The culture wars that Americans have been fighting since the sixties are generally thought to have begun in the late sixties—in the paroxysms of student revolt and urban riots sparked by the spiraling of Vietnam and the twin murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. At the start of 11/22/63, King’s schoolteacher hero is implored by his old buddy Al, a dying Maine diner proprietor, to go back in time to bend the arc of history away from the catastrophic fallout that Oswald’s crime would unleash. “If you ever wanted to change the world,” Al says, “this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe … Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
Or not. In truth, it was already too late. America’s violent culture wars had started before JFK was shot. They were all on display in Oswald’s Dallas. At least in 1963, polling showed that only 5 percent of the country—a fringe—subscribed to the radical anti-government views championed by the John Birch Society and other militants of the right. These days, that fringe, whether in the form of birthers or the tea party or the hosts of Fox & Friends, gives marching orders to a major political party.