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All of us over a certain age remember where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated. Although only six, my memory of learning of his murder remains crisp and indelible. There are no apt words to capture the shock or measure the grief of an entire nation, or even of a single heart.

That we so intensely grieve the loss of a man killed 50 years ago speaks to a number of things: the horrific circumstances of his death, his blood-stained wife, his tiny children, his youth and the many things his murder left unfulfilled. The Sixties were a miserable time to grow up; the nation unraveled as all manner of evil, foreign and domestic, corroded our culture. Invariably, one wonders if the sudden, devastating death of a young president catalyzed a much more violent social unhinging than otherwise would have been.

We have come to learn that Kennedy was a serial, and not particularly discrete, adulterer. He took dangerous combinations of drugs to mask his Addison’s disease and other ailments. His perceived timidity with Nikita Kruschev at their 1961 meeting in Vienna helped precipitate the Cuban missile crisis.

He has been called “a liberal Cold Warrior.” Upon finding that the so-called “missile gap” he had run on in 1960 was chimerical, he nonetheless launched the greatest single acceleration of the international arms race in history with his ICBM initiative (by 1964, we had more than 2,400 missiles versus 375 for the Soviet Union).

Kennedy also cut taxes (modestly, although along supply-side lines) and stood firmly against Communism. And in perhaps the most eloquent explanation of the basis for American foreign aid ever delivered, he wrote, “[W]idespread poverty and chaos lead to a collapse of existing political and social structures which would inevitably invite the advance of totalitarianism into every weak and unstable area. Thus our own security would be endangered and our prosperity imperiled. A program of assistance to the underdeveloped nations must continue because the nation’s interest and the cause of political freedom require it.”

Regrettably, some of the aid Kennedy approved apparently included funding for “family planning” in the developing world.

But the man and his presidency are not really at issue in this essay. Overlooked, in my view, in all the writing and reminiscing about that day in Dallas is something that goes beyond the compassionate grief of a decent people. It underlies the trauma and the mourning all of us then alive have for so long felt. I can think of no better way to put it than simply this: American patriotism.

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Rob Schwarzwalder

Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council, is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and graduate of Western Seminary (Portland, OR).