One of the enduring mysteries of American history is why the The Sixties! didn't begin until the decade was almost 40% over. The general flavor of 1960-1963 was similar to 1954-1959, but then everything quickly changed. Many people who lived through that time have observed that the turning point was John F. Kennedy's assassination, but few have offered a cogent explanation of the precise mechanism.
In the new January 14, 2008 issue of The American Conservative, John O'Sullivan, who wrote about the failed 1981-1984 assassinations attempts on Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher in his 2006 book The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister, reviews James Pierseon's new book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. The review isn't online, but I'll quote from it:
"Piereson's first original (and brilliant) insight is his recognition that what transformed American politics was not the assassination itself but how it was interpreted.
"Kennedy was slain by a devout communist, one-time defector to the Soviet Union, and admirer or Fidel Castro who had kept in touch with Soviet diplomats after returning home from the USSR and was trying to re-defect to Cuba. A common-sense interpretation of the crime would have portrayed Kennedy as an anti-communist martyr of the conservative cause in the Cold War. Such a view would have made the Cold War -- rather than civil rights -- the central issue in U.S. politics... But such an account would have also been contrary to the emerging "spirit of the age," which dictated to commentators a very different analysis.
"Before anyone knew the identity of Kennedy's assassin, his death was at once and widely attributed in media speculations to 'extremists' and 'bigots' on the Right. ... But that conviction hardly changed once it became known that the assassin was a communist. To be sure, the newspapers dug into Oswald's career as a defector very thoroughly. But the editorials and opinion columns, their television equivalents, and the comments of the liberal and cultural leaders repeatedly and passionately blamed the assassination on something called 'extremism,' which was disconnected from America in general and to the radical Right in particular. ... It soon became conventional wisdom that all Americans bore a share of the blame for the bigotry, intolerance, and hate that had struck down the president. John F. Kennedy in death became a martyr for the cause of civil rights -- a cause to which in life he had shown a prudent political coolness. ...
"Piereson's second great contribution is to establish that Mrs. Kennedy herself, in the very depths of her grief, was signally responsible for inventing and spreading this misinterpretation and lifting it to the level of myth.
... These questions were answered when Mrs. Kennedy learned that the lone Oswald had killed her husband. She tehn complained, "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning."
"Even before the misinterpretation had become current, she had intuitively grasped both its main features and the unfortunate fact that reality did not quite measure up to them. In her arrangements for the funeral and her selection of those speaking at the various memorial services, she ensured that the misinterpretation would be the dominant theme. Finally, by dictating to Theodore White the story that Kennedy had often ended his day listening to songs from his favorite musical, "Camelot," and by insisting that it must remain in White's article over the skepticism of his editors at Life magazine, she lifted the misinterpretation to the level of myth...
"Extended to the present, these trends have produced a cultural atmosphere in which the 20th-century political figures most admired by readers of Vogue and Vanity Fair would probably be Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. Observers attentive to purely political signs -- votes, laws, opinion polls -- were inevitably late to notice this cultural shift. But a woman of fashion, who was also politically knowledgeable, was able to sense it from the surrounding atmosphere. ...
"To their surprise, however, as the radicals [in the late 1960s] rushed forward with their battering rams, the liberals opened the gates and surrendered. How could they resist? If America had killed Kennedy, the liberalism was merely a smiley face painted on a System of racist and sexist oppression. ... For a decade or so after November 1963, liberalism and its institutions were convulsed by disputes, entering the maelstrom as pragmatic, patriotic, and problem-solving bodies, and emerging from it as perfectionist, utopian, anti-American ones, secretly anxious to punish the American majority for its sins rather than solve its problems."