The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

It has always astonished me that the Civil War, obscured by the drama and nostalgia which surround it, has had so minimal an impact in reminding Americans of the violence endemic in our society. Nor did the shooting of President Lincoln (one among a number of assassinations and attempted killings) jar the complacency of many Americans that ours is fundamentally a manageable and peaceable society. Despite the fashion in small circles to proclaim one’s tragic sense of life, it has been difficult for the reasonably well-off in America fully to appreciate the precariousness of civilized life here at home: the lights go on, the jets take off, the daily agenda of noise and imagery provided by the omnipresent media set before us an apparent continuity of experience. In the ancient world, the arson of the library at Alexandria by Heliogabalus symbolized how great can be the orbit of a single destructive, vainglorious act; with us, a man capable of boasting that he was the “youngest Marxist” appears to have perpetrated an act upon our Chief of State that symbolizes and brings to mind the case with which our whole society might be destroyed by the trigger-happy in this nuclear age.

When President Kennedy was elected, the surge of hope that went around much of the world seemed to me unduly optimistic about what a single individual, no matter how talented or courageous, could accomplish (for Europeans and Japanese, the surprise of the Cuban invasion was far greater than for many here at home). People in other countries, oppressed by the ham-handed or iron-fisted or flabby leadership of elderly non-intellectual men, looked to President Kennedy with admiration and even a touch of envy. For example, Englishmen of both major political persuasions saw him as either a Tory or a Labour patrician who could bring lucid intelligence and magnanimity in place of the Populist befuddlement which, during the Eisenhower era and long before that regarded polities as a somewhat shady spectator sport demanding no competence from the audience and little enough from the players. Americans like myself held to a more somber view: that no President, not even Mr. Kennedy with all his assembled intelligence and dedication, might be able to untangle the fantastic traffic jam of American political institutions, vested interests, ideologies, paranoias, and “don’t fence me in” chauvinism. We felt, moreover, that President Kennedy, though not given to posturing or demagogy, shared for worse as well as for better certain “American” qualities of impatience and the all-too-quick come-back; he was the heir, I suggested, not of Franklin D. Roosevelt (to whom he was superior in intelligence, knowledge, historical sense, and seriousness), but of Theodore Roosevelt. It was the latter who made intelligence and historical perspective politically acceptable by coupling these qualities with shows of virility and frontierism—a combination also to be found in some of our most distinguished writers.

Yet, it President Kennedy was a nationalist, he was not a narrow one. For one thing, he wanted the whole nation, and not merely the white and reasonably comfortable majority, to share opportunities for education, for participation, and for basic civil rights—the latter at the cost, if need be, of much else which he also wanted. For another thing, as a Senator and as President, he understood the need of foreign aid for development, he could appreciate the aspirations of poor people and poor nations and grapple with ways of meeting these pragmatically, even if his style of life made it hard for him to empathize with such aspirations or to convey dramatically the empathy that he did have. The Peace Corps has become a magnetic illustration of some of the best traditions and potentialities in American life. President Kennedy persevered to secure a test ban with very little organized support, despite many convenient rationalizations one could have found for not doing so; perhaps this is the most important legacy, as his American University address (quickly forgotten in the insurgency and counter-insurgency of the civil rights campaigns) best expressed his incipient hopes for a détente. In these ways he spoke out of the pathos of his own experience with nuclear peril to that minority of Americans who have reached out toward the dream of one world, and not simply to the wider parishes of Atlantic Union or the white world or the would-be free world. (Those who detach themselves from American nationalism, and who lack the ecumenical nerve to attach themselves to a not-yet-existent one world, sometimes, like the assassin, seek to attach themselves in their alienation to America’s adversaries—in Oswald’s case, seemingly unable to accomplish this or any other attachment.)

For perhaps the majority of Americans, however, nationalism, whether fierce or smug, salient or quiescent, is a kind of substitute religion; and the anti-Communism and, in much of the South and elsewhere, anti-Kennedyism and racism, have been linked, sometimes innocently but always idolatrously, with worship of God. America is in the process of being detribalized—even the States’ Righters are preoccupied more with assailing Federal “wrongs” than with affirming attachment to place. As more and more Americans have come, with industrialization and mobility, to share in the national wealth, the national pastimes, and the national enmities, nationalism has been drawn upon as the motive for necessary action and consensus, so that even the most estimable goals, such as civil rights, expanded educational opportunities, and the curbing of greed and rapacity, are pursued in its name. President Lyndon Johnson, heir to Franklin rather than to Teddy Roosevelt, grew to political maturity in a society which could emerge from the Great Depression only by war and preparation for war. A Southern New Dealer who, on domestic issues, has fully transcended regional prejudices, he may tend and he will be tempted to use a chastened and non-vindictive but still fighting nationalism to surmount the residues of regionalism, racism, and provincialism.

