A few days ago, in reference to JFK's assassination, Peggy Noonan basically printed the legend:
... We talk about JFK’s death because for the 18 years leading up to that point -- between the end of the war, as we used to say, and 1963 -- America knew placidity. Many problems were growing and quietly brewing, but on the surface America was placid, growing more affluent, and politically calm. And then this rupture, this shock, this violence, this new sense that anything can happen, history can be ripped from its rails, that security once won cannot necessarily be maintained. That our luck won’t necessarily hold.I'd argue with some of what Sam Tanenhaus writes in The New York Times today, and the prose style does get a tad overheated, but I give him credit for pointing out that what people seem to remember just wasn't so:
... And what followed -- growing political unrest, cultural spasms, riots at political conventions, more assassinations and assassination attempts -- was so different from the years preceding that we couldn’t help look back at JFK's murder as the breakpoint, the rupture. After that, things turned difficult.
... In fact, America had already become a divided, dangerous place, with intimations of anarchic disorder. Beneath its gleaming surfaces, a spore had been growing, a mass of violent energies, coiled and waiting to spring....I was four years old when JFK was shot, so this isn't my nostalgia; I have trouble looking back and understanding how people saw the era as placid.
And while many today mourn the loss of the consensus politics of the Cold War era, the center was already collapsing in 1963. Left-wing groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, both impatient with the slow pace of social change, were formed at the time of Kennedy’s presidency.
On the right, the John Birch Society was flourishing, and in 1962, 18,000 young conservatives attended a rally at Madison Square Garden at which Kennedy was jeered, and a new tribune, Barry M. Goldwater, took the stage. Soon he would vow to clean out "the swampland of collectivism."
... The best-selling nonfiction book when he was killed was Victor Lasky’s “J.F.K: The Man and the Myth,” a dubiously researched jumble of smears and innuendo, including the stale rumor that Kennedy, an observant Catholic, had suppressed a previous marriage to a Palm Beach socialite....
Kennedy hatred was deepest, perhaps, in the South, where civil rights battles had grown increasingly tense. "White violence was sort of considered the status quo," Diane McWhorter, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and is the author of "Carry Me Home," a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the racial unrest of 1963, said recently.
"There had been so many bombings that people had accepted it," Ms. McWhorter said. But in May, the city’s blacks struck back, attacking the police and firefighters and setting several businesses on fire. In September, only two months before Dallas, white supremacists in Birmingham planted a bomb in a black church, killing four young girls....
The fissures that became obvious in the post-assassination era were evident in the very first presidential election after World War II, when Henry Wallace ran to the left and Strom Thurmond ran to the racist right. Beyond that, I could run through the whole "We Didn't Start the Fire" litany: McCarthyism, China going communist, Cuba going communist, integration of the military and baseball and Little Rock and Ole Miss (and the backlashes), the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the fear of "juvenile delinquents" and comic books and rock and roll, the Pill, Bircherism.... I wasn't there, but did Joe and Jane America really feel that the era was placid?
Maybe compared with the Depression and the war it was. Maybe a fairly broad-based prosperity made it all go down easy -- maybe that's all it takes.