JFK's Last Veterans Day

In 1963, Veterans Day fell on November 11 and ceremonies throughout the country were held in remembrance of those who had fought throughout American history in defense of democracy and freedom. Flags were flown, wreaths were placed at the base of monuments and head bowed as prayers were said. And in commemoration of that day, President John F. Kennedy issued the requisite proclamation requesting public observances in honor of those who had answered their country’s call in times of peril. Being a veteran of World War II himself (a naval lieutenant, junior-grade), having seen service in the Pacific aboard PT 109 in the Solomon Islands, the president knew of which he spoke; like millions of his fellow Americans, he knew all too well the demands and the cost of wartime service. To him, it was more than just a “legal holiday.”

In his proclamation, President Kennedy said: “This day has an important dual significance in that it gives each one of us an opportunity both to honor the dedicated men and women of all races and religious beliefs who have honorably served in our armed forces in time of war, and to reemphasize our determination to achieve world peace with patience, perseverance and courage.”

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President Kennedy knew personally what war was and what it meant, for he had seen many of his comrades die in World War II. Indeed, two of the men who served under him in the Pacific on that August night in 1943 perished when the Japanese destroyer, the Amagiri, rammed into PT 109 and sliced it in half, resulting in the deaths and leaving Kennedy and the rest of his crew stranded until they would be rescued a week later, thanks to a message carved into a coconut and the assistance of local native islanders and an alert Australian scout. At every stage of his subsequent political career in the Cold War era, he was all too aware of the dangers of war and the demands of peace. Like many of his fellow servicemen, he was sobered by those realizations and like them, he entered political life determined to do what he could to foster a peaceful existence in an all too hostile and uncertain world.

At another time, another president, Woodrow Wilson, would declare the conflict that broke out in Europe in 1914—which ultimately became known as World War I and had resulted in American participation in it—as “the war to end all wars.” Sadly, that did not turn out to be the case, given the wars and conflicts that followed long after. It would be the experience of that war and whose subsequent peace would break him and his ideals of a world body dedicated to fostering peace and concord; and it would take many years later for that ideal to take fruition under other presidents after another and more calamitous world war. But in 1921—on November 11, then known as Armistice Day—while America was still trying to recover from that conflict, it took time out to pause to remember that wartime service of so many people and in particular, of one unknown soldier.

On November 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding went to Arlington National Cemetery to dedicate a memorial that was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was a marble sarcophagus which held the remains of a World War I soldier who could not be identified. That soldier was buried there after a public funeral in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, with all the pomp and circumstance that would have befitted a funeral of a president of the United States. In subsequent years, the remains of other unknown soldiers of other American wars would also be buried there. They would all be unknown, but as the saying poignantly goes—“they are unknown but to God.” 

And so, as every subsequent president had since then, President Kennedy in November 1963 went to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the annual memorial ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a beautiful fall day when he went there and on a whim, he had decided to take his young son and namesake with him.  In an otherwise solemn day, there was a whimsical moment (when the ceremonies were concluded) when the son (dressed in a white jacket, sky-blue short pants and red shoes), marched up to his father, and grasped his leg in affection and tenderness. When the son marched, he did so with his hands behind his back, as a token of politeness his mother had taught him (and also as a means of keeping his legendary fidgetiness under control). The little boy who loved playing soldier marched up to his father who had once been a real one and whose job (among others) was as Commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. Both father and son smiled at each other in that moment, amidst the historical pageantry of a solemn day. And in another unscripted instance, President Kennedy surveyed the loveliness of the solemn scene, amid the acres of green grass that was the final resting place of so many. He turned to a congressman who stood next to him and remarked: “This is one of the really beautiful places on earth. I could stay here forever.” 

John F. Kennedy could not have known it that day, but in a little more than two weeks later after he make that statement and admired the peaceful stillness of that landscape, he, too, would be buried there—forever—amongst fellow veterans, on a slope not far from the historic Custis-Lee Mansion, his work for peace unfinished.

For most of his life, President Kennedy was haunted by the specter of death and war. He was well acquainted with it in his military and political life—and through his studies in reading histories and biographies. It was through the experience of his presidency that he came to really understand the import of it all and of the significance of the responsibility that of what he had to shoulder. To appropriate what he had declared in his Inaugural Address, he did not “shirk it, but welcomed it.” He would come to appreciate how different campaigning for high office was from actually holding high office and dealing with the problems and worries that came across his desk in the Oval Office. The years of his presidency made that clear and when the Veterans Day of 1963 came about, he looked over those fields and surely thought about that work that can never be finished, the work of peace.

He spoke and thought often about those matters, about our lives in war and in peace. As he said in his proclamation for Veterans Day, 1963, we need to “reemphasize our determination to achieve world peace with patience, perseverance and courage.” He was very much aware that the work of peace is a multi-faceted project that is far from easy, but very much necessary. For he had also said: “Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort, to continual sacrifice and the willingness, if necessary, to die in its defense.”

These are words worth pondering now, all these years later, on this Veterans Day, when we fly our flags, lay our wreaths and say our prayers. Democracy is “never a final achievement,” as he had said then. But then, neither is peace. As JFK would surely recognize—and appreciate—both are works in progress.

 

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