OTD in History… November 22–25, 1963, President John F Kennedy assassinated and the world mourns
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. by Lee Harvey Oswald, while in a Presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas heading towards the Texas School Book Depository. For three days until Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on November 25, the nation publicly mourned the president whose life and term in office ended too tragically and too soon creating a myth that still captures the American imagination. Peter Knight writing in his book The Kennedy Assassination, believes, “Perhaps the real consequence of the assassination was to ensure that Kennedy would remain posthumously elevated to the status of mythical hero that he had occupied in the public mind while alive.” (Knight, 5–6) Historian Robert Dallek, author of the biography, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917–1963, explains Kennedy’s assassination “remains important to the public. I think there attaches to him his youthfulness, his hope, his promise, and the country won’t let that go. And I think it’ll last for a long time yet.”
Although the American public remains fixated on Kennedy and the what-ifs of his presidency, the over 40,000 volumes written about him have yet to include a great biography or biographer. Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro commented in 2013, “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” despite being “one of the great American stories.” Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917–1963 is considered the best biography chronicling Kennedy’s life and his presidency. Historians have stayed away from Kennedy for the reason the public remains drawn to him, his celebrity. Dallek explained, “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him. Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”
The only other significant takes on Kennedy’s life and presidency are Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, (1965) and Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993). Both had shortcomings. Although Schlesinger witnessed the Kennedy White House firsthand, he was “the chief architect of the Camelot myth” and his portrayal is not historically objective, while Reeves focused on Kennedy’s policies rather than striking a balance with his life failing to look both at the man and the president. Kennedy made it difficult for historians; he created a public persona that differed from reality, creating a myth, a front that he, his administration and his family kept up and his assassination only perpetuated even though truths have emerged.
Ironically, Norman Mailer’s 1960 campaign profile article “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” on the then-Democratic presidential nominee captures the “elusive Kennedy” best. Mailer described Kennedy “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round… there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.” Mailer said he did not know “whether to value this elusiveness or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”
Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times in her 2013 article, “Kennedy, the Elusive President” claims there was one outstanding biography of Kennedy, The Death of a President by historian William Manchester published in 1967. The biography’s development shows how the Kennedy family looked to control the slain president’s image in death and how difficult they made it for historians to portray realistically Kennedy’s life. The Kennedy’s commissioned Manchester to write the biography weeks after the assassination giving him access “to almost all the president’s men as well as to his widow and virtually every principal figure.” Access came with a price, the Kennedy family controlled the publication rights and Robert Kennedy particularly, demanded edits from Manchester vetoing line after line hoping to control the historical record to the minutiae. Still, Manchester managed to write as Abramson calls “an extraordinary book.” Unfortunately, Abramson concludes, all the books on Kennedy “taken together, tell us all too little about this president, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.”
The enigma would revolve around a twist of fate and a trip to Texas. The trip that was part of Kennedy’s early 1964-campaign strategy to unite the Democratic Party in Texas, a state he believed was crucial for his reelection. On November 21, the President and First Lady Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy boarded Air Force One for what was supposed to be a two-day trip to Texas. Dallas was especially important because of tension within the party. The Kennedys arrived in San Antonio later in the day where Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Governor John B. Connally, and Senator Ralph W. Yarborough greeted the president and first lady. During the first day of the five-city tour Kennedy spoke at the Aerospace Medical Health Center, and then the Latin American citzens’ organization in Houston and at dinner honoring Congressman Albert Thomas before arriving in Fort Worth for the night.
Friday morning, November 22, President started out the day in a rainy Fort Worth where he delivered some remarks and then addressed the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce where he gave his last speech, and expressed about the nation’s military, “We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom. We will continue to do…our duty and the people of Texas will be in the lead.” The fourth stop was Dallas, after a short flight from Fort Worth the president and the first lady arrived at Love Field at 11:37 am, greeting the public before embarking on a limousine motorcade through the city of Dallas. With the rain stopped, the bubble top of the limousine was removed leaving the president to ride in an open limousine and exposed. The Kennedys along with Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie were traveling in one car and Vice President Johnson and wife Claudia “Lady Bird” were in another car in the ten-minute motorcade procession that would take President Kennedy to the Trade Mart where he was supposed to speak at a lunch event.
