition, including Turkoman Syrians fighting the Assad regime in the area where the jet was shot down. Some think that it might be payback for the Russians bombing the faction supported by the Turks.

Admittedly, Turkey has a right to self-defense and the Russians are operating in Syria without any kind of international mandate. That being said, the Russians are there at the behest of the Assad government, which even if we don’t like it is still the legal government of Syria, a long term ally and client of Russia, going back to the old Soviet days.

However, the feud between Russia and Turkey goes back hundreds of years. They hate each other, and this hatred goes back to the days of the Tsars and the Ottomans. The hatred is generations old, and is cultural, religious and political. Maybe that is why we in the west do not understand it, but I digress… 

The fact is that the actions of both nations, as well as most other nations in the West including the United States have helped to stoke the fire of the Syrian war, which is threatening to escalate into a regional conflict. I am not going to go into all the details of what has brought us to this point, because they are too many to cover. Some of course are saying that it could lead to a World War, but I do think that cooler heads will prevail. Of course I could be wrong, as Tuchman wrote, “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”

It is now time for President Obama to step up to the plate, and not rattle sabers, but to help pull everyone back from the brink. He needs to work with Russia’s President Putin to deescalate the crisis. Since everyone involved has a stake in what happens it Syria it cannot be ignored. The nations involved need to sit down and come up with a way to defeat DAESH and bring peace to Syria and Iraq. Of course this is easier said than done, especially since bullets are flying, blood is flowing, and tensions rising. The fallibility of human beings has been demonstrated time and time again in this war, and as Tuchman wrote in The Guns of August, “Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers – danger, death, and live ammunition.”

In 1962 President Kennedy faced the real possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy had just read Tuchman’s The Guns of August which had just been published. He was shocked by the words of German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg who when asked how World War One started replied “Ah, if only one knew.” Kennedy asked General Curtis LeMay what would happen if the Soviets did not back down, and the officer replied that he would order a nuclear strike. Kennedy could not go down that road, he referred to the book when he remarked, “If this planet is ever ravaged by nuclear war—if the survivors of that devastation can then endure the fire, poison, chaos and catastrophe—I do not want one of these survivors to ask another, “How did it all happen?” and to receive the incredible reply: “Ah, if only one knew.”

The downing of this Russian jet shows just how easily things can spin out of control. It is time for calmer heads to prevail and walk this back before things get really out of hand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remembering JFK

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas on a sunny November afternoon fifty-two years ago.  The images of the event and its aftermath in photos and film still haunt us and find themselves etched in our individual and collective memory. The two shots that killed the President were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald according to the Warren Commission and subsequent inquiries although there are a host of conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. My purpose is not to prove or disprove the official version or any alternative explanation. I personally believe that Oswald was the lone gunman, but I have to wonder if there were others involved in the plot and at times if there was a second shooter.

However today my purpose is to remember Kennedy’s assassination, a horrible event in the life of our nation and to reflect on how easily something similar could happen again.

Kennedy was not the first President killed by an assassin. Four Presidents of the United States have died by the hand of assassins. The first was Abraham Lincoln killed by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday 1865.  That assassination carried out by a Southern sympathizer not even a week after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox stunned the nation and most likely altered the course of events after the war.

The second was the assassination of James A Garfield who was shot on July 2nd 1881 by Charles Guiteau.  Guiteau was a disgruntled supporter who claimed that he had been commanded by God to kill a the President who he believed to be ungrateful for his support. I find it interesting that one of our four Presidential assassins was motivated by what he believed God to be saying. During his trial he said that some important Europeans told him to do it. Garfield died on September 19th probably due to the incompetence of his doctors.  Guiteau died of a broken neck, expertly administered by a hangman after dancing to the gallows waving to the assembled crowd.

The third U.S. President to die at the hands of an assassin was President William McKinley who was shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 5th 1901. McKinley died on September 14th once again because of not so great medical care.

In all over 20 attempts have been made on incumbent or former Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was wounded by an attempted assassin after his Presidency and John Hinckley Junior nearly killed President Ronald Reagan on March 30th 1981.  Gerald Ford had two close brushes with female assassins within 2 weeks of each other in September 1975. More recent attempts have been made on George H.W Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. There have been numerous threats on the life of President Obama, and even attacks on the White House in 2013.

However, Kennedy’s assassination tends to be the most talked about and studied. I believe that his assassination left a scar on the country that really hasn’t healed. I can remember the effect that his assassination as well as the subsequent killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy had on my parents in the following years.  My mother recounted how she felt when she heard the news of Kennedy’s death on Armed Forces Radio while we were stationed in the Philippines.  It was an event that shattered the faith and idealism of many Americans.

