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This prompt asks what is the first news story we remember. For me that’s easy. It was the Kennedy-Nixon debate(s) where they argued about Quemoy and Matsu. I must admit that I didn’t remember what the issue was, if I ever knew. Just that they disagreed about these two islands. The names of both of these exotic-sounding places were pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, kee-MOY and mat-SOO, and those names popped into my head as soon as I saw the words “first news story.” I did know that they were two islands off the coast of China that were claimed by both the Peoples Republic of China (or “Red China,” as we referred to it back then) and the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan.

This prompt asks what is the first news story we remember. For me that's easy. It was Quemoy and Matsu.

The next four paragraphs are my own amalgamation of information I learned this week from Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, along with other articles I found online.

  • * * *

The two candidates first argued about Quemoy and Matsu in the second debate, on October 7, 1960. It was one of many topics covered in that debate, which included domestic policy, foreign relations, and the economy.

The third debate out of four, held six days later on October 13, 1960, had a single topic, “whether military force should be used to prevent Quemoy and Matsu, two island archipelagos off the Chinese coast, from falling under Communist control.”  This debate was also notable for the fact that Kennedy was in New York and Nixon was in Los Angeles, so the debate was held virtually (although I’m sure they didn’t use that word then).

Both candidates were in favor of using American forces to protect Taiwan from aggression by the PRC if necessary, but they disagreed about whether we should also protect Quemoy and Matsu. Kennedy thought these two islands were not essential to the defense of Taiwan, while Nixon said that they were in “the area of freedom” and should not be surrendered to the Communists.

Kennedy later revised his position because he didn’t want the Communists to think we would not stand up to their aggression. Nixon recognized that Kennedy had changed his stance, but decided not to make a big deal of it because it was an extremely tense situation, which was surprisingly restrained of him.

  • * * *

As a nine-year-old girl, what struck me the most from watching the debates was that Kennedy appeared very handsome and charming, whereas Nixon was neither. Kennedy’s Boston accent was something else; I had never heard anything like it. (We later had an album called The First Family, where comedian Vaughn Meader did a great impression of Kennedy.) Nixon talked with no particular accent but didn’t have the smile, or the tan, or the hair. I didn’t know at the time that this was the first time American presidential candidates had ever debated, and that later it would become a staple of the election process.

In my fifth grade class some time that fall we had our own version of the presidential debate (although I’m pretty sure we didn’t talk about Quemoy and Matsu), and I was on the Kennedy team. We won overwhelmingly. This might have been more to do with the fact that it was a predominantly Catholic town and everyone’s parents loved Kennedy, so the kids voted for the Kennedy team, than with any superior debating talent on our part.


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Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    I too recall Quemoy and Matsu, Suzy, but, like you, barely knew more than their funny-sounding names and that they were islands near China. And that, for some reason, they were the subject of political debate. So thank you for the Wikipedia enlightenment.

    And thanks, too, for the reminder about Vaughn Meader (“Our Leader”); we, of course, had the album. However, growing up in New England, with a number of Boston-born neighbors, I was familiar with Kennedy’s accent, though I still couldn’t figure out why certain words were pronounced as they do. In fact, living outside of Boston now, I still can’t. (I mean, why add an “er” sound to some words — like “Cuba” — and take it off of other ones — like “vigor?” Go figah….)

    We didn’t have many Catholics in our town, it was mainly WASPS. So all the kids in my class voted for Nixon except for me and the one other Jewish kid.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great first memory, Suzy. Of course, the pundits now say that Kennedy won BECAUSE he was tanned, didn’t have the 5 o”clock shadow or sweat (he powdered his face). With his father’s Hollywood background, he knew how to play to the camera.

    Fun that your school had their own debate and the Kennedy team won. I’m sure you led to glory.

    Being married to a Boston native, he tells me that the Kennedy accent is really a prep school accent, not necessarily that of all those from the area (those who don’t come from money may drop the last “r”, but it won’t sound like JFK or his brothers did). Believe it or not, I still have the Vaughn Meader album, in the box with the items brought from my childhood home when my mother sold it. I never listened to it again after 11/22/63. Wicked pissah!

    • Susan Bennet says:

      Interesting what your husband says, Betsy. I can’t say I’ve ever known anyone who speaks “the complete Kennedy” other than the Kennedys. May I offer this about the regular Boston accent, something I learned in linguistics class. The “East Anglian” accent is thought to have sailed over with the Colonial (English) settlers who came from this region in England. It extends beyond Boston, hugging the coast from Maine to Rhode Island. If you listen you’ll hear the British drop their r’s. Of course, we have no audio from the 17th century!

