Prof. Gordon Arnold wrote a column, “JFK and a fractured new world,” for today’s issue of the Worcester Telegram on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
JFK and a fractured new world
(AS I SEE IT)
By Gordon Arnold,
The sudden death of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago not only ended the life of a president. It marked a change in the trajectory of the nation. By the time the shock of his murder started to set in, the United States was already approaching a time of disorder and dissent, the likes of which it had seldom seen.
Americans did not expect the turmoil that erupted in the years soon after Kennedy’s death. After all, the nation had mostly managed to maintain a positive outlook throughout the Cold War. In fact, when Kennedy won the presidency, he seemed to be at the forefront of a new wave of American optimism. His talk of a “New Frontier” captured much of that spirit.
There were still crises, of course. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year presented significant peril. And threat of the Soviet Union and international communism were always nearby.
Yet, Americans came through those dangers with much of their optimistic spirit intact. Despite the anxieties of international politics, the future throughout most of 1963 looked bright.
But Kennedy’s murder on November 22 of that year traumatized the nation and shattered its optimism. After his assassination, the world looked considerably darker than Americans had envisioned. Within a few short years, this bleaker world more fully materialized in social upheaval, racial tensions, and the divisive war in Vietnam, all of which fueled social strife and discontent.
None of these problems was entirely new, but they all reached their full fury in the months and years after Kennedy’s death. It was far from the New Frontier that the president had imagined.
In some ways, Kennedy’s death marked the symbolic death of one era and the beginning of a new one of self-doubt and self-loathing, which persists today.
After the assassination, for example, increasing political paranoia became apparent. Arguably, its corrosive effects since then have been as damaging to the American spirit as any actions by an assassin’s bullet or a foreign enemy.
Paranoia in the political realm was not new. Americans already had experience with it when it surfaced in early 1950s at the height of the communist scare. But post-assassination paranoia was more pronounced and more insidious.
In an influential essay after Kennedy’s death, Richard J. Hofstadter observed that “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” was on the rise. He noted how an increasing number of Americans viewed the world in starkly black and white terms. They despised political opponents and avoided compromise. To these people, opponents were not simply people with different ideas. They were immoral and represented evil.
This seems familiar now, but it did not in the 1960s.
This new paranoia was not just confined to a fear of a single enemy, as had been the case regarding communism earlier. Instead, it crept into discussion about American life overall. The new paranoia focused incessantly on what was perceived as America’s moral decline. Communism was just one of many new enemies, as many traditional understandings and ways of doing things changed.
In some respects, a cultural civil war erupted in America not long after Kennedy’s death. By the end of that decade, many of the nation’s central institutions were under siege.
The pervasiveness of these challenges is hard to overstate. The decade of the 1960s was a time of many battles. There was a breakdown of communication between generations, fury about the Vietnam War, and controversies about a host of other issues, such as racial and gender equality and even the place of religion and of government in everyday life.
Each of these was important, but more significant is the fact that all of these controversies raged simultaneously, stretching thin the very fabric of our society.
The Kennedy assassination was not the cause of this strife, of course. But that tragedy marked the beginning of an unsettling era, as if the president’s death unleashed a torrent of long-simmering conflicts. And the conflict was intense. By the end of that decade, it seemed to many Americans that the country was falling apart.
For Americans old enough to remember, it’s difficult to recall John Kennedy’s assassination without also recalling the turmoil that followed it. Younger Americans may not see these things together. They may see the president’s death as a more isolated event.
In the wake of 9/11, it may seem as though the murder of a president half a century ago, and the national crises that followed, are ancient history.
But as we continue to grapple with our own crises, it is useful to recall that those events set the stage for the world we live in. Today’s world of polarized politics, fractured culture, and seemingly endless global conflict is a product of those times. It’s not too late to learn from them.
Gordon Arnold, a resident of Westboro, is Professor of Liberal Arts at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, and the author of several books, including Projecting the End of the American Dream (2013).