JFK and the myth of American innocence


'JFK' by Chris Johnston features the Kennedys in Arthurian garb with Camelot in the back ground. A rifle sight trains on John F.Unlike many other people who were alive at the time, I can't claim to remember precisely where I was or what I was doing when I heard the news of the 20th century's most written-about assassination. I was eight years old on 22 November 1963 (it was 23 November here in Australia, across the international dateline) when Lee Harvey Oswald — and perhaps another — shot dead the then US president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas. But I vividly recall the global outpouring of grief that ensued, and in which my parents, my older brother and I shared.

Oswald — and perhaps another, too. I say this because it is not possible to avoid acknowledging the swamp of conspiracy theories that the world's media has so assiduously dredged by way of marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. And also to announce that in what follows I shall not wade into the swamp.

This is not because I have any wish to defend the Warren commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone. I have no idea who 'really' killed JFK. It is because for me the most interesting thing about his death is not the elusive answer to the question, 'Whodunit?', but the particular quality of grief that the assassination elicited.

It was not only a matter of mourning the violent death of a world leader who, at the time, was much admired. It was also a sense that something uniquely precious had been irreparably lost. That sense has withered under reassessments of Kennedy's character and record in office but it has never been extinguished entirely. If it had, the 50th anniversary of his death would be getting scarcely any attention at all.

It was in the aftermath of the assassination that I first heard some television pundit use the phrase 'loss of innocence' to describe the popular mood in the US. It was a silly notion even then. Were we supposed to believe that Americans had somehow retained their innocence — whatever may be meant by that — during three previous presidential assassinations, including the first, that of Abraham Lincoln, which was the tragic culmination of a catastrophic civil war? Loss of innocence, as much for Americans as for anyone else on the planet, goes with the human condition. Innocence is what you're already starting to lose when you're eight years old.

Nonetheless the notion stuck that something called innocence had been lost because of what had happened in Dallas. Nor was this diagnosis plucked from pop sociology confined to the US. Other nations under the political and cultural sway of the US, including Australia, lapped it up and applied it to themselves as the '60s unfolded and eight-year-olds eventually turned into teenagers.

Virtually all the social and political discontents of the time, from dissension over the Vietnam War to confusion over what was described as a sexual revolution, were deemed to reflect a loss of innocence. It was a plastic notion that could be invoked with convenient imprecision by adherents of left and right, by peace activists and cold warriors, by advocates of a new morality and by those who inveighed against the crumbling of the old one.

And when another Kennedy was assassinated, at the height of the decade's upheavals in 1968, it seemed to many to confirm the notion that the world, especially the West and above all the US, had been in a downward spiral since the death of his older brother five years earlier in Dallas.

By the time Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Francis Kennedy in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, memories of what had been dubbed Camelot — the JFK years in the White House — had become an unspoken but always present element in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This is one of the many ironies in the Kennedy family saga, since RFK was running on an anti-Vietnam War platform, whereas JFK's chief Vietnam legacy was his administration's complicity in the coup that deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Diem's rule had been brutally repressive, but that of the frequently corrupt succession of generals who followed him was hardly any better.

Any apparent conflicts between the actions of the Kennedy White House and the goals of the younger Kennedy's presidential campaign were eclipsed, however, by the widespread belief that escalation of the war was essentially the responsibility of President Lyndon Johnson, and that JFK had in fact been looking for what would now be called an exit strategy. The evidence for this latter contention has always been thin and dubious, but it, too, persists as part of the golden legend of Camelot.

So does the belief that JFK was a bold, assertive champion of civil rights; there is certainly rhetorical evidence for this view, but the legislation that actually changed the lives of blacks and other minorities in the US was pushed through Congress by the Johnson administration. Yet RFK's immersion in civil-rights causes — I can still see him as we did on the nightly television news, singing 'We Shall Overcome' with Latino farm workers or congregations in black churches — was portrayed as a mission to complete what his brother began but had since been interrupted.

