When Americans think of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, many focus on particular elements: his youth and charisma in debates and during speeches; the crisis averted in the Cuban Missile Crisis; or, perhaps most commonly, his tragic assassination during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, in 1963. Photographs of the terrible day are widespread and quite recognizable in the United States—as they should be. It was a traumatic, confusing, and frightening time, whether one witnessed the event in Dallas, followed the news on television, or experienced the tragedy only via history textbooks or stories from older generations. I encourage you to visit this link, https://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/November-22-1963-Death-of-the-President.aspx, as it provides a concise, helpful summation of the assassination and the aftermath.
Beyond this, however, the tragedy raised an immense number of questions. Who committed this crime, and how? How did this person or people create and execute such a plan? These are not questions that faded after 1963; they still loom large today when individuals think about Kennedy’s presidency. Lee Harvey Oswald is often strongly assumed to be the perpetrator of the crime. However, as he was murdered by a nightclub owner only two days after the event, it is difficult to assume that we know for certain.
Conspiracy theorists thrive upon these suspicious unknowns. A quick Google or YouTube search results in a myriad of articles (including a Wikipedia page), YouTube videos, and books that grapple with the assassination and/or the alleged conspiracies surrounding the situation. In particular, the relatively recent declassification of never-before-seen documents from the Kennedy Assassination Records in July-December 2017 and April 2018 (for more information, visit https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/release), have sparked a resurgence of fascination and curiosity with the mystifying tragedy.
John F. Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, penned an article for TIME in 2017 in response to the declassifications, problematizing obsessions with his grandfather’s horrifying death and the “conspiracy” around it. I strongly encourage you to read his perspective: http://time.com/5003919/jfk-assassination-files-conspiracy-distraction/.
Schlossberg frames the fascination with and dramatization of his grandfather’s passing in part as a reflection of problems within our own “distracted” society. He is clearly willing to critique modern society—a bold choice, but a choice that raises important historical questions. What kinds of history are the general public drawn to? What makes the assassination so interesting to the general public? Is it a problem that we are interested in the dramatic, shocking unknown? (In other words, is Schlossberg’s opinion too harsh?)
Schlossberg is justified in his wish that the public would prioritize considerations of his father’s legacy—the tangible things he completed in his life and while in office—instead of the violent way that he died. It is a troubling and enlightening contemplation: while we can write the story of our lives, perhaps we cannot write our own histories. President Kennedy would not have wanted his story to focus on its end.
Ultimately, it is a valuable takeaway to consider the imbalanced ways we view the legacies of historical figures (presidents or otherwise). As we study and assess historical people and events, we can benefit from considering the sorts of things that grab our attention and compel us to ask questions.