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The Kennedy Assassination and the World of 50 Years Ago

November 29, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

1963 seems a long time ago (on Maui, the Royal Lahaina had opened a year before, and the Sheraton Maui's opening would trigger the Ka'anapali resort development, along with the golf course), barely a few years in Hawai’i after the political struggle for Statehood and not even a year had passed for newly-elected State Governor John A. Burns, yet as I viewed over-and-over the old black-and-white news broadcasts during CNN’s television program of the climatic 50-year old events in Dallas, Texas, the world of 1963 is reminiscent of our current period and another world far in the past.

First, played over and over is the central downtown Dallas image of the motorcade: a series of cars, one the “open” Presidential Lincoln Continental limousine with President John F. Kennedy, his spouse “Jackie”, Texas Governor John Connally, his spouse Nellie, and driver. Large limousines are still around, ferrying dignitaries to conferences, and even ordinary people now drive around in huge SUVs, unknown in American cities of the 1960s. Gasoline (leaded) cost only 31 cents in 1963 and nobody thought about gasoline shortages. In the 1960s many people probably assumed by the 2000s the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine would be replaced by EVs and other “clean” sources, but in 2013 throughout the world our vehicles are closer to the Fords and Lincoln Continentals (except for a lot of electronics, yet the gas mileage has not improved exponentially) in the Dallas motorcade. Of course, after the Kennedy assassination, the presidential limousines were entirely encased in steel and bullet-proof armor-plating, and zipped past crowds in a blur, and we never see our leaders close-up any more.

The other image I found interesting on live television was of broadcast journalists holding one or even two telephones close to their ears. No lightweight mobile phones existed back then, only ham radios (in homes) and police/truckers’ analog radio (some radio slang still are with us, like “Ten Four” even though very few of us have used a radio microphone). Not until the mid-to-late 1990s did mobile phones become prevalent globally in Europe, U.S., and Japan (one true story is a leading consulting firm advised AT&T that mobile phones would not become a big business for decades, so AT&T did not invest in a network, and later had to buy out another competitor – a former cable-TV operator named Craig McCaw).

Of course no one had laptops nor did anybody have a backpack (recall the “Back To The Future” movie series, and the funny historical jokes, like actor Ronald Reagan elected president, skateboards, and “Pepsi Free” brand). Probably the most sophisticated electronic devices one carried in 1963 was an advanced calculator – but even into the 1970s engineering students carried slide rules, a hand-held mechanical analog computer, predating the electronic HP battery-powered calculators. 1960s students memorized tables, scientific definitions, even long poems – very different from today, since with a few key strokes on an Ipad computer a student can have an overwhelming amount of background and data points (you would expect a “flattening” of educated people globally, or in other ways, there won’t be much difference among students studying the same subjects in Kahului, Singapore, New York and Baton Rouge, but alas, it isn’t that simple).

The other sartorial time-dated image I discerned during the CNN program was the hats men wore, even indoors, everywhere. Dallas policemen in suits wore huge white cowboy hats. Many men wore suits and very few had moustaches or beards. Probably except for a few grizzled Navy veterans, the vast majority of American men did not have tattoos (women in the 1960s never had tattoos, except for few artists in San Francisco, and the explosion of women and tattoo-ing did not occur until the early 2000s – now at malls during hot days, one sees elaborate tattoos on both sexes, everywhere).

Also, I was struck by the lack of women and minorities as television announcers. An African-American man was interviewed once, and he lived in a state with miscegenation laws on the books.

The other startling image on television was the number of people smoking – anywhere, any time. I can recall my father smoking cigarettes, and I understand now how all-persuasive cigarettes (and even cigars and pipes) were lit up by even television broadcasters, policemen, and right on television talk shows (an assassination critic smokes a pipe in front of a younger Merv Griffin – and after years of anti-smoking education, I suddenly felt as if there were people injecting heroin live on television).

Overall, the grimy, fuzzy black-and-white images reveal the 1960s as probably the height of American economic and technological power – the standard of living was unparalleled in the history of the world. Americans lived in big homes, powered by cheap natural gas and oil or nuclear plants, had big cars, and enjoyed football on color television sets made by U.S. high tech leaders like RCA and Motorola (by the mid-1970s no American firm would be making consumer electronics).

U.S. armed forces had met with stalemate in Korea barely a decade earlier, but had recovered and had new lightweight infantry weapons, carriers, B-52s, enormous nuclear arsenal, and was ready to take on any enemy – yet the strategic planning was designed for a huge battle along the East German border against the Soviets, not guerillas in the jungles of Southeast Asia – and probably no one who was watching the terrible Dallas assassination had any inkling about the long divisive Vietnam War looming in the near-future.

The grimy television images are like a time-capsule, giving insights to an unbelievably sad period in American history.


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