In about a month, the world will remember the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy fifty years ago — on 22 November 1963.
It’s easy to predict how the media will play this — people will talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot, there will be some speculation about what might have been had he lived, the old conspiracy debate will resurface, and there will be lots of film footage of the American Camelot, with the President’s photogenic family once again put on display.
The Left is likely to engage in a bit of myth-busting and no doubt articles will appear about the dark side of Kennedy, his role in starting up the Vietnam war, his ruthless opposition to the Cuban revolution, and his relatively weak commitment to civil rights.
Both accounts will leave something to be desired because the reality is, as always, a bit more complex than that.
While all the negative criticism of the Kennedy administration will be based on fact, one almost needed to be around in 1963 to get why everyone was so upset when he died.
I should qualify that: not everyone was upset. The far-right lunatic fringe in America, including the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, was not upset at all. They considered Kennedy to be a Negro-loving liberal from the North, someone who was “soft” on Castro and who was willing to sign a nuclear test ban treaty that would weaken the “Free World” in its fight with Communism.
But the people who today we’d consider essential for any progressive coalition politics in America — the Blacks, Hispanics, young people, union members — were all deeply affected by the killing.
It wasn’t just the horror of seeing a relatively young man (with an even younger family) cut down brutally in his prime, though that played a role — as it did a generation later when Diana died. There was more to it.
The American folk singer Phil Ochs, who famously trashed mainstream liberalism in some of his songs, had a soft spot for Kennedy. In his song “That Was the President” he writes of the assassination, “it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend.”
In the liner notes to the album that song appeared on, Ochs wrote that his Marxist friends couldn’t understand why he’d write such a song. And he added — that’s why he couldn’t be a Marxist.
It would be a pity if Marxists fifty years on can’t understand what Phil Ochs could about the tragedy of Kennedy’s death.
The point is not that Kennedy would have stopped the Vietnam war from getting any more serious, or that he would have wound down the Cold War a generation earlier, or that he would eventually have passed the civil rights laws that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, got through.
Oliver Stone and others imagine a different decade, with a second Kennedy administration taking on the Military-Industrial Complex and the white racist Southern politicians, in a way that he hadn’t done in his first term. I don’t think these fantasies help us understand the Kennedy years at all.
Instead, it’s important to remember the context in which Kennedy was elected, the tremendous sense of relief progressive Americans felt at the end of eight years of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, with the McCarthy era now fading into memory. The March on Washington with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech took place only weeks before the killing in Dallas. Millions of people thought that, as another folk singer of the time put it, “the times they are a changin’”
It was a time of enormous hopes, hopes that would be dashed by the end of the decade. But those hopes were very real in November 1963.