Todd Gitlin’s account of how the JFK assassination affected the New Left
The Sixties, pages 311 ff.
"To think about the
enormous repercussions of the assassination of 1968, we need to backtrack to the
imagery and mood of a more general Armageddon, for which the triggering moment
is the assassination of 1963. Kennedy, King, Kennedy: they sometimes felt like
stations in one protracted murder of hope.
"There are times when an entire culture takes the shape of a single event, like rows of iron filings lined up by the force of a magnet. What is assassination, after all, if not the ultimate reminder of the citizen’s helplessness—or even repressed murderousness? Instantly the killing creates an abrupt contest between Good and Evil, albeit with the wrong ending. The country had weathered the assassination of a president three times before, but every assassination is special in its own way; it must be for good and profound reason that virtually every person can remember exactly where and when he or she heard the dread news of November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy had been relatively young, his death untimely in the extreme.
"This was, after all, the first assassination in the age of television, even the first to be captured on film—the home movie of an instantly famous furrier named Abraham Zapruder, some frames destined to appear in Life, others to be brandished by assassination researchers. Thanks to the wonders of instant replay, television drove the event, and its grotesque sequel—Jack Ruby’s live on-camera assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald—like a nail into the collective brain. Mysteries multiplied. John F. Kennedy’s murder was untimely and shocking, yes, but also peculiarly hard to comprehend (who was Oswald? What did he want? Who, if anyone, did he work for?); hence it begged for symbolic deciphering. American culture struggled to make sense of the apparently senseless. Fatalism flourished; the power of the will to prod history in the right direction was blunted. One common conclusion was that even the steadiest of institutions, the august presidency, was fragile indeed. The Camelot legend was recycled; moments of grace and glory don’t last. Some would-be rationalists resolved to cling to President Johnson in the storm, to find a compensatory good in the horror; others cringed from the graceless successor, who could never measure up to the dead Kennedy.
"From the national mélange of rational optimism and free-floating paranoia, and in the face of widely cited mysteries drifting foglike from cracks in the official accounts of the assassination, there emerged conspiracy theories galore. The Warren Commission Report, released on September 27, 1964, was shoddy enough, but something else was operating to discredit it: a huge cultural disbelief that an event so traumatic and vast in its consequence could be accounted for by a petty assassin. Popular books, starting with Mark Lane’s 1966 best-selling Rush to Judgment, punched holes in the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald was the lone assassin. Serious journals like The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and Ramparts, not to mention the more sensationalist underground papers, regaled their readers with tale after tale about exit wounds, gunshots from the grassy knoll, missing frames of the Zapruder film, the accuracy of Mannlicher-Carcano rifles, exotic Cuban émigrés, mysteriously murdered witnesses, double agents, double Oswalds. Many objections to the official line were convincing, but one had to become a full-time assassination obsessive to keep up with the intricacies. Not to be outdone, the far Right looked to Oswald’s Russian period and his ostentatious Fair Play for Cuba connection, covering up its hatred of the living Kennedy by clambering onto the side of the dead one.
"There was trauma for young radicals, too. In the months and years after November 22, 1963, Tom Hayden, Dick Flacks, and I were given to playing with the concept of Oswald as “lurker.” History, which we aspired to make, was now being made behind our (and virtually everyone’s) backs; we were fascinated by the conspiracy theories, impressed by their critiques of the Warren Commission, doubtful of the single-assassin idea though unconvinced of any single conspiracy. For years thereafter, late at night, amid our sage analyses of political forces, the thought of lurkers would leap up, and we would must about the havoc these apparently marginal men had wrought. We who were proud of having shed every last illusion about John F. Kennedy shared in the national trauma; up to the last possible moment we held on, white-knuckled, to the scraps of hope for legitimate heroes. Our intuition knew better than our passions that radicalism and liberalism were joined in a symbiosis.
"Then the Kennedy trauma was compounded by the assassination of Malcolm X in February 1965. In the official version, it was a simple case of loyal Black Muslims shooting down the apostate; but movement people duly noted that Malcolm on his recent trip to Africa and the Middle East was departing from his racial purism and pulling closer to the white Left. A number of white New Leftists who had met Malcolm had been impressed with his thoughtfulness, his apparent freedom from personal prejudice. Although there had been rumblings of danger, Malcolm had been left unprotected by the police; how could we fail to wonder whether there was a government claw in his back?
"Some black activists adopted Malcolm as a martyr to black separatism, others to world revolution. His death fueled both. By the time Martin Luther King was shot down., there was no way to resurrect the nonviolence he had stood and died for."
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