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        That is interesting, Susan. I’m thinking of those from Maine, who have their own version of the dropped “r”. In my husband’s family (his parents were both natives), his father had no accent, his mother did. My husband, who has lived in and around Boston his whole life, has no accent. Go figure.

  3. Marian says:

    I confess I don’t remember those islands, Suzy, maybe because I was just seven at the time of the debates. Kennedy visually made a vivid impression on me, though, especially in contrast to Nixon. My parents split the vote, mom going for Kennedy and dad going for Nixon. At the height of the Vietnam war, dad was gracious enough to admit this vote was mistaken and was glad that Kennedy won, having to live with Nixon later.

  4. Suzy, As a college freshman that year I remember the Kennedy-Nixon debates but less I confess about the issues and more about the obvious difference between the handsome JFK and the unappealing Nixon.

    And I remember that during the earlier Eisenhower years my father saying if Nixon, then VP, ever became president we’d move to Canada. (Of course he did, and we didn’t move) But am glad my father didn’t live to see the presidential debates in recent years.

  5. Susan Bennet says:

    Oh Suzy, what an amazing memory you have! I don’t think we’ve heard the names Quemoy and Matsu since then, have we? Your story is a great time trip.

    So I sit here holding my breath in dread that China will take Taiwan any day now. Let’s pray.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this debate and those exotic islands. Was also a fan of The First Family by Vaughn Meader. Of course, I was charmed by JFK and my lifelong hatred for Nixon was already established by then.

  7. A great report on the blur that I recollect from the actual debates. I was laid up in bed with the infamous broken leg for them but somehow managed to watch. I do recall my parents thought the Quemoy-Matsu row was just distraction fluff to keep the two men from having to tackle difficult questions about substantive issues, but ain’t that just the way?

    I knew Nixon from the McCarthy days, almost as creepy as Roy Cohn, and loved my homeboy, JFK. I do also recall my father joking about the Kennedys’ Boston Brahmin accents (quite different from the Southie dialect that surrounded me), given that Joe Kennedy had been a shanty Irish bootlegger. But he did marry up. 😉

    I also remember a macabre joke that circulated around Harvard after the assassination, something about Vaughn Meader’s lost job. Not funny.

  8. Mister Ed says:

    Very nice revisiting of the debates. We had Kennedy bumper stickers in our windows, and got a very nice greeting from the door to door canvassers. The kids were all in for Kennedy. My mother, who had ties to Boston, was a bit hesitant to go for Kennedy (and the Kennedy machine), but I’m sure she voted for him.

    I only discovered recently that the Vaughn Meader album won a Grammy the year it was issued.

  9. Let me just declare that I’m really glad those guys did not bring human civilization to an end over those two islands! Maybe we need to thank Mao and Cho for not ever testing their nuclear-powered resolve. I too remembered the names of those islands but am astonished to learn that the decision was made to focus one entire debate on them! Wow. Thanks for an informative story.

  10. I too participated in a grammar school presidential debate, w my side pro Kennedy and the other side pro Nixon.
    I don’t remember much substance, but I do remember of the three members on my team, one of them showed up w laryngitis, and a second wilted with stage fright, leaving me standing alone to battle against the two smartest, most intellectually aggressive, and loudest boys in the class (they both ended up at Harvard), who were on the Nixon team. These boys didn’t let me finish a sentence. They hit me high, hit me low, I felt they mopped the floor with me. They also had a girl on their team but they didn’t let her squeeze in a peep. I was ready to concede Quemoy, Matsu, and half of Formosa. Unexpectedly, however, the hard-boiled authoritarian principal of the school came by my desk in English class later on in the day and publicly shook my hand. I think his point was not so much to elevate my performance as to show his displeasure w the overt aggression of the Nixon boys. Decorum trumped combat strength.

  11. Khati Hendry says:

    I am amazed that you remembered those islands as your first news story! I remember them too, but only as passing words. Thanks for the recap of the debate history. And now the Republican’s have decided they won’t participate in any more presidential debates! How telling and depressing. BTW, do you remember the take-off on the Kennedy accent in the song “Wild Thing”? I think they were mocking Bobby at the time. Also not funny very soon.

    • Suzy says:

      I do remember Wild Thing by the Troggs, which came out in ’66, and then the Bobby Kennedy impersonator who did a version of it later that year. Of course it got taken off the air in June ’68, and that guy’s career, like Vaughn Meader’s, was probably over.

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