What effect did the assassination of John F. Kennedy have on the course of United States history?
The assassination of President Kennedy could be considered the start of a radical decline in the way in which the American people view their political system. While Kennedy was not the first U.S. president to be assassinated, his youth, vigor and eloquence gave many Americans a sense of rejuvenation following the Eisenhower Presidency and the period of McCarthyism that ran through the first half of the 1950s. While the Eisenhower Administration can be credited for a number of successes, the age of the former president, and the cynicism many saw in his vice president, Richard Nixon, stood in stark contrast to the vibrancy of Kennedy's candidacy. The notion of “Camelot,” of a presidency that was royal in heritage and demeanor and that was youthful and physically attractive, gave the appearance of a new age in American politics and government. All of that was swept aside with the assassination on November 22, 1963.
While the later candidacy of Kennedy’s brother Robert reinstilled in some, particularly among liberals, that previously lost sense of innocence and hope, Robert’s assassination, occurring the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., further dragged popular perceptions of American politics and history down into an abyss. Increasing disenchantment with the war in Vietnam combined with racial tensions reached its peak at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, further cementing the perception of a broken political system.
The Watergate scandal of the early 1970s was the final straw for many Americans, as cynicism regarding politics and the institutions of government reached new heights.
In considering the effect of Kennedy’s assassination on the course of American history, then, one would need to contemplate whether that tragic event presaged the events that followed. Certainly, one could make the argument that, had the assassination never occurred, the United States would have pursued a different path. Much of that, however, is speculation, and discussions of that hypothetical scenario tend to reflect the ideological predispositions of those engaged in the argument. To the extent that the war in Vietnam might not have occurred, and with it the consequent deterioration in the tenor of American political discourse, then U.S. history would have been very different. President Kennedy, however, oversaw an increase in U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and suggestions that a reelected Kennedy would have withdrawn American troops from that region is pure conjecture.
Similarly, while the Kennedy Administration succeeded in implementing a number of social welfare reforms, it did little to advance the cause of civil rights. And, many of the highly questionable intelligence activities that came to light during the mid-1970s occurred during Kennedy’s presidency. There was not enough time for Kennedy to put a sufficient imprimatur on the country to state categorically what would have happened had he lived. We can only speculate on the effects of his assassination on history. What we do know, however, is that the assassination, and the conspiracy theories that surround it, left a void in the American psyche that took many years to heal. And the assassination of a democratically-elected president – even one whose election may have resulted from the very kind of political corruption we continue to decry today – leaves a mark on U.S. history that will never go away.