March 21, 2016

“Life is unfair,” as President John F. Kennedy famously observed on this date…

Many people are familiar with the famous quotation by President John F. Kennedy, “Life is unfair.”

But few people today remember or know the context of this quote.

It was something he said, in part, with respect to what would become the Vietnam War.

In 1961, the newly-elected president decided to send more than a thousand American “military advisors” to South Vietnam, where the pro-Western regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem faced mounting threats from Communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese army.

In 1962, Kennedy increased the American presence in Vietnam to nearly 10,000 troops.

When Army reservists began being called up to serve there, after recently being stationed on another Cold War front in West Berlin, some complained that they had “done their time” and expressed their resentment by holding public demonstrations. One reservist even began a hunger strike.

President Kennedy was asked about this opposition during a press conference held on March 21, 1962.

He responded by saying that calling up the reservists “strengthened the foreign policy of the United States.”

After making this political point, Kennedy waxed philosophical.

“There is always inequity in life,” he said. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”

Since then, those last three words have often been quoted, generally without any context.

When put into the original context, this quote might not fit the liberal image of JFK that many people have.

In fact, Kennedy was a committed Cold Warrior. He essentially accepted the “Domino theory” articulated by his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and believed the spread of Communism needed to be stopped—by military means if necessary.

Thus, Kennedy shared Eisenhower’s concern that a potential takeover of South Vietnam by Communists could cause more “falling dominos” in Southeast Asia.

Eisenhower was the first president to send American servicemen to Vietnam. In the early 1950s, he sent a handful of U.S. “military advisors” there to aid France in its unsuccessful effort to keep Vietnam as a colony.

After the French were ousted and Vietnam was split into South and North Vietnam in 1954, Eisenhower sent more “military advisors” to help support Ngo Dinh Diem’s fledgling government in South Vietnam. But the numbers were still relatively small; from 750 to 1,500 U.S. servicemen between 1955 and 1960.

When Kennedy became president, he took more significant steps toward getting the U.S. entangled in what we now call the Vietnam War.

In 1961, he sent 3,200 American “military advisors” to South Vietnam. He increased that number in 1962. By the time of his assassination on November 22, 1963, Kennedy had sent a total of more than 16,000 U.S. servicemen to Vietnam and more than 100 had been killed.

Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Baines Johnson dramatically escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1968, LBJ had committed more than half a million US troops to the war.

When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, he began to withdraw American troops, pushed the South Vietnamese government to increasingly fight the war on its own and entered fruitless peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese.

Nixon resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford became president. By that time there were only a small number of American troops left in Vietnam. Most were there primarily to guard the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, bringing the Vietnam War to an ignominious end.

More than 58,000 American servicemen and women were killed during the course of the war.

Somewhere between 1 and 3 million North and South Vietnamese men, women and children were killed.

Ultimately, all of those deaths did not prevent Communists from controlling South Vietnam. Today, nobody in the U.S. seems to care that Vietnam is a Communist state.

Life, as President Kennedy noted, is unfair.

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March 11, 2016

On this date, “A Raisin in the Sun” exploded on Broadway

On March 11, 1959, the play A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry, premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.

It was the first Broadway play written by a black woman.

It was the first Broadway play directed by a black director, Lloyd Richards.

And, rather unexpectedly, Hansberry’s intimate story about hopes and troubles of “one Negro family” in segregated Southside Chicago was a critical and popular success.

The play significantly boosted the acting careers of cast members Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett, Jr. — who went on to star in the highly-praised film version.

It also made the phrase “a raisin in the sun” familiar to millions of people.

Hansberry didn’t coin the title of her play. She took it from a famous poem by a groundbreaking “Harlem Renaissance” poet and novelist she admired, Langston Hughes.

The poem was originally titled “Harlem.” But it’s sometimes referred to as “A Dream Deferred” — partly because one of the lines in it includes that memorable phrase and partly because it first appeared in 1951 in a collection of Hughes’ poetry titled Montage of a Dream Deferred.

Race relations in America have obviously improved since 1951. But “Harlem” still packs a wallop.

It’s short and full of potent imagery.
Here’s the complete poem:

          What happens to a dream deferred?

          Does it dry up
          like a raisin in the sun?
          Or fester like a sore —
          And then run?
          Does it stink like rotten meat?
          Or crust and sugar over —
          like a syrupy sweet?

          Maybe it just sags
          like a heavy load.

          Or does it explode?

Although Lorraine Hansberry didn’t coin the phrase “a raisin in the sun,” she did create an equally famous one before her untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 1965.

