I used to think of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as a major turning point. The speech, this young man with no overcoat, his clear voice and his inspiring rhetoric, the glamor of Jackie: it had all the appearance of a new era. That is how it probably felt in 1961. I was too young to fully realize it, but where I grew up, in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, Kennedy made us proud. One of us, a Catholic, had become the most powerful man in the world. Paradise could no be far away.
Ever since things have not gone particularly well for Catholicism and neither did they for the historical memory of John F. Kennedy. And now, fifty years later, I know that the tipping point was the assassination, not the inauguration. Kennedy as a rich kid, the son of an ambitious and rather unscrupulous father: that is a story of the postwar period. Sure, Kennedy represented the ideal image of model of a young, dynamic America. He was the symbol of the American Century, tanned, intelligent and above all very young, but he also was very much “of that time”. I now see him as very fifties, as much if not more as his equally young, but much older looking opponent Richard Nixon.
What I know now is that the sixties took off that November 22, 1963. With those pieces of skull scattering in the shocking Zapruder film, the American myth exploded. In one blast America lost its innocence, or what was left of it, at least in the public mind. Of course, presidents had been assassinated before but they were never the most powerful men in the world. At best they were the most powerful Americans. The United States was not all that important back then. This time the assassination was an attack on the Western world, barely one year after the most frightening cold war crisis so far. That is how it felt for Vice President Lyndon Johnson as well, which explains his to some unseemly hurry to be sworn in as President.
That famous photograph of Johnson with a blood spattered Jackie next to him, in that claustrophobic airplane: it is a razor sharp image framing that particular moment. We now know that Jackie was wearing a light salmon-colored suit, but then and there we were still living in a black and white world. All pictures, all movies, all our opinions were still in black and white. So was my world as that Catholic nine year old. In many ways it was the picture of an ending, or, as I like to think now, of a beginning.
Because that day, around one o’clock, as the doctors in the Dallas hospital pronounced John F. Kennedy dead, the sixties started. The world turned upside down. Revolt, chaos, violence, Vietnam and more killings became the standard. And liberation became all the rage. We are still enjoying the gains and suffering the losses of that truncated decade. JFK did not belong to it.
That’s what I will be thinking of, on 22 November, the day blood was spilled and the the modern world was born.
Frans Verhagen ‘s publicist and editor of meiguo.nl. His most recent book was “Lincoln – A brilliant politician” (Historisch Nieuwsblad).