The American Condition
(Editorial in The Nation, 21 December 1963, page 425)
The “American character” is at best a nebulous notion—which is one
of the reasons for setting up committees on “un-American” activities to
enshrine and defend it. Thus it was inevitable, in the wake of the Kennedy
assassination, that our national make-up should be examined and found wanting by
one set of diagnosticians, while another would focus on our ancient virtues and
describe the act as one of isolated lunacy. Better still, Lee H. Oswald was not
really an American at all, and America emerges pure and strong, the victim of a
foreign invader. “We think,” the New York Daily News editorialized on
Thanksgiving Day, “most Americans are going to go right on hating Reds—and
the more so because one of these rodents killed a much-loved U.S. President.”
In more parliamentary language, this is the stand taken by Senator Thruston B. Morton of Kentucky. “It was not a flaw in the American system or the American character that struck down John Kennedy,” Mr. Morton declared in the Senate. Oswald was “a stranger to the American heritage” and his “mind had been warped by an alien violence, not by a native condition.” Therefore: “let us not mourn for the American soul—for that soul is stout and lighted by truth and faith.…What happened was not America’s fault.”
A comforting declaration—but we cannot wash our hands of Oswald so easily. Assuming that everything happened as the FBI says, he was still a product of Texas (and of New York City), of the American lower-middle class, of the U.S. Marines, and so on. All these places and associations are as American as baseball. He defected, to the extent that he took up residence in the Soviet Union and married a Russian woman, but he was surely the weirdest character that ever avowed himself a follower of Marx. In this phase, moreover, his life followed a predictable cycle; when he returned to the United States he began writing a book denouncing the Soviet Union. Nor was he the self-martyring type of political assassin; like any gangster, he tried to escape and, in trying, he committed a second murder.
No, Oswald, as much as America, had a soul, or character, and it was a part of the vast collective soul of America. Nor was Oswald alone: millions of Americans disliked John F. Kennedy to the point of frenzy. Those millions are inescapably part of the American character. They are not predominant—who ever said they were? But they exist and must be reckoned with. It is no service to the country to ignore them.
There is violence in the American character, probably more than in any other national character. Looking at TV or at our children’s toys, who can doubt it? Oswald expressed that violence in his own fashion. Violence can change from the potential state to the kinetic in any part of the country; but the tensions are greatest, and the transitions most likely, in the South. Thus, with all the good will that we know must exist in a city as large as Dallas, there is a kind of social determinism in the fact that the three crimes—the assassination and the subsequent murders—were committed there. It could have been Jackson or Montgomery or New York but, on the record, as Reece McGee demonstrates (p. 427 of this issue), it almost had to be Texas, and in Texas, Dallas.
Rather than rush to the defense of the American character, Senator Morton and other apologists might first try to understand it. They can get some help, if they choose. Two days after the President’s assassination a great and good American, John LaFarge, S.J., died, almost unnoticed in the tumult. In 1960 he had said: “I am seriously concerned about the moral fiber of America. I’m more afraid of internal decay than I am of external danger.…I see in this country a moral erosion which is the result of our great affluence, our comfortable living, our preoccupation with personal security and our lavish expenditure on luxuries, stimulated by the ever-increasing pressure of advertising.” Father LaFarge knew quite a lot about the American condition.
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