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JFK and the 1960s

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
November 20, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

Americans love their royalty, and reserve a special place in their heart for the royal of all royal families, the Kennedy clan.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States. So we are gorging on a dizzying array of special editions of magazines and newspapers, television documentaries, books and editorials about the man, his presidency, his glamorous wife, his extended family, and of course the many open questions about his assassination, who did it, and why.

Most of the images and commentary leave me uncertain about what kind of president or leader Kennedy actually was. Most of his grand achievements, at least as told by the intellectual policy elite that crafted and protected his image, are in the realm of foreign policy: that speech at the Berlin Wall or facing down Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles in Cuba. Even the Bay of Pigs gets a bravo because he took responsibility for its failure.

His domestic legacy is far from clear: he laid the groundwork for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but his critics wonder if he was prepared to give racial equality the full force of his office.

JFK's decade, the 1960's, is often and correctly associated with major social transformations in the United States. But then as now, the country was highly polarized. The McCarthy era pitted Americans against one another in the 1950's. This poison seeped into the 1960's, nevertheless a decade of free love, peace protests, civil rights, and free speech.

Americans don't like to think of their country's recent history as one rife with political assassination: first JFK, then in 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr., and later that year, as presidential contender, Bobby Kennedy.

Mythology and martyrdom of these three men have in some ways obscured the public discussion of the decade as one not just of Cold War violence abroad, in Vietnam, but of polarizing, bitter, angry, outrageous violence at home.

What puzzles me about the JFK assassination is that unlike the bold moral vision and bravery of MLK or the call to progressive social action of RFK, his policy agenda was not especially controversial. Yes, his Catholicism was a first. But his liberal anti-communism, his family's patriotic service and moderate political sensibilities, his personal charisma, did not add up to extremism of any kind.

The cumulative effect of considering the numerous theories behind his assassination—the lone shooter, the CIA, Castro, Texas oil interests, LBJ, the Mafia, etc…—leaves me gravitating to a far less satisfactory conclusion: in thinking about that day in Dallas, and adoring JFK and Jackie, we paradoxically turned a blind eye to the currents of conservative political culture that were very much part of the Kennedy era.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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