When The Best And The Brightest Were Young

She sits bestride the world like a Colossus," wrote the British historian Robert Payne after visiting America in 1948 and 1949. "No other power at any time in the world's history has possessed so varied or so great an influence on other nations.. . . Half the wealth of the world, more than half the productivity, nearly two thirds of the world's machines are concentrated in American hands; the rest of the world lies in the shadow of American industry. . ."

It was the generation that caught and rode the great wave of power in the postwar years as America became a Colossus: its members had been children during the Depression, had answered the call of duty during World War II, and many had come to their manhood during the war. Those who had survived the war were unusually confident of purpose, for they had just fought with the forces of democracy against the forces of darkness. They returned home to a level of prosperity that exceeded even their own most optimistic wartime dreams. America had become, as if overnight, rich and optimistic in a world that was poor and despairing. Not only had the nations of Europe inflicted suicidal war on each other twice within 20 years, but America in the postwar years had become the first great nation of what the Japanese intellectual Naohiro Amaya called the oil culture. It was an age so bountiful that ordinary workers had become for the first time consumers, and now lived as only a relatively small middle class had lived in the past.

That same revolution in mass production was taking place in other aspects of life: William Levitt had learned how to mass-produce houses much as Henry Ford had mass-produced cars. All of this energized the society. There had been political democracy in the past; now with the coming of the New Deal there was a greater sense of economic democracy. Suddenly ordinary young Americans, confident of the future, were living far better than their parents, becoming homeowners and soon owning as well in the process two and three cars.

Rarely had any nation attained such broad-based prosperity in such a short time. Yet it was a nation still caught in political shadows, some of them genuine, from the bitter problem of dealing with a divided Europe and a threatening Soviet Union, and some of them of our own making, as the leaders of one political party were scapegoated by the leaders of the other party for losing to the communist countries that were never ours to begin with. The coming of genuine internationalism to a country as big as America was easier said than done: not only were the architects of the postwar peace determined that the United States replace a diminished Great Britain in the postwar world order, but there was a certain technological inevitability to their vision: the events of Pearl Harbor and the existence of nuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles had ended any real possibility of postwar isolationism. Even so, there was much unresolved in American domestic politics. A large part of the country remained determinedly isolationist. Now, somewhat reluctantly and uneasily, it accepted a kind of bastardized compromise for internationalism: out of that compromise came an uneasy hybrid, composed of some parts of true internationalism and even larger parts of relentless anti-communism. Thus the politics of the nation were curiously anxious and uncertain.

John Kennedy represented the generation's first political manifestation. He had been elected in 1960 at the high-water mark of the postwar American abundance: the American economy seemed to be at the zenith of its dynamism after 15 years of unparalleled prosperity. The rest of the world had not yet begun to catch up economically, America was still virtually a monopoly company. Kennedy's election represented stunning generational change. He was 27 years younger than his predecessor, and the even more striking youth of his wife and his small children served to underscore the change taking place. More, it was not just Eisenhower whom he was replacing. Kennedy's youth and freshness seemed to stand in contrast to the other men who had for so long dominated the world scene, Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer, men who had come to their maturity during the first world war as Kennedy had come to his during the second war.

Kennedy was young, modern, cool and attractive, always in a rush, it seemed, a senator at 35, a ghost of a presence in the Senate-it bored him being one of 96-before he was out running for the presidency. He had campaigned briskly in the New Hampshire primaries without an overcoat (it was a clandestine operation of sorts, for he wore thermal underwear), the better to show off his youth and his vigor. The nation that summer and fall came to know him through the new magic of television. He had campaigned for the presidency with the expressed idea of running the country as a superpower, wanting to get it, as he said, moving again, as if somehow America had, during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, become old and dowdy and ground to a halt.

