We had never realized they were so close, these two anniversaries that bring thoughts of two slain presidents, the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address two days ago and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy today.
About the address we do not believe what Sen. Charles Sumner said when he eulogized the dead president in 1865, that “The battle itself was less important than the speech.” But Mr. Lincoln’s brief remarks brought into focus the issues of his day, and the issues of Mr. Kennedy’s day, and just perhaps the issues of our own.
President Lincoln was the chief executive of a country divided in two, a country whose citizens were so far apart on fundamental beliefs that the southern half was willing to cleave itself from the northern half and declaring itself independent, leading the president to wonder if a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could survive.
The issue was real and relevant. In the cemetery Lincoln was to dedicate were interred the remains of the casualties of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Nor was there hope in sight for the lessening of hostilities. Already the country had seen Shiloh and Antietam. In the brief months since the battle at Gettysburg, there had been Chickamauga. Still to come were Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Battle of the Wilderness and the horror of Gen. William T. Sherman’s march to the sea. For the future foreseeable to Mr. Lincoln and the others gathered in that cold and lonely spot, the survival of such a nation would have seemed very unsure indeed.
And so it was also for President Kennedy, although many remember it differently.
On the morning 50 years ago when Mr. Kennedy flew to Texas, the shimmering promise of Camelot was answered by the cold reality of one war gearing up in Southeast Asia and another set to explode in the cities of America. The seeds of the violence of the 1960s already were sown; the first cracks in the social fracturing had occurred.
In May 1962, Mr. Kennedy already had begun the build-up of troops in Southeast Asia, and just three weeks before his trip to Dallas, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a coup. The first names that would be carved into the Vietnam Memorial already had been written in time, but the largest part of 58,000 names were not yet known nor were the battles in which they died and killed, including the Tet offensive and the My Lai Massacre.
At home, Rosa Parks had long since refused to move back on a Montgomery, Ala., bus; the buses had been boycotted, the lunch counters had been protested. Just three months before Dallas, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Still ahead were Bloody Sunday, the Alabama church bombing, his trip to Memphis and what would have seemed that morning in Dallas an unimaginable number of assassinations.
Mr. Lincoln taking a quiet moment in a cemetery. Mr Kennedy embarking on a ride through Dallas.
We too live in a fractured time. The gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the enmity between liberal and conservative ever more rancorous. Rather than living in the “post-racial” world some predicted five years ago, we discover that racism finds new disguises, and peace remains elusive. Our schools, our businesses, our public events become scenes of horrific violence. How do we balance security and privacy? Where do our rights end and yours begin? How does a democracy so splintered heal itself?
In the end, we can do no more than Mr. Lincoln suggested 150 years ago.
It remains for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work of these slain presidents. And from them we must take “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. (We must) highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”