Although a half-century has passed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Americans of all ages are still affected by the tragic events of that fateful day.
According to Jon O’Brian, associate professor of world history for Jamestown Community College, each generation is shaped by its events, which he calls a “zeitgeist,” or a spirit of the times.
“I do think in many ways Kennedy’s assassination shaped a generation of baby boomers who were born in the immediate post-World War II era,” O’Brian said. “Kennedy said the torch had been passed to a new generation, and that generation’s optimism and naivete had been shattered.
Having a youthful president assassinated who represented a younger generation had a profound impact on those left behind, he continued.
“There was a lot of hope placed in the new frontier Kennedy spoke of, and in some ways it was an end of the new frontier,” O’Brian said. “I think a lot of the immediate post-war optimism is laid to rest in Dallas, and I think we don’t as a nation feel that optimism again until the 1980s. It was a combination of factors following the assassination that really led to what (Jimmy) Carter called a ‘malaise’ – the nation was in a funk.”
Although O’Brian wasn’t born until the year after Kennedy’s assassination, he does recall the effect of the tragedy on his grandmother.
“There was a sense of shock,” O’Brian said. “She spoke of a woman in the neighborhood who ran down the street saying, ‘The president has been killed.’ Everyone thought she was not well, and that it wasn’t true – there was profound disbelief.”
Allen Wilcox, an 86-year-old Jamestown resident, recalls what he was doing when he heard the news. Wilcox, who was 36 at the time, was working as an employee for Sears, in the same building that is today The Post-Journal.
“We had a little radio in back in the tailor shop where I heard the news,” Wilcox said. “I came out and I said to those who were there, ‘The president is dead.’ It was pretty busy on a Friday afternoon, but immediately the store emptied out – we couldn’t believe what we had heard. It was a sense of unbelief, and wonder what was going on because this is America – something like this cannot be happening here. I’m not sure if we stayed open that night, but if we did, we didn’t do any business.”
To this day, Wilcox is still struck with emotion whenever he sees the replay of the event on the news, or when he walks into The Post-Journal, he said.
“There is a certain emotional response – not as deep as it was then, but it’s still there,” Wilcox said. “It was something else that our nation had gone through.”
Those who delve into the past may find that massive moments of tragedy have been recorded throughout American history. These moments, such as the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of The Great Depression or the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, define each generation. But, due to improvements in technology, generational moments such as the Kennedy assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have been shared by a wider audience.
“Due to technology and greater integration of our society on a global level – those moments become shared in an instant,” O’Brian said. “Whereas with (Abraham) Lincoln’s assassination, it was several days before people knew.”
Although O’Brian doesn’t believe history predicts the future, and that the past isn’t repeated, there are certainly tragedies yet to come, he said. And, the world will share them more intimately, and instantaneously, due to communications technology.
“I would hope that we could somehow avoid it,” O’Brian said. “But, it’s hard to predict the future other than to say that we will likely share in the triumphs and tragedies in a more interconnected way moving forward. But, that shared sense of tragedy really does shape who we are as a generation.”