The year of 1961 was bookended by two iconic and enduring moments for American letters: John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, on January 20th, and the November publication of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. In an essay for A New Literary History of America, which you can read in full below, Charles Taylor pits these visions of America’s place in the world against one another, contrasting Kennedy’s call to service with Heller’s take on the risks of obedience. The Presidential Inaugural Address is a unique genre, and with Barack Obama’s second but a few days away, now seems an apt time to look back.
In Joe Dante’s 1993 comedy Matinee, it’s 1962, and we’re in a picture-perfect American living room. A little boy in a cowboy hat kills time before Sunday dinner watching Art Linkletter’s quiz show People Are Funny when a bulletin interrupts saying President Kennedy will speak live from the White House on a matter of “the greatest national urgency.” The president informs his audience that Soviet missiles are being installed in Cuba, some containing nuclear warheads capable of reaching the United States. He has the look of a man delivering a death sentence. “They’re gonna bomb us?” asks the little boy. “No,” says his older brother, trying to comfort him, though he plainly doesn’t believe it himself. They’ve spent the afternoon at a shlocky Vincent Price matinee, where the older boy has delighted in his little brother’s fright. There’s no delight now. And then, as if on cue, comes the real chiller moment. Kennedy’s face fills the screen. “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war,” he says, “but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
Nothing diminishes the terror of that moment: what Norman Mailer, writing a few months later, called “a bright mad psychic voice which leaps to give the order that presses a button.” The grim determined stature of a man carrying out the worst burden of his office crumbles when you parse those words. Harking forward six years to the U.S. Army major who justified the destruction of the Vietnamese village Ben Tre, Kennedy is saying that if necessary he’ll destroy the republic in order to save it.
Kennedy’s presidency has always been celebrated for its spirit of hope and youthful vigor and renewed commitment to public service. But Kennedy’s words on that Sunday evening in October (or, to be precise, the words of Theodore Sorensen, who wrote many of his speeches as well as Profiles in Courage, for which Kennedy received the Pulitzer Prize) are the fulfillment of what he so famously promised twenty-two months earlier, on January 20, 1961, in his Inaugural Address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
In that speech, Kennedy reminded his audience that his generation of Americans had been “tempered by war.” Published at the end of that year, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 suggested how. “Now the trumpet summons us again,” Kennedy said, in language more apocalyptic than stirring, “to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle . . . a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” “Will you join in that historic effort?” Kennedy asked. And twelve months later, Heller’s hero Yossarian answered: Fuck no.
The novel’s title refers to its most logical piece of nonlogic: crazy men cannot be sent on flying missions. But because only a crazy man would go on such a dangerous mission, the fact that he doesn’t want to is a sign of his sanity, and therefore, he’s clear to fly.
Set in Italy near the end of the Second World War, Catch-22 is a view of hell by way of the Borscht Belt. With its dedication to shredding any vestige of common sense, the book reads like one of the cheerful demolitions of reason and logic perfected by Groucho Marx: “Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You’d better beat it. I hear they’re going to tear you down and put up an office building where you’re standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can’t leave in a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that’s too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff.”
Catch-22 would go on to win converts (books like this don’t have mere admirers) among those disgusted by the American incursion into Vietnam, and all things military in general. But to gauge the daring and the meaning of the book, we have to remember that it appeared before any of that, before the murder of Diem, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Vietnamization, the Tet Offensive, peace with honor. Heller’s book wasn’t a reaction to a war that would eventually disgust most Americans. It was a reaction to a war that most of us still think of as having been worth fighting. Heller, who was himself a bomber pilot in World War II, looked around at the good war and saw bullshit.
Or chickenshit, to be more precise. As defined by Paul Fussell in Wartime, a study of World War II,
Chickenshit refers . . . to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant “paying off of old scores”; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse-or bull-or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.
The brass, or those who aspire to be brass, are the avatars of chickenshit in Catch-22. The ones who pay lip service to duty, or have convinced themselves that they are involved in something really fine. Surely, Yossarian would have recognized a similar officer’s club coziness in the self-regarding enthusiasm of Arthur Schlesinger’s description in A Thousand Days, his fawning account of Kennedy’s presidency, of the bright young Kennedy men who descended on Washington in 1961: “One’s life seemed almost to pass in review as one encountered Harvard classmates, wartime associates, faces seen after the war in ADA conventions, workers in Stevenson campaigns, academic colleagues, all united in a surge of hope and possibility.” And perhaps he might have seen the ambitious mess-hall officer Milo Minderbinder, procurer of delicacies for the brass who can aid his war profiteering, taking what Milo offers as if by divine right, in Schlesinger’s description of “the pleasures of power, so long untasted . . . now being happily devoured—the chauffeur-driven limousines, the special telephones, the top secret documents.” In other words, just as Heller looks at the good war and sees a con game where the grifters have fallen for their own scam, he looks at the greatest generation and sees a procession of chazzers, putzes, nudniks, nebbishes, schnooks, schnorrers, schlemiels, schlimazels, schleps, schmucks, schmoes, and schmendriks.
And so Yossarian drops out, not out of laziness, and certainly not out of anything as lofty as a dedication to nonconformity or pacifism. He drops out for the same reason that Fussell said men fought: not for some noble cause, but simply to save themselves.
