You know, the innocence we retained as we slaughtered several million fascists during World War II, seeing some 400,000 of our own men go down in the process.
The innocence that got us through a couple centuries of chattel slavery and the Civil War that finally ended it.
The innocence we carried as we plundered our way through the wilderness throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, collecting the scalps of Natives as we marched.
Those whimsical adventures were enjoyable enough, but everything was ruined the moment we learned that when a bullet enters the president’s head, candy doesn’t come out the other side.
But I guess, in spite of that trauma, we managed to reclaim our purity sometime in the subsequent 38 years, since we lost it all over again on September 11, 2001.
Apparently national virtuousness is like the car keys. You think it’s gone forever, and then it suddenly turns up in the couch cushions.
Today, it is taken as read that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was one of those coming-of-age moments for an entire generation of Americans: A hinge event that marked the end of one era of history and the start of a newer, scarier one in its place.
As we spend the next month ruminating on the meaning of the Boomer generation’s “I remember where I was” moment, let us devote at least a part of this conversation to the possibility that we have overstated the case, both then and now.
Viewed from a temporal distance and in a wider historical context, the Kennedy assassination is not particularly interesting.
In the century preceding Kennedy’s election in 1960, five of the 18 men who occupied the Oval Office did not get out alive: Three were assassinated, and two more died of natural causes.
As well, the same period saw some half-dozen assassination attempts that failed, either on a sitting president (Harry Truman, Kennedy), a president-elect (Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt) or a former president running for re-election (Theodore Roosevelt).
Further, on the international scene in 1963, bopping off a world leader had become something of a habit amidst the intertwining tensions of the Cold War. Kennedy’s own Central Intelligence Agency had supported the successful coup of South Korean President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed in the ensuing chaos just three weeks before Kennedy’s own death.
What is more, the 1950s had been positively littered with similar CIA-backed shenanigans all over the globe—some successful, some not—and while the American public was not aware of most of these activities at the time, it would have required extraordinary obliviousness for one to assert that the world was not a dangerous place—particularly after October 1962, when the Cuban missile standoff very nearly destroyed the whole bloody planet.
Nor did the Kennedy assassination itself come out of nowhere. Hostility toward the president for myriad perceived crimes (most of these involved capitulating to Communists) had long boiled over among various extremist groups in various pockets of the United States, not least in Texas. If such hatred was not as overt as, say, that of the Tea Party for President Barack Obama, it was hardly a well-kept secret.
So what is this piffle about a sudden loss of national innocence? What could we possibly be talking about?
The Kennedy assassination was a disturbing, tragic episode in a long line of similar calamities throughout the life of the American republic. It is unique because it is the only killing of a commander-in-chief to be reported on live television and, thanks to a bystander named Abraham Zapruder, to be captured on film. And, of course, the only such event remembered by people still alive today.
That’s what it was, and that’s all that it was. Let’s not get carried away.
It is silly and historically ignorant to suggest the murder of the 35th president was somehow the moment everything changed—the biting of the apple that instigated the banishment from Eden and the moral soiling of all mankind. As if the entire history of the world had been rainbows and gumdrops until a leader with great hair and a charming family found himself on the wrong end of a Carcano bolt-action rifle.
In the fall of 1963, were we really that naïve? Were we really that dumb? Are we so solipsistic that we can only comprehend the significance of events that we, ourselves, were around to see? Do we truly think that the world stops spinning the moment we close our eyes?
We Americans are renowned the world over for our short-term memories regarding even the most basic facts of history. Must we reinforce this view by tacitly demonstrating that it’s true?
Is there nothing more noble that we can do for our country?