|Official Portrait of John F. Kennedy|
Yes, I remember where I was and what I was doing when the word came over the high school loudspeakers that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, and then, a little while later, that he was dead, and we would be sent home for the rest of the day.
Though it was quite a distance, I walked home because they said the buses wouldn't come for several hours -- at the regular time. I was in a daze pondering the meaning of what had happened, pondering, too, whether it could be true.
At the time, the very idea of assassination was almost beyond comprehension. Oh, in the dim and distant past, there had been a number of presidential assassinations, but to hear of one now was simply out of the question. We Americans didn't do those sorts of things. Not any more. We were too advanced for such crude and shocking methods of political change.
But wait. Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated in a coup in Saigon just weeks before, and the news from Southeast Asia was becoming grimmer by the minute as the bonzes insisted upon burning themselves alive in the streets to make a political point about the absence of freedom in South Vietnam, something that seemed odd and abstract given the abundance of propaganda about how much Freedom we were busy spreading in Vietnam with tons of napalm, and throughout the whole wide world with poisons, daggers, exploding cigars, sniper fire, and coups of all sorts -- as opposed to the slavery being imposed wherever they could do it by the perfidious Communists such as those North Vietnamese that were infiltrating the South and causing no end of unpleasantness.
South Vietnam was our artificial overseas satrapy at the time, said to be engaged in a heroic struggle against the titans of the Soviet Union and Red China both of which were poised to invade and conquer through their clients in North Vietnam, at least that was what the propaganda told us, and who were we to disbelieve?
In fact, it was not considered proper at the time to disbelieve anything the government told us, and we were only expected to be critical of media if their "news" differed substantially from government issue. Yes, it was the era of Camelot and all that, but it was still an era of extreme conformity and conventionality, of unquestioned adherence to whatever we were told was "true". It was an era awash in propaganda, primarily anti-Communist propaganda, but there was much more to it than that.
Presidential propaganda around the office and Kennedy and the Kennedy Clan was fierce and constant.
This sort of immersion in propaganda was routine. It was not considered unusual. It wasn't even noticed most of the time, at least not by most people, partly because it was so pervasive and universal -- and it had been going on for so very, very long. The American People became immersed in propaganda and were conditioned to unquestioning acceptance of it ever since WWI and the Wilson Administration's efforts to... persuade... the nation that fighting Over There was in our utmost national interest.
The upshot was instilling unity, conformity, nationalism and patriotism in the whole population. Or at the very least in those parts of the population that mattered.
I often take issue with those who look back on any past era as some sort of ideal. A Golden Age as it were. No, it wasn't. There may have been some aspects of the past that were better than now -- for some people, some of the time -- but much was not better, and when it comes to such matters as propaganda, nationalism and enforced conformity, there is no comparison between now and the early '60's despite all the hoo-hah over domestic surveillance and the rest.
It's almost unimaginable how tight was the control from the top back then. It was tight.
The assassination of President Kennedy shattered all of that into a million pieces, something that seems barely grasped by so many of those looking back this week of the 50th Anniversary of his death.
There are many paeans to him and to Jackie and to his administration, but there is almost no recognition that I've seen that everything that is being celebrated about the all too brief era of Camelot came out of a cultural and social context of intense propaganda and enforced conformity, militarism, nationalism, imperialism, and renewed corporate control of government. Though I have heard and seen some commentary that says "everything changed" after the Assassination (true enough), there seems to be little comprehension of what came before the assassination and what actually changed.
What was it like? What was it like for American rebels prior to 1964, especially?
There were several varieties of American Rebel at the time, none of which were thought to be particularly important or powerful by those on top, but all of which had their positions re-adjusted by the Assassination.
The first among equals (you might say) of the rebels were the Birchers who, in Dallas at any rate, had quite a presence or so it seems reflecting in hindsight. Certainly I, a California high school student, was aware of them, and their agitation against government and particularly against Kennedy and whole fam damly, as we used to say. In fact, early on, before the apprehension of Young Oswald, the Birchers were considered the likeliest culprits in this shocking murder most foul.
Their position declined after the Assassination, though the Birchers remained a public thorn in the side of governments in many areas for years to come. Because there were suspicions about their involvement in the Assassination, however, they seemed to stay on the fringes of rebellion.
The Civil Rights Movement, on the other hand, was given a tremendous boost. The installation of Lyndon Johnson in the White House sealed the deal. There would be an extraordinary outpouring of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation from the White House and Congress following the Assassination. Nothing remotely like it had been seen in this country since the early days of the New Deal. The formerly rebel Civil Rights Movement became mainstream almost overnight, though resistance in the South particularly, though there was resistance in the North as well, continued.
So on the surface at any rate, rightist rebels suffered, while more or less leftist rebels advanced as a consequence of the Assassination. On the surface...
We would see this play out more and more over the next few years as the Student and Anti-War Movements took off, and ultimately as the Counter-Culture solidified, all of which movements were at least ostensibly "leftist."
