As I’ve read the papers from the Kennedy era, I have been reminded again and again of my mother’s statement, “It was the spirit of the time. You wanted to serve.” These were the days of one of Kennedy’s greatest legacies, the Peace Corps, and the consolidation of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
As JFK said in the penultimate statement of his inaugural address, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” The energies and resources — intellectual, economic, political and military — of the U.S, it was being proclaimed, must not be spent merely for the country’s own welfare, but the building of the world.
Policies with unintended consequences arose from that ideal, to be sure. But what I have found most compelling about the contemporary record of those times was the attitudes of the people it presented for the public’s consumption. Dozens of local families opened their homes to members of delegations from developing countries — whether recovering from the ravages of the war in Europe or from non-Western nations — who came to the U.S. to study our educational system, agricultural practices, business models, scientific and engineering innovations, local government institutions, and our open society and culture. The level of American prestige in the early 1960s is stunning to a post-9/11 reader and passionate, if amateur, student of history. Likewise, people from central New York colleges, universities and high schools traveled abroad to learn about the societies that looked to the U.S. for guidance and assistance in building democratic societies supported by an educated population.
Granted, many of the policies and programs that came into being during JFK’s administration still exist, or have evolved into even larger, more ambitious ones. But what differs is the public enthusiasm for them, and this is telling of how Americans see themselves within our own society and in the world. A sense of collective responsibility for our fellow citizens of our own country and of the world has withered, and what remains is a fearful rancor and resentment of human need. The shared interest in attaining social ideals has been largely replaced, it seems, by an individualistic quest for gratification.
As I prepare to change jobs and serve as a substitute teacher, I consider that, above all, what I am nostalgic for is the faith that people are better working together for a vision than they are alone, fending off the wolves at the door.
SHIRLEY O’SHEA is an Oneonta resident and freelance contributor to The Daily Star.