Where Have You Gone Norman Rockwell…

Here is a story written from the perspective of an 18 year old, who has been forever enamored by the sweetness of post-World War II America. The malt shops, the cars, the dancing, the family life, the outfits, the films, the etiquette, the simple way of living. For too long she has wondered why, why (and when) did America abandon such a golden age? And I believe she has just pinpointed the answer.

When it all changed: November 22, 1963, Dallas, TX

How did it change? Well, continue reading.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a watershed moment in American history. Suddenly, the innocence of the post-World War II era in America was lost, and in an instant, an era of violence, suspicion, and cynicism was ushered in.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there was relative peace and tranquility in the United States. Yes, there was segregation in the South, but this was being addressed in a peaceful manner thanks to the non-violent efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, was the grandfatherly type and revered by nearly all Americans. Then in 1960, the handsome, charismatic John F. Kennedy, with his beautiful young wife Jacqueline, burst onto the landscape, and, as President Kennedy stated in his 1961 inaugural address: “A torch had been passed to a new generation”. Assassination of world leaders, and even of American presidents, was not unheard of. In fact, three American presidents had been assassinated prior to John Kennedy (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), but these had largely been read about in history books or in newspapers. Now, with the advent of television, the assassination of President Kennedy was brought live into the homes of millions of traumatized Americans. There had been no need for intensive security in guarding the President back then because, in peaceful serene America, political assassination, especially of one as much loved as President Kennedy, was incomprehensible. In fact, moments before Kennedy’s death, a crowd of an estimated million people lined the streets to greet President Kennedy as his motorcade made its way through Dallas. Today, it is very different. Secret Service and law enforcement scour every city days and weeks before a President arrives to ensure his safety.

Chief Washington correspondent Bob Scheiffer, who covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy, said in a CBS interview:

It was really a time when America lost this innocence, it changed us in so many ways and I will never forget it… Up until that point we were a very confident country. We believed in our leaders, we believed in our institutions, but then when this thing happened it changed the country… The next 10 years would then just be a series of violent events, Vietnam, Watergate, more assassinations. It had a profound effect on the country. I am not sure that we are ever quite over it because this country was never the same after that.

Schieffer then went on to say how the trauma and confusion he felt on the day of Kennedy’s assassination were repeated only with the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Bob Schieffer’s remarks are profound and significant because he was a witness of the events around the Kennedy assassination. Schieffer was in Dallas at the time, and in a bizarre occurrence, actually drove Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, to the Dallas police station. Schieffer was old enough to see the changes that came into American society following Kennedy’s murder.

The assassination of President Kennedy had major international implications that traumatized the American people still further. In 1959, during the height of the Cold War, Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled former marine, defected to the Soviet Union. He subsequently became disgruntled with life in the Soviet Union and returned to America in 1962 with his Russian wife and baby daughter. Oswald, a staunch supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was arrested on the streets of New Orleans in August 1963 for handing out “hands off Cuba” leaflets. Then, a few weeks prior to the assassination, once again disgruntled with America, Oswald went to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City hoping to defect to Cuba. The US was in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and only 13 months prior to the assassination, in October 1962, the world had come close to nuclear annihilation in what was called the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Against this backdrop, the American people were now terrified that the assassination of President Kennedy was a plot by the Soviet Union, and/or the Cubans, to remove Kennedy from office. US armed forces now went on high-alert and an overriding fear was that America would retaliate against both Cuba and the Soviet Union. These fears were so intense that a week after the assassination President Lyndon Johnson implemented the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination and hopefully, to dispel the fears of the American people.

The loss of President Kennedy brought a loss of innocence to the mindset of American culture and thought. The sweet, homey, simple days of the 1950s were poignantly encapsulated in the work of American artist Norman Rockwell. His paintings depicted the American culture of the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. But immediately after the assassination of President Kennedy, his style changed. Norman Rockwell said that the 1960s brought a change of thought to America, introduced by scientific advances. Rockwell exclaimed,

Now I am wildly excited about painting contemporary subjects. Pictures about astronauts, the Peace Corps, civil rights. It’s wonderful.

The paintings released by Rockwell in the mid- and late 60s were unlike any of his previous work. His paintings now revolved around capturing the doubts and conflicts in society, as well as the violence. His painting Murder in Mississippi shows the murder of three civil rights activists (Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwemmer) in 1964. Rockwell’s paintings after Kennedy’s assassination reflect a significant change in the peaceful, placid American society of the 1950s and early 60s. The changes run parallel to Kennedy’s murder and reflect doubt, conflict, and death.

