Monday, July 9, 2007

The Shot Heard 'Round the World

By Mitchell

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.


  1. Good points, Mitchell

    I've long felt that the Kennedy assassination was the the signal for the beginning of a civil revolution that irrevocably changed the world: the assassination 63; Civil Rights Act (Race and Sex) and Movement 64; Vietnam War, "Live and in Color!" in our living rooms 65; Birth Control Pill legalized for unmarrieds 65; National Organization of Women 66; Summer of Love, Drugs and Hippies 67; Watts Riots 67; Chicago Riots 68; Anti-War and Draft Resistance Movements 68; Stonewall Riots and Gay Rights Movement 69; etc.

    Interestingly, I missed most of that because my college years up until 63 were pretty calm and I entered the Army in 64, spent my time in Monterey, CA, and Germany having a "paid vacation" and by the time I got out in 68 I was so far out of touch with what was happening that I never did catch up.

  2. The cover story of Time this week is about Kennedy and religion/politics. I have not read it yet though I can probably guess at the content ahead of time.

    The Beatles arrival in NYC not long after the Kennedy assasination is seen, by some, as the uptick out of the gloom.

    It may have been. However, the trajectory of the group itself was a barometer of the times.

    The early Beatles seem quaint to us now but at the time they were radical because of their long-hair (which seems short to us now but it wasn't then). Their music was a lot lighter then their later stuff.

    The later Beatles grew their hair even longer and openly used drugs, fooled around, experimented with Eastern religions, divorced, just like society at large was beginning to do. Their music was darker.

  3. Excellent point, Cathy. Watching the Beatles lose their innocence through time is much like watching the country lose its innocence. Chicken and egg, I suppose, but I think you're spot on.

    Ray, I think Pierson would find your comments to be quite perceptive, especially about the civil rights movement, since it was the liberals' denial over Oswald's identity as a Communist that caused them to cling to the notion that JFK's death was over civil rights.

    Taken together, you and Cathy draw an excellent picture of the deterioration of society, and it always comes back to the assassination as the landmark.


  4. Cathy's point about the Beatles is very important. Considering how many other English groups they brought with them, they were way bigger than Elvis and the home grown rockers. I never have been interested in popular music so I never thought of them.

    And even more important, perhaps, all of these events were happening at a time when the "baby boom" generation from after WWII was growing through their rebellious teenage years and coming into adulthood and the freedom to make their own decisions. The booming economy provided money in their pockets and the jet plane and the interstate highway system gave them the mobility to move away from the old practice of living with their parents until marriage.

    I also forgot to mention the assassinations of RFK and MLK in 1968, both traumatic events.


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