WARNING: The video and information below may contain images and references that some people may find distressing.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot as he paraded through Dallas, Texas. That same afternoon Dallas police arrested their suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, an itinerant ex-U.S. marine and self-described Marxist-Leninist who had lived in the Soviet Union. Within days Oswald was also dead, shot by nightclub-owner Jack Ruby on national television in the basement of a Dallas police station.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin has captured the sense of immediacy that televised politics brought to the American social sphere of the 1960s. Kennedy's election to office marked a new age in American political culture. “History with a capital H had come down to earth, either interfering with life or making it possible; and that within History, or threaded through it, people were living with a supercharged density: lives were bound up within one another, making claims on one another, drawing one another into the common project.” Americans knew Kennedy as “the television president,” and their relationship with the man and his politics was infused with this feeling of intimacy.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Kennedy's violent and sudden death moved the American public so dramatically. His funeral rites were a profoundly public affair, painstakingly arranged by his widow, broadcast on all of the nation's television networks and witnessed in 93 percent of the country's television-viewing households. “America wept tonight,” New York Times columnist James Reston wrote, “not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best.” Five years later, Kennedy's younger brother and incumbent New York Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, was also assassinated.

 

From: Domina, Thurston. "Kennedy Assassination." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Riggs, 2nd ed., vol. 3, St. James Press, 2013, pp. 148-150.

JOHN F. KENNEDY

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the second of nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy (1888–1969) and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (1890–1995); he was born at the family home, 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Kennedys were a politically prominent Irish Catholic family. John's grandfather on his father's side was a state senator and active in Boston political circles. His grandfather on his mother's side had served as mayor of Boston, state senator, and U.S. congressman. John's father was a tough, successful businessman.

Kennedy attended elementary schools in Brookline and then in Riverdale, New York, where his prosperous family had moved. He attended high school at the private Choate Academy in Wallingford, Connecticut. Kennedy was not an outstanding student, but he had many friends and in his senior year was voted the student "most likely to succeed" in the future.

Kennedy entered Harvard University in 1936 and graduated with honors in 1940. In the spring and summer of 1939, between his junior and senior years, his father sent him on a tour of Europe and put him in touch with various government officials. The young Kennedy carefully studied the conflicts that were building in Europe as Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi Party (known primarily for its brutal policies of racism) grew more and more threatening. In young Kennedy's view, England was not well prepared for war; when he returned to Harvard, he wrote his senior thesis on this subject. The thesis later became a best-selling book titled Why England Slept (1940).

Kennedy, who loved the sea and sailing, joined the U.S. Navy as a seaman in 1941. When Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii, was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II (1939–45). In the war, Kennedy commanded a boat known as PT-109. Kennedy and his crew were patrolling near the Solomon Islands on August 2, 1943, when a Japanese destroyer sliced right through PT-109. Two of the crew were killed, but Kennedy managed to rescue the others—some injured—and get them to a nearby island. He then swam to other nearby islands for help. He and his crew were rescued on August 7. Kennedy received the Purple Heart because his back had been injured in the incident; he also received navy and marine honors for his heroics. Returning to the United States in December, he recuperated, but he would suffer from his back injury the rest of his life.

When Kennedy's older brother, Joseph Jr., whom his father had groomed to enter politics, was killed in the war, Joseph Sr. turned to John, his second son, to fulfill the family's political ambition. A determined and articulate young man, John Kennedy was also very handsome and readily liked by those with whom he came in contact. He had all the makings of a politician. In 1946, he made a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the eleventh congressional district of Massachusetts. Kennedy entered the House in January 1947 as a twenty-nine-year-old congressman. Easily reelected in 1948 and 1950, Kennedy supported the social programs of President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry). In 1952, Kennedy successfully ran for the U.S. Senate.