I remember the times around the anniversary of his assassination we would watch television shows about it and the movie PT-109. While I do not have direct memories of President Kennedy’s assassination I do remember those of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy as well as the subsequent attempts on President Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.

John F Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents. I know that he was a deeply flawed man and I do not gloss over his failings either as a man or some of his decisions while President. He was certainly not perfect but I still I admire him.  I think one reason I admire him was his his ability to enunciate ideas that helped shape my more moderately liberal progressive pragmatism. One thing that he said is something that motivates me daily in our divided nation.

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

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Kennedy volunteered to serve in combat on PT Boats despite having chronic lower back problems that kept him out of the Army and necessitated a waiver to enter the Navy. His actions in saving his crew after his PT-109 was sunk were nothing short of heroic and his crew knew it. After he his crew was rescued Kennedy elected to remain in action and commanded PT-59 in combat rescuing Marines on Choisuel Island. Kennedy’s citation for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal read:

“For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

After his rescue Kennedy returned to action commanding PT-59 which though low on fuel was part of a two boat mission to evacuate Marines commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Krulak from Choiseul. He remained in action conduction patrols and engaging Japanese forces until he was ordered to relinquish command for medical reasons on November 18th 1943 and evacuated to the United States.  He was mentally and physically exhausted from his ordeal and had lost over 25 pounds between the sinking of PT-109 and his return to the United States.

Kennedy’s speeches still inspire me. As a child a had a copy of his book Profiles in Courage. I grew up with his promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the creation of the Peace Corps, his backing of Special Forces, his love of the Navy, the great “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, his support of the Civil Rights movement and and his defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis all inspire me.  His inauguration speech where he said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” was and still is a lot of my motivation for serving my country as a Naval Officer.  When I was young John F Kennedy symbolized the hope of a country. I wonder so often what things might be like had he lived.

I could be critical and point out all of John Kennedy’s flaws and contradictions. But then too easy to do, People make a living doing that. But in doing so they often ignore the fact that Kennedy was a hero, not a perfect man but a hero.

I wish a quarter of our current elected officials served their country in combat as Kennedy did and understood real danger and heroism. Instead with very few exceptions we have elected men as much or even more flawed and contradictory than John F Kennedy with none of his personal courage to every level of office in the country, mostly because they have the money to win.

Kennedy’s wartime service always earned my respect. I tremble when I think that someone would have such a deep hatred of him or for that matter any other President that they would kill or attempt to kill them. That kind of hatred goes beyond me whether it be the hatred and smallness of John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau or Leon Czolgosz.

Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was a small and pathetic man who needed to be a revolutionary.  Oswald needed to be important failing everything else he killed the President. Unfortunately there are people like Oswald on all sides of the political, ideological and religious spectrum who will gladly trade the life of a President or any other public figure for their moment in the spotlight and need to demonstrate their importance to the world.

I fear for our country because of the intense hatred that has become part and parcel of our political landscape. The hatred toward directed toward President Obama and the many threats made against his life and person are chilling. As I looked for images for this article I found pictures of Kennedy’s body after the assassination and they shook me. I have seen far too much in the way of violent and senseless death. Thus I do pray for the safety of President Obama as well as all of our leaders and for God to protect us from ourselves and those so possessed by hatred and their own self-righteousness that they would commit such an abominable act.

But I don’t believe that we should be governed by fear and to embrace the future. Kennedy said:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

Likewise I still believe in the call to action spoken by Kennedy:

“Now the trumpet summons us again. Not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” 

I also believe in an era where the country seems to be withdrawing from engagement with an ever more globalized, interconnected yet dangerous world that his call to “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

While I do so I remember the President whose life was cut short by the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald and pray that such an event will never happen again and even more importantly that American political leaders would begin to dream again, visions of hope for the country and world and instead of only seeing limitations, ask that one question in terms of ideas of hope and progress: “Why not?” As Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Happy 240th U.S. Navy!

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For me anything to do with the United States Navy is historical as well as decidedly personal as I am both a Naval Officer and I am the son of a Navy Chief Petty Officer.

Navy Heritage WWII Recruitment Poster

Today is the 240th anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy; actually the date is the founding of the Continental Navy but let’s not get too technical. The birthday of the post Continental, U.S. Navy is March 27th 1794 when Congress appropriated funds for the famous “Six Frigates,” the Constitution, President, Congress, Constellation, Chesapeake, and the United States. These ships would establish the U.S. Navy as a force that would ultimately become the most powerful the world has ever seen.