Lost innocence. Camelot. What keeps alive the belief that something special was lost on 22 November 1963? It certainly isn't the evidence. Some attribute phrases like 'lost innocence' to a peculiarly American propensity to conceive of the drama of politics through the puritan imagery of grace and redemption. Maybe, but the lure of Camelot extended far beyond American shores and still does. Even curmudgeonly, unpuritanical Antipodean hacks like me might admit in our more honest moments that we are susceptible to it, however much we might know better. The eight-year-old boy has not entirely vanished, though his innocence has.

Are the flickerings of yearning for Camelot such a bad thing? Insofar as they reflect an all too human desire for a politics that subordinates the wielding of power to some noble purpose, probably not. But the greater lesson of JFK's Camelot lies in the tarnishing of the golden legend itself: noble purposes can deceive when they come clothed in the trappings of power. 

Ray Cassin headshotRay Cassin is a contributing editor.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, JFK



submit a comment

Existing comments

I heard it on the news in the kitchen at home. Also, eight years old. In a letter written in the week of the assassination the novelist Flannery O’Connor expressed deep concern to a friend about the televised events in Dallas. She was shocked that the footage of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald was screened repeatedly and wondered what kind of effect this was having on those watching at home. The same can be said for the Zapruder film. Americans had become used to seeing killings on TV every day: Westerns and war movies and gangster films. What they were not used to seeing was their leader and his purported assassin murdered in broad daylight on TV in their lounge rooms, over and over again. This was quite a new experience, one they were not prepared for, at all. A similar sense of unreality set in during the 11th and 12th of September in 2011, as networks worldwide gave endless loops of the second plane going into the Tower. In the end the protests, especially from people in New York, called a halt to this kind of insensitive sensory damage.
Philip Harvey | 21 November 2013

Ray, for once I substantially agree! Well written & argued. Kennedy was the pre-eminent "image" president - preceded by Woodrow Wilson and then FDR. With his photogenic looks and audiogenic voice, He was, I think, also the first "cuddly" president - women swooned and men voted for him out of envy-laden guilt. Bill Clinton picked up that constituency, as did Bob Hawke here. He was also manipulative ("Profiles in Courage" - plagiarised) and unfaithful, but the media wasn't ready to spoil the narrative. (Imagine the treatment of the curmudgeonly Nixon in the same situation.) His biggest tragedy was to make the "my beliefs as a Catholic won't influence my political decisions" incoherent and heretical distinction, which has been enthusiastically adopted by all Catholic politicians since who plan to get to the top. Unfortunately Tony Abbott seems not to be an exception. One last point: Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died on the same day. In spite of the continuing lather even now about Kennedy - based on hubris - they'll certainly be reading "Brave New World" and much of Lewis in a thousand years' time. They might remember Kennedy because of the moon landing. And that's as it should be. RIP JFK, AH & CSL.
HH | 21 November 2013

Yes, Ray, memories are not only important, they are essential especially when they are subjected to the scrutiny of historical perspective. Good interpretation of the history of an individual, a culture or a people, to be healthy and transparent should involve a objective critique of those elements which are embarrassing to the memory. The embarrassments of JFK's personal life should never be glossed over, nor will they ever be. The acceptance by a society of the of the flaws, failures and 'sinfulness' of its heroes is a powerful indication of the strength and confidence of that society. JFK was a flawed man personally, to the point of great embarrassment for many. He was also a man of great brilliance and insight. He surrounded himself in those Cold War years with, in his view, the best of the best to advise and counsel him. Maybe now, within the perspective of all these decades, thinking, reasonable, compassionate people might come to acknowledge that probably one of the greatest services done on behalf of humanity was done by JFK. He second guessed, bluffed and vastly outwitted the Soviets over Cuba and Western Europe. He moved the pieces on the diplomatic chess board earlier and more successfully than the late comers on the world stage. JFK did the thinking back then. He stopped thermonuclear annihilation of the world. Reagan did the finishing work by out-spending the foe and knocking down their wall. On the conservative Catholic side of the conversation, it was JP II all along who was the mover and shaker. Reagan just simply represented a medieval extension of the Church's enforcer, the secular arm. History will determine whether or not the hagiographies of these two characters are justified in fact or just confected in order to support an ideology incapable of bearing the examination of the 'embarrassment' principle,
David Timbs | 22 November 2013

