A half-century later, the death of President John F. Kennedy continues to affect Americans.
Its recollection evokes a wistful sadness about what might have been.
Its mystery provokes conspiracy theories about how it could happen.
Its mention prompts vivid memories among many who were children when it happened just before Thanksgiving Day in 1963.
We asked Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell, the director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Georgia Regents University and historian-in-residence for the university, why the event still resonates.
Q: Why does the memory of President Kennedy’s death stay with so many people?
A: The assassination was so unexpected. The fact that he had a charming and beautiful wife and the adorable children added to the tragedy, as did the mystery.
Q: Are you familiar with a similar event in previous generations?
A: For the World War II generation, the similar event was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I think that while these type of events certainly affected generations in the 19th century, they could not see them the way television and theater newsreels made it possible for later generations. So the visual images are seared into memory as well.
Traumatic events tend to affect people strongly during their coming-of-age years. For most baby boomers, the Kennedy assassination was the event so significant to them that they can remember exactly where they were when it happened. For the next generation, it would be the Challenger, and of course 9/11 for the next.
Q: What is Kennedy’s current status among most historians as a president?
A: There is a ranking list that comes out periodically by presidential and other top historians and political scientists. Kennedy came out 11th in the last balloting in 2010. Lincoln, Washington, and FDR are usually in the top three, although sometimes the order switches. Our own Woodrow Wilson makes the top 10 consistently. In some other polls, Kennedy does break into the top 10.
Q: How is the Kennedy era taught in college history courses?
A: I am not sure how my colleagues who focus in that period approach his administration. In the survey courses I used to teach, he gets one to two class periods to talk about his domestic agenda, and then of course the significant aspects of foreign relations, including the Berlin and Cuban missile crises.
He was narrowly elected, but his election did show the beginning of a shift toward reform, and some of the initiatives he began would bear fruit later. But he was also ineffective in getting some of his legislation through Congress. In teaching these courses, we try to give the facts of what happened and the long-term effects as they became clearer.
Q: What about the suspicion that the death involved a larger conspiracy?
A: From the beginning, there have been conspiracy theories. That and other aspects of Kennedy’s life will become clearer as more sources are released. For example, it was only when Caroline Kennedy allowed Robert Dallek access to JFK’s medical records that we became aware of how serious his medical issues were, how much pain he was in.
Soviet sources opened after the fall of communism revealed their concerns about Lee Harvey Oswald, and the meeting (sometime in the 1990s) of those still living who were directly involved in the Cuban crisis made it clear how close we had come to a major, perhaps nuclear, conflict.