The route took the motorcade from Main Street to Dealey Plaza. Kennedy was waving at the cheering crowd with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Connally and wife Nellie when three shots in succession erupted as they passed the Texas School Book Depository at 12:30 pm, which hit the Governor, and then the President, Kennedy took two bullets and only one hit Connally, who survived. The motorcade rushed to close by Parkland Hospital, there was nothing that could be done to save the president, Catholic Priests Oscar L. Huber and James Thompson the last rites to Kennedy. Then at 1 p.m., President Kennedy was pronounced dead at 46 years, just 30 minutes after the shooting, Kennedy becomes the fourth president assassinated.
ABC News Radio was the first to report the shooting at 12:36 pm. Most remember a tearing up CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite when he first announced the president’s death on television. Afterward, there was an immediate outpouring of grief by the nation mourning the loss of an idealized young President. In a recent book The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence Secret Service agent Clint Hill recounts, “It has taken me decades to learn to cope with the guilt and sense of responsibility for the president’s death, and I have made it a practice to keep my memories to myself. I don’t talk to anybody about that day.”
The president’s body in a bronze casket was taken back to Love Field and Air Force One to travel back to Washington, DC accompanied by Jackie Kennedy and the Johnsons. At 2:38 p.m., aboard Air Force One before the plane took off US District Court Judge Sarah Hughes swore in Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson as the 36th US president, with Jackie Kennedy standing by his side, still wearing the clothes stained with Kennedy’s blood. It took to 6 p.m. for Air Force One to return to Andrews Air Force Base from which Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an autopsy.
Police arrested the shooter, 23-year-old former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald as he was sitting in the back of a movie theater. Oswald, a Soviet sympathizer with ties to the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee had shot Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository building, where he just starting working. Shortly after shooting Kennedy and Connally, Oswald fatally shot Patrolman J. D. Tippit at 1:15 p.m. running away from police. Two days later on Sunday, November 24, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub and strip club owner fatally shot Oswald live on national television, as police were transferring Oswald from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail; Ruby claimed he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy any further grief. Oswald died two hours later in the same hospital the president he assassinated died just two days earlier. On November 26, Ruby was indicted, he was later convicted but his conviction was overturned in 1966, he dies in 1967 from cancer as he was awaiting a new trial.
The shocking death of the young beloved president led to three days of national mourning. On Saturday, November 23, there was repose of Kennedy’s body in the East Room of the White House for 24 hours. On Sunday, November 24, the same horse-drawn carriage that carried President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Unknown Soldier carried the president’s flag-draped coffin down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol building where his body laid in state for 18 hours, with 250,000 people visiting his casket. Six grey horses and one black horse without a rider led the caisson modeled after President Abraham Lincoln’s cortege after he was assassinated nearly a hundred years earlier reminding the public of another presidential martyr in American history.
On Monday, November 25, 1963, a state funeral was held for the slain president. On November 23, President Johnson in his first presidential proclamation declared the date a national day of mourning. One million people gathered on the route of the processional from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the funeral was held. Foreign dignitaries from over 90 countries, including 19 heads of state came to pay their respects, and millions of Americans and people worldwide watched the funeral on TV, which the three big networks ABC, CBS, and NBC covered as part of their three-day nonstop coverage. After the Requiem Mass, as the president’s body was carried from the cathedral, his three-year-old son John Jr. saluted his father’s casket giving the mourning nation an iconic image to remember. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with “full military honors.” After the service and the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy and Kennedy’s brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts lit an eternal flame that remains burning over the President’s gravesite.
