OPEN LETTER TO LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL'S CLASSES OF 2019 and 2069 by Marc C.. Laasko, LHS Class of 1969
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
When running for office, Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865), who later signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the South during the American Civil War on January 1, 1863, said: “Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Doing the right thing became the moral imperative of Lincoln’s presidency. Fighting for democracy itself as well as for a house united became Lincoln’s hallmark of fame, as indicated in his famous November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Address: “. . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Ultimately, Lincoln was responsible for upholding the union of the United States of America (U.S.A.), preventing foreign powers from fighting on the side of the Confederacy by using an embargo to keep the South’s cotton away from them, bringing slavery to an end in our country, beginning the end of the Southern plantation system, and opening the way for westward expansion. For those reasons, many people consider Lincoln to have been our country’s greatest president so far. Upon Lincoln’s death by assassination on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, said: “Now he belongs to the ages,” which is true because Lincoln’s accomplishments, words, and name are still alive long after his body has perished.
Four years after Lincoln’s death, a high school in Portland, Oregon, one of the first established west of the Mississippi River, would come to bear Abraham Lincoln’s name. One hundred and fifty years later, as the President of Lincoln High School’s centennial class, I have been asked: “What was life like for Lincoln High School (LHS) students in 1969?” To best answer that question, we must put those of us who were born in 1951 into the larger perspective of both the 1950s and the 1960s, the first two decades of the second half of the twentieth century: They were the best of times; they were the worst of times.
We members of LHS’s graduating class of 1969 learned as first graders on October 4, 1957, that the Soviet Union had put the first artificial space satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around our planet. That act led to an increased emphasis on science, technology, and math while we attended public schools in America. That also began what came to be known as The Space Race, a contest between the U.S.A. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) to be the first country to put a man on the moon. Eventually, we won that race, for on July 20, 1969, shortly after my class had graduated from LHS, two U.S.A. astronauts, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, landed on the moon. On that occasion, Armstrong famously remarked: “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” They were the best of times.
They were the worst of times, also, for we nearly had the daylights scared out of us as sixth graders when a nuclear war almost broke out between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded from October 16 to 28, 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, when the U.S.A. had failed in its attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. After one of our U-2 spy planes detected Soviet nuclear missiles being deployed in Cuba just 90 miles south of Florida, our President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), demanded the Soviets remove those missiles immediately. That began a 13-day stand-off between the two countries, which brought them to the brink of firing nuclear missiles at each other.
On October 22, 1962, JFK addressed the American people (some on their new color television sets) to apprise us of the situation and to announce a U.S. naval “quarantine” that would prevent Cuba from receiving any more weapons. That quarantine intercepted Soviet ships on the Atlantic Ocean during October 24 and 25; some ships turned back to Russia while others were stopped but had no weapons aboard. As tensions escalated, some people, fearing an outbreak of nuclear war, began hoarding food and gas. When I asked my father why we were not building a bomb shelter in our backyard to save our family of eight from destruction, he told me to stop worrying.
The Soviet Premiere, Nikita Kruschev, next sent JFK a letter, offering to remove the missiles if the U.S.A. would not invade Cuba and would remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. JFK publicly agreed to the first demand and secretly agreed to the second, thereby averting a nuclear exchange that would have undoubtedly drawn in both America’s and Russia’s allies, possibly resulting in a third world war. That confrontation led immediately to the installation of a telephone “Hotline” directly between the White House and the Kremlin to improve communication between those two countries in the future. The Cold War (1945-1991), however, only intensified after that.
The Cold War was a war of words between the communistic Soviet Union and the capitalistic United States of America. Military might became more important after 1947 to both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. after our President Harry S Truman asked Congress to fund the faltering economies of Greece and Turkey to minimize Soviet influence in that region. What came to be known as the Truman Doctrine led to the U.S.A. supporting and intervening in non- communist states around the world. “It must be the policy of the United States,” Truman declared to Congress in 1947, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation...by outside pressures.”