(note chilling detail of small window opening on south-east corner of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, said to be Oswald’s sniper perch, as Kennedy limo turns towards Dealey Plaza)
I’m certainly old enough to have an answer to the perennial question: where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?
But for me, the news unfolded in a strange mixture of whispers and hearsay. I was ensconced at Newmarket District High School. We were writing exams. The principal, in his great wisdom, thought it better that we not be sidetracked from our weighty, academic endeavours with word that the President of the United States had been assassinated. So there was no dramatic announcement over the PA, no weeping teachers giving their students the shocking news from Dallas. Instead, all we got as we prepared to head home that unforgettable afternoon were corridor rumours of an event that seemed impossible to believe. Only when a bunch of us gathered around a student with a transistor radio did we know for a fact that the rumours were true. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead.
Beyond the terrible tragedy, itself, what jarred me most was simply hearing the word “assassinated” applied to JFK. These were the 1960’s. In my mind, assassinations were something from the history books, befalling mustachioed figures in gaudy military uniforms like Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or the obscure President McKinley, gunned down in Buffalo at the turn of the century. Assassinations had no place in my world, in 1963. Of course, that sentiment would prove even more naïve as the rest of the violent sixties unfolded to the south of us.
Those days were such a relatively innocent time. A leader like Kennedy could still inspire, without being drowned by cynicism and nattering nabobs of negativism. He was the last American president to be admired around the word, and the outpouring of sorrow on his death will likely never be matched. A young, charismatic, vigorous president cut short in the prime of life. As much as we mourned for him and Jackie, Caroline and John-John, we grieved as well for the loss of so much unfulfilled promise.
After a rocky start to his presidency, when he seemed almost overwhelmed by the weight of office, Kennedy had found his sea legs. There would be no more fiascos like the Bay of Pigs or dithering on civil rights.
When the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy ignored the advice of his generals and skillfully negotiated a deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that took the missiles out of Cuba, nuclear buttons unpressed. You had to be there to realize what a chilling experience that was, going to school in the morning, aware that Soviet ships were headed for the American blockade and not knowing whether we’d live to see out the day. As Kennedy observed afterwards: “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”
Although we will never know what he would have done in Vietnam, Kennedy was becoming more and more of a peacenik, talking up disarmament, fostering increasingly warm ties with Khrushchev and pushing for a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere.
On civil rights, as freedom marchers in the south were clubbed, set upon by dogs and murdered, Kennedy, who had cynically voted against Eisenhower’s mild Civil Rights Act in 1957 to avoid antagonizing southern Democrats ahead of his run for the presidency, had started to move forcefully against segregation. He delivered a powerful speech pledging government support to enforce racial equality. His television address was lauded by Martin Luther King as “one of the most eloquent, profound and unequivocal pleas for justice and the freedom of all men ever made by any president.”. A few months later, Kennedy introduced his own, tough Civil Rights Act, also endorsed by Martin Luther King, which was finally forced through Congress by LBJ in 1964.
That was the thing about Kennedy. Not that he was a great president. But that he was showing so many signs of becoming a great president, one who seemed serious about waging peace and making the world a safer and better place to live.
That great hope ended 50 years ago in Dallas. We may never see its like again. This sentiment of deep, deep loss was summed up by the late, great folksinger Phil Ochs in his moving ballad, penned shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, That Was the President. On the album notes, Ochs, who was well known for his protest songs, wrote: “My Marxist friends can’t understand why I wrote this song and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a Marxist. After the assassination Fidel Castro aptly pointed out that only fools could rejoice at such a tragedy, for systems, not men, are the enemy.”