On September 12, 1952, Senator Kennedy married a Vassar College graduate, Jacqueline "Jackie" Lee Bouvier (1929–1994), who was the daughter of a wealthy New York City financier. They would have four children, but only two survived infancy, a daughter and a son—Caroline and John Jr. Young Senator Kennedy served on the Senate Labor Committee investigating charges of corruption. Fighting for the average union worker and local unions, he fought alleged corruption of national labor union leaders, such as racketeering between labor and management, in which top leaders obtained money illegally from management in exchange for agreeing not to strike. Kennedy also served on the Government Operations Committee, which was headed by U.S. senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957; see entry) of Wisconsin. McCarthy had also led a witch-hunt for communists he thought were lurking within the U.S. government and among the general public. By making unfounded accusations against various government workers and questioning the loyalty of certain private citizens, McCarthy had destroyed the careers of many innocent Americans. By 1954, McCarthy's lack of evidence was exposed and the Senate voted to censure him (publicly and officially disapprove of his behavior). Kennedy had never outwardly opposed or confronted McCarthy, and he missed the actual roll call vote on censure because he was ill that day. But Kennedy agreed with the censure vote.

Kennedy easily won reelection to the Senate in 1958, but since the mid-1950s he had had his sights set on the U.S. presidency. His main drawbacks were being Roman Catholic (a Catholic had never been elected president) and being young. Nevertheless, at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy won the party's nomination on the first ballot. He chose U.S. senator Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; see entry) of Texas, who also had run for president that year, as his vice presidential running mate. The Republican candidate was Vice President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; see entry), whose running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985), a U.S. representative to the United Nations. (Kennedy had defeated Lodge in the U.S. Senate race of 1952.) As in previous elections, Kennedy's very large and influential family campaigned tirelessly. After a series of televised debates between the presidential candidates—the first such debates ever shown on television—Kennedy eked out a narrow victory over Nixon.

 

THE THIRTY-FIFTH PRESIDENT

The Kennedys brought youth, vitality, and style to the White House. John Jr. and Caroline often played in the Oval Office as their father worked. Jackie Kennedy, only in her early thirties, set the standards for fashions of the day. She brought many performing artists to the White House. Mrs. Kennedy also redecorated the White House, placing furnishings and articles long in storage from past presidents back into the many different rooms.

One of President Kennedy's earliest actions was establishing the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1,1961. The goal of the Peace Corps was to promote world peace and friendship by aiding people in countries around the world through improved education, health care, and public facilities. A program that remained successful into the twenty-first century, the Peace Corps sent five hundred volunteers to eight developing countries in its first year. By 1966, over fifteen thousand volunteers were working in fifty-two countries.

The dominant domestic issue for President Kennedy was civil rights—making the civil and economic rights of black Americans equal to the rights white Americans already possessed. Large racial demonstrations—both for and against civil rights—occurred across the South and throughout the nation. Courts ordered an end to segregation in public schools. (Segregation means separating people by their race so that they cannot use the same public facilities.) President Kennedy had to call out the National Guard to maintain order and enforce desegregation at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and at the University of Alabama in 1963. In August 1963, over two hundred thousand people marched to Washington, D.C., to demand equal rights for black Americans; this event was known as the Freedom March. Kennedy had been planning sweeping civil rights legislation, but he was assassinated before it was passed into law. When Kennedy died in November, Lyndon B. Johnson took office; Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act a year later.

 

From: "Kennedy, John F." Cold War Reference Library, edited by Richard C. Hanes, et al., vol. 4: Biographies Volume 2, UXL, 2004, pp. 218-229.

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  • BIBLIOGRAPHY

    Books

    • Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy: The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961–1963. New York: Times Books, 2012.
    • Dallek, Robert. Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961–1973. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • O'Neill, William L. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1971.

     

    Periodicals

    • Frost, Bob. “The Assassination of President Kennedy.” Biography (2003). Available online at http://historyaccess.com/assassinationofp.html (accessed on May 18, 2012).
    • Kaiser, David. “The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (June 2011): 422–424.

Video Transcript

"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans".

Immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, AP General Manager Wes Gallagher asked his best writers to create a memorial volume. [Saul Pett, Sid Moody, Hugh Mulligan and Tom Henshaw worked quickly to produce the instant bestseller The Torch is Passed. They dedicated it to those who might one day find, in their words, 'an insight, a wisdom, and a workable moral out of these events which so far elude us who lived them'. 

For this account we have drawn freely upon the published text. 

