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"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
-- John F. Kennedy
In 1963, shortly after burying her husband, in an interview with Theodore White, Jacqueline Kennedy bestowed the epithet, “Camelot” on the Kennedy Presidency. She said that there would be “great Presidents again,” but never “another Camelot.”

On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President. The event was almost canceled as the capitol city was buried under eight inches of snow the night before. But the day itself was bright and sunny, although very cold. There was a vast crowd on the East Front of the Capitol. Robert Frost tried to read a poem written especially for the occasion, but the glare from the sun made him botch the reading -- so he recited from memory, “The Greatest Gift.” The oath was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren and for the first time in the nation’s history, the new President placed his hand on a Catholic Bible. The religion issue had been confronted directly by the candidate almost a year earlier in the primary election campaign in West Virginia. Kennedy had won that primary and that victory had launched him towards the Democratic nomination. But the election had been one of the closest in history. Kennedy was aware of his precarious claim to the nation’s leadership and saw the inaugural address as a critical launching point for his presidency. The address was 1,364 words long. It lasted for 14 minutes and was the fourth shortest in history. In the end, it was lauded by political supporters and opponents alike as “inspirational.” It was a call to a new generation -- “the torch has been passed.” And the enduring words, “ask not what your country can do for you” would be the lasting legacy of the JFK Presidency. It was a good beginning for “Camelot.”

When that Presidency reached its tragic end, that inaugural address and the youngest of our Presidents would take on mythic proportions. But in 1961, the Presidency of John Kennedy got off to a rocky start. The nation was still embroiled in a Cold War that was about to heat up. The President had been elected in a large part due to support from black voters in northern cities and a still solid Democratic south. Many African Americans saw a promise of progress in the new administration and patience in the civil rights movement would wear thin.

On April 15, 1961 bombing of air bases in Cuba began. On April 17, an army of Cuban revolutionaries that had been trained by the United States landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. A plan to overthrow Fidel Castro had been generated by the CIA during the Eisenhower administration. President Kennedy inherited the operation and went forward with it, making some changes. The plan was poorly executed -- the Cubans were well forewarned and even knew where the attack would take place. Fearing escalation of the combat, President Kennedy refused to commit U.S. aircraft to give support to the invading army. The result was an international embarrassment for the United States and a solidifying of the Cuban / Soviet alliance. President Kennedy took “sole responsibility for the events of the past days” while Soviet Premier Kruschev called the invasion “a crime which has revolted the whole world.” The issue of Cuba would remain at the forefront of international affairs for the Kennedy Presidency and even have links to his ultimate assassination.

Perhaps President Kennedy was deterred from a more aggressive U.S. move at the Bay of Pigs due to the high risk of nuclear war. The nuclear arms race accelerated in 1961. The Soviets had refused to stop their nuclear tests. When meeting with President Kennedy in Vienna in June, Premier Kruschev refused to discuss nuclear disarmament unless it was tied to general disarmament. On October 22nd of 1961, a 20 megaton nuclear device was exploded in the Soviet Union. On October 31, the Soviets exploded the largest nuclear bomb ever tested, a 50 megaton bomb. Fallout from the explosions would form a cloud from 100 to 150 miles wide and move at about 80 miles per hour. Within 36 hours, the shock wave had circled the earth. By the end of 1961, the United States had 18,638 nuclear bombs and the Soviets had 3,100.

1961 was also the year of the Berlin Wall. On August 13th, the East Germans closed the border between East and West Berlin. Since the conclusion of World War II, Germany had been divided; first by zones occupied by each of the allied forces, then into East and West. Under guidance by the United States, West Germany pursued a democratic system, while the Soviets guided East Germany to a Communist state. Other members of the Warsaw Pact (association of Eastern European Communist countries) encouraged East Germany to crack down on the exodus from Germany that they saw as an embarrassment. East Germany was also suffering a significant “brain drain” as the best and the brightest tended to seek higher paying jobs in the west (2,300 per day). The wall began as a string of barbed wire reinforced by armed tanks. The actual “wall” was begun on the 15th of August. Eventually a second wall was built, creating a “no man’s land” of approximately 100 meters between. Over the next 28 years an estimated 940 people would die attempting to escape East Germany, 270 of them in what was referred to as “the Death Strip” in the West (“no-man’s-land”).

