By SAM TANENHAUSNOV. 21, 2013
Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nation seems to be experiencing a kind of fairy tale about itself, alternately bright and dark.
It is inspiring, but also deflating, to see and hear again (and again) the handsome, vigorous president, the youngest ever elected to the office, as he beckons the country forth to the future, to the “New Frontier,” and its promise of conquest: putting a man on the moon, defeating sharply defined evils — totalitarianism, poverty, racial injustice.
This, we have been reminded, was the dream Kennedy nourished, and much of it died with him, when the sharp cracks of rifle fire broke out as his motorcade rolled through the sunstruck streets of Dallas. With this horrific, irrational deed, a curse was laid upon the land, and the people fell from grace.
But this narrative and the anniversary remembrances have obscured the deeper message sent and received on Nov. 22, 1963. In fact, America had already become a divided, dangerous place, with intimations of anarchic disorder. Beneath its gleaming surfaces, a spore had been growing, a mass of violent energies, coiled and waiting to spring.
“The sniper’s bullet left one wound that is not healed, a wound to our consciousness of ourselves as Americans,” the culture critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in December 1963. “Despite all the evidence in the newspapers, the daily stories of senseless brutality and casual murder, we have continued to think of ourselves as a civilized nation where law and order prevail.”
This is not to say America wasn’t a more optimistic place than it is now.
“The sense, one might even say the ‘feeling,’ of being American, was quite different in 1963 from what it would become,” Robert P. George, a professor of politics and law at Princeton who is also the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in an interview.
One reason was that the nation’s most powerful institutions were widely seen as “fundamentally good and trustworthy — government, the military, religious institutions. People even trusted big corporations,” Dr. George said. This was before Vietnam, before scandal shook the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church, before the sequence of Wall Street bubbles and meltdowns.
The tumult of the ‘60s, including the unraveling of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, came to be depicted, in part, as a disillusioned reaction to Kennedy’s death. But actually, the seeds had begun to sprout during his administration. Kennedy himself embraced a policy of insurgency. He was fixated on ridding Cuba of its dictator, Fidel Castro. And he backed a coup in South Vietnam that resulted in the murder of its president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu — an act Kennedy painfully reflected on in a taped memorandum he dictated three weeks before he was killed.
And while many today mourn the loss of the consensus politics of the Cold War era, the center was already collapsing in 1963. Left-wing groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, both impatient with the slow pace of social change, were formed at the time of Kennedy’s presidency.
On the right, the John Birch Society was flourishing, and in 1962, 18,000 young conservatives attended a rally at Madison Square Garden at which Kennedy was jeered, and a new tribune, Barry M. Goldwater, took the stage. Soon he would vow to clean out “the swampland of collectivism.”
Had Kennedy lived, he might have found himself contending with these fresh rebellions. Instead his memory was sacralized, and his death seen as a kind of freeze-frame, the moment at which America pivoted away from its better self.
But things looked much different at the time.
The best-selling nonfiction book when he was killed was Victor Lasky’s “J.F.K: The Man and the Myth,” a dubiously researched jumble of smears and innuendo, including the stale rumor that Kennedy, an observant Catholic, had suppressed a previous marriage to a Palm Beach socialite. The book was briefly removed from circulation by its publisher, Macmillan, after Kennedy’s death.
Kennedy hatred was deepest, perhaps, in the South, where civil rights battles had grown increasingly tense. “White violence was sort of considered the status quo,” Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is the author of “Carry Me Home,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the racial unrest of 1963, said recently.
“There had been so many bombings that people had accepted it,” Ms. McWhorter said. But in May, the city’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire. In September, only two months before Dallas, white supremacists in Birmingham planted a bomb in a black church, killing four young girls.
Kennedy himself was a reluctant supporter of civil rights legislation, but when at last he called for it, many Southern whites were enraged.
“I was in my gym class at the Brooke Hill School for girls,” Ms. McWhorter recalled. “Someone came in and said the president had been shot, and people cheered.”
Protest and rage advanced on other fronts, too. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” published in 1961, lampooned the bureaucratization of the modern warfare state. Thomas Pynchon’s “V,” published in 1963, hinted of conspiratorial webs spun in “a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” a best seller in November 1963, explored the world of Elijah Muhammad, whose message to whites, Mr. Baldwin reported, was that “the sword they have used so long against others can now, without mercy, be used against them.”
Stephen Harrigan, a novelist and journalist who lives in Austin, Tex., was a teenager in Corpus Christi, Tex., when Kennedy was assassinated. Dallas “was somewhere else,” a world away, Mr. Harrigan said. But when he moved to Austin, in September 1966, the city was recovering from its own catastrophic spasm of gun violence committed a month before when Charles Whitman, like Lee Harvey Oswald a former Marine, killed 17 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting spree from the clock tower at the University of Texas.
“There was a palpable sense that something had been let loose,” Mr. Harrigan said recently. “The Kennedy assassination had opened up this box of horrors.” But what had been let loose were forces already there. After Oswald and Whitman would come the macabre gallery of angry loners who gained celebrity from the famous people they killed or tried to (George C. Wallace, John Lennon, Ronald Reagan) or who went on mass rampages (at Virginia Tech; in Aurora, Colo.; in Newtown, Conn.).
We’re captivated still by the handsome young president, coming to office at the apex of American power, immortalized in an intoxicating sheen of glamour imparted by the new medium of television. And, of course, we can never know what might have been different had he lived. But one who seems to have recognized the malign forces at play, ahead of those around him, was John F. Kennedy himself. He was averse to large crowds, even though he stirred them — perhaps because he stirred them. His celebrated “cool” masked uneasiness and distrust.
In “A Thousand Days,” published in 1965, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who worked in the Kennedy administration, described a president who had “peered into the abyss and knew the potentiality of chaos.” In the summer of 1963, Mr. Schlesinger reported, Kennedy concluded an informal talk by suddenly reading a portion of Blanche of Castile’s speech from Shakespeare’s “King John,” the lines beginning “The sun’s o’ercast with blood,” and ending “They whirl asunder and dismember me.”
Mr. Schlesinger had predicted a new “politics of hope” with Kennedy’s election. But Kennedy’s own hopes were more tempered. While others basked in the excitements of Camelot, Mr. Schlesinger wrote, Kennedy himself had become acutely aware of the difficulties of governing “a nation so disparate in its composition, so tense in its interior relationships, so cunningly enmeshed in underground fears and antagonisms, so entrapped by history in the ethos of violence.”