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Henningsen: Kennedy Anniversary

I come to the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination with distinctly mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it was my generation’s Pearl Harbor. Any of us old enough to understand it have never forgotten where we were and what we were doing when we got the news.

As December 7th had been for our parents, November 22nd was our end of innocence. As a thirteen year-old surrounded by shaken teachers and weeping classmates, I felt my safe, 50’s suburban world violently shattered – a precursor, had I but known it, of the next decade. We shared – we were overcome by – a collective sense of deep, unfathomable loss.

One reporter caught the mood, quoting verses from A. E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young”

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

At the time of his death, Kennedy was a so-so president whose entire legislative program was tied up in Congressional committees. Overnight he became our martyred prince, a man of infinite promise cut down in the flower of youth. That was before we knew about the womanizing, the abuse of medication, the lies, the recklessness. Those things we learned later.

Some of us chose, and still choose, not to notice. He saved us from nuclear war over Cuba, the line goes, ignoring the fact that he’d set the stage for the Missile Crisis with his earlier fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. He was a champion of racial equality, it’s said, forgetting that he dragged his feet on Civil Rights and tried to get Dr. King to call off the March on Washington. That Kennedy – the uncertain, conflicted, complex one – rings true to me as an historian in a way that the martyr and the playboy don’t.

But part of the historian’s task is to go beyond narrative and cause-and-effect to recall the feeling of the past. And that’s how I mark this anniversary.

On that day fifty years ago, I had a glimmering of an understanding best expressed by the novelist Philip Roth when he observed that historians cannot recapture the “terror of the unforeseen.” Over time, I came to appreciate what Roth meant. The patch of black ice, the 3 AM phone call, the grim diagnosis – we’ve all been there.

It’s striking that the public events that evoke such terror are all marked by dates, not names – December 7th, November 22nd, 9/11. The shorthand of day and month are enough, no one needs the year. It’s all that’s necessary to bring back the sadness and the terror that comes from experiencing the unforeseen – the unimaginable; to remind us that we are, none of us, fully in control.

Source of Housman poem excerpt cited by The Poetry Foundation as: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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