The Assassination of
By Harold Frost
Biography magazine, 2003
Prelude: Autumn, 1963
The U.S.A. is prosperous. Many families are moving into the middle class for the first time. Millions of workers enjoy annual paid vacations – “an unthinkable blessing for most people in the 1930s,” writes historian James T. Patterson.
Kennedy’s Gallup approval rating is strong, 59 percent, although his support has declined in recent months, largely because of his endorsement of the civil rights movement and his toning down of the rhetoric of the Cold War – actions that some Americans regard as crazy and/or evidence that he’s a Commie dupe. On June 10 of this year he delivered an important foreign policy speech at American University, saying, “Let us reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union” – a simple, stunning sentence that, for Cold War importance, ranks with President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex in 1961 and pronouncements by President Nixon (“I will go to China”) and President Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). In the wake of the assassination, some conspiracy theorists will ponder JFK’s apparent willingness to rethink the expensive (and, for a select few, profitable) Cold War.
Books, Videos, Websites: Sidebar for Further Research Into the Assassination.
Two memorable pop anthems in the autumn of ’63 are “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” both songs connecting to the civil rights movement, the major U.S. domestic issue of the day. Peter, Paul & Mary sing the songs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of ’63 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “Never was hope so palpable among 250,000 people,” said the group’s Mary Travers.
The coolest consumer electronic products this autumn are color televisions and transistor radios. Songs on the radio include “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys, and “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas. (The Beatles are big in Britain.) Among the top U.S. TV shows are “Bonanza,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Combat!” and “The Twilight Zone.” The James Bond craze gathers steam – the last film that JFK will see is an advance copy of “From Russia With Love,” a production that raises the ante on filmic sex and violence.
October 24 – Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is assaulted in Dallas, Texas (a hotbed, in 1963, of right-wing extremism), struck by a sign wielded by a protestor, and spat upon by a second person, who hate the very idea of America’s support for the United Nations, a supposed Communist front. Stevenson is not seriously hurt.
Early November – The White House plans a presidential trip to Texas to patch up a split in the state’s Democratic Party.
November 4 – Byron Skelton, a Texas member of the Democratic National Committee, writes to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy asking that “earnest consideration” be given to deleting Dallas from the president’s Texas itinerary, given the city’s inflammatory political mood. RFK forwards the note to presidential aide Kenneth P. O’Donnell, who decides Skelton is proceeding on a mere hunch and keeps Dallas on the schedule. Skelton’s note was unlikely to do any good even if it reached the Oval Office – JFK believes that he should feel free to visit any part of the country at any time. In any case, no American president has been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901 (though attacks have been made, including an attempt on the life of President Harry S. Truman in 1950). If polltakers were to ask Americans, “Is it safe for the president to ride down a street in a convertible?” an overwhelming majority would surely say, “Yes.”
Friday, November 22
(All times local.)
11:38 a.m. – Air Force One, the beautiful blue-and-white Boeing 707 jet relished by the president, arrives at Dallas, piloted by Col. James Swindal. In the sparkling autumn sunshine, the presidential motorcade embarks for downtown, with JFK sitting in the right-rear seat of a navy-blue 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible, his wife Jacqueline to his left, Texas Gov. and Mrs. John B. Connally Jr. seated just ahead of the Kennedys, and two Secret Service agents up front. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson rides in a separate vehicle.
12:15 p.m. – Crowds warmly welcome the president and first lady. On the edge of downtown, in Dealey Plaza, as they awaited the cars, a spectator named Arnold Rowland says to his wife, “Do you want to see a Secret Service agent?” He points: “In that building there.” A man holding a rifle is visible in a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository at 411 Elm Street. The man is Lee Harvey Oswald.
12:30 p.m. – The presidential limousine turns onto Elm Street in Dealey Plaza. At this moment, the American Century (so-named by publisher Henry Luce in 1941) is at its peak in terms of public confidence, economic strength, hopefulness, and perhaps hubris.
The car moves down Elm at about 10 miles an hour.
Oswald fires. The first shot misses. He fires again. This bullet hits Kennedy in the upper back, exits his lower throat, and slams into Connally’s chest. The President grabs his throat and, according to one witness, calls out, “My God, I’m hit!” The wound is not fatal, but there’s no immediate reaction by the Secret Service agents in the front seat of the limousine, Bill Greer (driving) and Roy Kellerman (in command), who, eyes facing forward, think they’re hearing a firecracker. Seconds tick by.
