|Launch of the first American to orbit the Earth 1962|
More than that, at the age of 39, Gene Roddenberry was making a somewhat uncertain but still substantial living writing for television, a mass medium that hadn’t existed when he left for war in 1942.
America was a great deal different as well—it was prosperous, productive, more urban, and inundated with ever-changing technologies. If it did not entirely fulfill the future envisioned in the 1939 Fair, in many ways it had moved in its direction.
In the six years before 1953, there were more babies born than in the previous 30 years combined. That brought the US population from 123 million in 1930 to 160 million in 1953. Just seven years later in 1960, it was 180 million.
And the economic boom had not reached everyone. There was poverty that rivaled that of the Depression—in large swaths of Appalachia, other isolated rural areas and in growing slums in America’s largest cities. African-Americans did not benefit from some postwar federal programs that helped build suburbia, their segregated schools were often inferior, and they were often excluded from economic opportunities across the country as well as from voting booths and whites-only services in the South.
By 1960 a certain discontent was stirring, even in suburbia. It was even felt in Hollywood.
Even though he had come pretty far in a short time, Gene Roddenberry was feeling his own discontent. He’d become a very successful writer of television drama, particularly his scripts for one of the most popular and most literate westerns, Have Gun, Will Travel. One of his scripts won a Screenwriters Guild award.
But his imagination turned to developing ambitious new shows, often different from those on the air. Because television thrived on the next great idea, executives listened. But because television didn’t like risk, executives mostly said no.
For a British production company with international ambitions, he suggested a current affairs program to be called Controversy, and a sweeping documentary series based on H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.
Then under contract to Screen Gems for a hefty fee, he developed a dramatic series about members of the American military in the South Pacific during World War II. A pilot half-hour was made but didn’t sell. Still, there were a few character names that would stick, like Pike and Jellicoe, and a basic interplay of three characters: a leader and his two friends, one emotional, the other cerebral.
But at least at the periphery of his attention, there was something else happening that summer. The Democratic National Convention was coming to Los Angeles in July to nominate its presidential candidate.
This convention attracted a lot of interest because it really would be selecting the nominee—no candidate was coming to town with a sure majority. Contenders included Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, and former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had been the party nominee twice before, and twice defeated by General and then President Dwight Eisenhower.
But Eisenhower couldn’t run this time, and Stevenson was arriving with a groundswell of support, especially from party elders like Eleanor Roosevelt. As a native of Los Angeles, Stevenson was attracting local interest as well.
After PT-109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy led the surviving crew members in swimming to a remote island, towing one wounded man by means of a rope he held in his teeth. They were found after six days. His heroism helped get him elected to Congress and then the Senate.
But like Gene and many other veterans, Kennedy emerged from the war with mixed feelings and at times a low opinion of the military. Like Gene, his skepticism of superior officers had been fed by decisions that needlessly cost lives.
The drama began to unfold on July 11 in the Sports Arena Convention Hall. It climaxed two nights later when the tense and majestic roll call of the states went down the alphabet to Wyoming until the first ballot voting produced a majority for John F. Kennedy as the 1960 nominee.
It was the first of the speeches that created the Kennedy legend. In his own way, Roddenberry had learned the power of public words just the month before, when his statements as part of a Writers Guild panel made television industry news. Daily Variety quoted him as criticizing sponsor censorship of television scripts and even of casting (no African Americans were allowed to appear on a series depicting life on the Mississippi in 1860, he claimed.)
Kennedy of course was speaking on a larger stage, about the world in 1960 from the perspective of his generation. Roddenberry might well have been interested in what he said, since they suggest elements of what he would create in Star Trek.
But he also saw the start of a different future, led in part by new technologies and “a peaceful revolution for human rights—demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life.”
Both perils and opportunities required action. "Too many Americans have lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose,” Kennedy said. And in a call that would become a campaign theme: “ It is time, in short, for a new generation of leadership…"
"…we stand today on the edge of a new frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…"
"The new frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges…Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."