Norman Rockwell published volumes and volumes of paintings that depicted the regular, everyday simple events of American life: going on a date at the malt shop, having a large home cooked meal with the family, a woman praying before she eats a meal, a college student studying for his final exams. This is not to say that Americans don’t still take part in activities like these today, but there is a loss of the sweet innocence reflected in every one of his early paintings. Every American changed after Kennedy’s death, whether they realized it or not. Rockwell changed to painting more violent, grisly scenes as that was what his country was now sadly, experiencing. The following images of Rockwell’s iconic paintings help visualize this rapid change. First are some of his paintings prior to Kennedy’s assassination:

Norman Rockwell. Happy Birthday Miss Jones. 1956
Norman Rockwell. The American Way. 1944
Norman Rockwell. The Runaway. 1958
Norman Rockwell. Willie Gillis in College. 1946
Norman Rockwell. Freedom from Want. 1941
Norman Rockwell. After the Prom. 1957

Rockwell’s paintings after Kennedy’s assasination are very different:

Norman Rockwell. Murder in Mississippi. 1965
Norman Rockwell. The Problem We All Live With. 1964

Rockwell’s portrait of President Kennedy for the cover of The Post reflects the fondness of American citizens for Mr. Kennedy:

Norman Rockwell. Portrait of John F. Kennedy. 1960

Ken O’Donnell, an American political consultant and a close friend of President Kennedy, took part in an interview for the 10th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, where he reminisced on Kennedy’s life, his work as president, and also the major events that took place after his death and how, in his opinion, they had shaped American culture profoundly for the worse. Since the Vietnam War was one of the major factors that shaped the 1960s, O’Donnell was asked whether the war would have been different if Kennedy’s death had not happened. To this O’Donnell responded,

I think it would have been totally different… Kennedy had begun bringing people in [from Vietnam]. I think that none of the things we have seen recently could have ever conceivably happened under the role of John Kennedy.

In support of O’Donnell’s claim, Kennedy had stated during his 63rd press conference in October 1963 that “We expect to withdraw 1,000 men from South Vietnam before the end of the year. The first unit will be 250 men. Our hope is to lessen the number of men there by 1,000”. Kennedy made this statement only 23 days before his death. Kennedy had hoped to bring troops home from Vietnam. In fact, a few months prior to his assassination, in an interview with Walter Cronkite of CBS news in September of 1963, Kennedy had said,

In the final analysis, it is their war (the Vietnamese). They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.

In contrast, once he became commander and chief, Lyndon Johnson sent more and more troops. In 1963 there were 16,000 troops in Vietnam, but by 1969, this had escalated to over 500,000 troops. The Vietnam war lasted until the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, with over 55,000 US servicemen dead and an estimated three million Vietnamese casualties.

Of course, it is difficult to pin an entire cultural change on the death of one man. However, it cannot be denied that there was a rapid switch in American culture in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. While much of this cultural change could be attributed to the Vietnam War, the Vietnam War itself mushroomed following Kennedy’s assassination. Kennedy was working to bring troops home from Vietnam, but once Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson took office as president, he escalated the war in Vietnam, as a result of which American culture continued to change for the worse.

John F. Kennedy was the personification of America during his presidential term. With his murder, the innocence of American society also died. It was a strong turning point in American history, and as many will agree, the ramifications of Kennedy’s assassination, meant that the changes were not for the better. His death was not just the death of one man; it was the death of an ideal, the death of unity, the death of peace, the death of security, and much more. Kennedy’s assassination was the catalyst that ushered radical change into American society, most of it for the worse.

One could simply say: “No one man can be that important” or one could ask, “What makes President Kennedy more important than any other American citizen?” These are, in fact, valid comments. No single individual can make history change its course. However, the Kennedy assassination was not just about that the death of one man. It was the death of an image, the death of innocence, the death of what some would call America’s golden age. When Kennedy died, America was soon thrust into a violent war in Vietnam, followed by several scandals in the White House and a large, violent civil rights movement.

