As we gather with families around the Thanksgiving table, New Englanders of a certain age may take time out to reflect on a harsher memory: The anniversary of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
November 22, 1963 was the day time stopped, especially in his native Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the state which gave him his biggest electoral margin in his narrow victory over Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.
Kennedy’s murder and the days that followed remain an indelible memory: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit splattered with blood; CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite blinking back tears, fidgeting with his black horn rim glasses as he informed the nation of JFK’s death; the somber swearing in of Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One; the casket salute of a 3-year old John Kennedy Jr., who would meet his own untimely death years later in a Martha’s Vineyard plane crash.
Kennedy was just 46 years old when he died. With his lithe physique and thick nimbus of chestnut hair, he looked even younger.
Kennedy was felled by a sniper’s bullet while he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, where he had gone on a political trip to help heal wounds in a Texas Democratic Party riven by a liberal-conservative fissure. The day before the trip, he told his wife they would be heading into “nut country,” a reference to the various right-wing movements, including the John Birch Society, that had gripped Dallas.
JFK’s presidency was brief; just 1,000 days. His election shattered the myth that a Roman Catholic could not be elected to the White House. “One of the issues of this campaign is my religion,” Kennedy said shortly before the 1960 West Virginia primary. “I don’t think it is anyone’s business but my business…Is anyone going to tell me that I lost this primary 42 years ago on the day I was baptized.”
He was the youngest man ever elected president and he replaced the oldest, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the celebrated World War II general and mastermind of the D-Day landing.
Kennedy was raised among great wealth by a philandering father who was ambassador to Great Britain, onetime confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt, and a devout Catholic mother who was a scion of a Boston Irish political dynasty. He attended the best prep schools and Harvard University.
He had grace, wit and a self-deprecating humor. He was the first television president and used what was then a new medium to his advantage. Kennedy was seen as an idealist; his soaring rhetoric and support for the Peace Corps and civil rights was leavened by pragmatism. He was a wily politician who didn’t trust zealots of the left or right.
Of the charge that he was buying the election with his father’s money, Kennedy joked, “I got a wire from my father that said, Dear Jack, Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m paying for any damned landslide.”
Kennedy’s funeral was the first televised mass mourning in American history. In 1950, just one in ten of American families had televisions. By 1960, that figure was nine in ten. There were just three networks in those days; they all carried saturation coverage of the murder in Dallas and the state funeral arranged by his widow.
For many Americans, JFK’s grisly death signaled an end to the innocence and the Cold War consensus of the 1950s. Within five years, the murders of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and Kennedy’s brother, then-presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, would further shatter the nation. Along came vexing new issues: civil rights and voting rights, the role of women in U.S. society and American involvement in Vietnam, a war that would split the nation like no other since the Civil War of the 1860s.
Yet, in the early 1960s, anything seemed possible in the United States. American economic fortunes blossomed in an era when nations hurt by World War II struggled. The generation that got through the Depression and defeated Fascism in a great war was poised to create a better society that would tackle poverty, expand college education beyond the upper crust, grant medical care to the elderly and poor, erase racial injustice and reform the immigration system to allow more immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to settle in our country.
“The only cloud on a blue horizon was the continuing Cold War,” says historian Mark Stoler, longtime professor at the University of Vermont and editor of the George Marshall papers.
School children across the nation ducked beneath their desks in nuclear war drills. Nuclear holocaust seemed a clear and present danger.
Kennedy, a World War II hero who lost his older brother to a wartime military plane crash, came into office as a bear-any-burden warrior. He was the first president born in the 20th Century and represented the ascension of the war’s junior officers to the pinnacle of American politics.
In his inaugural address, the young president sounded bellicose. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty,” said Kennedy.
Two days after he took office, JFK was urged by the Central Intelligence Agency to support a military invasion against Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba, the island nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The CIA had been training Cuban exiles to return to their home country and foment an uprising against Castro’s government. JFK approved the Bay of Pigs invasion, which turned into a military and diplomatic fiasco for the U.S.
Historian Theodore Draper would write later that it was, “one of those rare events in history—a perfect failure.”
Kennedy was devastated. Historian Robert Dallek wrote that the president went into the Oval office with aides Kenny O’Donnell and Pierre Salinger and in the middle of a conversation he broke off and walked out to the Rose Garden. He stayed there for an hour, walking around and keeping his grief to himself.
The next morning, Salinger found JFK weeping in his bedroom.
JFK felt he had been deceived by the CIA and military leaders who pushed for the Cuban invasion. But when the media started the blame game, the president stepped up.
“President Kennedy has stated from the beginning that as president he bears sole responsibility,” said the statement issued by the White House.
The Cuban fiasco didn’t hurt the young president’s political standing; a Gallup public opinion survey two weeks after the failed invasion pegged the president’s approval rating at 83 percent.
In 1962, Kennedy would balk at advice from senior military brass to invade or bomb Cuba after intelligence showed that Castro had Russian missiles on the island. He opted instead for a blockade of Cuba and negotiations with the Soviets to evade a nuclear confrontation.
During his short presidency, JFK had an expansive vision. He supported civil rights and voting rights legislation. He proposed Medicare and Medicaid. He hoped to end segregation. Many of these proposals hit roadblocks in a Congress Kennedy with which he was never very successful. But they would become law under his successor, Lyndon Johnson, who was a better congressional wheeler-dealer and who benefitted from the martyred president’s memory.
Kennedy today is viewed through a many prisms. In the early years after his death, he was seen as a tragic, martyred leader, cut down in the prime of life by a sniper’s bullet. He was viewed as a strong leader of a proud and hopeful nation.
Then doubts crept into the Kennedy legacy. The strong presidency and truculent foreign policy infused U.S. policy with a hubris that some say set the stage for the disaster that became Vietnam. To this day, there are persistent arguments about what would have happened in Vietnam had he lived. Kennedy gave contradictory signals up until weeks before he died.
There were also revelations that exposed the sleazy side of Camelot. Kennedy was an obsessive womanizer who covered up serious medical conditions and used mind-altering drugs. Behind the public façade of a vigorous young man who frolicked with his children in the ocean off Cape Cod and Newport was the reality of a sick person.
Kennedy’s back problems –some of which could be traced to his wartime injuries-- and back surgeries were well known. What wasn’t known was that he suffered from a litany of ailments, including Addison’s Disease, a rare endocrine disorder. He dealt with significant pain and illness his entire life.
New Englanders had a bond with the Kennedys. They summered on the Cape and among the swells of Newport, where his wife’s family had a vacation home. Every citizen of Massachusetts and Rhode Island of a certain age has a story of precisely where they were when they heard the grim news of Kennedy’s death.
This from the late Nuala Pell, wife of then-Sen. Claiborne Pell and a longtime friend of the Kennedys:
“I was sitting at my desk in Washington,” Mrs. Pell told me in 2013. “And I heard it on the radio which I had on. I couldn’t get through to the capitol to get through to Claiborne who was down at the Senate because everything was taken you know. The telephones were overwhelmed…I couldn’t believe it at first.”
‘We were devastated. It took us a long time to get over it,” said Mrs. Pell.
It was Claiborne Pell’s 45th birthday. He never celebrated his birthday again because it fell on the same date as JFK’s death.