The man he had replaced was the last president born in the 19th century, a victor in the war that had turned America into a superpower. President in this age of affluence and modernity, his boyhood had begun in a starkly different time, in a small Midwestern town that had no sidewalks, no electric lights and no radios. Symbolically, Dwight Eisenhower had turned over power to his successor at the beginning of the jet age, but it was only a year earlier, at the age of 69, that he had taken his own first ride in a jet. If Kennedy came from an America that was a superpower and where people now spoke of "fast-track careers," then Eisenhower, though self-evidently one of the most talented men in the United States Army, had remained in grade as a major for 16 years without promotion in the long arid time between two wars. Yet he had his own optimism about this country and it came from watching America in his lifetime turn away from being a sleepy isolationist nation and become stronger, wealthier and more internationalist.

Kennedy came to power in America the affluent, one with ever-increasing amounts of disposable income; Eisenhower grew up in Abilene at a time when the keepers of the town's handful of shops ran them, Ike later noted, in the certitude that their customers came in to buy only what they needed and nothing more. Later in his life, with a little money in his pocket for the first time, Dwight Eisenhower became in the new wonderland of American shopping centers a consumer of legendary proportion, buying not just what he needed, but what he might one day need. In his 60s, he became the proverbial kid in the candy store.

The young president himself had run on the theme of getting America moving again and ending a missile gap, though in retrospect America seems to have been running reasonably well, the economy was unconscionably healthy and dramatic change in civil rights was beginning to take place, even if the president himself did not warmly sanction it. Kennedy's promise to end the missile gap was easy to keep since there was none. If the Democrats in the past had been accused of being soft on communism, then Kennedy had been tougher on the subject of Castro's Cuba than his opponent, Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy people (if not the president himself) were disdainful, unnecessarily so, about Eisenhower and his people. They regarded them as being old fogeys. The Kennedy game (other than touch football) was tennis, which was the activist game of the new meritocracy, while the Eisenhower game was golf, which was a game of older men who lacked the vigor of this new generation (the young president worked hard to conceal the fact that he was in fact an excellent golfer).

Rarely had members of a new administration borne such dazzling credentials and been so young. In this new modern age where the pace of life was ever quicker, careers were made more quickly. The men who had come to power with Kennedy, unlike their predecessors in the American foreign-policy establishment, served significantly shorter apprenticeships. Most of Kennedy's people were quick and bright and verbal. Their confidence and self-esteem, based on the success of America during the war, its affluence after the war, the ability of their candidate to defeat an opponent in a time of peace and prosperity and finally, the meteoric quality of their own careers, bordered on arrogance. The glitter of their resumes was more dazzling than their experience in the field. Told of how brilliant they all were by Lyndon Johnson, each, it appeared, more dazzling than the next, Sam Rayburn had remarked to his protege, "Well Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once."

They liked to think of themselves as hard-nosed realists and most assuredly their candidate had matched the Republican adversary in anti-communist rhetoric during the campaign. Unfortunately the rhetoric of both sides was excessive and had little in common with the reality of the world; typically the rhetoric exceeded the limits of American power. Neither party had the strength or the will to cap the dynamic of the all-purpose anticommunism of the domestic political debate; what had taken place in American politics was a kind of McCarthyism without McCarthy. The excessive rhetoric on Cuba got Kennedy in trouble almost immediately. Nor were the young president and his talented team ever able to talk candidly about China. Given the political climate of the day, they were not even able to exploit the major divisions taking place between the Russians and the Chinese, though they were obvious from 1960 on: monolith we said the communist world was, monolith therefore it had to be. In time, our rhetoric impaled us in an unwinnable war in Vietnam, and with that the chance of a generation to lead was effectively destroyed.

If that generation had come to power unusually optimistic about the future,, then the succeeding years were hard. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin King, the war in Vietnam, and the agony of Watergate wore it down. The optimism of the early civil-rights movement was lost among the cruel social realities of dealing with race in the inner cities. In time, power remained within the generation but passed from the liberals to the conservatives. The rest of the world began to catch up in terms of productivity. The Japanese began to make better cars. That generation that had once seemed so young came to seem old and now passes from power, handing the torch to a new generation led by a young man who was born in August 1946, not only after the second world war, but a year after the Hiroshima bomb.

When The Best And The Brightest Were Young | News