How did President Kennedy respond to these Cold War threats? Having taken responsibility for the failure at the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy stubbornly proclaimed U.S. opposition to the Communist regime in Cuba. The President asked Congress for authority to activate reserve units and asked for a big boost in the defense budget. Faced with the repeated demonstrations of Soviet nuclear capability, Kennedy resumed U.S. underground nuclear tests. Faced with the crisis in Berlin, the official U.S. position was that the wall was was an “international fact of life” and the U.S., while decrying its purpose, would make no effort to prevent it from being built. President Kennedy made it clear that it was difficult enough to defend West Germany -- the U.S. would not extend its protection to East Berlin.

So, in balance, the new administration had been confronted with several international challenges and hadn’t responded in any way that would suggest Presidential greatness. And some would charge that these international setbacks set JFK up to be less than aggressive on the most significant domestic issue -- civil rights. Hardly “Camelot.”

The civil rights movement had regained momentum in 1960 with the use of the “sit-in” tactic. But by early 1961, that tactic had ceased to bring bold results and the movement was being pushed to the shadows of the nation’s collective consciousness. In an effort to rejuvenate the cause, a little known organization, the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) decided to re-institute an idea originally conceived in the late 1940’s -- a “freedom ride.” In 1946, the Supreme Court had declared segregation to be unconstitutional in any facility used for interstate transportation. In 1947, CORE planned a “Journey of Reconciliation” to test the case. A bus of interracial passengers would not follow the segregation rules. They were arrested in North Carolina and didn’t get any farther. On May 4th, a bus left Washington D.C., intending to travel across the deep south to arrive at New Orleans on May 17th. CORE leader, James Farmer said, “When we began the ride, I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us.” The first leg of the journey elicited only minor reactions, but when the riders crossed into Alabama, things changed. The depot in Anniston, Alabama had been closed in anticipation of the arrival of the freedom riders -- there were rumors that they were planning a “sit-in.” When the bus pulled into the station, there was an eerie silence that was suddenly broken when a mob attacked the bus with clubs, chains and metal pipes. The bus was smashed, windows shattered, and tires slashed. Eventually, the police showed up. They exchanged some small talk with the citizens and then cleared a path for the battered bus to exit. The bus made it to the edge of town before the flat tires forced it to the side of the road. While the driver went into a nearby grocery store to futilely try to get someone to come repair the tires, the mob caught up with the bus and began another attack. A flaming bundle of rags was propelled through a window and the bus burst into flames. Some in the mob tried to keep the riders pinned inside, but they managed to escape the bus, only to be beaten on the outside. Finally, an exploding fuel tank pushed back the mob and the arrival of a couple of highway patrol officers quelled the violence. The riders had difficulty getting medical attention. Nobody was arrested for the attack.

A second bus made it to Birmingham only to suffer a similar fate as the local police provided no protection and the riders were dragged from the bus and beaten. Alabama Governor, John Patterson proclaimed that “You just can’t guarantee the safety of a fool and that’s what these folks are, just fools.” The bus company couldn’t get any drivers, so the ride came to an end with the riders flying to New Orleans. But a group of students from Nashville decided to go to Birmingham to resume the ride. They believed that if the violence was allowed to stop the demonstration, that would become the prevailing strategy for maintaining the status quo in the south. With some pressure from Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, the Greyhound Bus Company finally agreed to let the riders use their bus. In Montgomery, Alabama, this group of riders met with the same fate as the others, being driven from the bus and beaten. This brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery and mass demonstrations in support of the riders. An angry mob surrounded the church and a disaster was avoided when Governor Patterson, encouraged by Robert Kennedy, finally sent in the National Guard and state police to disperse the mob.

The riders decided to continue into Mississippi and were successfully herded through the white terminal in Jackson. Then they were arrested. More riders came. More were arrested. Eventually 300 went to jail. Many served terms at infamous Parchman Prison in Mississippi.

Civil rights leaders who had hoped a Kennedy administration would push a civil rights agenda were disappointed. President Kennedy did not commit federal troops to support the freedom riders. He did not condemn the southern leaders who allowed the violence. He did not intervene in the arrest and jailing of the riders. In the middle of the crisis, Robert Kennedy had called for a “cooling down period.” James Farmer had responded, “we’ve been cooling down for 100 years.” Some believed the President saw the freedom riders as a source of embarrassment that made the United States look bad. In private, he was said to have described them as “a pain in the ass.” Hardly “Camelot.”

