Today in 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in downtown Dallas, Texas. The shock, anger, and sadness which the American people felt had not been seen since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Not until the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, would the nation come together again in such a fashion.
JFK, as the President was known, was born into a family whose patriarch had political aspirations of the highest order. When the oldest son in the family, Joe Jr., was killed during the Second World War, the senior Kennedy’s hopes and dreams fell to the next son in line, John Fitzgerald. John had been a sickly child but compensated for it by keeping up with his peers in sports and after-hours activities. During the Second World War, he commanded Torpedo Boat PT-109. On August 2nd, 1943, Kennedy lost his command when the comparatively small wooden boat was hit and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy acted bravely and saw to the welfare of his men; he swam several miles with one of the injured crewman in tow. This incident, along with problems found during childhood, conspired to cause Kennedy severe back pain for the rest of his life.
After the war, Kennedy won a seat in the US House of Representatives representing Massachusetts’ 11th Congressional District. He held that office until 1952, when he won a Senate seat which he held until the Presidential race in 1960. That November, Kennedy won one of the closest elections in US history, barely beating his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. He was the 2nd youngest president to hold the office and was the first and thus far only Catholic to serve in the Oval Office.
While Kennedy was certainly popular, he had his fair share of enemies. By today’s standards, JFK would be considered a moderate conservative. His dealings with the Soviet Union were tough, but not tough enough to please the far right in the nation. He worked for desegregation and civil rights legislation, a move which alienated him from some Southerners. If he was going to be re-elected in 1964, Kennedy had to mend many fences.
The trip to Dallas in November, 1963, was an attempt to bridge the gap with Texas Democrats, who were split on important issues of the day and fighting amongst themselves. It was also a fund-raising opportunity. Kennedy had lost Dallas County in the 1960 election and was acutely aware that he was not popular there with the majority of voters. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was met with a near-riot when he visited Dallas the previous month and advised Kennedy not to go. But the Dallas Police Department promised increased security, so the trip was on.
Air Force One arrived at Dallas’ Love field 20 minutes before noon on the 22nd. The President’s itinerary called for his motorcade to travel through downtown and Dealey Plaza on their way to the Dallas Business and Trade Mart where the President was scheduled to have lunch with local business and political leaders.
As the motorcade made a left-hand turn onto Elm Street, over two dozen people recorded the moment with still and motion-picture cameras. The most famous of these recordings was filmed by a man named Abraham Zapruder, a Russian immigrant who owned a clothing manufacturing company located diagonally from Dealey Plaza. The Zapruder film today represents the most complete record of what happened next.
Witness testimony concerning traumatic events is not always accurate, but the general consensus is that the first of three shots was fired from the sixth floor of the Book Depository building at 12:30PM. The building was located on Elm Street, so the shooter had a downward facing shot into the President’s limousine. The first shot missed the President, but the second one hit both him and Texas Governor John Connelly, and the third hit Kennedy in the side of the head, causing the fatal wound. Realizing what had happened in only six seconds, the Presidential motorcade moved out at high speed towards Parkland Hospital several miles away.
The nation first learned of the shooting barely ten minutes after it occurred. Walter Cronkite with CBS News read an audio only statement which only mentioned what was then known: the President had been seriously wounded. It was 2PM Eastern Standard Time (1PM in Dallas) before the CBS News cameras in Cronkite’s New York studio were ready. Approximately 40 minutes later, the by-then veteran reporter told the nation that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States was dead. All three television networks cancelled their regular programming for four days to cover the assassination without commercial breaks, something that would not happen again until the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
While the fate of the President played out at Parkland Hospital, Dallas Police were hunting for the shooter or shooters. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who would later be charged with the crime, was briefly detained by police in the second floor lunchroom of the Book Depository, but was released. He left the building by its front door less than five minutes after the shooting. Several minutes later, the Book Depository was sealed off after witnesses claimed they saw a shooter on one of the upper floors. Police quickly found an Italian-made rifle on the sixth floor, leaning against a wall near a window.
At 1:15PM local time, about 45 minutes after the shooting, Oswald shot and killed a Dallas police officer less than one mile from the room he rented. This act was seen by at least 13 people and led to Oswald being tracked to a nearby movie theater, where he was apprehended after a brief struggle with police. He was taken to the Dallas jail.
While Oswald was being transported to jail, another incident worthy of mention was occurring at Parkland Hospital. Since the President had been shot in Texas, state law dictated that his autopsy must take place within the boundaries of the state. Since federal law at that time did not show shooting the President to be a crime, the only charges leveled against Oswald would be those pressed by the state of Texas. This added strength to the state’s position that the autopsy must occur in Dallas. However, the Secret Service detachment with the President’s body was under orders to return to Air Force One for an immediate flight back to Washington. In a hallway of the hospital, Dallas police officers and Secret Service agents brandished their service revolvers as they argued about what to do. In the midst of this tumult was Jacqueline Kennedy, who never left the President’s side. Eventually, the Secret Service won the debate and the coffin containing the President’s body was rushed to Love Field and placed aboard Air Force One. Before the plane left the tarmac, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States.
An industry has grown around various theories related to the Kennedy assassination. What I present here are facts that are considered official, although details about the shooting and the disposition of the three bullets remain in doubt. The Warren Commission, the first body to investigate the assassination, concluded that Oswald acted alone, thereby giving an official stamp to the “lone gunman” theory. Oswald could not be questioned, as he had been killed by club owner Jack Ruby the Sunday after the assassination as he was escorted through the parking garage of the Dallas Police Department. This shooting caused some conspiracy theorists to believe the murder was a Mafia hit job, since Ruby had those kinds of connections. Others place the blame on the Soviets, Southern separatists, and even the CIA.
In the late 1970’s, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, known as the HSCA, returned to the issue of what really happened on that day in Dallas. It concluded that the FBI did a poor job of investigating the shooting, including improper handling of important evidence. The Secret Service was called out for not providing enough protection given the nature of politics in Dallas. While the HSCA did not directly question the authenticity of the lone gunman theory, it shed enough light on the issue to put the true nature of events in question for many Americans. In 2003, ABC News conducted a poll in which 70% of respondents stated they believe the assassination was part of a plot, not the act of a lone shooter. While most of the documents related to that day have been released to the public, a small number will not be available until 2017. Will they answer the question with any finality? Probably not, but we’ll have to wait and see.