I would be remiss if I let 22 November pass unnoticed. It is St Cecelia’s Day. Cecelia was a young woman martyred in Second Century Rome, who sang while her executioners went about their business. She is now the patron saint of musicians. Given the importance of music in the Catholic tradition, it is a special day. Starting in the Sixteenth Century, the Protestants, beset with the graven image hang-up, allowed church music to flourish. We have Buxtehude, Bach, Handel, Mendelsohn from their side of the Christian house to enrich us. My sister, a church organist, would take my cousin Annette to the Cathedral for the St Cecelia’s Day Concert. It was Annette’s only predictable foray inside the walls of a church, an illustration of the maxim quality over quantity.
Jumping over the centuries, we come to November, 1963. On 2 November, 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem was taken from the Cathedral in Saigon where he was attending the All Souls Day Mass and murdered in a coup d’etat. The coup, we were to learn, was staged with the approval of the U. S. Department of State. It seems the pezzo novante (big shots) at State didn’t care for how Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the lawful leaders of the South Vietnamese government, were conducting the war. They proceeded to fabricate allegations of corruption against them and found men willing to depose and murder them. The success of the war against the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas did not improve after the coup. The war “escalated”, to use a contemporary term. After the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, Laotions, and Cambodians and thousands of Americans, we have the state of affairs that exists today. In a well-documented book The Lost Mandate Of Heaven (Ignatius Press, 2015), Geoffrey Shaw, PhD, tells the story of Diem’s murder. The U.S. government does not come off too well. Suffice it to say fundamental cultural insensitivity toward statecraft from the Confucian context of Diem prompted the coup.
Finally, one cloudy cold Friday in November, my Seventh Grade P.E. Class was playing soccer on the athletic field at Westhampton Junior High School, when Mrs. Aron, the Girls’ P.E. teacher, came charging out. We learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Some kids cheered. Patriotism and respect for authority were not the default settings, even then. The next few days brought a great period of mourning for the world. I remember the pictures of President de Gaulle of France at the funeral. Even the Russians were respectful; the Cold War forgotten for a few days at least.
The future of the country was changed by the killings of Diem and Kennedy. Kennedy’s death was viewed as a martyrdom for Civil Rights for Blacks. President Johnson used his incomparable political expertise to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. He had overwhelming Republican support for the Bill, true bipartisanship. 1964 brought the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which spawned the Congressional Resolution establishing the President’s right to expand the war in South Vietnam and all of Indochina. The Democratic landslide in the 1964 Presidential Election gave President Johnson the Congressional power and popular mandate he wanted to wage his War on Poverty and usher in his Great Society agenda. For good or ill we live with the legacy today.
In my life, the first outcome was school integration. Black children now attended a school close to where they lived rather than try to get to the nearest segregated school for blacks. The public accommodations section almost overnight changed Southern life. No more Jim Crow bathrooms, denial of access to restaurants and hotels for blacks. Today, when I go into Cracker Barrel and the patrons are split almost equally black and white, I wonder what the controversy was about in the first place. I could have told you even in 1964 both communities like the same food.
My life from 1969 through 1973 was dictated by the Vietnam War I turned 18 the day Nixon was inaugurated because January 20 fell on a Sunday that year. I registered for the draft and received a student deferment. The draft lottery system was introduced subsequently. My number was 129 and that was high enough to keep me from being drafted. We never questioned what might have been, had the 1963 coup never been attempted.