I am surprised that this article doesnt seem to be aware of the recent investigation that reveals that the death of JFK was caused by the accidental firing of a sevret service weapon from a car behind the vehicle carrying the Kennedys. Surely this unfortunate mistake and the intentional cover up which ensued, adds another layer to the notion of lost innocence.
Val | 22 November 2013

I'm not so sure if it was the loss of innocence as much as the loss of optimism. Kennedy was seen as the symbol of a new America, a new generation. There was a confidence about America that was personified in the person of Kennedy. This article seems to criticise America and Kennedy rather too easily. I wouldn't mind seeing the evidence the author has for the claims he makes about Kennedy. Regarding Vietnam, credible journalists of the time such as Thurston Clarke have no doubt that Kennedy would have pulled combat troops out of Vietnam, whereas it was Johnson who left them there. Kennedy was certainly no saint, but perhaps his greatest legacy, as others have said, is the fact that life on this planet still exists. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis was undoubtedly his greatest achievement.
Nils | 22 November 2013

Ray is wise not to “wade into the swamp” of theories about the assassination. Anyone who has read the years and years of theories on this subject reads Val with some scepticism. If an investigation had really “revealed” that the death of JFK was caused by the accidental firing of a secret service weapon, as claimed, it would be over every American newspaper. It is just one more theory to add to all the other unfortunate mistakes and intentional cover ups related to this event. Rational Americans, and especially those who live in Dallas, are much more ordinary about what happened. They agree with Norman Mailer in his compendious analysis who, after everything, concludes that JFK was killed by none other than Lee Harvey Oswald. This is the sort of anticlimax that no one wants to hear about. John Wilkes Booth certainly shot Abraham Lincoln.
GRASSY KNOLL | 22 November 2013

After his put down of JFK and of the "innocence" we lost ("optimism" is a better word), Mr. Cassin reverses his field with this: Are the flickerings of yearning for Camelot such a bad thing? Insofar as they reflect an all too human desire for a politics that subordinates the wielding of power to some noble purpose, probably not." Make up your mind, Mr. Cassin.
ROBERT BLAIR KAISER | 22 November 2013

Best piece I've read, Ray, and I'm in New Jersey, so the competition has been considerable. After innocence, fall, and then redemption? Is that what keeps the once-8-year boy hopeful - about America, and generally? But hack? You kid. Don't be silly. Thanks! Morag
Morag Fraser | 23 November 2013

Robert Kennedy was shot in the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel, LA, not the ballroom.
Margaret | 23 November 2013

I have gone back to read Flannery O’Connor’s Letters (‘The Habit of Being’, ed. by Sally Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979). How wonderful they are, still. On the 23rd itself she writes with sang froid: “I am sad about the President. But I like the new one.” Remember, she lived in Georgia. On the same day, the day of the assassination, she writes to the Fitzgeralds: “The President’s death has cut the country up pretty bad. All commercial television is stopped until after the funeral and even the football games called off, which is about the extremest sign of grief possible. It’s going to take all the wind out the sails of Southern politics, which has been operating exclusively on a ‘damn the Kennedys’ basis…” For those unfamiliar with O’Connor, her droll remark about football is typical of her humour. Then on the 28th she writes, and this is what I remember (see above): “We spent most of the weekend looking at the sad events [President Kennedy’s funeral] on television. It made me wonder if children draw any line between history and fiction. Murder in the living room. We saw Oswald killed three times, twice in slow motion. What do they make of it?” Elsewhere in the letter she talks about the document on Jews under discussion at the Vatican Council, by this time underway, and about how her pet burro was planned to take part in the forthcoming Christmas crib at Church, with concerns that she would eat all the hay. Within three months of this letter most of the children mentioned in her letter would be seeing for the first time the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Philip Harvey | 23 November 2013


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up