The year before she died, Hansberry was invited to be a speaker at a ceremony honoring a group of bright, young African-Americans who had won a creative writing contest sponsored by the United Negro College Fund and Readers Digest.

Hansberry gave a brief, moving speech at that ceremony on May 1, 1964. In it, she coined the phrase “to be young, gifted, and black.”

“Apart from anything else,” Hansberry told the young writers, “I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted, and black. In the month of May in the year 1964, I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be…The Negro writer stands surrounded by the whirling elements of this world. He stands neither on a fringe nor utterly involved: the prime observer waiting poised for inclusion…And that is why I say to you that, though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic — to be young, gifted, and black. Look at the work that awaits you! Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be — if there is to be a world. Write about all the things that men have written about since the beginning of writing and talking — but write to a point. Work hard at it, care about it. Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on begging for attention. Don't pass it up. Use it. Good luck to you. This Nation needs your gifts. Perfect them!”

In 1969, Hansberry’s ex-husband Robert Nemiroff used parts of her plays, speeches, essays, letters and unpublished works to create a play dramatizing her life. He titled it To Be Young, Gifted and Black and later published it as a book.

That year, Hansberry’s friend Nina Simone also released a stirring song that used the same title, which she wrote with musician and lyricist Weldon Irvine as a tribute to Hansberry.

“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” became Simone’s signature song and has been covered by many other great music artists, including Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Dionne Warwick.

In 2008, an African-American was elected President of the United States. In 2012, President Barack Obama was reelected for a second term.

Some of the credit for that highly visible sign of change surely goes to writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes, whose eloquent works helped raise awareness of and inspire the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

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March 06, 2016

“No rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued it’s controversial decision on Scott v. Sandford — generally referred to as “the Dred Scott case.”

The plaintiff, Dred Scott, was a slave purchased from the Blow family of St. Louis in 1831 by U.S. Army surgeon John Emerson.

Over the next 12 years, Emerson took Scott with him to various places where he was assigned. When Emerson died in 1843, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from the doctor’s widow, Irene. She denied his request.

So, in 1846, Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that Dr. Emerson had previously taken him to Illinois, where slavery was prohibited by state law, and to the Wisconsin Territory, where federal law prohibited slavery as part of the “Missouri Compromise” in 1820.

Scott lost in his first trial, then won in a second — only to have that decision overturned by the Missouri State Supreme Court. In 1854, with the help of local abolitionists, Scott filed suit in Federal Court against John Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and executor of the Emerson estate.

When that case was decided in favor of Sanford, Scott and his allies appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The infamous, oft-quoted conclusion of the Supreme Court’s decision, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was that current or former slaves and their descendants had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Taney wrote in the majority decision:

“In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument...They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit."

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case was among the most consequential in American history and key aspects of it are ironic in hindsight.

One irony is that the decision was not just a blow against the rights of blacks. It was also a blow to states rights, a principle often espoused by Southern states to justify slavery and oppose federal civil rights laws.

In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court concluded that, under the U.S. Constitution, states had no right prohibit slavery. Many people on both sides of the slavery debate had hoped the Court’s decision would resolve the issue. Instead, it had the opposite effect. It made that issue hotter than ever and helped propel the country into a civil war that turned the temporary legal win of slaveholders into a final defeat.

The grave implications of the Dred Scott decision were clear to Abraham Lincoln. They were the main focus of his famous “House Divided” speech on June 16, 1858, at the Illinois Republican convention in Springfield, Illinois.

In that speech, Lincoln warned that the Court’s decision took away the rights of states to make their own decisions and would eventually force the legalization of slavery throughout the country.

“What Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free State of Illinois,” Lincoln said, “every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free State.”

Using a quote from the Bible, Lincoln also made a famous, correct prediction:

‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.”

After the South lost the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision was nullified by the Thirteenth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially prohibited slavery nationwide and granted citizenship to former slaves. Dred Scott didn’t live to see those great legal victories. However, he did enjoy a brief period of freedom.

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision in 1857, Irene Emerson’s second husband convinced her to return ownership of Scott to the Blow family in St. Louis.

The head of the family at that time was Missouri Congressman Henry Taylor Blow, a strong opponent of slavery.

On May 26, 1857, Blow gave Scott his freedom — which was allowed under Missouri law despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that states could not prohibit slavery.

Once freed, Scott got a job working as a hotel porter in St. Louis.

A little over a year later, on September 17, 1858, he died from tuberculosis.

Today, his body lies in a grave in the Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. For many years, it has been a local tradition to place Lincoln pennies on his headstone. Often, the pennies overflow and fall next to the commemorative marker on the ground, which says:


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