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Lieutenant John F. Kennedy

The fact is that back in 1775 most people and political leaders in the revolting colonies felt that founding a Navy was quite foolish. After all, who in their right mind would ever dare to challenge the might and power of the British Royal Navy?

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The First Flagship, the Alfred 

In fact had General George Washington not sent a letter to the Continental Congress saying that he had taken some vessels in hand to disrupt the supplies of the British Army, a Navy might not have ever been established. Timing is everything and in this case it the timing of George Washington was pretty good. Early Naval officers, sailing wooden ships with iron men began a tradition of selfless service that endures today.

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Since that fortuitous day in 1775 the United States Navy went from being an annoyance to the Royal Navy to the premier naval power in the world. But it was not always that way. The Navy was allowed to vanish during the 1780s and was reestablished by President Washington and an act of Congress in 1794. Since then the Navy has had its share of ups and downs where politicians very various reasons have ceased to support it. George Washington was right when he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”

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President Woodrow Wilson echoed Washington’s words in 1914, “A powerful Navy we have always regarded as our proper and natural means of defense; and it has always been of defense that we have thought, never of aggression or of conquest. But who shall tell us now what sort of Navy to build? We shall take leave to be strong upon the seas, in the future as in the past; and there will be no thought of offense or provocation in that. Our ships are our natural bulwarks.”

Men like John Paul Jones, Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, Thomas Truxtun, William Bainbridge, Oliver Hazard Perry, David Farragut, David Dixon Porter, George Dewey and many more blazed a path of glory which others, great and small would continue to build on the legacy of the iron men who sailed wooden ships into harm’s way. Men like Arleigh Burke, Howard Gilmore, John C. Waldron, Maxwell Leslie, Bull Halsey, Richard O’Kane, Daniel Callahan, Raymond Spruance, Marc Mitscher, and Ernest Evans built upon that legacy in the Second World War. Other continued that tradition in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and our current wars.

Likewise, others representing people who at one time were excluded from service would build on the legacy, including Robert Smalls who became the first African American to command a U.S. Navy ship during the Civil War, and Samuel Gravely who became the first African American Flag Officer, as Grace Hopper became the first woman line officer to attain flag rank. Others would do so in the Cold War, Vietnam and the Global War on Terrorism.

Great ships like the USS Constitution, USS Monitor, USS Kearsarge, USS Olympia, USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, USS Yorktown, USS Growler, USS Tang, USS Hoel, USS Johnston, USS Samuel B Roberts, USS Laffey, USS San Francisco, USS Houston and USS Arizona, USS Nevada, USS West Virginia and USS California helped build a legacy of valiant sacrifice and service often at great cost in the defense of freedom.

Imacon Color Scanner

Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie

The greatness of those ships would not have occurred had it not been for their crews. Over the last 240 years the success of the United States Navy all it came down to the men and women who served in every clime and place, many times outnumbered and facing certain defeat who through their courage, honor and commitment helped secure the liberty of their countrymen and others around the world. Most of these men and women served in obscurity in war and peace but all had the distinction of serving in the United States Navy.

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My old ship, the USS Hue City operating in 2002 in the Persian Gulf

Today the men and women of the United States Navy stand in the forefront of our Nation’s defense and in helping others around the world. Fighting against the Islamic State, Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations, attempting to bring stability to Afghanistan and working with allies and partners around the world to secure the freedom of the seas against pirates and others who attempt to disrupt the commerce on which ours and the world’s economy depends.

That being said, the Navy is not primarily an instrument of war, but an instrument of maintaining the peace. Admiral Arleigh Burke said something incredibly important to understand why we have a navy and why those who serve as Naval officers must work to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without resorting to war: “For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.”

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Even so, the past fourteen years have not been good for the Navy nor for the country, and most of this happened before 2009. Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted, “On 9/11, 2001, the Navy stood at 316 ships. By 2008, after one of the great military buildups in American history, we were at 278 ships and had 49,000 fewer sailors.” During that time the United States embroiled itself in ground wars in which had no chance of succeeding, and in doing so hurt itself.

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The author on a boarding mission in the Persian Gulf, April 2002

Even so, the Navy still performs its duty, and I am still a part of it, though I serve in non-Navy Joint command.

President John F Kennedy said something that I fully agree, “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”

Like my father before me I can say that I am proud to have served and continue to serve in the United States Navy, because we are no matter what some may say or think, a global force for good.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, US Navy