FOUR DAYS TO REMEMBER
It was the defining moment of a generation. Like the shock of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the shock of JFK’s murder in Dallas on November 22, 1963, stunned and stupefied a nation and the world.
What were you doing when Kennedy was shot? Ask anyone over fifty: For a moment the world seemed to stand still. In factories, offices, coffee shops, and university lecture halls, a pall of disbelief descended. Some students heard the announcement over the PA system in the same classrooms where a year before they’d gone through elaborate drills—hiding under desks in case a nuclear bomb fell nearby. Some teachers and students broke into tears. In Dallas, citizens began to lay wreaths at the site of the fatal shooting, while the publisher of the Times Herald, mindful that his city was “sort of on trial,” reminded his staff to use the “best of taste” in handling this story.
On one block in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, a family whose father had helped chart the administration’s confrontation with Communism in Southeast Asia waited anxiously as he flew home from a Vietnam War conference in Honolulu. Two doors up the road, the family of the teacher who taught modern-dance classes for Caroline Kennedy and her friends gathered in distress. For this and many other neighborhoods in the capital area, even casual connections with the young couple in the White House had seemed to generate a kind of golden halo. For them, the loss of the President resounded with special force.
That afternoon, an aggrieved silence also seemed to grip many citizens in and around Boston and Cape Cod, where Kennedy had launched his political career. The Catholic Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cardinal Cushing, was speechless before his guest, the city’s new naval commander. In Hyannis Port, JFK’s mother, Rose, went walking back and forth across the lawn beside the sea, and waited for her youngest son, Teddy, to arrive. She was not even going to try to find the words to describe to her disabled husband what had happened. In Boston’s Symphony Hall, conductor Erich Leinsdorf interrupted a concert to make the terrible announcement; the orchestra then played the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
From all across the country and all over the world, telegrams for Mrs. Kennedy poured into the White House well before she returned from Texas. Some came from famous people and world leaders, others from regular citizens. Some offered whatever aid they could. All struggled to give expression to their grief and incomprehension.
Harold and Dorothy Macmillan, recently resigned British Prime Minister and his wife; thermofax copy
November 22, 1963
We are numbed by the shock of Jack’s death. Nothing we can say can console you. All we can do is to send you our best love.
Harold and Dorothy Macmillan
Konrad Adenauer, former German Chancellor; telegram, in German
BONN GERMANY 22 2211
MRS JOHN F KENNEDY
THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE REPORT OF THE DEATH OF YOUR HUSBAND HAS SHAKEN ME TO THE CORE IN MOURNING AND HEARTFELT SYMPATHY . . . PRESIDENT KENNEDY WILL GO DOWN IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND AS A MARTYR FOR FREEDOM AND PEACE MAY GOD STRENGTHEN YOU
Donald Rumsfeld, first-term U.S. Congressman from Illinois, future Secretary of Defense; telegram
MRS. JOHN F KENNEDY
AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE ACT HAS TRAGICALLY ROBBED YOU YOUR FAMILY AND THE NATION OF A DEDICATED VALIANT AND SACRIFICING LEADER. IN SHOCKED DIS-BELIEF AND WITH A DEPTH OF FEELING THAT CANNNOT BE EXPRESSED I JOIN THE MILLIONS OF MOURNING PEOPLE ACROSS THE GLOBE IN EXPRESSING MY FAMILYS SORROW AND SYMPATHY AND IN EXTENDING OUR PRAYERS
DONALD RUMSFELD MEMBER OF CONGRESS
The historic figures of the Democratic Party were quick to express their assurances of aid and comfort, though JFK’s rapid rise had often made them uncomfortable. Two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson served loyally as Kennedy’s UN Ambassador, but never made a true peace with the young President.
Adlai Stevenson, UN Ambassador and former Democratic presidential candidate; telegram
NEW YORK NY NOV 22 504P EST
MRS JOHN F KENNEDY
I PRAY FOR YOU AND ALL OF US DEVOTEDLY
Harry Truman, originally dismissive of Kennedy on account of his youth, had eventually warmed to the President; his wife sent this card:
Bess Wallace Truman, wife of President Harry Truman; undated, engraved card
Dear Mrs. Kennedy—
I know there is nothing I can say that will give you any comfort but I do want you to know that you have been deeply in my mind and heart through these ghastly days.
Bess Wallace Truman
Eleanor Roosevelt had also come around to approving of JFK, though she had worked hard to thwart his 1960 nomination in favor of Adlai Stevenson (and had died a year before Kennedy was shot). The Roosevelt children had been more friendly. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. had played a crucial role in JFK’s victory in the 1960 West Virginia primary—and later became a good friend of Jackie’s. His brother, California congressman James Roosevelt, had refused to take sides in the Stevenson-Kennedy quarrels.
James Roosevelt, eldest son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; handwritten note
House of Representatives
It is hopeless to say anything that can really help you. Just please know of our affection for you and the children. We want so to do something but just don’t know how. We pray of course. God bless you . . . and protect you.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Galesburg, Illinois, elementary school children composed letters:
Brett Ferneau; handwritten letter
Nov. 22, 1963
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
I was terribly shocked when I heard of the cowardly deed some, well, it must been a maniac, performed.
I’m in fourth grade. I was in art when then the news came. One girl started crying. I couldn’t bring myself to my senses enough to comfort her, as I was immediately heartsick. I am still heartsick. I am only 9, but I know how great he was. When we went to the library and tried to get a drink, I could only splash water up my nose. I couldn’t read, and I didn’t hear the teacher when she read a book. I can’t express my grief in words.
I give you my deepest sympathy, which I know will not help much, but you may have all I have to give.
This may not be a very good letter but it’s the best I can do because I’m still heartsick and I’ve been writing for almost an hour. As you can see, I still haven’t filled the page. I don’t think I can.
