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Death of a president: John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 40 years ago this month. For many people, it marked the end of an era.

On Nov. 22, 1963, crowds jammed the side walks of Dallas to cheer President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, as they smiled and waved, looking like matinee idols, from the back of an open limousine. The youngest man ever elected President (at 43), Kennedy had come to Texas, a key electoral state, in advance of the I964 presidential race. Texas Governor John Connolly and his wife, Nellie, sat in front of the Kennedys, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was two cars back in the presidential motorcade.

Though Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, had critics in conservative Dallas, thousands turned out to see him. As the motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza, Nellie Connolly turned to Kennedy and said, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you." He replied, "No, you certainly can't."

They were his last words. Seconds later, at 12:30 p.m. gunshots rang out. The First missed, but the second and third hit Kennedy in the throat and head. His assassination, 40 years ago this month, stunned the nation and the world and is hotly debated to this day.

With his good looks, personal charm and dynamic speaking abilities, the former Senator took full advantage of the young medium of television to project an image of youth and vigor that contrasted with that of the prosperous but less exciting Eisenhower years of the 1950s. Kennedy's activism seemed to back up his image, as he stood up to the Soviets during the Berlin crisis in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and promised to send men to the moon by the end of the decade; at home, he pushed for civil rights and a tax cut to spur the economy.

Kennedy's death was announced at 1:36 p.m. CBS's famously composed anchorman, Walter Cronkite, wiped away tears after he read the bulletin on the air. As people heard the news, often from passersby, many were simply overcome. Frances Green, a Birmingham, Alabama, high school student, told The New York Times, "A girl came through the halls at school screaming about it when it happened. When my teacher found out about it, she laid her head down and cried."

Businesses, including the stock exchanges and Broadway theaters, shut down, and the entire nation seemed to go into mourning. The three major television networks preempted their programs for three days of nonstop coverage--a record that stood until Sept. II, 2001, according to Stuart Elliott, who covers media for The New York Times. "You can't exaggerate what a difference the coverage made to the country in turning to television as a source for news and information," Elliott said.

The man arrested for Kennedy's killing, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, worked at the Texas School Book Depository, whose sixth floor window overlooking Dealey Plaza had been used by the sniper. Oswald, arrested in a Dallas movie theater within hours of Kennedy's killing, was a ninth-grade dropout from Louisiana who had been dishonorably discharged from the Marines. Interested in Marxism as a teenager, he briefly defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to leave there disillusioned.


Two hours after the assassination, at the Dallas airport, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President aboard Air Force One. Sarah T. Hughes, a federal judge from Texas, administered the oath, the first woman to do so. Jackie Kennedy, still in blood-spattered clothes, accompanied Johnson, along with her husband's casket, for the flight back to Washington.

Americans got another shock two days later when Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald while police were transferring him between jails. The killing was the first seen live on television, Ruby's motives, like Oswald's, remain murky. People wondered, was he a vigilante out for justice, or was something more sinister going on?

Kennedy's body lay in state in the Capitol through a weekend of vigils and memorials across a nation both stunned and outraged. As James Reston wrote in The New York Times the day after Kennedy's death: "The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best.... Something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order." Kennedy was buried on Monday at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from Washington.

President Johnson appointed a special panel headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate Kennedy's death, It concluded that both Oswald and Ruby had acted alone. However, critics said that the Warren Commission was sloppy and secretive, helping to feed conspiracy theories that Kennedy had been killed by groups ranging from Texas oilmen to Russian or Cuban spies.

A 1979 report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations said that Mafia leaders may have ordered Kennedy killed for acting against organized crime. In 1998, the Assassinations Records Review Board, created by Congress six years earlier, reached the same conclusion as the Warren Commission: that Oswald and Ruby had acted alone.

But doubts persist decades later. A 1999 poll by CBS, for example, found that 76 percent of Americans believed that Oswald was part of a conspiracy.


There is little debate, however, that Kennedy's death signaled the end of an era. The youthful enthusiasm of his short presidency--embodied in the term Camelot, first used in a Life, magazine article by Theodore H. White, at Jackie Kennedy's suggestion--would soon give way to a more unsettled lime of angel, protests and, in some cases, riots.

After the assassination President Johnson vowed to move forward with Kennedy's civil rights agenda. "Let us continue the ideas and ideals which [Kennedy] so nobly represented," he told (Congress five days after JFK's death.

Using the masterful skills of persuasion he honed as Senate majority leader, Johnson overcame fierce Southern opposition to win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to exclude people from restaurants and other public facilities on the basis of race. After defeating Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in a landslide in 1964, Johnson continued to push his Great Society agenda, which included additional civil rights legislation and controversial programs to fight poverty.

Johnson also escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, increasing the number of American military personnel there from 16,000 in 1964 to 180,000 by mid-1965. Some historians say that Kennedy would have pulled hack from Vietnam. "I don't think that, unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support, that the war can be won over there," Kennedy said in September 1963. Others say that Kennedy would have followed a path similar to Johnson's.

Worn out from presiding over a nation reeling from antiwar and civil rights unrest, Johnson stunned the country when Ire announced in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election.

RELATED ARTICLE: From man to martyr to myth.