Abraham Zapruder, a local merchant filming the scene with a Bell & Howell 8 millimeter movie camera, is confused and upset by the stifled look on JFK’s face, but keeps his camera running and captures 26 seconds of footage. A spectator, Howard Brennan, looks up at a book depository window and watches, stupefied, as Oswald aims his rifle and pulls the trigger. An instant later, a fatal bullet slams into the skull of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age 46.
Two seconds after the fatal shot.
12:31 p.m. – Merriman Smith, a reporter for United Press International riding in the motorcade, grabs a radiophone and dictates a sentence to headquarters that soon flashes across the world: “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.” (The number of shots is disputed by some, but three is by far the most widely-accepted number.) Smith follows with details, as does the Associated Press.
12:36 p.m. – The presidential limousine screeches to a halt in the ambulance bay of Parkland Memorial Hospital after a high-speed dash across a stretch of freeway. JFK’s widow cradles his body. Gouts of blood and brain matter ooze onto Mrs. Kennedy’s dress and stockings, spreading to the car seat.
Moments later, a Secret Service car pulls up behind the Lincoln, and Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Kennedy who six minutes earlier was assessing the cheerful crowd, runs to the presidential car and yanks open the door, expecting, hoping, and/or praying that Kennedy would pop up from a duck-and-cover position and call out, “I’m all right!” Powers sees the carnage, exclaims “Oh my God, Mr. President!”, and bursts into tears.
Jacqueline Kennedy, in deep shock, refuses for a few seconds to release her husband from her arms – she doesn’t want others to see the awful wound, according to William Manchester in his book “The Death of a President.” A Secret Service agent, realizing or guessing the source of her fear, gently places his suit jacket in her hands, and she wraps the shattered head. Several men remove Kennedy from the car, place him on a stretcher, and rush him to Trauma Room Number One, where, for the next 20 minutes, a team of doctors works desperately on a patient who had no chance of survival upon arrival. (A very faint heartbeat is briefly detected during this period.)
12:36 to 12:40 p.m. – National broadcasters give news of the shooting. On CBS television at 12:40, two actors on “As the World Turns” are discussing their forthcoming Thanksgiving dinner when Walter Cronkite interrupts from the newsroom in New York: “Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.”
1:00 p.m. – Kennedy is declared dead by physicians. Sixty-eight percent of American adults know about the shooting, according to one study.
1:15 p.m. – Oswald, fleeing the book depository, murders Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit.
2:38 p.m. – Aboard Air Force One in Dallas, Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the oath of office as 36th President of the United States. (In legal terms he assumed office at 12:30.) With the body of the 35th president on board, the jet departs for Washington. At this point, Johnson believes the shooting is part of a Soviet plot, a prelude to nuclear war.
8:00 p.m. – An autopsy of Kennedy commences at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. An attending official, Maj. Gen. Philip C. Wehle, thinks of lines from A.E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”: “The time you won your town the race/We chaired you through the market-place;/Man and boy stood cheering by/And home we brought you shoulder high./To-day, the road all runners come,/Shoulder-high we bring you home,/And set you at your threshold down/Townsman of a stiller town.”
Saturday, November 23
4:30 a.m. – A hearse bearing the president’s coffin enters the White House grounds.
A few hours earlier, a tawdry scene unfolded at the airport as TV cameras and photographers recorded the moment – the coffin was brought off the plane inelegantly, with officials jumping off a platform onto the tarmac, and Mrs. Kennedy, momentarily unescorted, struggling to unlatch a car door. Now, at the Executive Mansion, a sense of grandeur begins to infuse the drama: the hearse is driven slowly along a gently-illuminated driveway, escorted by a Marine Corps honor guard with bowed heads; the soldiers carry the flag-draped casket to the East Room, which is candle-lit and draped with black silk crepe. Lincoln’s body lay in state there 98 years before.
8:15 a.m. – Mrs. Kennedy, who slept a scant three hours after being given a sedative, speaks with her children at the White House. Caroline, a first-grader, age 5, was told by her nurse the night before that her father had been killed. John Jr., soon to turn 3, doesn’t grasp the event.
11:00 a.m. – In a drenching rainstorm, Robert Kennedy inspects a potential burial plot at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, across the Potomac River from D.C. Later in the day, Jacqueline Kennedy will visit the site and approve it.
