I was in my school assembly on that fateful Friday when our head teacher told us President Kennedy had been assassinated.
The days afterwards introduced me for the first time to the concept of “rolling news”. Schedules on the two TV channels we had in 1963 were ripped up as events in Dallas were relayed to us in fuzzy black and white pictures. American commentators referred to the city’s shopping malls and the Deeley Plaza, features of urban design unknown to me at the time.
By the Saturday, with President Johnson installed, we all wondered how would the TV Show “That Was The Week That Was” deal with this? Normally full of irreverent satire, instead the show’s singer, Millicent Martin, donned a black dress to sing “In the Summer Of His Years”.
The rolling news coverage had further drama on the Sunday when Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself killed by Jack Ruby who was outraged at Oswald’s action.
Whether you believe that last paragraph or join 80% of the American people who now think there was a more sinister explanation of the events in Dallas is up to you. I don’t want to detain you with all the conspiracy theories that have everyone from the CIA and Lyndon Johnson to the military and the mob wanting Kennedy dead. Suffice to say that when the Warren Commission reported in 1964 that Oswald had acted alone, most Americans believed it. The came Vietnam and Watergate which eroded confidence in U.S institutions and allowed the conspiracy theorists to be believed.
My school friends and I were genuinely distressed at the news from Dallas. I suppose it was partly a teenage realisation that bad, violent things were going to happen in our lives just as they had in our parents. It was also because we genuinely admired this cool President and his glamorous wife. The ending of the Presidency of dowdy Dwight Eisenhower and the inauguration of Jack Kennedy with that declaration “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”, seemed to chime with the arrival of the Beatles and the swinging sixties. Our generation had arrived and Jack Kennedy was our champion.
But what if he had lived? It is likely he would have got a second term and left office in 1969. Would his bright progressive image have remained untarnished? Probably not. The big question here is Vietnam. Even during Kennedy’s thousand days, the number of American “advisors” in South Vietnam was growing. The communist regime in North Vietnam had responded. Some believe that Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam and would have done so after re-election. But this was a man of the cold War era. He had tried to invade Cuba and then faced down the Soviet Union over the deployment of nuclear weapons on that island.
If he had followed the course of his successor and heavily committed American ground forces, he might have left office with the voices of protest ringing in his ears “Hey, hey JFK (not LBJ) how many kids have you killed today?”
There is also the issue of civil rights. It is a legislative fact that it was Johnson not Kennedy that swept away the last vestiges of segregation in the American South. Kennedy soft peddled on reform believing he needed the support of southern Democrats, many of whom were hostile to desegregation. As it was LBJ faced major race riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Could things have been worse with a second term Kennedy administration unwilling to accede to the demand for black rights?
The events in Dallas fifty years ago prevent us answering these questions.