Third grade, Douglas School; handwritten letter
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
We have just heard that President Kennedy died a few minutes ago, and we want to tell you how sad we are.
President Kennedy was a good president and a great man.
Our country will miss him very much.
The Third Grade
In the large corporation in New York City where Ronelle Schneidman worked, she saw “men break down and cry shamelessly in front of their co-workers,” while in the streets people “gathered around cars listening to radios. Back home, on Long Island, cars were pulling off the road, drivers too upset to go on.” One woman, Barbara Casteen, was out shopping for groceries when she heard the news, as she described in a letter to her parents, later sent on to Mrs. Kennedy.
Barbara (Mrs. Charles) Casteen; handwritten letter
November 27, 1963
This has been a long, sad weekend. The silent crowds are gone, the muffled drums are stilled, and the wheels of government begin to grind again. . . .
I think everyone, as long as he lives, will have indelibly stamped upon his memory the exact time and place he happened to be when the news came. I happened to be, of all places, in the supermarket. The loudspeaker was blaring the word that the president had been shot as I walked in the door. Everyone was standing as if frozen to the spot, dis-belief and horror on their faces. After a few minutes, I had the presence of mind to get a basket and move along the aisles. . . . As the bulletins came in, people gathered in little knots—strangers, trying to get comfort from each other. Finally, there was a long pause, and the announcer began—“Ladies and gentlemen,” and here his voice broke, “The President is dead.” There was a gasp, then dead silence. I remember seeing a boy unpacking boxes of cereal, put his head down on an unopened box and weep quietly, his shoulders shaking. Another man, grey-haired and well-dressed, standing at the end of the aisle, his head in his hands, his elbows resting on a stack of Pepsi cartons standing there—unmoved. Ten minutes later he was still standing there. No one talked . . . the horror was too great. All of a sudden I had the urge to get out of there—it seemed incongruous, almost disrespectful, to be there amid the brightness and color, the gay displays. . . . At the checkout counter, the clerk worked mechanically, only his stricken pale face betraying his feelings.
At home, we sat, stunned and transfixed in front of the television. . . . I think we were waiting for somebody to step in and say it wasn’t true, that we were just dreaming. But they never did. . . .
Despite the shock, citizens expected an orderly transition of power, even in the middle of unfathomable mourning. Within hours the dead President’s body was lifted into the rear compartment of Air Force One at Dallas’s Love Field. In the front compartment, the new President was sworn in, with JFK’s thirty-four-year-old widow at his side. President Johnson asked for the nation’s and God’s help when he arrived a short while later at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. But it was the grieving widow descending from the plane with brother-in-law Bobby who held the attention of the nation. She was still wearing the pink suit that was visibly stained with the blood of her husband. She had refused to change out of it, declaring that “they should see what they have done.” For days the obscenity of this spattered skirt would serve as the principal evidence of the bullet’s impact; network cameras had not been running at that moment, and amateur film footage of the assassination itself would not emerge for some time.
For the next twenty-four hours, as a heavy rain that perfectly matched the public mood fell over Washington, the nation’s collective concern was riveted on Jackie Kennedy. How would she console her children? How, for that matter, would we console our own? Americans were at a loss. One way or another we needed her to give us a cue, to show us what to do. Blessedly, she had an unerring feel for the architecture of social ritual. Under extreme duress, with the help of her brother-in-law and with her children at her side, she showed us how to participate in history as it was created. The funeral she shaped ensured that her husband’s greatness would emerge, copying as it did the ceremonies used a century earlier after Lincoln’s assassination: the lying-in-state in the East Room, then in the Capitol Rotunda; the stately procession with the riderless horse; and the burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
She did not compromise the ritual with outbursts of personal emotion, even her own. To the outside world she presented a calm demeanor of silent dignity, breaking down only once in Monday’s funeral Mass, shortly before taking communion. It was left to others to make reference to the pathos of the First Lady’s personal distress. For example, Mike Mansfield alluded to the intensely personal act of removing her wedding ring and placing it with JFK’s body at the hospital in Dallas when, during his Capitol Rotunda eulogy, he intoned repeatedly, at the end of each new sentence: “And so, she took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands.”
Many of the nation’s most highly decorated military men paid tribute to the fallen President. “As a former comrade in arms, his death kills something within me,” General Douglas MacArthur wired the First Lady in a telegram. Five-star General of the Army Omar Bradley, in the hospital, sent handwritten regrets that he could not attend the funeral. Alvin C. York, the legendary hero from the World War I Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, known universally simply as “Sergeant York” since the 1941 Gary Cooper movie of that name, wired a message of “deepest sympathy and regret.” Ill health also prevented Winston Churchill from attending in person.
Mass card designed for JFK’s funeral.
Sir Winston Churchill; handwritten letter
24 November 1963.
Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
Never have I been so filled with revulsion, anger and sorrow, as when I heard of your husband’s death.
On this great and good man were set the hopes of humanity. The grief and loss must be unspeakable for you, who have stood by him for so many years, and who were at his side when he was struck down. Nothing can be of consolation to you at this time. But I would like you to know that throughout the world, and in England especially, all men who prize Freedom and hope for Peace share your loss and partake of your grief. . . .
Winston S. Churchill
Shortly after noon on Sunday, many Americans on the East Coast had just arrived home from intense services at their own houses of worship. As they turned once more to stare at the television, another act of violence echoed from Dallas. There, in the crowded basement of the Dallas jail, a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby had come to exact personal vengeance. Friendly with the police, he made his way unremarked into the prison garage where the assassin was being bundled along by a crew of cops, and shot and mortally wounded Lee Harvey Oswald. The killing was caught live on national television hardly forty-eight hours after the murder of the President.