During the day and evening – As the president’s coffin lies in state in the East Room, Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law, leads a team planning Monday’s funeral. In Paris, President Charles de Gaulle, who had been at loggerheads with JFK, says, “I am stunned. They are crying all over France,” and decides he must attend the service. (One of the interesting aspects here is that de Gaulle, purportedly a skilled politician, didn’t have his finger on the pulse of his country well enough to know of the broad French affection for the American president.) In Moscow, Andrei Gromyko, the dour Soviet foreign minister, pays his respects at the American embassy, and weeps as he departs. In Africa, a native bushman walks 10 miles through open country to say to an American, “I have lost a friend and I am so sorry.”
Sunday, November 24
11:21 a.m. – Lee Harvey Oswald is shot and killed in Dallas. The crime is seen live on TV by many people and on videotape by millions more.
Dallas authorities had officially charged Oswald with the murders of John F. Kennedy and J.D. Tippit and were transferring him to another jailhouse when local nightclub owner Jack Ruby sent a bullet ripping through his midsection. He dies at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Trauma Room Number Two. His death, fully as much as JFK’s, will lead many people to an unsettling conclusion: “conspiracy.” Did Oswald act alone in Dealey Plaza? What about Ruby’s ties to the Mob? To what extent was Oswald, an unstable left-wing extremist, affected by a climate of gun worship and right-wing hatred? Even today, 40 years later, many people feel they don’t have full answers.
1:08 p.m. – A casket carrying John Kennedy’s remains leaves the White House on a horse-drawn gun carriage and heads down Pennsylvania Avenue for the U.S. Capitol, where the body will lie in state until Monday.
2:17 p.m. – At a televised ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Mrs. Kennedy and her daughter kneel next to the catafalque and kiss the flag that covers the coffin. Caroline’s white-gloved hand spontaneously slips under the flag to get closer to her father; in that moment, writes William Manchester, “an entire nation was brought to its knees.”
Sometime on Sunday – The publisher of Life magazine, C.D. Jackson, decides in New York that the American public should not see crucial frames of the Zapruder footage. (The film has been purchased by the magazine.) Jackson excises from Life’s coverage the awful moments showing the effects of the fatal bullet. In coming years, this decision will contribute to the conspiratorialist view that the media hid crucial information.
Monday, November 25
9 a.m. – A sunny, crisp day in Washington. An estimated quarter-million people have filed past JFK’s coffin at the Capitol; hundreds of thousands line the streets to watch the funeral procession; tens of millions will watch on TV. The nation’s businesses and schools are closed on this national day of mourning. An extraordinary range of world leaders are present in Washington. “It was the first worldwide mourning in history,” writes author Richard N. Goodwin, “and perhaps the last.” (See here for an additional thought on the global response to the assassination.)
10:30 a.m. – The CIA delivers an “absolutely reliable” report from European agents that Charles de Gaulle will be assassinated in Washington. De Gaulle, a vulnerable target at about 6′-4″, is urged by officials to shelter himself. His reply: a scornful Gallic “Pfft.”
(An assassination attempt was made on de Gaulle on August 22, 1962, in a Paris suburb; this inspired the novel “The Day of the Jackal.” Might it also have set Oswald to plotting? We don’t know. Another fragment [among many] in Oswald’s wacky consciousness may have been the film “Suddenly” which came out in 1954. The view from the assassin’s perch in the movie is rather similar to the view from the sixth floor of the book depository. Did Oswald see the movie? Did he, in 1963, carry with him a memory of the view?)
10:59 a.m. to 12:14 p.m. – The president’s coffin, borne on a horse-drawn caisson, moves from Capitol Hill to the White House and on to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. The latter segment is covered on foot by many of the mourners.
The televised funeral service was somber and healing.
1:21 p.m. – John F. Kennedy Jr. salutes his father as the procession leaves St. Matthew’s for Arlington. In previous months the boy’s salutes had been “sort of droopy” according to his mother; this one is quite precise. Thus it transpires that the first family’s children provide iconic moments – John saluting, Caroline touching.
2:15 p.m. – Black Jack, a magnificent stallion led by an attendant, frisks nervously in the slow procession. (The riderless horse carries reversed boots, in keeping with an ancient ceremony that, before today, few Americans had heard of.) A grieving voice calls out to the dead president from the crowd: “That’s all right, you done your best, it’s all over now.”