Thus, both at home and abroad, the Presidency of JFK in 1961 did not seem to be progressing to a "New Frontier." But there were bright moments. Immediately after his inauguration, President Kennedy held the first “live” press conference -- they would become a standard feature of his Presidency. On March 1st, the Peace Corps was established. President Kennedy committed the United States to a program of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Alan Sheppard became the first American to travel into space. However, Russian Yuri Gagarin had preceded him a month earlier, and actually orbited the earth. On a darker side, the number of U.S. “advisors” to Vietnam was increased to 18,000.

The bomb and the bombings made for a world where Americans sought escape via their television set. But according to FCC Chairman, Newton Minow, this was a bad thing, too. He proclaimed television a “vast wasteland.” But the public disagreed and wanted more of the same. The success of “77 Sunset Strip” spawned “Surfside 6” and “Hawaiian Eye.” “The Flintstones” spawned another animated prime time series, “Calvin and The Colonel” (but it only lasted a season). Huckleberry Hound spawned “Yogi Bear.” The “Dick Van Dyke Show” premiered, was canceled, and then was saved when Sheldon Leonard secured his own advertisers. It would go on to become one of the most honored situation comedies of all time.

Movies also presented some great escapist fare, especially the top Disney movies of the year, “The Parent Trap,” “101 Dalmations,” and “The Nutty Professor.” But movies also got serious with “Judgement at Nuremburg” and sexy with “La Dolce Vita.”

And exhibit “A” of American escapism in 1961 came from the music. This was the year of the twist. While Chubby Checker (and actually before him, Hank Ballard) had taken “The Twist” to #1 in 1960 as a teenage dance craze, it became an international phenomenon in 1961. Checker had another #1 song in January of ‘61 with “Pony Time” and placed “Let’s Twist Again” in the top ten in the summer. As the craze grew, “The Twist” was rereleased and it would climb to #1 again early in 1962. Adults had discovered the dance and were crowding into fashionable nightclubs to gyrate to the new sound. When Dick Clark was asked about the most influential song of rock and roll he astoundingly pointed to “The Twist.” Why? He explained that it was the record that legitimized rock and roll to the adult population.

Some things in 1961 gave us a glimpse of the future. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned us about the “military / industrial complex.” “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize. By the end of the century it would be a “must read” in high school Literature classes. The FCC okayed FM stereo broadcasting. General Maxwell Taylor returned from Vietnam and recommended more help be sent. Timothy Leary founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom to promote LSD research. The first black light was sold.

“MAD” magazine proclaimed 1961 the “upside - up” year. It was the first one since 1881. There wouldn’t be another until 6009. Elvis Presley performed a live concert at Pearl Harbor on March 25th to benefit the USS Arizona Memorial. Elvis wouldn't perform live again for another 8 years. Meg Ryan and Eddie Murphy were born. Ernest Hemingway and Gary Cooper died. Ray Kroc bought out the McDonald Brothers. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs. Adolf Eichman was sentenced to death. John, Paul, George and Pete met Brian Epstein and played for the first time in the Cavern Club as The Beatles. Barbie met Ken. Bob Dylan became the rage of the Village and signed with Columbia Records. Motown had its first million seller -- “Shop Around” by The Miracles. The Primes became The Temptations. The Primettes became The Supremes. Decca records auditioned The Beatles .... and rejected them.

Sprite competes with 7-Up. Joanie Sommers tells us “It’s Pepsi, for those who think young.” We see the first broadcast of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” We take our first Tylenol. We “sing along with Mitch.” It’s 1961.
Robert Frost at the Kennedy Inauguration
Cuban Counter Revolutionaries arrested during the Bay of Pigs invasion
The "Tsar Bomb" was the largest ever nuclear bomb to be detonated -- by the Soviets on October 30, 1961
President Kennedy met with Premier Kurschev in Vienna.
The building of the Berlin Wall
The "Freedom Rides" were an organized protest ride of mixed races from Washington D.C., across the south to Jacksonville, Mississippi (the original plan was to go to New Orleans).
A "Freedom Rider" bus was bombed in Anniston, Alabama
Stokely Carmichael and Margarent Leonard, two of "Freedom Riders" arrested in Jackson, Mississippi
President's press conference, April 21st, 1961
The Peace Corps was established in 1961.
Newton Minnow called television a "vast wasteland."
The Twist had a resurgence of popularity in 1961 and Chubby Checker capitalized with another top ten hit, "Let's Twist Again."
Mad Magazine cover March, 1961
The Beatles were appearing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
The Year