Jack Kennedy’s one hundredth birthday happens to fall on Memorial Day this year. Time put out a special commemorative issue that you can pick up at the supermarket checkout if you like. Publishers can generally pick up a few extra bucks if they put Jackie or Jack on the cover of a magazine. Yet nearly fifty-four years after Kennedy gave his fateful commencement address at American University, on June 10, 1963, memories of Kennedy are more complicated than photographs on magazine covers.
Most complicated is that we Americans have not acknowledged the shame we ought to feel about our response to his death. Imagine you are part of an elite military unit, and your commanding officer is cut down in an ambush by traitors within the group. Some want to say it’s friendly fire, others want to say it’s enemy fire. No one one wants to say the truth: the ambush was planned as an execution and disguised to look like a tragedy – an operation carried out and covered up by soldiers who wanted a new leader. Some members of the unit point to evidence that the imagined, tragic version of events does not stand up, but other members force dissenters to stay quiet. Unit cohesion requires it.
For fifty years and more Americans cannot imagine what would happen to their country were they to acknowledge the truth about Kennedy’s death, and act on it.
For fifty years and more Americans cannot imagine what would happen to their country were they to acknowledge the truth about Kennedy’s death, and act on it. Conflict and disunity, they believe, would be more than the nation’s connective tissue could handle. Significantly, the conflict we all wanted to avoid came anyway. The public violence and conflict that consumed the country, primarily from August 1968 in Chicago, until May 1970 at Kent State, easily surpassed people’s fears about what might happen as a result of the Vietnam war.
We still live with our silence and passivity about events in Dallas. We’re not silent or passive about Trump’s election to the White House, yet people who talk about the price we paid for keeping mum after November 1963 still risk being dismissed as conspiracy theorists. If we make accuracy and true belief about Kennedy’s murder a living part of our history, however, we do not have to let the assassins’ heirs press us down forever. We can still call them to account. Meantime, remember Jack Kennedy’s 100th birthday. That’s better than remembering nothing at all.