"…I believe the times demand invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that new frontier."
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”
He spoke of the future, and challenged the Soviet Union to join with the U.S. to “explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems that divide us…Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”
He pledged help for the world’s poor, “not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
He asked his fellow citizens to join him in “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
These idealistic goals were surrounded by pragmatic assessments and a caution: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he warned. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
Though the line that became a lasting soundbite (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) was also quoted often at the time, the immediate clarion call that electrified the country was expressed in those three words: Let us begin.
|Like GR, JFK loved to sail|
Members of Kennedy and Roddenberry’s generation flocked to Washington to be part of what quickly became known as the New Frontier. Soon members of an even younger generation were enlisting in the Peace Corps.
With the Kennedy style of wit and vigor (pronounced in his unique New Englandish accent as “vigah”), and the elevation of intellect and the arts, Washington became an exciting, glamorous, hopeful place.
Yet with all the utopian promise, there were apocalyptic moments: the disastrous attempted invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles; a crisis in Berlin that pitted JFK against the boisterous and mercurial Soviet Premier Khrushchev, warfare in southeast Asia, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the world came as close as it ever had to thermonuclear holocaust.
When American aircraft flying over Cuba photographed an installation of Soviet missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to all parts of the United States, and the Soviet ambassador denied their existence, President Kennedy revealed the evidence to the American public in a televised address.
He demanded the missiles and their not yet completed installations be removed immediately, and announced that U.S. naval forces would prevent any Soviet ships from bringing more missiles into Cuban ports.
At several points in the next 13 days, American and Soviet ships drew closer to a confrontation. This was the moment to which the Cold War and nuclear history since Hiroshima in 1945 had been leading.
The first atomic bomb leveled the city of Hiroshima and reduced human beings within a half mile radius of the blast to lumps of charcoal. As many as 75,000 people were killed by the bomb’s blast and fire, both of an intensity never experienced before on Earth. Three days later a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed 40,000.
The first reaction, even among policymakers and the military, was revulsion. "No one questions the vulnerability of mankind to the destructive effects of this devastating new weapon of war,” wrote retired Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, former Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet. “In fact it is such a destructive weapon that it should be outlawed in warfare, for the general use of it over any protracted period of time would spell the end of our civilization."
But attempts to outlaw the Bomb or place it under strict international controls fell quickly to accelerating events and reactions to them, as the Cold War began and as both sides sought supremacy in ever more powerful nuclear weapons, with ever more efficient and unstoppable ways of delivering those bombs to distant cities.
Meanwhile it became apparent that blast and fire were just the beginning of what atomic bombs did. Within five years, the death toll in Hiroshima more than doubled to 200,000, and an even greater proportion died in Nagasaki years after the blast. Atomic bombs released deadly radiation. Some illnesses from radiation were apparent within days and weeks, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years.
But the evidence of radiation effects accumulated and could no longer be ignored. By the mid-50s, there was strong evidence also of mutations in the next generation, including studies done on islands near Pacific test sites. Much of this was reported in newspapers, magazines and books.
By early 1953, 20 atomic bombs had been exploded in the Nevada desert. A seven year old boy 70 miles from Ground Zero died of leukemia, and "became possibly the first baby boom casualty of the atomic age."
But when questions arose, some officials and politicians were quick to accuse critics of being deluded or unpatriotic, showing weakness and division to the enemy. They might even be Communists themselves. The logic of the Cold War overrode objections.
“The fact that hydrogen bomb fallout could devastate entire territories was treated as a military secret, for it undercut prevailing ideas on nuclear war and civil defense,” writes Spencer Weart. “The government scarcely knew what to say to itself; let alone to the world public. In the absence of reliable facts, indeed with the world’s main source of atomic information largely discredited, anxieties could only continue to grow.”
The immensity of the dangers, the psychological impulse to repress thinking about them, and the political pressure to be silent, helps explain the sense of panic and frenzy beneath the bright facade of the 1950s.