2:52 p.m. – The casket arrives at the gravesite.
2:54 p.m. – Fifty fighter jets fly over the site, followed by Air Force One flown by Col. Swindal. William Manchester describes the moment, including the reactions of Kennedy’s Air Force aide and his sister-in-law:
The startled crowd glanced up, and in the interval after the last echo of the F-105’s the Presidential aircraft, racing ahead of its own thunder, loomed soundlessly overhead. For an astonishing instant the beautiful plane appeared to hang suspended, so low that one felt one could almost reach up and touch its blue flashes. Then Swindal rocked the swept-back wings 20 degrees to the left, came level directly above the taut flag, rocked right in another deep, three-second dip, and streaked off toward the Key Bridge. Godfrey McHugh thought it was the most exquisite maneuver he had ever seen. For those who made the terrible trip back from Love Field over the hump of Friday’s storm Swindal’s fly-by was especially affecting, but all who knew of the President’s love for Air Force One were moved, and as the mighty tail with the bold blue numerals “26000” vanished over the naked trees, into the vapor trails left by the fighters, Lee Radziwill wept.
3:07 p.m. – “Taps” is played by trumpeter Sgt. Keith Clark.
3:13 p.m. – Jacqueline Kennedy lights an eternal flame.
September, 1964 – The Warren Commission announces its conclusion, that Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy.
1966 and ’67 – Books critiquing the Warren Commission are published, including “Rush to Judgment” by Mark Lane (a major bestseller, with some editions including an introduction by distinguished British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper), “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth” by Edward Jay Epstein, and “Accessories After the Fact” by Sylvia Meagher. In July, 1966, Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin gives a favorable review to Epstein’s “Inquest” in Book Week, becoming the first Kennedy insider to publicly raise doubts about the Warren Commission. In the spring of 1967 William Manchester publishes the exhaustively-reported “The Death of a President” holding that Oswald acted alone.
1967 – New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison unveils his conspiracy theory.
1968 – The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
1969 – The Zapruder film is subpoenaed from Time Inc. by Jim Garrison and is shown numerous times at the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw; this footage will become a source for bootlegged copies. Garrison is eager for bootlegs to get wide distribution.
Mid-1970s – The complete Zapruder film is shown on college campuses, the first wide exposure of the entire 26 seconds. The first showing of the footage on national TV comes in March, 1975, on ABC’s late night show “Good Night America” with host Geraldo Rivera and conspiratorialists Robert Groden and Dick Gregory. Rivera cautions the audience that what they’re about to see is “very heavy” showing “the execution of President Kennedy.” As Kennedy’s head is torn apart – images that were excluded from 1963 reproductions in Life magazine – the studio audience gasps in shock, and Rivera says, “That’s the most upsetting thing I’ve ever seen.” People are surprised that Kennedy’s head snaps back and to the left after the fatal shot; many people conclude that this indicates a shooter on the Grassy Knoll. Why, they ask, have we not seen this until now? (The physics of gunshot wounds are complex; the direction of the head snap is not definitive proof of the location from which the fatal shot came. What’s definitive in this regard are the entry wounds. All three shots came from the rear.)
1970s – A conspiracy subtext is present in American life, spurred by the assassinations of the ’60s, Watergate, and the Vietnam War, and perhaps by the Charles Manson murders as well.
(A conspiracy theory proposes that an event or set of circumstances resulted from a secret plot, often fostered by powerful people. Conspiracy thinking has been a part of world political life for centuries including American life. In the 1960s, this mindset expanded in the U.S., and it has been at a quite high level ever since. See online “Are Conspiracy Theories on the Rise in the U.S.?” by The Conversation. See also “Believe It: Conspiracy Theories Live On” by Tal Kopan.)
