President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago today. Fifty years is a long time, but in some ways the Kennedy assassination seems even more distant and remote. So much has happened since, and so much of it has been bad. The world is such a different place now, it is almost as if the shooting in Dallas occurred in another reality altogether.
I was a first-grader when it happened. I remember a scratchy voice coming out of the polished wooden PA system box above the blackboard and announcing that the President had died, and our teacher shocked and sobbing. But, of course, I was just a little kid, not quite sure who the President was, even, or what this would mean for me or my family. Everything I know about President Kennedy — the romance of “Camelot,” the inspiring speeches, the successes, the failures, and the details of his personal life — I’ve learned since his death, with the information, always, shaped and colored by the terrible senselessness of his assassination. The impact of his death on how his legacy was viewed in the years after his death shouldn’t surprise anyone; America lost a vigorous young President and the promise he brought with him, and the country was profoundly shaken. Even now, half a century later, it is hard to view things with the abstract objectivity of historians.
Students of popular culture tend to put things into neat packages. For many, the story is of a boring, stodgy America during the 1950s, followed by the short sunburst of the Kennedy years, and then a country that lost its way after bullets rained down on that Dallas motorcade. That story, I think, is a bit too tidy and, perhaps, confuses a timeline with causation. The ’50s were not a Norman Rockwell painting, and the Kennedy presidency was not the golden era that it was once depicted to be. To be sure, the years after the shooting were tumultuous, with race riots, the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, more assassinations, Apollo moon landings, and profound social changes, but did the Kennedy assassination cause, or even contribute significantly, to those events? We can safely conclude that the Apollo moon landings would not have happened but for the challenge issued by a newly elected President in 1961, and we know from that lesson and others that individual people can alter and shape the future — but how many of the signature events of the ’60s were the inevitable result of historical forces long since set in motion, bound to happen no matter who was President?
Historians will comb the record of the 1000 days of the Kennedy presidency to try to determine whether his assassination should be viewed like that of President Lincoln, whose death clearly affected the course of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or like that of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, whose killings are treated like mere eddies in the onrushing current of history. For average Americans, the question is much more basic: If President Kennedy had survived, would our world now be a better place? Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer.