The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 60 years ago this week seared an indelible imprint into the memory of every American who was alive at that time. Just as the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941, had been to an older generation and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers on 9/11 of 2001 has been for today’s younger generations, every American can recall where they were and the shock they felt when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot while on his motorcade in Dallas, Texas in the early afternoon of November 22, 1963.
We were in our fourth grade classroom at Our Lady of Grace School in Chelsea-Everett when the principal interrupted class to make the mind-numbing announcement and release everybody from school immediately. Though we were only nine years old at the time, we knew instantly that something had changed, both in our own lives and for the country, 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 during the Eisenhower years and through the three years of Kennedy’s presidency: We were at peace (though engaged in a Cold War) and we were prosperous, but the evolving rights of minorities, women, and gays still were very much under the national radar screen in a culture dominated by white males. It still would be a few years before the multitude of societal changes that would shape our personal lives and America — and the world — into what we know it today.
The assassination of President Kemmedy was the first of four major political assassinations over the course of the next four and one-half years — Malcolm X in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and culminating with that of Robert F. Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, in early June, 1968.
But in November,1963, that wave of assassinations, as well as the violent and incendiary protests and riots that were to engulf our inner cities and college campuses from the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, were not even remotely imaginable. In particular, the war in Vietnam, the catalyst for much of the nation’s decade of turmoil, still was a clandestine operation with only a few hundred American advisers in the field on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.
Was it just a coincidence that America, and indeed the world, underwent a transformation in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination? Or would all of these things have happened regardless of whether President Kennedy had been shot? Would Kennedy have escalated the war in Vietnam? And if not, might the violence that accompanied so many of the changes that occurred in the decade after his death have been averted if President Kennedy had been re-elected to a second term?
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.
But for those of us who lived through the Kennedy assassination, such issues were far from our minds in its immediate aftermath. Instead, we recall the shock, and then the deep sadness and despair, 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 60 years ago this week and contemplate how the assassination of John F. Kennedy profoundly affected the future direction not only of America and the world, but also each one of us — let us remember too, the effect that his loss had on his own family, who sacrificed so much on that terrible day in Dallas.
President Kennedy was only 46 years old when he was assassinated. His death brings to mind two phrases from literature, applicable both to Kennedy and the promise of America in that era.
The first is from the ancient Greeks, attributed to the historian Herodotus:
“Those whom the gods love, die young.”
The second is the final paragraph from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.