The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

It has been hard, these last two weeks, to feel much pride in being an American. Two assassinations, each ghastly in its own right and each uncovering still another side of our social pathology; callousness, maybe planned negligence, on the part of the Dallas police; fourthgrade children in the South cheering the news that a “nigger-loving” President had been murdered; subversion of the processes of law-enforcement to the demands of television; recurrent efforts to gain political advantage, which neglect to consider that whoever may have killed the President, whether a Castroite fanatic or another kind, there remains the common breeding-ground of a hatedriven society, the common responsibility of governors and lunatics; and then smogs of piety about “national reconciliation” and “an era of good feeling” in American politics—it is just too much. Only Mrs. Kennedy, in the splendor of her bearing, gave one any reason to be pleased with the human species; and it remains a question whether the style of a person can redeem the sickness of a culture.

Was Lee Oswald really the assassin? Despite the apparent weight of evidence, we cannot yet be absolutely certain. There is urgent reason to press for a complete inquiry: we should know whether the irregularities of his treatment by the police and the negligence that exposed him to murder were simply routine Texas conduct or a cover-up for something more sinister. An American Van der Lubbe? Probably not. It seems right now that Oswald was guilty, but we cannot be sure, and if possible, we should be.

In the long run, however, it hardly matters: for if not this Oswald, then another. What seems to me important is to sketch out his type—I do not pretend to describe him as an actual person, I wish rather to create a usable fiction, a “myth,” as it emerges from the little we know about him and the somewhat more we know about his background and milieu.

A man who embodies the disorder of the city, an utterly displaced creature, totally and (what is more important) proudly alienated, without roots in nation, region, class. He cannot stand it, but what it is he cannot stand he does not know. A semi-intellectual, he picks up phrases and bits of ideology the way a derelict picks up cigarette butts on the street. In one guise he is a man of “the left” and in another of “the right”: European history of the past forty years knows plenty of such political drifters and quick-change desperadoes. An absolutist of drifting, he is intelligent enough to be in rebellion, but sour, compulsive, repressed, seething with ressentiment in that intelligence. Liberal society cannot reach or understand him, and he, in turn, scorns it from the depths of chaos—or, as he comes to believe, from the heights of history. Dostoevsky was a friend of his.

He is not a Communist, for that requires patience and discipline, nor is he a Marxist, for that requires theoretic reflections. He exhibits, at some remove,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.