I've argued elsewhere that there were two separate but sometimes intertwined threads of "leftist" American rebellion in the 1960's following the Kennedy Assassination: Liberationist and Communitarian. They had different aspirations and goals. If one was favored over the other, it was the Liberationist rebellion. At least that was the one constantly in the limelight. The Communitarian rebellion was certainly on no less of a scale, but it never had the media backing that the Liberationist rebellion did -- and still does.
The Liberationist movement started with the student rebellion at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964, about a year after the Assassination, but there were signs of what might be on the horizon with the popularity of the Beatles in the United States initiated in December of 1963, paving the way for their arrival in February of 1964. It may not have seemed like they were a 'rebel' movement, but their influence on the music industry was profound, and through that influence, they and the rest of the British Invasion which was soon to follow had an equally profound cultural influence. A general rebellion by the young had been triggered, perhaps inadvertently, and it would take years for it to be brought back under control.
It was a rebellion focused on liberation from the [errors of the] past. While we may think of it as primarily a "left wing" rebellion, it had plenty of rightist components, and in most respects it was apolitical. It didn't ultimately matter who or what was liberated, all people had a right to be free according to the tenets of the Liberationists, and the Movement would not rest until all people were Free.
Of course, the question was rarely asked: "Free from what? To do what?" Everyone just knew. I think a big part of the reason why the Vietnam War failed was due to that unasked underlying question and the basic fraud of the whole enterprise. The Americans were in Vietnam, we were constantly told by our propagandists, to ensure the "freedom" of the Vietnamese people, and we would kill and burn and destroy them until their liberation was complete. This was -- bluntly -- insane. The insanity of it all would be made abundantly clear after the American withdrawal in 1975 when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia to put a stop to the genocide being undertaken by the Pol Pot regime -- ostensibly for the same purpose: "freedom" from the bourgeois corruption of the past. If that meant millions (more) had to die in pursuit of that "freedom," oh well!
We are being told as part of the 50th Anniversary memorialization and hagiography of President Kennedy that he was trying to get out of Vietnam and "end the Cold War" but I honestly don't believe it for a minute. So far as I can tell, that wasn't his interest or his style. He sent more and more troops ("advisors") to Vietnam, and his efforts to "end the Cold War" were minimal at best. The holy terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which Americans, Cubans and Russians couldn't help anticipating imminent nuclear annihilation, was too recent to forget, and the kind of brinksmanship that represented -- potentially at the cost of hundreds of millions dead -- was much closer to the style of American political and military leadership at the time.
"Dr. Strangelove" was funny-horrible because it was all too true.
I never bought into the "Camelot" marketing of the Kennedy presidency. It was silly. But it represented something we're still living with: the ideal of the presidency as a fictional, even mythological, state of being, the closest to Heavenly we on earth are permitted to see and know. It's a marketing and propaganda ploy that masks what's really going on. We are rarely exposed to... that. And for a moment, a brief, ugly, and shocking moment (a series of them, actually) in November of 1963, we saw a bit of the reality.
It's not a pretty picture. It's not Camelot. The subsequent assassinations in the 1960's were equally as horrifying, but most people seemed to become inured. It was the way things were. Get out of line, the man doesn't just come and take you away, the man shoots your ass.
The strange thing, if we think about it, is that the assassinations of the 1960's (there were quite a few more than the ones we are supposed to remember, btw) paved the way for acceptance of the trigger-happy policing of the Rabble we are seeing today. After seeing so many leaders killed, it became somehow acceptable to see ordinary citizens gunned down on the streets or in their cars or at their homes by the police. It's a practically daily occurrence, and most people seem oblivious.
Given the upheavals that followed the Kennedy Assassination, I'm of a mind to believe that it was a domestic application of the Shock Doctrine. Never let a crisis go to waste. Make the biggest changes during the period of disorientation following a Shock to the System -- which a presidential assassination most certainly is. In other words, even if the Assassination wasn't due to some vast conspiracy -- and I don't know whether it was or wasn't -- the effects of it were the same as if it had been planned and implemented precisely to cause the kind of crisis-changes that came about.
Perhaps the Assassination was the work of the Lone Gunman we're told it was, but even if it was, the result was as if it were the work of a cabal, much as the assassination of President Lincoln almost a hundred years previously led to similar shock, crisis, and fundamental changes in the direction of government and power in this country.
At home that afternoon of November 22, 1963, I watched the coverage on the new color television we'd just gotten. Most of the coverage was in black and white because there had been no time to set up the color cameras. Amid all the frenzy and the talk, there were many moments of sheer bewilderment and exhaustion. Nothing like this had ever happened before in my lifetime, and people of my parents' generation were as confused and disoriented as I was. There was no way, at first, to "make sense of it." We simply watched, rapt, stunned.
Whether intentional or not, that turned out to be the point.