11:37 a.m. Dallas time, Friday November 22nd 1963, Love Field. The door of the cabin opened and the President and First Lady of the United States emerged. They smiled. The sun smiled. They hustled forward to touch, fleetingly, the writhing arms of the happy throng. The welcomers were doing their best to give a big Texas 'Hi y'all' to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his radiant wife Jacqueline. Those in back who couldn't quite elbow their way through the milling mob to touch the President's hand, or even his dark grey suit, held small box cameras overhead hoping to catch something of that famous critical grin. The pros with their electronic flash guns scurried backwards like Burden crabs for 'just one more, Mr. President, just one more'. Someone gave Jacqueline Kennedy a bouquet of flowers: blood red roses.

11:52. The motorcade rolled into the heart of Dallas, shouts and cheers rolled and echoed back and forth, mingling with the raucous rumble of the motorcycle escort and their occasional backfires as they jockeyed to keep pace. Newsman riding in a bus back in the procession thought, all in all, it was a good show for Kennedy. The sun glared through the din as the motorcade went down Main Street at 10 or 15 miles an hour. Mrs. Kennedy noted the uproar of the crowds and that persistent sun, but she couldn't take time now to put on sunglasses because she had to wave.

At 12:20 p.m., the Dallas Bureau of the Associated Press was its usual noisy self. Chief of Bureau Bob Johnson, feeling good, had left the trunk wire and had walked into the adjacent Times Herald newsroom. As he was returning to his desk, staffer Dick McMurray started to tell Johnson something. Just as executive editor Felix McKnight of the Times Herald yelled to Bob: "We hear the President has been shot, but we haven't confirmed it".

Johnson raced for his typewriter and hurriedly typed out the slug and dateline for a bulletin. He had just reached the dash that follows the AP logo type when the phone rang. It was Stafford James W. [Hawkins?] on duty as a photographer several blocks from the office. [Hawkins?] had just run down into the Elm Street underpass, beating the motorcade. The President's car turned from Houston onto Elm between [Hawkins?] and the Texas school book depository. [Hawkins?] was using a long-focus lens and was afraid that he'd let the presidential car get to close, the image would be too big. He released the shutter while the car was about 30 feet away.

At the instant, Kennedy - with a bullet through his back - raised his left arm convulsively. Looking through the viewfinder, [Hawkins?] didn't at first realize what was happening. As he advanced his film, the presidential car rolled past and another bullet tore out the back of the President's head.

'Bob' shouted [Hawkins?], the president has been shot!'

'Ike, how do you know?'

'I saw it. There was blood on his face. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed him and cried, 'Oh no!' The motorcade raced onto the freeway'.

'Ike, you saw that?'

'Yes, I was shooting the pictures and then I saw it'.

With the phone cradled to his ear, Johnson's fingers raced.

Bulletin: Dallas, November 22nd. President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, 'Oh no!'. The motorcade sped on.

An agent in the president's car grabbed a radio telephone: 'let's go straight to the nearest hospital' he shouted to police up ahead. The presidential car, a 1961 Lincoln, broke out of line and screeched off at speeds reaching 70 mph, rounding some corners on two wheels. It fled toward the hospital. 

Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who had jumped aboard the back of the car, shepherded them with another agent who had been riding up front. AP White House correspondent Jack Bell jumped out just as the cars wheeled and stopped in front of the emergency entrance.

'I saw Mrs. Kennedy weeping, trying to hold her husband's head up. For an instant I stopped and stared into the back seat. Stretched out, at full length, lay the president. motionless. On the front seat lay the soft felt hat the President carried often, but seldom wore. Beside it in mute comradeship was the wide-brimmed Texas-style hat that Connolly wore. Three twisted and torn roses lay in a pool of blood. On the floor beside them was a tattered bouquet of Asters'.

Inside the emergency room Jacqueline Kennedy kissed her husband and took a ring from her finger and placed it on one of his. This was an Irish custom: together in life, together in death. She stood erect again. 'Thank you for taking care of the President', she told Father Huber, who had just administered last rites.

The flash came at 1:32 PM: 
Dallas. Two priests who were with Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds.

In the 1st 12 hours after the assassination, the AP moved 219 stories totalling more than 63,000 words. In the first four days, more than a quarter-million words were moved from 133 datelines. And for the 1st 24 hours, [?] three pictures were the only ones
available.

Although the Associated Press did on that day what it had been created to do, it was a day unlike any other before or since. Working through days of grief and horror, New York editors demanded the reporting to be preserved so that, as the President had asked on his inauguration, a new generation might learn.