For Yossarian, the stupidity, the sadism all come down to one moment. Returning from yet another bombing raid, the plane Yossarian is flying in comes under attack. As Heller writes the scene, the plane diving and rolling, the flak penetrating it with little pings that sound puny next to the groaning plane, we could be watching one of the crazy vehicles in the training films the cartoonist Tex Avery made for the army. You almost expect that the plane will stop in midair and, like a winded runner, start panting. The scene reaches a pitch of hysteria—in both senses of that word—and then it goes deathly quiet. Yossarian goes to check on the young gunner Snowden who’s sitting very still, muttering “I’m cold. I’m cold.” And when Yossarian removes the kid’s flak jacket to examine what seems like a minor wound, he watches, helpless, as Snowden’s guts spill out onto the plane’s floor. From there, the scene becomes the equivalent of a shot in a movie that takes an excruciatingly long time to fade out. The dialogue—Snowden whispering, “I’m cold. I’m cold,” and Yossarian unable to do more than murmur “There, there”—seems to be coming to us from the back of a cave. And pretty soon we start to feel cold. We’re stuck in that plane with them and Heller will not let us out. He’s revealed the scene bit by bit, Yossarian always trying to push it from his mind. By the time Heller gets us there, he fixes it so we’ll never be able to get it out of ours. Even with the life literally fallen out of his body, Snowden will not die. That whisper of “I’m cold. I’m cold,” too serene for a death rattle, becomes a bit of aural ectoplasm, something that hovers visible in front of us, even as everything about it speaks of death.
Heller knows that the deaths of all the Snowdens, and the memories of those deaths in the minds of the ones who survived, was the price paid for defeating Nazism and fascism. He doesn’t say it wasn’t worth it. But Heller’s reluctance—and the reluctance of many of his contemporaries who fought—to take any credit for that defeat didn’t spring from any aw-shucks Gary Cooper American modesty. It’s the realization of the obscene inappropriateness of attaching a higher meaning to a man’s guts falling out of his stomach.
Kennedy spoke for a generation tempered by war, but he conjured a romance of national service for a generation that hadn’t yet been tested, a generation that, before the decade was over, would feel much closer to Heller’s view.
Kennedy’s Inaugural Address continues to be cited by politicians as instrumental in leading them to dedicate their lives to service. For others it remains a key moment of their political awareness. That’s why it’s so surprising now to look at film of the speech and see that Kennedy’s performance is so halting, so stiff. Kennedy affects the same rising and falling tone for much of his delivery, compelling polite attention more than excitement. The effect is so lulling that when he gets to the line, “Will you join in that historic effort?” the audience, missing its cue, takes a moment before realizing it is meant to respond. It’s only toward the end of the speech, with the lines, “I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it,” that some fire seems to be lit in Kennedy. And even then the moment isn’t his, as the words can’t help but recall the challenge thrown down by FDR to big business in his famous 1936 campaign speech at Madison Square Garden: “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
The echo is so close that it must have been deliberate. But it only emphasizes how Kennedy is trying to be so many things here that the speech is a contradictory mess. A claim of kinship with the past (“We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution”) is followed in the next sentence by the proclamation of a new start in American politics (“Let the word go forth . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation”). Trying to silence any doubts about his lack of experience, Kennedy presents himself as a fierce cold warrior (“We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed”) only to court those counting on him to carry on the liberal tradition (“But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course—both sides overburdened by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war”).
And then there is the missile of the speech, the line cited for its spirit of citizenship, of sacrifice, of engaged patriotism: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
In 1981, in The Kennedy Imprisonment, Garry Wills quotes Sorensen writing approvingly, in 1965, of Kennedy’s “concept of the presidency . . . the primacy of the White House within the Executive Branch and of the Executive Branch within the Federal Government, the leadership of the Federal Government within the United States and of the United States within the community of nations.” It can sound remarkably like George W. Bush’s concept of the presidency—the White House commanding the government, and the country commanding the world. And so the call to service stands revealed as a call to obedience, the very obedience that so many of the young people inspired by Kennedy would, in a few years, refuse.
“The famous antitheses and alliterations of John Kennedy’s rhetoric sound tinny now,” wrote Wills toward the end of his bitter, sometimes disgusted book. Contrasting Kennedy with Martin Luther King, Wills notes that King’s sources were ancient—“the Bible, the spirituals, the hymns and folk songs.” What we remember from King’s syntax, which was sometimes contrived, sometimes flowing, are the simple phrases (“I have a dream”) that, perhaps because of their simplicity, were able to sound all the changes wrung upon them. Kennedy’s language has a clumsy grasping for eloquence (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”) and a tone that instructs rather than elevates. It’s a patrician voice, a voice in some basic way alienated from the native ease of American speech, as the effortless eloquence of the man who followed him in the White House would not be.
There’s nothing alienated about Yossarian—he’s the dropout as open wound. Heller flirts with sentimentality in the last pages, giving Yossarian a Humphrey Bogart moment of walking off to join the fight, and the chaplain a Paul Henreid line, telling Yossarian, “I’ll stay here and persevere” (just as Henreid, at the end of Casablanca, tells Bogart, “This time I know we’ll win”). But Heller is pulling the rug out from every heroic final shot, replacing the swelling of a Max Steiner score with something like a kazoo playing “Yankee Doodle.” Yossarian isn’t running to battle but away from it: “From now on I’m thinking only of me.” But he wouldn’t be a hero if that were entirely true. He gives up the chance to go home because the cost of his freedom would be betraying his fellow soldiers. But he doesn’t do anything to save them, either. That they’ll have to do for themselves. And so, instead of asking what he can do for his country, Yossarian foreshadows the question the San Francisco punk band the Avengers would pose from their stages in 1977 with “The American in Me”: “Ask not what you can do for your country / Ask what your country is doing to you.” The energy, the faith, and the devotion that Yossarian brings to his escape lights all who refuse to serve. It’s his eternal flame.