But these anxieties got expressed in the arts, especially in the not quite respectable form of science fiction, and in sublimated and coded ways in the even less respectable form of pop culture, such as a popular 1950s genre: the monster movie.
Magazine science fiction stories dealt with the implications of atomic weapons since the 1940s. Such an approach reached movies in the 1950s, in a peculiarly haunting way.
Its 62 mile-wide mushroom cloud dropped radioactive dust on more than 7 thousand squares miles of the Pacific. Directly susceptible to this fallout were several small islands and more than a hundred fishing boats. One of these boats was the Lucky Dragon #5, from Japan.
By the time it returned to port two weeks later, some in the crew of 23 were covered with sores from burns, and many were suffering the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: nausea, bleeding gums, pain in their eyes, headaches. One crewman died.
Doctors and scientists in Japan immediately recognized the radiation effects. They had seen them before. They also measured excessive radiation in the fish aboard the Lucky Dragon and other boats, and this new threat caused panic in Japan that spread around the world. But US officials insisted that radiation from the Bomb test could not be responsible.
In its original form, Gojira would not be seen in the US for fifty years (just as the evidence that US officials were lying about radiation from this test would not be fully revealed for 30 years.)
But a version was made for the US market in 1956, using much of the monster footage but excising most of the Bomb references, and centering it on an American reporter played by Raymond Burr. That movie was called Godzilla. It was an immediate international hit, with sequels not yet ended.
American-made movies that illustrated the theme of radiation turning ordinary creatures into monsters became rampant in the 50s. One of the first and best was Them! (1954.) Set in the New Mexico desert, its protagonists gradually learn that Bomb tests have mutated a race of giant ants. It’s a tense drama that combines elements of detective stories with horror and science fiction.
Once the ants are defeated, one character asks: "If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb tests in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?" The elder scientist answers, "Nobody knows. When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world nobody can predict."
Fears of atomic attack and invasion from the skies were also reflected in a number of space alien invader movies, the best of which was the George Pal version of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.
It wasn’t until the end of the decade that a widely popular movie dealt directly with the consequences of nuclear war, in the quietly powerful On The Beach.
Such references happened in reality as well as monster movies. “For both those who had witnessed the first atomic detonation and those who had only heard about it, Spencer Weart writes, “the explosion served less to introduce new ideas than to bring ancient thought of apocalypse to new and vivid life.” According to sociologist Edward Shils, the atomic bomb brought the fear that the Biblical Apocalypse was at hand to society at large.
The Bomb made visions of the future seem preposterous. What future? The only future came from the Rand Corporation’s Herman Kahn, who measured tomorrows in "megadeaths." (His book On Thermonuclear War was published in 1960. Kahn was a chief model for Doctor Strangelove.)
This sense was especially acute among the young, wrote Jeff Nettall in Bomb Culture (1968). “They never knew a sense of the future.”
The causes of fear weren’t tangibly present, as in the Depression. It was an abrupt ending to come that seemed inevitable. For many, the future was not so much killed as simply disappearing.
So by the early 1960s, people lived with the possibility that, virtually without warning, they could be living their lives serenely one minute, and be sunk in unimaginable death and destruction the next, knowing that their fate was or would be shared by most of the world.
In the days following, President Kennedy spoke to intimates about how his thoughts kept returning to the impact of these decisions on the innocent children of the world, and the equally innocent future.
After that brush with oblivion, Kennedy took the initiative on two issues crucial to making the future better: internationally, to break the absolute us/them enmity with the Soviet Union and ease the world back from the brink of nuclear war, and nationally, to break the hypocritical barriers to racial equality with Civil Rights legislation.
Both sides had been testing powerful bombs, sending immense quantities of radiation around the world. Negotiations to limit this testing had stalled, and in June 1963, Kennedy decided to make it a public issue, in his commencement address at American University.
“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children,” he said. “Not merely peace for Americans, but peace for all men and women; not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.”
“Total war makes no sense,” Kennedy said, repeating the phrase several times, emphasizing devastation so extensive it would be visited on “generations yet unborn.” “I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men.”