The assassination of President Kennedy resulted in a collapse of the American citizen’s trust in the U.S. government, which would soon bring forth thousands of generally silly conspiracy theories, as well as shape the minds of the american people to that of complete suspicion regarding the true motives of their government. Beginning in the late 1950s, a National Election Study started to run surveys to assess the perspectives of Americans regarding their confidence in the United States government. In 1958, about three-quarters of Americans said they trusted that the federal government would do the right thing the majority of the time (“Public Trust”). However, following Kennedy’s death, almost immediately, public trust in government plummeted rapidly to approximate 60 percent, and then continued to decline until, in the year 1980, it had dropped to around 30 percent (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Public Trust in Government: 1958–2019. 2019, Pew Research Center. www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/. Infographic.

Before the Kennedy assassination, Americans’ rarely questioned their government. They believed in their leaders and that they were doing what they thought best for the well-being and benefit of the country. But Kennedy’s death changed all that. Almost immediately, trust in the government plummeted, and Americans began to believe that the CIA, the FBI, the Military Industrial Complex, and a whole lot more were involved in Kennedy’s murder, and that the government was withholding important information regarding the assassination.

The Warren Commission is ‘the Bible’ in the context of the Kennedy assassination. This was a federal investigation directed by Chief Justice Earl Warren designed to help piece together this incredibly complex case and to record every single detail of the vicious murder. However, despite all the facts that were pieced together by this investigation, the majority of American people refused to believe it. In fact, only a mere 19% of the American people accept the findings of the Warren Commission, and 75% of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory (Bugliosi). Many thousands of Warren Commission critics help feed the fire of conspiracy theories and there is officially “no bottom [to the pit] in the Kennedy assassination” (Bugliosi). What started as a very simple case has been transformed into one of the most complex murder cases in history.

The complexities regarding the Kennedy assassination are incredibly odd due to the incredibly odd life of Lee Harvey Oswald as well as the odd circumstances of his death, at the hands of Jack Ruby, while in police custody. Not even the greatest, most creative murder mystery writer could develop a story so complex. This is key to why so many American citizens believe in the conspiracy theories. Millions of Americans do not take into account the hard work done by the Warren Commission or the true facts of the Kennedy case, but their minds have been so altered by this cynical mindset that conspiracy theories have come to seem quite reasonable.

The belief in criminal conspiracy theories took hold of the people’s minds within a few short days of the assassination. In fact, a Gallup poll that was taken a week after the assassination indicated that 52 percent of Americans believed that more people were involved in the killing of Kennedy, while only 29 percent believed what was being reported on the news. By 1976, the number of Americans who believed in a conspiracy theory had risen to 81 percent (Swift). Gallup soon ran a follow-up survey about whom, besides Oswald, Americans thought were involved in the assassination:

Americans cite the Mafia (13%) and the federal government (13%) most often, followed by the CIA (7%), Fidel Castro or Cuba (5%), and unnamed ‘special interests who disagreed with [Kennedy’s] policies’ (5%).

Forty percent of Americans, however, could not offer the name of a person or group involved in a conspiracy (Swift). While each conspiracy theory produces intriguing points, every one, when compared with the true facts and the reliable evidence of the Warren Commission, is inaccurate and fails to offer a real possibility. To this very moment, conspiracy theories are largely fueled by mistrust and cynicism regarding the government.

And so, amidst all the chaos and division in our country today, we can only wonder: Where have you gone Norman Rockwell, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…more so now than ever before.

For my dad.

Sources Referenced:

Bosse, Paula. “The JFK Assassination and Television Firsts — 1963.” Flashback : Dallas, Paula Bosse, 22 Nov. 2018, flashbackdallas.com/2018/11/22/the-jfk-assassination-and-television-firsts-1963/.

Bugliosi, Vincent. “Why Lee Harvey Oswald Acted Alone.” C-SPAN 2, 24 May 2007, Dallas, youtu.be/V5xTmSU_f8U.

Kennedy, John F. Interview by Walter Cronkite. CBS, Sept. 1963., www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/kentv.htm.

Kennedy, John F. “President JFK 63rd News Conference.” 31 Oct. 1963, Washington D.C., youtu.be/Qy0gCvdF2_Q.

Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait. , Biography, 2020, youtu.be/ux7evwZMO9Y.

“Public Trust in Government: 1958–2019.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 11 Apr. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/.

Schieffer, Bob, newsman. Bob Schieffer on how JFK assassination c. , CBS This Morning, 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5Xau-2yW7A.

Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy.” Gallup, Gallup Inc., 15 Nov. 2013, news.gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx.

O’Donnell, Kenneth. 21 Nov. 1973. , youtu.be/-c6RtfEX0Cw.

"I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do." -Gertrude Stein

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