The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week seared an indelible imprint into the memory of every American living at that time. Similar to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941 and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers on 9/11 of 2001, Americans of every age can recall where they were and how they felt when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot while on his motorcade in Dallas. We knew instantly that something had changed in our lives, both individually and collectively, and that the world never would be the same again.
When people think of the cultural changes that took place in the 1960s, they think of President Kennedy as emblematic of those changes. But the reality is that the ’60s of our popular culture really did not take place until after his assassination. America on November 22, 1963, still was very much as it had been for the previous decade under the Eisenhower Presidency and the first years of JFK’s: We were at peace, we were prosperous, and the evolving rights of minorities, women, and gays still were very much under the national radar screen.
Yet to come were the multitude of cultural changes that would shape our personal lives and America as we know it today. Moreover, the war in Vietnam still was a clandestine operation with only a few thousand American advisers in the field on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.
So was it a coincidence that America, and indeed the world, changed so drastically in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination? Or would all of these things have happened regardless of whether JFK had not been shot? And if so, might the violence that accompanied so many of these changes have been averted if JFK still had been on the scene? Would Kennedy have escalated the war in Vietnam?
These and many other “what ifs” are questions that historians have been pondering in the decades since his death and will continue to do so. They are the big questions.
But for those of us who were around at the time of the Kennedy assassination, such issues were far from our minds in its immediate aftermath. Instead, we recall the shock, and then the sadness, that was felt universally by all of us as we watched our black and white TV sets and grieved for his young widow and their two small children. John F. Kennedy’s assassination made us all realize the fragility of life and how everything we hold dear can change in an instant, both for ourselves and our loved ones, regardless of our station in life.
So as we think about the events of 50 years ago this week, let us remember that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy profoundly affected the future direction not only of America and the world, but also each one of us — and most especially, his own family.