On November 29, Johnson ordered an investigation into Kennedy’s killing appointing the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, because Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren chaired the commission, it was called the Warren Commission. The Warren Commission issued the Warren Report on September 24, 1964, concluding, “The shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor Connally were fired from the sixth-floor window at the southeast corner of the Texas School Book Depository…. The shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor Connally were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Kennedy’s assassination was not put to rest with the president on November 25, 1963, or with the findings of the Warren Commission; conspiracy theories just began their long life. In honor of the 50th anniversary, Fred Kaplan examined the most popular ones in his article, “John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories debunked: Why the magic bullet and grassy knoll don’t make sense.” Even 50 years later, a 2014 poll indicated that 59 percent of Americans still believe there is a conspiracy theory surrounding the enigmatic president’s death. Soon after Kennedy’s successor President Lyndon Johnson commissioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair an investigation, which resulted in the Warren Commission Report. The report concluded that Oswald alone fired all three shots that hit Kennedy. The public, however, was not satisfied and a flurry of books was published in the wake of the report’s finding. The books introduced and supported a host of conspiracy theories.
A home video fuelled the speculations Abraham Zapruder taped on his 8mm home-movie camera the shooting. The 26-second reel with 486 frames was the only direct recording of the assassination. The graphic shots were not released for the public to view until 1975 when President Gerald Ford decided to make it available. The film was both used as proof by the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone and conspiracy theorists that he did not.
Among the many theories, the main point of contention was whether one or bullets shot Kennedy and Connally. Since the time between each frame based on the film made it impossible for Kennedy and Connally to have been shot by separate bullets coming from Oswald’s gun, the Warren Commission concluded with some dissension the “single-bullet theory,” claiming the same bullet hit the Texas Governor and then the president. Originally, the report claimed there was “compelling” evidence but in the end, decided on just saying there was persuasive evidence. Without the Warren Commission being definitive, conspiracy theorists clamored to claim there had to have been the second shooter.
The second most popular theory was that one of the shots came from the grassy knoll. Part of this theory rested in the way Kennedy moved when he was shot suggesting the first shot to the neck was from behind, but the second shot to the head was from in front. There was also an audio recording from a Dallas police officer’s microphone radio transmission. The recording seems to indicate four shots were fired not three and that considering the officer’s location one echoed from the grassy knoll. In 1976, the House of Representatives created a committee House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate federal agencies who had not previously been cooperative. The Committee’s 1979 report claimed there was “a high probability that two gunmen fired” at President Kennedy. Later the National Academy of Sciences debunked this when they analyzed the tape. The police officer motorcycle was not in the vicinity, and the supposed fourth shot came after the Kennedy had already been hit.
Feeding or debunking the conspiracy theories, on October 26, 2017, President Donald Trump allowed for the release of more 2,800 documents relating to Kennedy’s assassination that have long been kept classified, Trump held back 300 documents for national security reasons. Trump, however, decided on April 26, 2018, to withhold the remaining documents until 2021, rationalizing, “I agree with the Archivist’s recommendation that the continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.” Still, 19,000 documents were released about Kennedy’s assassination.
Kennedy’s life and his presidency were cut too short and he has remained elusive and somewhat of an enigma. Despite revelations of personal failings and lack of great presidential accomplishment during those thousand days, Americans still mourn him and he remains a popular president. Dallek explains, “One, of course, is that he was killed. And that he was so young. Only 46 years old. It was an unfinished life and an unfinished presidency. He’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46. Nobody could imagine that he would be 96 years old. Frozen in our minds — still young, vital, charming, witty.” According to Dallek “the country has [not] gotten over [Kennedy’s assassination] yet, and he remains popular because he “inspire[ed] the country and g[a]ve people hope.”
Mailer described Kennedy in 1960 in transcendental terms already in mythological above the human because of the hope he infused to the nation. Mailer wrote, “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” The American public still earns for hope and hero to save them. As opposed to inspirational presidencies succeeding Kennedy, including Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama their lofty rhetoric did not live up entirely to their messages. Kennedy remains forever a possibility cut short that the words from his inaugural address ring all too true, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days, nor in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration. Nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Blaine, Gerald, and Lisa McCubbin. The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence. New York: Gallery Books, 2010.
Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. New York: Back Bay Books, 2004.
Knight, Peter. The Kennedy Assassination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Mailer, Norman, and Nina Wiener. JFK: Superman Comes to the Supermarket. Köln: Taschen, 2014.
Manchester, William. The Death of a President. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 2013.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.