As many of you know, tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of our nations 35th president, John F. Kennedy. In 2013, this seems to be nearing the realm of ancient history, particularly to my generation and even my parents (they were just infants at the time).
These days, Kennedy himself seems to be more associated with his notorious personal life rather than the accomplishments he made during his presidency. But for many years, especially pre-9/11, the JFK assassination was a wound that seemed to be embedded deep in the mind of millions of Americans.
If you listen to anyone who came of age during the 1960s, they will most likely tell you that the decade began on Nov. 22, 1963. It introduced Americans to a decade that would be extremely tumultuous. In some ways it seemed a little confusing from a brief historical outlook as to why Kennedy’s assassination had such an important impact. After all, three presidents – Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley – had all been slain beforehand. But no one seemed to react to these killings the same way they did to JFK’s.
One reason for this is rather obvious: Kennedy had brought a great amount of change not seen in The White House before. He was the first Catholic to ever be elected president, thus ending many years of prejudice directed towards people who did not identify as Protestant. Plus his young age did not make him seem like a likely president who would die in office (although had people known of his chronic health problems that may have been different).
Another reason that made the JFK assassination seem so critical to our nation’s mindset simply had to with where we stood as a country. When other presidential assassinations had occurred, the U.S. was not yet a world power. As a nation, we were still trying to solve domestic issues with ourselves, let alone with other countries. So when our leaders were killed, only we really knew about it, the rest of the world was rather passive towards it.
But by 1963, the U.S. was a dominant actor on the world stage, although sometimes sharing this role with the Soviet Union. It gave our nation a poor image when the leader of the free world was killed by one of his fellow Americans. It seemed as if in that sense the situation was no different than when Diem was killed in South Vietnam just a few weeks earlier. Finally, there was also the same fear that this could have been a declaration of war if the perpetrator had lived in the Soviet Union.
The U.S. presidency itself was also a much more influential job in the world than it had been in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The president seemed as if he was invincible. So when the holder of this powerful position was violently killed all of the sudden, it made the American people suddenly feel vulnerable. This realization would only be further strengthened by the riots and other political assassinations that occurred throughout the decade. Were the protests and rebellions of the 1960s likely to have happened had Kennedy lived? Most likely, but the widespread violence that came with it may have been fanned by his murder.
Overall, this is why the assassination of JFK had such an affect on the American people. It was a wake up call for Americans that despite our great achievements, we are still just as vulnerable as any third world country. But if there was anything we did show from this event, it was that we would still persevere through tragedy and stand strong.