On this day in 1963: “A shot heard round the world” - the assassination of John F. Kennedy fifty years ago. Civil Rights, the cold war and the “imperial” Janus face of the United States

I should have left it there. Let them see what they've done” - these were the thoughts of Jacqueline Kennedy, shortly after she had wiped off the blood that had been spilled on her as her husband, the President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, had been shot dead just after midday local time on Friday, November 22,1963, in Dallas, as his motorcade passed a cheering crowd at Dealey Plaza in the Texan city.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas at 11.40 a.m. local time. About an hour later, the President was shot  and died the same day, November 22, 1963

It was a “shot heard around the world”. The tragic event of that sunny November afternoon in Texas historically most likely left the strongest mark in the memory of the Baby Boomer (i.e. the immediate post-war) generation not only in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere. In terms of the “collective memory” of that generation, it is probably at least on the same scale as the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 for them and their childrens' generation, that ushered in the end of the “Cold War”, and as, more recently, the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, that so relentlessly has been used by the Bush administration and others as a pretext to violate civil and human rights and basic free-doms, both domestically and internationally (torture, illegal detainment), and to wage a couple of major wars.


“Let them see what they've done” - Jackie's thoughts reflect that it was a highly polarized political climate in the United States, at least as polarized as the current one that Barack Obama is facing. “They” were (and today are) the enemies of a liberal, open society, that the Kennedys embodied and that JFK had strived for in his policies such as the Civil Rights Act, that he initiated but didn't live to see enacted (in 1964). That Act was a major step towards (at least legal) equality for minorities, especially Blacks, in the United States, "giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments”, as Kennedy had announced in his “Civil Rights Address” just five months before his death, on June 11th. At the time of his presidency, racism, opposition to equality and tolerance for all groups of society (blacks, but also other groups such as artists, gays, “hippies”/”freaks”, intellectuals, Jews/Muslims, “liberals” or atheists) were still shown openly and not taboo, and in the southern United States even part of the political main stream; today those tendencies have been more or less pushed towards the right fringes - although you still have shocking cases of people getting away with crimes motivated by racism, as the Zimmermann-Trayvon Martin case in Florida has shown.

Himself not being a true “WASP”, as he was an Irish-American Catholic, the first and so far only one of that background in the Oval Office, John F. Kennedy was one of the major figures contributing to the process of gradual racial emancipation that to this day still, of course, isn't successfully completed by far. The latest and most apparent sign of this gradual process, though, was the election of an at least partially African-American, Barack Obama, into the highest political office, in 2008, and his re-election in 2012. In the 1960s, the election of a non-white president wouldn't have been possible. Racial segregation was still in place then (it was only officially entirely outlawed in 1968 by the Supreme Court); economic discrimination, educational and income inequality are often still running along ethnic lines today.

These election results reflect the increasingly non-white ethnic make-up of the United States and the end of the WASP hegemony; the Tea Party, a radical paleo-conservative group within the Republican Party, formed as a reaction to these trends. It desperately fights against the end of that hegemony, i.e. the end of the rule of gun-slinging, racist, redneck, Social Darwinist white men; they are dreaming of the days of the “frontier” of the 19
th century, promoting an extremist conservatism (anti-Abortion), libertarianism (for small government) and “fiscal darwinism” (further tax reductions for the rich), i.e. of regressing to the 1920s economically, to the 1950s socially and the 1980s (and Bush's 2000s) fiscally.

The circumstances of how JFK, the second-youngest president (after Teddy Roosevelt), born in 1917, i.e. 43 years of age at the time of the election, came into office in 1960 are of course doubtful, to say the least (and today's younger generation knows, from the “selection” of G.W. Bush in 2000, how prone U.S. Presidential elections are to fraud and irregularities). His ties to the mafia, his womanizing and his health problems, that he coped with by taking drugs on a daily basis, are usually a not part of the broader discourse on his legacy. Generally, he was definitely a new type of politician in the White House, stressing publicity and bringing in academics as secretaries rather than party hacks; his and Jacky's lifestyle was dubbed as a new “Camelot”, with JFK as a king surrounded by bright knights of the roundtable.

As for his presidential record aside from the civil rights revolution that he advanced, it is a mixed one: The invasion of the Bay of Pigs was a complete disaster, and by involving the U.S. militarily in Cuba, he contributed to the heightening of the Cuban missile crisis, that brought the antagonistic superpowers of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, on the brink of a nuclear war for about thirteen days in October 1962. JFK was a major player in avoiding the catastrophe by keeping the hawks in his military, who were willing to “solve” the crisis in a heavy-handed way, in check. As a consequence, nuclear war became even more of a taboo and the paradigm change caused by the realization of the danger of “mutually assured destruction” in such a nuclear war led to a more diplomatic and conciliatory fashion in the bipolar confrontation between Washington and Moscow and their respective territorial blocks and spheres of power. As for the now-notorious war in Vietnam, Kennedy's approach was limited military action there, reluctantly. In April 1963, he stated, very bluntly: "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point.”

He turned out to be right, it ended disastrously for the United States a decade later. But because of the geopolitical strategies of the U.S. against “the spread of communism” (the “domino theory”) and to show strength with regard to a possible re-election, he concluded: “I can't give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me". The escalation of that war, however, the biggest and costliest one in U.S. history, and the atrocities and war crimes committed by the U.S. military there, causing major outrage in the public sphere at home and abroad, came after his assassination. That assassination and what followed under JFK's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, in Vietnam and elsewhere (Agent Orange, My Lai massacre etc.), as well as the “Imperial Presidency” of Richard Nixon and the “Conservative Revolution” of Ronald Reagan, destroyed the image of JFK's more liberal United States and uncovered the “imperial” face of the superpower, and its promotion of neo-liberal economic policies under Reagan and his successor since then plunged the world into a financial and economic crisis. Due to all this, and the latest revelations of massive surveillance of the politicians and populations of so-called “friends” and allied nations, the popularity of the United States today is, in contrast to the days, when JFK appealed to people both at home and abroad (e.g. on his trip to Ireland and Berlin in June 1963), at a historic low.

The circumstances of his assassination belong to the most mysterious obscurities in history and instead of clarity and transparency, obfuscation has prevailed; what really happened that Friday afternoon at Dealy Plaza, Dallas, has remained controversial, to put it mildly, to this day. The (initial) suggestions of the lone assassin Lee Harvey Oswald shooting JFK have been dismissed, as the bullet hitting the president's head came from a different angle and as the shots fired in all likelihood came from more than one shooter; instead, it is mostly agreed that JFK was the target and victim of a conspiracy. Did Jack Ruby shoot Oswald, a Communist, who was immediately blemished as the killer by the main stream media and much of the public, to cover up the traces of that conspiracy? And what was the motive of that conspiracy, who was behind it? A number of commissions have been set up, and comprehensive accounts of the Dallas events themselves exist, but - at least for the majority of the public who have not dealt with the matter intensely - huge question marks remain on the background of the deed that shocked the world fifty years ago.

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