Most of those of us in our late fifties or older remember where they were 50 years ago, the day president John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Fewer remember where America was on that fateful fourth Friday of November 1963. The trauma of the murder of a young and glamorous president and the political upheaval that emerged in the decade that followed blurs the memory of where America stood in political, economic, social and international terms in the autumn of 1963.
A generation that had come of age in the Great Depression and had borne the burden of World War II, provided Kennedy – one of their own – with his margin of victory in 1960. Many who survived the battlefields of Western Europe and the Pacific basin returned home with the determination to free the world of totalitarianism and bloodshed and to end racial discrimination and economic inequality at home. The Korean and Cold Wars and the seemingly complacent attitude of the Eisenhower administration delayed the realization of these hopes.
Kennedy’s campaign convincingly addressed the accumulated impatience of his generation, promising to move America forward in the ‘60s.
In early 1963, two years into his administration, Kennedy was suffering politically from the very expectations he had generated. His approval rating reached its low point – 51 percent in the Gallup poll – largely because of liberal perceptions that he was moving too cautiously in the areas of civil rights, economic reform and disarmament.
But by November 22, impatience had turned to cautious optimism that perhaps America was about to turn a corner in these areas. Tn 1963 the Kennedy administration had intensified its involvement in the struggle against racial discrimination in the south. Just a few weeks later, two African Americans, flanked by federal marshals, brushed past a truculent Governor George Wallace and entered the formerly all-white University of Alabama.
On June 16, 1963, four days after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers Jr. in Mississippi, the president introduced a civil rights bill into congress.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, unlike its predecessors in 1957 and 1960, had strict enforcement powers, and its eventual enactment dealt a decisive blow to racial discrimination.
In the autumn of the previous year the Cold War between the west and the Soviet empire had brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict. By the autumn of 1963 however, the rhetoric had been toned down and the United States and the Soviet Union had signed a treaty that banned above-ground testing of nuclear devices. The nation was responding positively to Kennedy’s call to move from confrontation to peaceful competition and even cooperation between the two great powers.
The United States was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom driven by the Kennedy administration’s tax cut, which accomplished its goal of increasing middle class consumption. The resulting leap in corporate profits actually brought more revenue into government coffers.
The writings of Michael Harrington and others had exposed the remaining stubborn pockets of poverty in the world’s richest country, including the potato fields of Maine, the urban ghettos and rural Appalachia. It was almost universally believed that America had the money and the know-how to eliminate them for good.
The fresh optimism had resulted in a spike in the president’s popularity. By that fourth Friday in November he was the odds-on favorite to defeat either of the two leading Republican candidates for president in the upcoming 1964 elections: Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
The GOP was sundered by the ideological warfare between the supporters of both candidates, and neither was as personally popular as the younger incumbent president.
In the 1962 midterm elections, the Democrats had scored impressive victories in a string of states that had supported the Republican national ticket in 1960s.
This had given Kennedy’s political strategists hope that they could win handsomely in 1964, despite the expected sharp losses in the deep south.
In those days two issues did however concern the president and his advisors as they began to plan his reelection campaign: Vietnam and the White backlash in the Northern and Midwestern cities. In this context, two events that took place close together gave Democrats reason to worry that their mandate would be reduced in 1964.
On November 2, 1963, South Vietnam’s dictator Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown in an American-engineered coup. Diem and his powerful brother, Security Chief Ngo Dinh Nhu, were murdered by assassins in the pay of the CIA.
For days afterward the angry face of Nhu’s wife filled the world’s television screens as she accused the Kennedy administration of betraying her family, the people of South Vietnam and the anti-Communist cause. Kennedy knew he was reaching a crossroads in South Vietnam – a “fish or cut bait” moment.
The 15,000 American military personnel serving in advisory positions in that country were floundering in their efforts to get the South Vietnamese Army to fight effectively enough to stop the spreading Communist control of the countryside.
Many in military and diplomatic circles warned that the only way to prevent the Communist takeover of that country and the rest of Indochina was to send tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of American soldiers into combat. Otherwise, the administration might just have to pull out and let South Vietnam fall quickly and quietly to the Communist forces.
Kennedy did not want to make this unpalatable choice before the upcoming elections. He hoped the installation of a stable, democratic regime in Saigon would boost the South Vietnamese will to fight and at least buy time before he made his decision.
Then, in August 1965, the African-American neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles exploded in a riot that left 34 dead. In the years following the violence spread to other cities. As the Kennedy political operatives began to sense, it would drive a wedge between crucial components of the Democratic Party.
Three months later, in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, an American search-and-destroy squad found itself surrounded by a large North Vietnamese force, and sustained heavy casualties fighting its way out of the trap. The massive buildup of American forces had begun earlier that year and until Ia Drang had proceeded with little opposition. In the months following Ia Drang opposition to the American intervention in Vietnam grew and came to dominate the political discourse, eventually ripping at the very heart and soul of Kennedy’s Democratic Party.
Within a few short years of his assassination, the political order that had carried Kennedy to the pinnacle of power imploded. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was buried in the fallout. The Liberal promise of the autumn of 1963 would be eclipsed by a new Conservative political order that gave America Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Would Kennedy’s New Frontier have coped better than Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in dealing with the domestic and foreign crises that arose in the mid and late Sixties? The forces in the Democratic Party that drove Johnson from power certainly thought so, and invoked the dead president’s name at every opportunity to wound his successor.
But many scholars of history think otherwise.
They claim that no leader tied to the political order established by Franklin D. Roosevelt could have withstood the upheaval that grew out of the violence in the city streets and the bloodshed on the battlefields on Indochina.
Yet 50 years on, we are still obsessed with what might have been if Kennedy had lived to finish his tenure in office.
There are still more than a few Americans who would part with a king’s ransom to travel back in time and convince president John F. Kennedy not to make that fatal journey to Dallas.The author is a native of Wilmington, Delaware, who made aliyah in 1980 and is employed by Bank Leumi’s Banking Expertise Center in Lod.