“Assassination’s the fastest way.” ~Molière
I remember this date the way I remember birthdays: the anniversary of the JFK assassination. A defining moment for my generation.
I was never star-struck with the Kennedys the way that some people are now—I don‘t think anyone was back then. The Kennedys were Democrat—I wasn’t. Catholic—I wasn’t. Some, particularly the patriarch Joseph, were dark—almost underworld—figures. Some were flagrantly immoral—I wasn’t. I didn’t dislike them all; but certainly, the way some lived.
Back then, the thought of the Kennedys coming into national prominence was met with skepticism—even anxiety. As if the Pope might take over and start controlling us. Before the 1960 election learned people were asking if a Catholic could even be elected President—or a divorced person. Protestants still remembered Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the Catacombs, and the Inquisition: they didn’t trust Catholics. They didn’t want the world to change—too much.
On 17 April 1961—just months into his term—hoping to depose Fidel Castro, JFK ordered the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In a Cold War with the Soviet Union roughly since World War II, America was jostling for position.
I was in Washington, DC, in 1961. Around Cherry Blossom time. Taking snapshots. I was even in the White House. But if JFK were there, he would have been seated in the Oval Office, his private quarters, or a limo—I wouldn’t have known.
That summer, 4 June 1961, JFK met with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit. Though Khrushchev and Charles DeGaulle, of France, both found the young and inexperienced Kennedy intelligent, neither saw him as a strong leader. Khrushchev clearly had the upper hand.
Not long afterward, 13 August 1961, came the Berlin Wall, separating East and West Berlin.
Kennedy knew, to appear strong, he needed to flex his muscle. When it was learned the Soviets were building IBM sites in Cuba, Kennedy announced 24 October 1962 that the US Navy would stop and inspect all Soviet ships approaching Cuba. This Cuba Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had ever been, but it improved Kennedy’s image as a person who meant what he said. Winter, 8 February 1963, Kennedy made travel to Cuba illegal.
That spring Kennedy visited Arlington National Cemetery. Overwhelmed with its scenic springtime beauty, he said, “I could stay here forever.” Little did he realize how prophetic were his words.
On 4 June 1963, two years after the Vienna Summit, Kennedy issued Executive Order 11110, which authorized over $4 billion in silver certificates; since it was never carried out, some have speculated that international money people had something to do with his death. On 10 June 1963 Kennedy gave his “World Peace” commencement speech at American University. That same day he signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, abolishing wage disparity based on gender. The following evening, 11 June 1963, he gave his famous Civil Rights speech on national radio and TV; it led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A week later, 17 June 1963, the US Supreme Court, in its Abington Township School District v Schempp/Murray v Curlett decision, effectively outlawed school prayer. The state—the region—the nation—rang from one end to another with Sunday sermons decrying this loss of religious liberty. Maybe the Catholics had made a difference. Maybe they were behind this. Some were quite certain there’d be the devil to pay.
That same month, 26 June 1963, Kennedy visited Berlin and gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. Most of the city turned out to hear him. Little did he realize how prophetic were his words when he turned to Ted Sorensen afterward and said, “We’ll never have another day like this one, as long as we live.” The next day, 27 June 1963, Kennedy, an Irish-American President, visited the Republic of Ireland.
By July 1963 Kennedy faced a crisis in Vietnam. Earlier he had hoped to pull out American troops, which had been there since the Eisenhower administration. But he had no clear exit strategy. That month, July, Kennedy began negotiating a treaty with the Soviets to limit nuclear testing; he signed it into law October 1963—16 October 1963 was his 1,000th day in office.
Friday, 22 November 1963 events took a disastrous turn. I remember Thursday, the day before—something in the air. A sense that something was going to happen. It did.
“Every true history must force us to remember that the past was once as real as the present and as uncertain as the future.” ~George Macaulay Trevelyan
We were struggling with an old black-and-white TV set—couldn’t see much of anything until after dark, when the contrast was sharper. So it was late in the day before I knew. CBS-TV kept replaying the clip of Walter Cronkite trying to maintain composure when he made the afternoon announcement. Even when they learned that the President had been shot, shocked audiences were still hoping he would live. Others were saying that since he was Catholic, physicians had accommodated his faith and merely waited until after extreme unction (last rites) to pronounce him dead.
Years later when facts started spilling out, and the Warren Commission made its report (withholding Jackie Kennedy’s eyewitness account), I became even more suspicious of what had happened that day in Dallas, Texas. The whole scenario with the schoolhouse, the sniper, the street getaway, the downed policeman ….
I remember officers hauling Lee Harvey Oswald through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. Oswald looked as surprised at the weekend’s sudden turn of events as we were. With a I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me expression on his face, he said aloud, “I didn’t kill anybody!” Think of those words. Why would a guilty man say it that way? I believed him. Just a patsy. To this day I wonder who did kill somebody.
Two days later, Sunday, 24 November, we went to church as usual, came home, changed into something casual, and went to a friend‘s house. We had no sooner stepped inside than our friend Joe was saying, “Did you see that!” How could we? We’d been in our car. “Jack Ruby just shot Lee Harvey Oswald!”
To make sure Oswald didn’t talk or stand trial. Ruby was someone else’s gunman.
No one that I knew liked LBJ, so we were almost aghast when he was sworn in as President. Of all persons, he’d been about the last …
It was Jacqueline Kennedy’s behavior during the election, the tenure, the events in Dallas, the swearing in of LBJ aboard the plane, the funeral, Ave Maria, and Camelot that enshrined the JFK legacy. Americans admired John’s intellect and personality, but, I believe, they admired her decorum more.
More recently I saw Kennedy’s Harvard transcript on display at the National Archives. Near failing grades. Without thinking, I said, “How in the world did he graduate?” A stranger behind me said, “Because of who his daddy was.” To myself: “Well, at least it was honest. No grade inflation.” I think even then professors and people around him must have known how intelligent he was. And since Harvard writes its diploma in Latin—a language only professionals know—who cares?
It was difficult watching the younger Kennedy brother, Robert, try to play second fiddle to LBJ. Robert went after the Teamsters, after Jimmy Hoffa. People admired Robert’s idealism and his tenacity. By 1968 it looked as if there might be a Camelot revival, of sorts.
Malcolm X was assassinated 21 February 1965. Many people disliked the Black Muslims. Even a professor castigated me when I appeared too sympathetic in a history paper. Yo, man! A guy just got murdered. Why shouldn’t I be sympathetic? Then, when MLK was assassinated 4 April 1968, followed by RFK 6 June 1968, it was too pat. Surely someone was behind all these assassinations. They didn’t just happen—did they?
Well, I don’t believe all the Oliver Stone movies. Sometimes I don’t even watch them because I don‘t like his films. But, yes, I am a “conspiracy theorist,” as the opposition likes to dub us. Mere name-calling—that’s what you do when you don’t have a reasonable argument: you start calling people names. I don’t believe any official story on any of the 1960s assassinations—not even the Warren Commission (which included Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Earl Warren; John J McCloy, President of the World Bank; Allen Welsh Douglas, director of the CIA; and yet-to-be President Gerald R Ford). I believe the assassinations were the work of a single group. Who?
The fact is that LBJ, a Texan, was in Dallas that day, 22 November 1963, because he was already VP, and that these other assassinations happened during his Administration. The assassinations ceased after he left office. Maybe Stone is right.
“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future.” ~Adolf Hitler
Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee