Friday, June 29, 2018

JFK Visits Mexico, 1962

Fifty-six years ago today President Kennedy began his three-day state visit to Mexico.  He and Mrs. Kennedy were greeted by a tumultuous ticker tape parade in Mexico City. In addition to the typical luncheons and dinners, the president visited a housing project and participated in an early U.S. Independence Day celebration.  The mayor of Mexico City gave him the key to the city and made him an honorary citizen.  He promoted his hemispheric Alliance for Progress.

At a luncheon on May 29 President Kennedy said, “For Mexico and the United States share more than a common frontier.  We share a common heritage of revolution, a common dedication to liberty, a common determination to preserve in these great days the blessings of freedom and to extend its fruits to all.”

He added, “Two great and independent nations, united by hope instead of fear, are bound to have matters on which we must consult together, and are equally bound to discuss them in a frank and friendly manner, to agree where we can agree, to respect each others’ views where we disagree.  As co-tenants of the same great continent, we cannot meet our mutual needs in disarray, but working together we can face the future with confidence for there is much to be done in that future.”

Photograph of the president's welcome--it is ticker tape, not snow--is credited:  Robert Knudsen.  White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; public domain.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

Pearl S. Buck, one of America’s most distinguished novelists, was born on this day in 1892.  She spent much of her childhood in China and was a prolific writer on China and Asia. Perhaps best known for the novel “The Good Earth,” she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938
She also wrote about America and on the theme of democracy.  In essays that comprise a 1943 book, “Asia and Democracy”—coming at the midpoint of the second world war—she discusses the prospects for enlightened self-rule in Asia, but also touches on race relations in the United States.

As a Nobel laureate, she was invited to the White House in April 1962 for the dinner in which President and Mrs. Kennedy honored forty-nine Nobel Prize recipients.  That night she sat at the First Lady’s table in the Blue Room, next to astronaut John Glenn. Among the other luminaries at the table was Lester Pearson, Nobel Peace Prize winner and soon to be prime minister of Canada.

After dinner she spoke with President Kennedy about geopolitical issues in East Asia.  Asked what she thought about Japan helping to rebuild Korea, she was flummoxed, knowing the rocky historical relationship between the two countries.  She diplomatically offered to send him her upcoming book on Korea, a historical novel entitled “The Living Reed.”  The book was published in 1963 after the president’s death.

Pearl Buck also was a humanitarian, launching the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.  And she wrote a book about her daughter, who was afflicted with phenylketonuria, “The Child Who Never Grew,” which influenced Rose Kennedy in her relationship with her daughter Rosemary.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Homestead Act of 1862

The Homestead Act, a pivotal law which allowed for the disposal of western land, was enacted on May 20, 1862.  Coming during the Civil War, the Republican-controlled Congress was able to pursue a goal that had been thwarted by southern members, who were now gone.  This was part of a series of sweeping legislation which grew the federal government’s reach.

The law was shepherded through by one-term Speaker of the House Galusha Grow, who became known as the “Father of the Homestead Act.”  Grow represented a district in northeastern Pennsylvania and succeeded David Wilmot, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery on lands acquired during the Mexican War.  Land was a major focus of the national government during the antebellum period in economic terms, on the expansion of slavery, and its impact  on the political calculus.

I have a foxed copy of a book which would have been used by potential homesteaders in the immediate aftermath of the 1862 law.  How to Get a Farm, and Where to Find One provides 345 pages of guidance on how to navigate through the world of acquiring a farm. 

The author, James Miller, warns about legislation such as the Morrill Act, which provided for land-grant colleges, have a harmful potential, quoting one member of Congress:  “Every day witnesses the birth of new projects, by which our public lands may be frittered away, and the beneficent policy of the Homestead Law mutilated and destroyed.”  Fortunately, Miller says, there are strategies “to obtain the greatest number of acres for the smallest amount of money.”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1929-1994

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died in on this day twenty-four years ago, effectively putting a final bookend on the Camelot era. He was sixty-four years old.  Her fashion style and grace were an integral part of the Kennedy years, but her work in restoring and upgrading the artistic grandeur of the White House was her more enduring legacy.

During her years as first lady, 1961 to 1963, she established the office of White House curator, formed a Fine Arts Committee of art connoisseurs and historians to track down original White House art and furnishings, launched the White House Historical Association, and created a White House guidebook. 

She was especially noted for her CBS-televised tour of the White House on Valentine’s Day 1962 in which he explained many of the changes that she had undertaken.  For her role in this documentary, which was the first on television for a woman, she was awarded an Emmy.

In her post-presidential years, she remarried, was chased by paparazzi and reluctantly the focus of the media.  But she also was a successful editor at Viking Press and then Doubleday, bringing books from a diverse group of writers to publication, and also helped to save Grand Central Station in New York City from the wrecking ball.

While other first ladies had different focuses during their White House years—some of which were especially noteworthy—Jackie Kennedy retains a special place in twentieth-century American presidential history.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Brown v. Board of Education: May 17, 1954

One of the landmark Supreme Court decisions of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, was handed down on May 17, 1954.  Striking down separate but equal facilities, the decision had far-reaching effects. 

And yet implementation was slow, and southern states adopted measures to impede the directive.  Especially strong was the organized effort in Virginia, where a massive resistance initiative was led by Harry F. Byrd, the state’s senior U.S. senator.  The Prince Edward County public schools in southcentral Virginia shut down operations for a decade to avoid complying with the Supreme Court ruling to integrate.

I have been researching James Baldwin—for both my current and next book—and he had a skeptical assessment of the decision.   In his book The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, he judged Brown to be motivated by geopolitics rather than on issues of equality. 

He said, “White Americans have contented themselves with gestures that are now described as ‘tokenism.’  Perhaps.  It all depends on how one reads the word ‘progress.’  Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters.”

Among the notable people involved in Brown was Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer for the NAACP, a plaintiff, who went on to be appointed as the first African-American on the Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower was cool to the idea of integration and had actually lobbied against the plaintiffs with Chief Justice Earl Warren; the ruling, however, was unanimous. 

The “Brown” in the decision was Oliver Brown, the father of Linda Brown, who attempted to be the first African-American to attend an elementary school in the Kansas state capital.  Ironically, the school, Sumner Elementary School, was launched to educate African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Linda Brown died two months ago at the age of 75.