“I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war,” he said. “But we have no more urgent task.” He rejected the charge that seeking peace was defeatist, but suggested that believing peace is impossible is the ultimate defeatism, because it means “that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. ”
Then he used the phrase that more than any other sums up the Kennedy faith: “Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man.”
In an era of demonizing the Soviet adversary, Kennedy called for realism (“However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors”) and empathy.
He honored the Russian people for their suffering in World War II, and subtly linked this theme with the effort to eliminate suffering in the world. Because of the arms race, Kennedy pointed out, both nations were “devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combating ignorance, poverty and disease.”
After complimenting the Soviet Union on its scientific accomplishments, Kennedy pointed out to the “ironical but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first twenty-four hours.”
The American University speech became instantly famous around the world. In England, the Manchester Guardian called it “one of the great state papers of American history.”
Negotiations moved swiftly forward. Some six weeks after the American University address, the nuclear test ban treaty was signed.
But the speech received little notice at first in the United States, partly because of an ongoing crisis: police violence against non-violent demonstrators and white rioting and firebombing in black neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama had pushed the civil rights struggle to a new level.
Then Alabama Governor George Wallace announced he would personally bar the admission of the first two black students to be enrolled at the University of Alabama under federal court order. The drama, which turned out to be little more than a ceremony of defiance for cameras, played out the day after JFK’s American University speech.
With little in the way of prepared text, President Kennedy delivered a speech on civil rights as perfectly timed and morally clear as he had the day before on world peace.
Equality is a moral issue “as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution….In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated…”
The day before he had urged empathy for the Soviet people; now he asked white Americans to imagine themselves in the place of black Americans. “Who among us then would be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”
Kennedy sent a Civil Rights bill to Congress, which eventually became the Voting Rights Act. But the nuclear test ban treaty still required Senate confirmation, and there was substantial opposition. Conservatives as well as prominent military figures were decrying it as a threat to national security. Kennedy invited public debate, “for the treaty is for all of us. It is particularly for our children and our grandchildren, who have no lobby here in Washington.”
His Civil Rights bill did not make it through Congress, but Kennedy had high hopes for it after he ran for reelection in 1964. He also planned to scale down the modest American involvement in Vietnam.
Among the accomplishments of the Kennedy years, the most obviously exciting were American successes in manned spaceflight.
Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom made the first suborbital jaunts into space in 1961, and in 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. They were greeted as national heroes.
Soon after Glenn’s three-orbit flight, President Kennedy committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon before the 60s were out. This would begin the Gemini and Apollo missions that landed American astronauts on the moon.
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment...And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas as his motorcade was leaving for the airport. In the national and global shock and grief that followed, it once again seemed to many that the future had died.
Without a leader, without a center or direction, the utopian enterprise seemed to recede, and in the turmoil of the mid 60s, to disappear. Once again there was the dread of a future out of control, heading for self-destruction.
In 1963, Gene Roddenberry was producing his first television series, The Lieutenant, set on a U.S. Marine base in peacetime, and shot at the real Camp Pendleton. It went on the air in September.
When the network refused to air the episode, he tipped off the NAACP. NBC aired the story but did not renew the series for another year.
A few months after Kennedy’s death—in March 1964-- Roddenberry wrote the outline for a new television series set in the future he called Star Trek.
It’s since been said that Kennedy influenced Roddenberry’s conception of Star Trek, but it’s often been in the context of characterizing Kennedy as a Cold Warrior. Yet reviewing these aspects of the JFK legacy suggests that Kennedy’s approach to war and peace, to space and technology, to human rights, human curiosity and the future, contributed much more to the soul of Star Trek and its characters and stories.
Kennedy’s faith—“Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man”—seems an apt description of Roddenberry’s faith, and an operating principle of the Star Trek universe.
While aspects of Captain Kirk may suggest JFK, isn’t it Mr. Spock who would be more likely to say this? “Total war makes no sense. I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men.”