Certain momentous events “shock” the American public. They were generally unexpected, sudden, and had a significant impact on the country. Pearl Harbor was one of the big shocks of the 20th century, resulting in the United States entering World War II. It was a defining moment for my parents’ generation. The terrorist attacks on September 11 were significant shocks of a very young 21st century, and resulted in domestic and overseas initiatives by the United States. I have lived through a number of shocks in the second half of the 20th century, which I will recount before giving my recollection of what happened on September 11, 2001 as we approach the tenth anniversary of those terrible events.
The first shock I can remember as a child is the launching of the first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957. When Sputnik was successfully placed in an orbit around the earth, Americans kept asking, “How could the Soviet Union beat us?” There was much soul-searching and angst. What was wrong with our educational system that the relatively unsophisticated Soviet Union could beat us into outer space? The result was an intensified emphasis on improving American education, especially in the sciences, and increased spending on our space program. Ultimately we were the first to land a man on the moon in July 1969, one of the few positive events from the 1960s.
The JFK Assassination
Speaking of the 1960s, the next major shock, which was the defining moment for the boomer generation, was the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Anybody over the age of 6 at the time remembers where he or she was when he heard the news that the President had been shot. Everybody remembers being glued to the TV for the next several days as events unfolded: the swearing in of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged assassin), the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on live TV, and the funeral of the President on that Monday. The nation was in shock, and realized that the end of an era had come.
Cuban Missile Crisis
An earlier event, while not a shock as I am defining it, was something that had the whole nation on edge and was perhaps a defining moment in US-Soviet relations. It was the Cuban missile crisis. It was a shock in that we saw the real possibility of having Soviet nuclear missiles right off our shores. This gave us a heightened awareness of our vulnerability to missile attack. After President Kennedy addressed the nation on TV about the crisis and the actions we were taking, we all went to bed not knowing if we would wake up to a war.
1968 – A Year to Forget
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the nation experienced a series of shocks in 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the former president’s brother, was shot and killed in Los Angeles while campaigning for the Democratic presidential primary. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader, was shot and killed in Memphis. This sparked several days of serious rioting in many of our major cities, including Los Angeles (Watts section), Baltimore (where I was living at the time), Washington, and Detroit. With the assassinations and riots, it seemed the country was sinking into anarchy and had many people worried about the direction our society was taking.
To make matters worse in 1968 (an already disastrous year), a small spy ship, the U.S.S. Pueblo, was attacked and captured by the North Koreans in international waters. Its crew surrendered without a fight, valuable papers and equipment were captured by a hostile nation, and the crew was taken prisoner for an extended period of time. The United States was humiliated by this incident, and was shown that the mighty United States can be humbled by even a minor-league country such as North Korea. It is interesting to note that 33 years later, in the unfortunate year of 2001, the Chinese government did something similar with a U.S. spy plane flying over international waters.
Another incident in 1968 was the events at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the convention hall and were brutally attacked by the Chicago police. Having seen images of peaceful anti-segregation protesters in the South being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs, it was a further shock to the nation to see the Chicago demonstrators so viciously attacked. Overall, 1968 was not a good year in the history of the nation.