He inherits a great deal of obviously unfinished business at home and abroad; and, a better businessman and more of a politicians politician than the man he succeeds, he may be able to make some headway with it. He inherits also a situation of polarization in America between some of the best tendencies of men and some of the meanest and most vicious ones. The young people who are entering the Peace Corps and like missions, or engaging in non-violent civil rights actions in the Deep South, or working in our urban slums, mental hospitals, and other unredeemed locations, possess a generosity, spontaneity, and practical idealism, a lack of greed and a gift for empathy, which are among our most precious naturalized resources. However, many of these young people have eschewed politics and have lacked the sense of potency or the ambition for themselves and their country that have animated some of our civil servants and of our political men, such as the late President. Even if America were populated only by the enlightened, on the order of Sweden, or dominated by the educated élite, on the order of Great Britain, the practical and housekeeping things our country must do to survive with any civility as a huge nation would still be difficult to discover and to implement. Indeed, even survival itself, as the basis for moves toward a nobler and less perilous world, will be difficult in an age of combative and potentially genocidal nations.

The fanaticism of some emotionally dispossessed Americans has many sources and few legitimated outlets. “Chinese” left-wing abusiveness is wholly negligible numerically even though it may be a cumulative poison in the mind of an embittered solipsist such as Oswald. Right-wing abusiveness legitimated by its omnipresent volume and its recourse to earlier ruralistic and fundamentalist imagery, helps shape the whole rhetorical climate, to some extent nationally and to an overwhelming extent in selected localities, such as parts of the South and the Mountain States. One thing characterizes both right and left extremism: namely, that anything is instantly possible, whether this is to repeal the income tax or destroy Cuba or Vietnam on the radical right, or to overthrow “capitalism” by worker or other militant action on the intoxicated left. One can shoot presidents—or lynch their assassins. One can say or do anything, and after that begin to believe it. The organizational weight and media outlets possessed by the radical right help constantly to polarize discourse so that the minority who hold a less negative and emaciated vision cannot even always hold on to it, let alone get it discussed and its detailed consequences examined and tried out. President Kennedy and the mobilized intelligence around him already knew enough to build and rebuild more inhabitable cities, run a less uncontrolled economy, and make it possible for less affluent societies to develop their economies—while much of the country worried locally about fluoridation of water or allegedly communist schoolbooks, or pornographic novels, and worried nationally about foreign aid because foreign and because aid; in fact, they resisted “foreign bodies” of any sort. Periadically paralyzed despite our best knowledge, we live much as do pre-literate men on an island subject to unannounced typhoons.

But beyond what we know, lies the great ocean of what we do not know. During these last days, as often though less urgently before this, I have wished there was in existence in this country a skeleton organization comparable to pre-War Britain’s amorphous group of amateur social observers called Mass Observation. This consisted of people all over the country who could respond at a moment’s notice to questions about reactions to an event, such as the Coronation—unpaid, relatively untrained, but more flexible than most large-scale professional survey organizations. (We had something like this during World War II which was disbanded immediately afterwards.) Such a network might have helped illuminate for us what the impact of the assassination has been in all the strata of our society, and what alternative interpretations are now being given to these experiences and how, if at all, they are being assimilated, either to “prove” what we already know or to learn something new.

We know little which would help us frame a new vision to carry us beyond the immediate legacy of President Kennedy, and hence to fulfill even that legacy. For while many other countries want to be like us, rich and seemingly powerful, our own most creative intelligence is puzzled to know what we should want to be, spelled out in luminous yet concrete detail. President Johnson will carry on in the spheres of civil rights, tax policy, the Alliance for Progress, as well as other more questionable or more frozen policies. It will take courage and astuteness to do this much. Among our own tasks, as intellectuals, would seem to be the discovery of the visions which we have not yet dreamed, and the plans not yet planned, undeterred either by fanatical slogans or by the tragic set-back of President Kennedy’s death.