As this is my very first blog post about the JFK assassination–in honor of the publication of my new novel with Kevin Finn, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition–I’d like to start at the very beginning in talking about November 22, 1963, the event that lies at the heart of our story.
It’s been 50 years since that sunny November Friday just before Thanksgiving, and many people now walking the earth were not alive then. Many probably don’t want to admit they don’t actually know what happened. The Kennedy assassination is supposed to be a seminal event in American history (and it was). But as with events that had huge impact at the time, those who came after were not as affected (though what began then is going on even more so today). I honestly believe most people of a certain age don’t actually know much of the story beyond the bare fact that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. So today let me set the scene, bring you into that vanished world and recap the actual crime. And from there, we can talk about the who’s, the why’s, the what’s and the how’s.
After World War II, the period known as the Cold War began (cold because there was no overt fighting by soldiers). The standoff between democracy (represented by the US) and Communism (represented by Russia), was the defining struggle from the late 1940’s to the 1990’s. Russia was our greatest foreign-policy concern, and almost greater than that was the worry that our differences would lead to nuclear war, an option that wasn’t even possible until the US used the atom bomb to end the war with Japan in 1945. There was tremendous covert activity in the intelligence services of the US, Russia and their allies. It was the era of James Bond, the Cold-War spy.
The thorn in our side was Cuba, a tiny island 90 miles from Florida whose dictator, Fidel Castro, swept into power in 1959, sweeping out Batista, a dictator of another kind. Castro promised economic equality to his people, and aligned himself with Russia as a Communist leader. It was important to Russia to have this toehold in the Western Hemisphere, especially one so close to the US. So they were going to support Fidel in any way they could.
All this was very much on the mind of John F. Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts who was elected President in November 1960. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president (43); his wealthy and ambitious father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had long intended that his son be president. JFK had been a war hero in the Navy during World War II, even though his health was so bad he should have been 4-F. But Kennedy went to Officer’s Candidate School, got an intelligence assignment, then persuaded powerful friends of his father to lie on his behalf to get him INTO active service on the PT boats in the Pacific, where he saved 10 of his men after his boat, PT-109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer on a dark August night.
Kennedy’s fame as the hero of PT-109 and his father’s money propelled him to a seat in the US Congress as Representative from Massachusetts (in the same freshman class with Richard Nixon); six years later he became a US Senator. He married a debutante named Jacqueline Bouvier, and while his health issues were carefully concealed and his family’s PR machine worked overtime to make him look hearty and vigorous, Kennedy suffered debilitating pain every day from a bad back and from Addison’s disease, which almost killed him until he began taking daily cortisone injections.
Jack and Jackie became media darlings (Jackie was the most photographed woman in the world, preceding Princess Diana in that role), and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., became national favorites.
Still, the Kennedy Administration faced a battery of problems: trying to get rid of Castro secretly (a CIA program called Operation Mongoose); civil-rights unrest; Russia’s insistence on placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, so close to US shores that one strike could wipe out 80 million Americans; and the beginning flutters of what would become the war in Vietnam.
In late August of 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave birth to their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, a child they were anticipating with joy. But Patrick was born with lung problems, and died just a few days later, devastating both parents. Jackie remained in seclusion for several months, trying to recover and spending long hours with her other children.
Meanwhile, the Texas branch of the Democratic Party was having their own problems. There was a lot of in-fighting, and the President decided to do a three-day trip to Texas to help the fractured party mend fences before they began serious campaigning for the 1964 election.
Texas was not Kennedy country, but the first 2 days of the trip went well. Jackie Kennedy made the trip with her husband, the first time she’d traveled with him publicly since Patrick’s death. She was as popular as he was, and the turnout was tremendous to see her. In every city where they stopped, they did a motorcade, with the President and First Lady traveling in an open car.
Dallas, however, was a real worry for the Secret Service. It was much more vocal in its opposition to Kennedy than any other Texas city, and the Secret Service had already cancelled two scheduled trips, in Miami and Chicago, because of threats against the President’s life. Still, they had checked out the city and felt satisfied that the plan they had in place would work.
On Friday, November 22nd, the President spoke at a breakfast meeting in Fort Worth. Jackie joined him, in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, and afterward they flew to Dallas (a very short ride, done only for show), where big crowds greeted them at Love Field Airport. But the atmosphere here was different: there was a nasty ad, “Wanted for Treason”, that ran in the Dallas Morning-News that day, accusing Kennedy of crimes against the US, and though there were still friendly crowds, they were dotted with signs like “Traiter” (sic). It was warm and sunny in Dallas after a rain shower earlier that day.
The President and the First Lady got into the back seat of the presidential limousine, the President on the passenger side of the car. In jump seats ahead of them were Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, and ahead of them were Roy Kellerman, head of the security for the President’s detail, and Bill Greer, the 54-year-old driver (oldest man on the President’s Secret Service detail). The bubble top which could be used to protect the passengers was removed because the weather had cleared up.
The car drove through the downtown area, turned right onto Houston Street, then slowed down to take a sharp hairpin turn at the corner of Houston and Elm Street. On the northeast side of that corner was a seven-story red-brick building, the Texas School Book Depository. The crowds had thinned out, but there were still dozens of people lining the streets, many with cameras. A dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder was standing on a stone pedestal near the sidewalk, filming with his new 8mm movie camera.
As the car started down Elm Street, a curving road leading toward the Stemmons Freeway, gunfire rang out.
To this day, there are still arguments about how many shots there were, where they were fired from, and when and how they hit.
The President was struck in the throat. His hands came up toward his tie. More shots were fired, and the President (who was wearing a brace under his clothes to support his back) slumped down. Governor Connally was hit, too, by a bullet that shattered his wrist and eventually imbedded itself in his thigh. (To the end of his life, the Governor insisted that he and the President were hit by separate bullets.) Connally shouted, “My God, they’re going to kill us all!”, but Nellie Connally, thinking quickly, pulled him down into her lap, out of the range of gunfire, and told him to stay down. The car by this time was almost stopped.
Jackie Kennedy leaned toward her husband, and when she was only a couple of inches away, the final shot blew away part of the President’s skull. He fell onto the seat as Jackie (who never remembered doing this for the rest of her life) jumped onto the back of the car, reaching for something (it was part of her husband’s brain). The blood soaked everything in the car: the entire back seat, the Connallys, the red roses Jackie had been given at Love Field. Jackie herself was so drenched in her husband’s blood that the white gloves she wore retained their shape when she took them off later that night. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, part of Mrs. Kennedy’s detail, was the only Secret Service agent who moved, jumping off the follow-up car where the Secret Service was stationed and jumping onto the back of the Presidential limousine, pushing her down.
The car sped up (finally) and the motorcade led by Police Chief Jesse Curry scrambled onto the Stemmons Freeway to Parkland Hospital, where the President and the Governor were rushed inside. The Governor was in critical condition but would survive. The President was pronounced dead at 1 pm, Central Standard Time. Cause of death was a massive gunshot wound to his head.
And there began the greatest mystery of the 20th century.