Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America seems still stuck on the mostly unspoken question that haunted Americans when it happened: “What does it mean?”
We needed to attach historic significance to that tragic, violent act. We needed to think that a leader as important as the president of the United States must have been toppled by an equally important force.
Soon after the assassination, Jackie Kennedy complained to biographer William Manchester that her husband “didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist.”
Conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas have been a cottage industry ever since, driven by the nation’s shock, the celebrity culture JFK brought to politics and by the kind of cognitive dissonance that expects a great man to be felled by a formidable adversary.
In similar fashion, we have a need to consider an especially traumatic a turning point in history. “If only JFK had lived ...” became a common refrain as the 1960s, which dawned with the optimism spawned by Kennedy’s election, descended into polarization, racial strife, a disastrous war and more assassinations. Speculation about what might have been continues to this day.
The keepers of JFK’s flame, for reasons personal and political, perpetuated the myth that he was a singular, heroic figure on which world history turned. But from the perspective of a half-century, we see Kennedy’s brief administration in the context of history’s broad brush-strokes.
Kennedy was a Cold War leader, like the presidents that came before and after him. He was a conventional centrist Democrat, lukewarm to the Civil Rights movement gaining steam. His rhetoric could be lofty, but with few exceptions — the Peace Corps and the space program — his policies were not especially visionary.
History didn’t turn on Kennedy’s election or on his assassination, though it may have swerved a bit. Larger forces were at work.
With or without Kennedy, the superpower rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have run its course.
The aspirations of African-Americans for the freedom and equality denied them for centuries, would wait no longer, no matter who was president.
The people of Vietnam were bound to shake off the colonial yoke, no matter what the cost or who lived in the White House.
The huge baby boomer generation would have asserted its cultural force whatever the political circumstances.
For those who remember Nov. 22, 1963, there is an irresistible temptation to tell anyone who’ll listen exactly where they were when they heard the news, and what they did and felt in the days thereafter.
Like a few other dates in our nation’s history — Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, among them — it left emotional scars we can still feel.
Those emotions may be the most enduring part of John F. Kennedy’s much-debated legacy.
His presidency and his death may not have changed history, but they changed the way millions of Americans felt about their country and their world. Maybe that’s what it all meant.
— GateHouse Media Illinois