The events of the past don’t change, but the way we understand those events does. In other words, the past is past, but history is constantly unfolding. There are a few reasons why history changes. The first and most obvious is that new facts emerge. The people and forces that affect events are often unknown at the time, but as facts come out, they allow us to better understand why things happened as they did.
The second reason that history changes is the fresh perspectives that come with the passage of time. At the moment of an event, its consequences lie in the future, impossible to predict and assess. As years, decades and centuries pass, the cause-and-effect relationships between the past and the present are continually appearing. The third factor is that successive generations of historians discover new facts and recognize new consequences, and use them to think, understand, and write differently about the past.
This November 22, 2023 will be the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of the most closely studied events in U.S. history. Many thousands of books have been published about the late president, and many hundreds of them on the assassination alone. The weight of that literature illustrates how history changes.
On October 18, 1960, during his presidential campaign, Kennedy visited Jacksonville and spoke in Hemming (now James Weldon Johnson) Park, describing his visit here as a U.S. Naval officer during World War II. In the months and years after his death, cities across the country memorialized him by renaming streets and schools for him. In Jacksonville, a marker was placed in JWJ Park near the site of his 1960 speech.
John F. Kennedy with Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns (seated at JFK’s right) and Senator George Smathers (front passenger seat), October 18, 1960. (From the Florida Times-Union collection at the Jacksonville History Center.)
In that sentimental glow, former Kennedy White House aides such as Ted Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published frankly admiring accounts of the man and his presidency. Then came revisionists such as Garry Wills, who focused on JFK’s often dark family life and personal character. Next came a backlash from Wills’ own critics, who portrayed his book as a slanderous hit piece. More revisionists followed, who now have revisionists of their own, even as revelations about the late president’s riotous personal life continue to tumble out. Historically revising John F. Kennedy sells lots of books, many of them thin on quality but popular anyway. The most popular authors have tended to judge Kennedy according to the standards of their own time, which is not history. Six decades after it happened, Kennedy’s assassination remains maddeningly inscrutable. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 61% of respondents believed it resulted from a conspiracy, even though solid evidence has yet to surface. But it is the consequences of that assassination that continue to fascinate students of history, and none are more confounding than those concerning the American war in Vietnam. Even before the 1960 election Kennedy was, like his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, deeply wary of sending American soldiers to Southeast Asia. As president, his doubts increased, but Cold War politics made it hard to question the danger of communists anywhere. We now know that Kennedy constantly navigated a fine line between militance and caution. The question that Kennedy students and scholars continue to debate is whether in a second term he would have escalated America’s military involvement in Vietnam, as his successor Lyndon Johnson did with disastrous consequences. The evidence for and against is plentiful and tantalizing. For the loved ones of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War, no question could be more painful. Millions of Vietnamese might also wonder whether a few gunshots in Dallas, Texas brought untold death and destruction to their distant country.
History is the hard and ever-changing work of establishing the facts about the people and events of the past, and then figuring out what the past has to teach us in the present moment. The better we understand the past, the better we understand ourselves and the world we have inherited. That equips us to be the kind of citizens who are capable of smart choices about the future. That is the value of history, and that is why there is a Jacksonville History Center.
Marker in James Weldon Johnson Park noting the 1960 visit to Jacksonville by John F. Kennedy.
Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society & Jacksonville History Center