When President Kennedy was assassinated, the world stopped, then shifted. In the way we now talk about September 11, for those who were alive and aware that November day fifty years ago, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard” is a touchstone of personal history. Virginia Woolf called these instances “moments of being,” when the difference between before and after is burned into memory by our hyper-awareness of the extraordinary. We have precise and perfect recall of the smell of classroom chalk when the principal’s choked voice came over the loudspeaker, the polka-dot scarf our neighbor was wearing when she ran weeping across the grass, the birds singing in the leafless apple tree as the radio blared the news, because these surrounding events and images, however quotidian, suddenly stand in sharp relief against unspeakable tragedy.
But even if we have no personal memory of that day, whether because we were too young in 1963 or we are of more recent generations for whom the assassination is history, we still live with its reverberations. Kennedy’s murder shaped the second half of the 20th century, and in turn is shaping the beginnings of the 21st.
An exercise in probability and possibility:
If Kennedy had not been killed, it is likely we would have gotten out of Vietnam by 1965. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, wrote that the President had been working on a troop withdrawal strategy when he died. Would Johnson have then run for President in 1968? Would Robert F. Kennedy have entered the 1968 race if Johnson had run? RFK’s platform was to end the Vietnam War. If he didn’t run, would he still have been assassinated? How about Martin Luther King, Jr. – would he have been murdered as well? That’s harder to say, but even so would the nationwide civil unrest that followed these assassinations erupted in such a terrible way? A lot of the anger was fueled by the endless war and the feeling that the Johnson administration was leading us to disaster. So perhaps the violence and rage would have been tempered. It is possible.
If the unrest was contained and limited, we can also ask, would Richard Nixon been elected? His platform was restoring law-and-order to a country seemingly run amok with crime. And if no Nixon, no Watergate. If no Jimmy Carter as an antidote to Nixon, then no Ronald Reagan in response to Jimmy Carter? We can carry this on and on. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We don’t even have to reach back to find it.