Fifty years ago this November, something happened that became a “flashbulb moment” for every American alive at the time and old enough to remember anything. The indelible photographic images — a fixture in books, movies, and television but also recounted in minute personal detail by millions who recall precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard about President Kennedy’s assassination — have been passed on to succeeding generations.
The youngest elected President at the height of his powers was gunned down on the street of a major city, his head exploded by firepower in full view of his wife, and eventually the nation, to the horror of the entire civilized world.
The importance of that awful day in Dallas cannot seriously be disputed, but few agree on the roots of the day itself.
Humility is the most under-appreciated virtue, and the one least applied to the study of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Everyone has a theory — so many theories, some more credible than others.
Many researchers and authors appear absolutely convinced that they have the absolute truth. But I have a different view: No one — no matter how intelligent or learned — knows for sure all that happened, and why it happened, on November 22, 1963.
There is only one prediction I can make with certainty: A hundred years from now, there will still be books written and TV documentaries proposing theories while sifting evidence about the Kennedy assassination. In fact, this will probably extend beyond the life of books and television as we know them. If you doubt that, then you should count up the number of new Lincoln-related assassination materials that have appeared in recent years — almost a century and a half after the murder at Ford’s Theater.
Contrary to my prediction, some say it is time, past time, to let President Kennedy’s assassination recede into history. Continued investigation just stirs up bad memories, reopens old wounds, and stokes cynicism about the government. What’s done is done, they insist, and we have so many pressing challenges to attend to in the 21st century.
I believe these arguments are wrong, and those making them, however well-intentioned, have ignored or insufficiently appreciated other factors.
There are at least a half-dozen solid reasons why we should continue to study the Kennedy assassination:
1) It is unsolved, at least to the satisfaction of most Americans. Our new national survey in The Kennedy Half Century shows that about three-quarters of the public do not accept the conclusion of the Warren Commission: that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Doubt extends across the partisan and demographic spectrum.
2) Advances in criminology, ballistics, and other fields could potentially produce additional information about President Kennedy’s murder. For example, in preparing the book, we commissioned the most technologically advanced study ever done of the police Dictabelts and Gray Audographs from November 22, 1963 — which allegedly recorded the sounds of that day in Dallas because of a stuck microphone on a policeman’s motorcycle. What is now clear, for the first time, is that prior studies of the Dictabelts have been wrong in whole or in part, that no gunshots were ever recorded — not three, not four, not ten. The Dictabelt study shows that new technologies applied to old evidence may yield additional findings in the future.
3) The whole story is not known. It isn’t just the unreleased documents. There probably are photos, films, diaries, and other revealing information we have not yet seen. I would bet some of these are resting undisturbed in attics, file cabinets, and cupboards around Dallas and elsewhere.
4) The Kennedy assassination is not dusty history. It is one of the prime cautionary tales in all of American history. The murder tells us what can happen when myths are embraced as reality. For example, some around Kennedy, including family, staff, and the hierarchy of the Secret Service, were lulled into a false sense of security because JFK had been so lucky and survived so much in his life. Luck can run out, as it tends to do eventually when a President with many enemies is sent parading through cities in an open car that is neither bullet-proof nor closed. How many times after November 22nd did people say, “I didn’t think this could happen in America.” This shows an inadequate understanding of history. Leave aside the presidential assassinations and attempts in the 19th century. Just since the Secret Service was assigned presidential protection duties in the early 20th century after McKinley was killed, there had been violent attacks or well-planned schemes against Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman — and an untold number we still do not know about. A large measure of luck saved those four presidents. Yet the thin blue line was still very thin for JFK, not just in Dallas but throughout his Presidency.
6)Similarly, when government agencies or high officials are found to be lying or misleading the public that pays their salaries, they need to be held accountable. Democracy demands as much. Truth — even discovered late — is a preventative, a kind of fair warning to posterity.
You can probably think of other reasons why younger generations of citizens and scholars should want to study one of the seminal events of the twentieth century. Everyone knows George Santanaya’s maxim, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” which sadly applies in the case of November 22nd. Personally, I prefer what the Roman philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, had to say: “Whoever is ignorant of the past remains forever a child.” Simplistic, child-like naivete has led the United States into many disasters in our 237 years since the Revolution. Whatever the motive, grab the torch from those who have come before, and light the way out of the darkness of ignorance.
© 2013 Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy
Larry J. Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, is the founder and director of the renowned Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He has appeared on dozens of national television and radio programs, including 60 Minutes, Today, Hardball, and Nightline. He has coanchored the BBC’s coverage of U.S. presidential returns and inaugurations, and has authored or edited more than a dozen books on American politics, including the highly praised A More Perfect Constitution: Why the Constitution Must Be Revised — Ideas to Inspire a New Generation. His other books include Feeding Frenzy, about press coverage of politicians; The Rise of Political Consultants; and Barack Obama and the New America. Sabato runs the acclaimed Crystal Ball website, which has the most comprehensive and accurate record of election analysis in the country. In 2001, the University of Virginia gave him its highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.