A few examples, listed chronologically: (1) America’s last great wave of UFO “sightings” occurs in the autumn of 1973; some people claim the government hides the details. (Big waves of UFO sightings also occurred in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1957, and 1965-67.) (2) Hollywood, ever-sensitive to the national mood and tenor (i.e., to what will sell tickets), embraces conspiracy scripts. All of the following movies depict plots, cover-ups, and/or monstrosities promulgated by cunning entities hiding in the shadows (often governmental forces): “The Exorcist” (1973), “Serpico” (1973), “Executive Action” (1973), “Don’t Look Now” (1973), “The Conversation” (1974), “Chinatown” (1974), “The Parallax View” (1974), “The Odessa File” (1974), “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), “The Stepford Wives” (1975), “Marathon Man” (1976), “All the President’s Men” (1976), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Coma” (1978), “Capricorn One” (1978), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978; rightly described by critic Pauline Kael as “the American movie of the year”), and “Being There” (1979; see especially the film’s final sequence). (3) The announcement in 1977 by columnist Jack Anderson that the FBI is probing the assassination of none other than Abraham Lincoln. Anderson says the agency seeks to discover whether Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton conspired in Lincoln’s murder. The FBI declines comment on Anderson’s report and nothing more is ever heard about the agency’s interest in the case. (4) Perhaps Anderson was giving a bit of hype to a 1977 book titled “The Lincoln Conspiracy” by David W. Balsiger and Charles E. Sellier Jr. that posits a Stanton role in Lincoln’s death. This absurd theory is demolished in “The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies” by William Hanchett published in 1983. (5) A theory emerges in 1978, promulgated by ufologist Stanton T. Friedman, that the government is hiding evidence of a 1947 UFO crash in the Roswell, New Mexico. This idea is first published in book form in 1980. (6) In 1978, Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple vanishes down a rat-hole of conspiracy-laced paranoia; more than 900 people die in November of ’78 in what is, essentially, an act of mass murder by a madman. In the months before the murders, Jones hires conspiracy theorist Mark Lane as his lawyer for $6,000 a month. (7) Dick Gregory, conspiratorialist, entertainer, and entrepreneur, earns a hefty income in the ’70s giving talks on college campuses, thrilling and chilling large young audiences as he describes pervasive, murderous plots at the heart of American life, the imminence of world food riots, and the presence of FBI informants in that very lecture hall. (8) 1978-79: A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, after a lengthy investigation, suggests Mafia involvement in the JFK assassination but finds no conclusive evidence for its theory. The committee relies heavily on acoustic evidence that has since come under sharp criticism.
1991 – The film “JFK” opens, based on the legal work of Jim Garrison, whose effort to crack the Kennedy case (1967-69) is regarded as idiotic and/or cruel by a large number of scholars, including many critics of the Warren Commission. Oliver Stone, creator of “JFK,” needed a protagonist for his film and picked Garrison. Clay Shaw, charged by Garrison with conspiracy to commit murder, was acquited within an hour of the case going to the jury. Shaw spent a small fortune on his defense and said he felt “like a character in a Kafka novel.”
1993 – Publication of Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” which concludes that Oswald acted alone.
1995 – Norman Mailer publishes “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery” offering insightful writing on the killer. Mailer says that Oswald “probably did it alone.” In 1973 Mailer formed an organization called the Fifth Estate to study links between the U.S. intelligence community and the Kennedy assassinations.
1997 – Publication of “The Dark Side of Camelot” by Seymour M. Hersh, in which the author, a well-connected, fiercely independent investigative reporter, says he heard “nothing” in years of research that caused him to doubt the findings of the Warren Commission.
1998 – According to a poll by CBS News, 84 percent of American adults believe the U.S. public will “never really know” the full story behind the assassination of President Kennedy.
2004 – The scholar Robert Alan Goldberg, author of “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America”, comments in an interview: “Conspiracy theories offer much to believers. Such theories order the random and bring clarity to ambiguity. They provide purpose and meaning in the face of the chaotic. They also tender support to the traumatized who cry for vengeance and demand the identities of those responsible. Conspiracy thinking, similarly, offers a cure for powerlessness. It lifts the despair of vulnerability by arming believers with tantalizing, secret knowledge to understand and defeat the enemy….Moreover, in the face of a decline in faith and trust in authorities, conspiracy theorists pose as competing authorities who offer the facts of a new history, a new version of the past. In it, are revealed who has betrayed America’s promise, traditions, and beliefs. Conspiracy theorists thus create a counter history which tells us how and why America has lost its way. This pits conspiracy theorists with traditional authorities in a struggle for power – a struggle for the control of history and therefore the present and future….In a culture of conspiracism, opponents become traitors, and enemies are stripped of their humanity. The world divides between good and evil, black and white. In such an atmosphere, compromise – so vital to the health of a democracy – becomes impossible. Faith in core institutions is lost.” ●