After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the U.S. Information Agency – at that time the arm of U.S. Public Diplomacy — helped extend and solidify the late President’s legacy by producing a famous film — John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums.
The 86-minute memorial documentary recalled the achievements of the President as the “Years of Lightning.” The “Day of Drums” was the day of the President’s burial at Arlington Cemetery. The documentary highlighted six “faces” of President Kennedy’s New Frontier — the Peace Corps, the conquest of space, the Alliance for Progress, civil rights, freedom, and peace.
Considering the limited reach and hours of television broadcasting in the early 1960s, the expression of grief around the world was striking. The first transatlantic television broadcast – via the Telstar satellite – was only a year in the past. In many nations only a few well-to-do people owned televisions, and the reach and broadcast hours of national TV networks were limited. 24/7 news coverage was only a dream. Indeed, much of the world was not yet electrified. In the internet age, we perhaps underestimate how the “legacy media” — news reports, radio, magazines, speeches, and photographs of JFK and his family — gave the U.S. president a personalized influence.
Willard De Pree, then Principal Officer in Accra, Ghana, recalled the power of the film in his oral history for the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training. “When the film arrived, the Embassy decided to show it around Ghana at each of the regional capitals. I can recall going up to Bolgatanga with Jack Matlock. The governor put the screen in the middle of the town square and thousands of people, seated on all sides of the screen, showed up to see it. It was incredible, the reaction and feeling of black Africa toward Kennedy and the Kennedy Administration.”
Michael Schneider, now director of the Washington Public Diplomacy Program of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs, looked back on using the documentary during his Foreign Service assignment to Dacca in East Pakistan, now Dhaka, Bangladesh. “I remember being . . . responsible for the Bangla translation and voice over of the film. I could almost recite it back. We called on the Gregory Peck of Bangladesh for the voice over.”
USIA Foreign Service Officer Edward Alexander remembered his tour in Hungary. “On the fifth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, I let the word out that we would be showing ‘Years of Lightning, Day of Drums.’ I had to show the film over and over again as close to a thousand people jammed the Embassy, people who had never dared enter before. Marvin Kalb, in town for CBS, said it was an astonishing experience in his coverage.”
The film was shown within a year of the assassination. George Stevens, Jr. — then chief for films at USIA, now Founding Director of the American Film Institute — was the producer. The director was Bruce Herschensohn, and the film owes much of its power to his script and music and to the narration by Gregory Peck. (Herschensohn later became Director of Motion Pictures and Television at USIA. Prominent in California politics, he was the Republican candidate for the Senate in 1996.)
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said, “here is a film that forever honors the spirit and vigor of the murdered President — that glowingly shows the great vitality of the broad progressive program he launched and hauntingly states the stark collision of his active life and tragic death.”
He added, “Through it all there runs the stirring timbre of Mr. Kennedy’s voice in key segments of his speeches and talks. These are interspersed with the narration, which is spoken by Gregory Peck, so that the whole makes a blend with the music, the natural sounds and the insistent thump of drums, to complete a brilliant soundtrack that is as eloquent as what the eye beholds.”
Historians and pundits have for many years been re-assessing President Kennedy — the man, his achievements in office, and the meaning of his death. Conspiracy theories also live on. When Years of Lightning, Day of Drums was shown, all that lay in the future.
Professor Nicholas Cull, historian and Director of the Master’s in Public Diplomacy program at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California — and member of the Public Diplomacy Council — said it was USIA’s “most widely seen” film. He gave the best account of it as Public Diplomacy in his magisterial The Cold War and the United States Information Agency. Practitioners and students of Public Diplomacy should read his evaluation (pp. 229 ff) of the film’s conception; its purposeful use of images, sequencing, music, and narrative; its use overseas; and how the Soviet Union responded.
Produced for showing to foreign audiences, the film could not be screened in the United States. In 1966, however, a special act of Congress allowed it to be viewed domestically. These showings were acclaimed, too.
A remastered version of the film was completed by Warner Home Video for the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. It can also be viewed on Youtube.
Americans who remember the Kennedy era will want to see the film once again. Those who practice and study Public Diplomacy will, I am confident, find value in seeing how it presented the United States and President Kennedy to the world.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.