The Aftermath of Irresolution

Cotten Seiler, associate professor of American studies

JFK 50 Years Later: What Are the Legacies of His Presidency and Assassination?

By Cotten Seiler, associate professor of American studies

The common perception of the Kennedy years as a halcyon era has been helpfully revised by recent explorations of the early 1960s in literature and popular culture. In addition to Don DeLillo's novel Libra, James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy of novels and the Mad Men TV series reveal a postwar America rife with corruption and racism, over which has been drawn a thin veneer of glamour and optimism.

Above all, Kennedy was a Cold War president. Cold War concerns drove domestic and foreign policy alike. The objective of crafting an image of the U.S. as tough on communism and as moral hegemon led his administration in seemingly contradictory directions, expanding the American military presence in Vietnam as it advanced civil rights legislation.

In the realm of everyday culture, Kennedy's death and its aftermath of irresolution gave new legitimacy to what historian Richard Hofstadter called, in a 1963 lecture delivered at Oxford the day before Kennedy was killed, "the paranoid style in American politics." Conspiracy theory, long a province of the American Right, emerged in the next decades as something of a national pastime across the political spectrum.

In conspiracy narratives, the security state and its shadowy auxiliaries (by turns the Mafia, multinational corporations, the Freemasons) can get to anyone; after all, they killed the president. Conspiratorial thinking mainstreamed over the next few decades. It continues to offer a perversely comforting means of simplifying a world that has only grown more bafflingly complex and in which they (powerful state and economic entities, be they Monsanto or the Obama administration) appear to dictate our lives beyond the reach of democratic will.

Read more faculty perspectives on JFK.

Published November 20, 2013