Understanding the past gives people the tools and strength to solve the challenges of the future.
At least, that’s what Caroline Kennedy told a full audience during the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Lecture Series at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Monday.
Kennedy, the only surviving child of former president John F. Kennedy, said her knowledge of the United States’ history began even before her childhood treks through the White House.
They started with her grandma, who often would challenge she and her cousins to think about historical events and recite “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
“At first, we all thought it was because she was old enough to remember Paul Revere,” Kennedy said. “But, reciting the poem together was a way of instilling the belief in each of us that we should be ready to ride through the night for our country in whatever way we might be called.
“She wanted us to internalize our history and know that we each have a responsibility to be a part of it.”
Her grandma, she said, taught her whole family that no one is too young or too old to try and make the world around them a better place.
It was this lesson that Kennedy said she carried with her throughout her various careers as a lawyer, author and U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
While in Japan, Kennedy said she felt her father’s presence with her always. But, there were physical reminders too — a whole generation of students learned English by memorizing his inaugural address, Kennedy said, and would often recite it to her.
It also was there that Kennedy was reminded of the importance of forgiveness.
While President Kennedy was in the Navy, his PT boat was run down by a Japanese destroyer, forcing he and his crew to hide in enemy territory for days.
After the war, Caroline Kennedy said President Kennedy corresponded with the Japanese captain of the destroyer that sank his boat. While in Japan, Caroline Kennedy met the widow of Capt. Kohei Hanami, who showed her one of her most treasured possessions.
It was a photo of President Kennedy with his signature and the words, “To Captain Hanami, late enemy, present friend.”
“I knew that my father hoped to be the first sitting president to visit Japan. It was planned for the first state visit of his second term,” Kennedy said. “He wanted to show the world that reconciliation is a source of strength.”
That strength is something Kennedy hoped to carry forward 50 years later when she helped organize President Barack Obama’s 2016 visit to Hiroshima.
Rather than focusing on the bombing, Obama’s speech focused on humanity and what connects every human worldwide, ending with a sentence Kennedy saw him change on Air Force One.
“That is the future we can choose. A future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
Those words, for Kennedy, were a link back to her father’s American University Commencement speech.
“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” President Kennedy said. “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhibit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”