Despite Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, life went on in rural America without a lot of change, in part because succeeding Presidents decided they could not ask Americans to sacrifice like they did in World War II. President Truman insisted Korea was a “police action” not a war. President Eisenhower sought the “middle way” through the ending of the Korean conflict, opposing the Soviet Union and beginning support of South Vietnam. President Johnson admitted that he wanted to have both “guns and butter,” meaning he wanted to prosecute the Vietnam War while still pursuing his domestic program dubbed the Great Society. And President Richard Nixon promised to return law and order to a deeply divided society, only to be forced from office for violating a series of laws in covering up Watergate during the 70s.
President John F. Kennedy was the only one over these two decades who challenged Americans to sacrifice. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said in inaugural address, “Ask what you can do for your country.”
Nebraska native Ted Sorensen was Kennedy’s speechwriter and has sometimes been credited with being the actual author of those words and Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. But Sorensen says, “He was accurate in thanking me for assembling and organizing material. I had a large role, but he was the author.”
Kennedy’s challenge created a spirit of idealism in young people in the early 60s. But his assassination in 1963 shocked and alienated vast numbers. His legacy lives on in “New Frontier” programs like the Peace Corps that, among other things, still works to bring modern agriculture to developing countries.
JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen (right) says it was tragic. “The assassination was tragic in so many ways … It cut him off and replaced him with a man who had no foreign policy experience and who took us in a different direction in Vietnam and otherwise. And it also robbed the country of a man who stood for hope … hope for young people who five years later were rioting.”
Throughout the 50s and 60s, residents of rural America watched with wary attention the world events that could affect them, educated their kids, kept up with the innovations in agriculture, struggled to keep family farms solvent and kept growing food for the world. They connected with the world through new, compelling mass media like television, and found escape from their problems with movies and new forms of music.
For instance, when the Korean War ended, Virgil Obermier wanted nothing more than to return home and get back to farming. He and his wife moved into “an old farmhouse with a space heater. No running water, nothing. We went up and looked at it, it didn’t have no kitchen cupboards or nothing. It was just an old bare house.” Despite spartan conditions and working in town to make ends meet, the Obermiers built up their dairy herd, raised three boys and retired relatively comfortably.