john f kennedy

For anyone alive and of an age to remember it, the 1950s and 1960s brought with them a strange new reality. I can’t say that I fully understood it all at that time, but I remember our school having a “Fallout Shelter.” They were also called a “Bomb Shelter” in some places, and the purpose was to protect the population from exposure to the fallout from a nuclear explosion. I suppose that if I had understood more about what these were, I might have been scared, but I just remember thinking it a strange idea, and highly unlikely. It did occur to me that if a bomb to explode, it would be unlikely that we would all have time to get to the school for protection.

Apparently, President John F. Kennedy, agreed with me on that thought, because, when he was speaking on civil defense on October 6, 1961, he advised American families to build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. We were, after all, in the middle of the Cold War, and neither side really knew if the other side would decide that they needed to start that latest, deadly type of war with the other side. Looking back, many people aren’t sure that a home-made bomb shelter would really be able to protect the occupants from the fallout of an atomic bomb. No one can really say for sure that the government-built shelters in schools and churches could either, in retrospect.

Still, prudent minds assumed that something needed to be done. Kennedy also assured the public that the United States civil defense program would soon begin providing such protection for every American. What seemed like science fiction, became a grim possibility just one year later, when true to Kennedy’s concerns, the world hovered on the brink of full-scale nuclear war when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted over placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba by the USSR. Of course, panic ensues. The crisis lasted for 13 days, but some Americans prepared for nuclear war by buying up canned goods and completing last-minute work on their backyard bomb shelters. In the end, of course, it all ended without. After several days of tense negotiations, Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an agreement. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement to avoid invading Cuba again. The Kennedy administration had been publicly embarrassed by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961, which had been launched under President John F Kennedy by CIA-trained forces of Cuban exiles. Afterward, former President Dwight Eisenhower told Kennedy that “the failure of the Bay of Pigs will embolden the Soviets to do something that they would otherwise not do.” He was right, but for now, disaster was averted.

We all know about the Secret Service, but do we really know about them. They are always standing near the President and the other people they are sworn to protect, but most of the time they are virtually invisible. It’s not that we can’t see them, but rather that we don’t notice them, unless something goes haywire. Then their presence is very well known as the whisk the President to safety, while looking for the culprit who has dared to enter that guarded space that surrounds him.

That is information we probably all know, but the Secret Service is much more. Founded in 1865, as an agency to stop counterfeiting, the past 150 years have seen many changes to that institution. Because it is their job to protect those they serve, the Secret Service agents must know a great deal about the people they guard, but they must also know a great deal about the essence of the political process.

Depending on their own interests, the President’s hobbies can be a pain for the Secret Service agents. If the President wants to go jogging, the Secret Service must go along, whether they like to jog or not. Also, the route must be checked, and can be a security nightmare. This applies to any trip the President makes as well. The hotel, route, and especially the areas where he might be spending time, have to be checked and re-checked. There is no room for error, because if a gunman finds a place to hide, the President’s life could be in grave danger.

Guarding the President also meant guarding his family, and if the children were young, it was much like being a glorified babysitter. The agent had to go to friends’ houses, ice cream parlors, toy stores, and a number of other places. Not all first children are well behaved, and the Secret Service witnessed it share of tantrums. If the kids didn’t like how things were going, they simply called their parents, who often told the agents to “take the child wherever he/she wanted to go.” This usually served to make the kids more bold and belligerent. Of course, not all of the children were unruly, but I would imagine that more were, than weren’t.

The Secret Service had to remain bi-partisan, because no matter what their political views were, their job was to protect the President, regardless of his political affiliation. The Secret Service agents also had to deal with the reckless behavior of the Presidents they served. Some Presidents were promiscuous, and expected their agents to warn them if their wife was coming in. Others were reckless with their own safety, as was the case when John F Kennedy, who insisted on riding through Dallas in a convertible on that fateful November day in 1963.

While guarding the President of the United States can be stressful and worrisome, it can also be very rewarding. Of course, the Secret Service agents travel the world with the President, and they have front row seats to some of the greatest events in history. Still, some Secret Service agents actually bond with the President. Such was the case with President Ronald Reagan and Agent John Barletta. Agent Barletta says of President Reagan, “We worked so well together. The whole relationship was a projection of him, how he was… He was a great guy to be around. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.” For most of the Secret Service agents, it is an honor and a privilege to protect the President. It doesn’t matter if the work id time consuming, complicated, and stressful. These men and women feel born to protect the President.

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