Americans continue to hold John F. Kennedy in improbably high regard--not just as a man of star quality whose life was cut short, but as a national Leader ranked in some polls with or above Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Yet Kennedy's "Thousand Days" in the presidency were marked less by historic achievements than by continual crises: the Bay of Pigs fiasco; the world's first nuclear confrontation: the beginnings of the war in Vietnam. Nor were Kennedy's responses always sure.

In his last months in office, for example, he signed the first nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. But in is early months he had ordered a massive military buildup that helped intensify the Soviet-American arms race. He was reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of black demonstrators, and was forced mostly by events into his clashes with Southern politicians over civil rights.

The overall record of his presidency, though in many respects admirable, hardly accounts for Kennedy's high standing--a standing all the more unlikely because the years since his death have seen continuing assaults on his reputation, including revelations about his dalliances with women and his ill health.

This would have dulled the public's regard for any other former President. How has Kennedy's popularity remained intact? The most important reason, undoubtedly, is the almost mythic manner of his death. The hero cut down at the height of his glory is a staple of legend-making. And when such a fate befalls a figure of youth and beauty, the legend becomes even more of a romantic drama.

Even if Nov. 22, 1963, is taken only as a benchmark in time, it was not long thereafter that things began to go wrong for Americans. Youth began to drop out and turn on, the war in Vietnam became an endless nightmare, cities burned in the "long hot summers" of black revolt, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. fell before other assassins, Watergate destroyed faith in Presidents, hostages in Iran shattered illusions of U.S. might.

In fact, Kennedy's record in office was not negligible. He broke the centuries-old taboo against a Roman Catholic President. And he became the first President to call the struggle of blacks for full equality "a moral issue"--brave words at the time, earning him a special place in the affection of black Americans.

It was in his much-quoted inaugural address in 1961 that Kennedy declared that "a new generation of Americans, born in this century" had come to power with him. But his most memorable words came in the Last months of his Life, in a speech on June 10, 1963, when he called on the nation to re-examine its attitude toward the Soviet Union. "In the final analysis," he said, "our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

In the soul shaking years since his death, asked to choose between disillusionment and legend, Americans have chosen Legend--as if to hold in memory their own sense of themselves and their country as they most wished them to be, as they used to believe they were.

[Tom Wicker, who covered Kennedy's assassination in Dallas for The New York Times, wrote this assessment of Kennedy's presidency for the 30th anniversary of his death in 1993.


* New York Times reporter Stuart Elliot speaks about the importance of news and information after the assassination. What role do the news media play during times of national crisis?

* How would you describe the JFK myth that formed after the assassination?


To help students understand the facts surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and how and why Americans reacted to the assassination as they did.


CRITICAL THINKING: Remind students that immediately after the assassination and in a poll conducted in 1999--36 years after the murder in Dallas--an overwhelming percentage of Americans believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy.

Ask students why they believe so many Americans rejected the findings of two panels that Oswald acted alone. Is there something about tragedies that drives people to look for complex or nefarious explanations?

Have students read former New York Times reporter Tom Wicker's analysis of Kennedy's presidency and how Americans continued to hold him in such high esteem decades later. Discuss Wicker's conclusion that Americans hold on to JFK's memory as a way to hold on to memories of themselves and their country as they wished it to be, "as they used to believe they were."

INTERVIEWS: Tell students that many people remember where they were when JFK was shot, just as they do when they recall 9/11. Have students interview adults who remember the assassination.

Some questions to ask: How did people in their community react? Did schools close? Were sporting events postponed? Did they recall thinking (as many did) that the assassination was part of a wider conspiracy? Whether or not they supported the President, do they remember how they felt when they heard the news?

You might assign students to write up their interviews as a homework report and then share them with the class. What similarities and dissimilarities are there between reports?

WEB WATCH: Go to for an easy-to-use site on the Kennedy assassination. This Web site is rated by as one of the best, most usable sites on the subject.

Upfront QUIZ 2

DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the correct answer.

1. Which of the following statements about President John F. Kennedy is true?

a He was the first Massachusetts native elected President.

b He was the second President to be assassinated.

c He was the second President to serve in the military.

d He was the youngest person elected President.

2. Lee Harvey Oswald's early interest in Marxism probably had some influence on his decision to leave the United States and defect to

a the Soviet Union.

b Germany.

c Cuba.

d France.

3. The panel that examined the assassination was headed by

a FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

b President Lyndon B. Johnson.

c Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

d JFK's brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

4. A 1998 report on the assassination concluded that Oswald

a probably was part of a Communist conspiracy.

b may have been innocent.

c acted alone.

d had been hired by members of organized crime.

5. In the months following the assassination, Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, pushed strongly for one of the following domestic issues. Which one?

a a major tax increase

b civil rights legislation

c road building

d environmental protection

6. In foreign affairs, President Johnson is best known for expanding the United States'

a military presence in Vietnam.

b diplomatic relationship with China.

c commitment to trade with poor countries.

d space program.


1. (d) He was the youngest person elected President.

2. (a) the Soviet Union.

3. (c) Chief Justice Earl Warren.

4. (c) acted alone.

5. (b) civil rights legislation.

6. (a) military presence in Vietnam.
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Article Details
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Author:Zack, Ian
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 17, 2003
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