It’s a popular contention that the assassination of John F. Kennedy changed everything. Everything. It’s as if time in this country could be divided between BKA (Before Kennedy Assassination) and AKA (After Kennedy Assassination). It’s particularly popular to point out two areas – foreign policy (Vietnam specifically and respect for America in general) and the national mood (a feeling of optimism, of respect for politics, of that good old can-do attitude) – in which Kennedy’s death could be seen as a dividing point.
It’s probably true that JFK’s death was one of (if not the) most significant cultural events of the second half of the 20th Century. And it does seem as if things were different afterward. Television news certainly came into its own, at least in terms of live coverage of breaking news (although we’d think of that coverage as mighty primitive today; something I’ll write about at another time). What we think of as "the 60s" didn’t really hit full-force until after Kennedy’s death; the Beatles hadn’t arrived in America yet, Vatican II hadn’t concluded yet, the fashions and cultural icons were still more or less the same as they had been in the 50s (men’s hats were definitely on the way out, though), even comedians such as George Carlin wore short hair, And in fact there does seem to be a gloom settling over the country beginning at the end of 1963, a gloom that kind of merges with Vietman, Watergate, Carter; a gloom that doesn’t begin to lift until after the election of Ronald Reagan. In the aftermath of Dallas, one could see the storm clouds gathering on the horizon, preparing for the deluge that came to fruition in 1968.
This feeling of a seismic cultural shift one that I’ve long subscribed to myself, and I’ll be the first one to admit that my own cultural archaeology tends toward the BKA and AKA timeline. So it was most interesting to see this same subject approached from a slightly different angle, as is done by James Pierson in his new book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Whereas I’ve tended to come at this from the fairly traditional viewpoint I outlined above Pierson contends that “Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal.” This happened in two ways: “first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation.”
As Pierson points out, many liberals were (and remain) unable to come to terms with the fact that Kennedy was assassinated by a Communist. (This can particularly be seen in the television coverage of the assassination, when the first man-in-the-street interviews reflected the general assumption that Kennedy had been the victim of a “climate of hate” created by right-wing extremists.) Pierson states that “The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.”
That decline can be seen in many ways: the conspiracy theories that popped up during and after the Warren Report, theories that continue and grow more elaborate to this day; the desire to assign collective guilt to the nation for JFK’s death when “in fact an anti-American Communist killed President Kennedy and a Palestinian nationalist killed Robert Kennedy, both in retaliation for American policies abroad”, the loss of faith by liberals in the future and the nation, which manifests itself in an increasing pessimism in both. (And, one might speculate, an even greater dependence on government to take care of a people incapable of taking care of themselves.) Pierson’s discussion of how liberalism may or may not have evolved had Kennedy not died is not only fascinating, one of those “what-if” projects that so many of us enjoy, but tells us a great deal about our modern political ideologies.
As this interview with Pierson suggests, we who concentrate primarily on the cultural impact of Kennedy’s assassination would do well to factor the political equation into the mix, for in the end the political impact of the assassination may be just as great an instigator of cultural change as the assassination itself. It is another example, as if you needed any, of how the early 60s remains one of the most interesting times to study; and how essential it is to understand that time in order to understand our own.