Post by Peter Boyle
There were 1,036 days in the presidency of John F. Kennedy. This is the story of two of them that changed history forever.
Two Days In June: John F. Kennedy And The 48 Hours That Made History by Ottawa-based writer Andrew Cohen is a dense, sometimes joyful, sometimes bored, but constantly energetic book. Cohen chronicles two pivotal speeches that President Kennedy made in 1963. His June 10 speech which led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and his June 11 speech that opened the way to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
How did Kennedy do it? It is a combination of talent and luck. Maybe he felt that his star was burning too fast to remain lighted and knew his time was short.
As the story begins, President Kennedy is flying from Hawaii to Washington. The details of the flight are presented right down to the degree of turbulence felt and the patches of fog and haze. We see a plane; with the most advanced technology that existed at the time, the presidential traveler is connected by phone to Paris. Humorously, it is a wrong number.
The book’s opening is like the James Bond films that Kennedy likes. The world’s most powerful man in his technological marvel. When JFK arrives in Washington he has had few hours to sleep. Like Lester B. Pearson of Canada in the 1960s, the president was possessed of great stamina and desire.
A unifying question in North America is what event stands out in our collective memory, and where were you when it occurred? Surely anyone in attendance at American University on June 10, 1963 remembers that time and place. History was made in an instant, rather than contrived beforehand in publicity departments. Kennedy saw a chance and nailed it, like a great goal scorer and quarterback. A brilliant man.
Cohen’s gift for writing separates this book from its contemporaries. Consider the sentence describing the scene before the June 10 speech: “Commencement took place on a playing field under a troublesome sun amid wilting ruffles and fading flourishes.” The author’s skill with words and positive joy with his assignment touch the reader’s ear. His talent takes your breath away.
What is admirable about Kennedy is that he is extolling the virtues of peace rather than its opposite. This is the trickier appeal. Easier to whip a crowd into a frenzy by waving a sword than an olive branch. Like Pearson, Kennedy had fought in a war and he knew its cost. Selling peace with Russia to both sides of the argument is what made this first speech relevant. Even in 1963, and across eight time zones, the speech ran the following morning in Izvestia.
The civil rights speech on June 11 was astonishing for the events that immediately preceded it. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Qu?ng ??c burned him himself to death on the same day to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. That this tragic event took place during a telephone conversation over breakfast between Robert and John Kennedy forms the moral axis and dilemma of the United States and the world. It is the best section of the book.
“If living with pain was the art of being John F. Kennedy, denying it was the artifice”, writes Cohen. The relevance of Kennedy’s civil rights speech is pertinent today. Recent events in Baltimore reflect this.
Cohen’s book, like the two speeches it chronicles, needs to reach a wide audience. For years, Cohen has warned about the decay of Canada in the foreign service. With delicate consternation he reminds Canadians of our roots, how we became an important power in the latter part of the 2oth century, and not to take that privilege for granted.
“Presidential speeches are often no more than promissory notes, as worthless as junk bonds,” writes Cohen. “At their best, they carry the full faith and credit of the man who makes them in the confidence that something will come of them. Here, something did.”