The life, death and legacy of America’s 35th president, 50 years later
By Chris O'Neal 11/21/2013
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past are certain to miss the future."
— John F. Kennedy, West Germany, June 25, 1963
THE NEW FRONTIER
Up until that year, no Catholic had ever served as president of the United States. In the South, coal miners feared for their way of life; new industries and technology forced many from their homes and from the mines.
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 43, a young Catholic senator from Massachusetts defeated then-Vice President Richard Nixon for the presidency, the world shook — it was to be the first hope and change campaign, and the first use of modern technology to do so.
Nixon and Kennedy’s televised debates were the first such in history and reason enough to take appearances seriously. Nixon’s infamous sickly state and 5 o’clock shadow convinced viewers that Kennedy had won, while those who listened to the debate on the radio were in favor of Nixon.
“It’s time America started moving again.” — John F. Kennedy, 1960 televised debate versus Richard Nixon.
Kennedy did, however, have a large swath of opposition — especially in the South. His support of the growing civil rights movement created rifts within his own party, many of whom voted for a third party in protest.
Kennedy eventually won the popular vote by a narrow margin — 49.7 percent to Nixon’s 49.5 percent.
The Vietnam War would be ramped up under Kennedy. In 1961, troop levels were tripled. It was in Cuba that Kennedy would find his war legacy — though the Bay of Pigs incident would prove to be a blunder, his reputation was saved by what came next.
Kennedy, with support from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), trained 2,500 Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba. After landing, the troops received no support — and were thus captured. After two years of negotiations, the 1,200 survivors were released in exchange for food and medicine. Kennedy believed that the CIA had purposely set him up to fail, leading to a rift in relations between the two.
“We all looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’ ” — John F. Kennedy to Time Magazine writer Hugh Sidey.
In 1962, after images showing missile launch sites constructed on the island, Kennedy, fearing attack by the Soviets, was faced with two choices: diplomacy or nuclear war.
Cooler heads would prevail. The USSR, headed then by Nikita Khrushchev, agreed to dismantle the sites. Kennedy would be known as the president who averted nuclear disaster.
In 1963, Kennedy declared himself one with the German people in Berlin in an anti-communism speech. That same year, the foundation for space exploration was set in motion in response to the Soviet’s success in sending a man to space.
Unfortunately, Kennedy would not live to see the fall of communism or the fruits of his astronomical labors.
”We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962, Rice University.
Kennedy arrived in San Antonio, Texas, on the night of Thursday, Nov. 21, 1963.
From San Antonio, Kennedy, along with his wife, Jacqueline, traveled to Fort Worth on Nov. 22, followed by a short plane trip to Dallas’ Love Field airport; the President then entered his motorcade and traveled into the city.
Alongside the president and his wife were then-Texas Gov. John Connally and wife, Nellie. The route would take the president through the streets of Dallas and past throngs of onlookers.
Kennedy, who chose to travel without the optional hood on the presidential limousine, wished to be seen and to interact with the people who came to support him.
Dealey Plaza, in Dallas’ west end, is also the home of the Texas School Book Depository, where in October Lee Harvey Oswald had been hired as a manual laborer sorting books for orders.
At approximately 12:29 p.m., the presidential motorcade turned on to Houston Street, directly in front of the book depository.
At 12:30 p.m., shots were fired. The limousine carrying the president and governor sped away as the first lady climbed onto the back of the moving vehicle.
Walter Cronkite, a reporter for CBS, appeared on television with continued coverage of the assassination. At 2:27 p.m. EST, Cronkite, relying on reports from Dallas, reported unofficially that President Kennedy had passed away.
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” — Walter Cronkite, CBS News, 1963.
From then things moved quickly. President Kennedy’s body was returned to Washington aboard Air Force One. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the new president.
The nation, in a state of shock, mourned.
While being transferred from detention by the Dallas Police Department, suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was fatally shot by Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner. There would be no trial in the assassination of the president of the United States.
The Warren Commission, established immediately by President Johnson, would later find that Lee Harvey Oswald acted as the lone gunman. This conclusion would later be contradicted in 1976 by the United States Select Committee on Assassinations, which found that the probability of there being a conspiracy to kill Kennedy was high.
A recent Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy.
California Lutheran University political science professor Herb Gooch was just 20 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated.
“We had gone down to have lunch with some people,” said Gooch, who was a student at UC Berkley. “I remember that now as clearly as my freshman students can tell you exactly where they were when 9/11 occurred.”
After the assassination, the generation that had been in its late teens during the election of Kennedy saw its mood change in an instant.
“The election of Kennedy was a kind of beacon that anything was possible. He was speaking to new generations,” said Gooch. “With his death, people took it differently. For some people it was the ultimate turnoff. For most people there was a sense of outrage and disbelief.”
After 1963, the movement for which the 1960s became known reared into existence.
“As that generation matured through its teens and into their late 20s — wow! They could change things dramatically,” said Gooch.
Kennedy encouraged the possibility that things could change, that hope could flourish. After his death, however, the nation’s opinions shifted.
“The government began to lose credibility,” said Gooch. “From ’65 on, you were having increasing urban riots over civil rights. For most people, there was a sense of things getting out of control.”
Kennedy’s legacy will forever remain one of youthful hope and aspirations, of a life that ended too soon, taking with it potential and sparking a revolution in the country’s youth, a movement in direct opposition to the political climate.
Nov. 22, 1963: the day the United States was forced into maturity, kicking and screaming.