The time: 12:30pm Central Standard Time. The place: Dallas, Texas. The event: the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
It is said that millions of people in the free world continued to remember all of their lives precisely where they were and what they were doing on the occasion of Kennedy’s murder – such was its impact.
JFK, who had beaten Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election by a wafer-thin margin, had come to Dallas to kick off his 1964 re-election campaign. He had barely won Texas in 1960 despite having Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson on the ticket as his Vice-President.
The first Roman Catholic and, at 43, the youngest-ever candidate elected to the presidency, Kennedy knew there was work to be done. The local Democratic Party needed a boost and funds would have to be raised. He set about the task accompanied by his beautiful and stylish wife, Jackie, dressed on the day in a pink Chanel suit.
In a short speech after landing at the airport he joked: “Two years ago I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs Kennedy to Paris. I’m getting something of that same sensation as I travel around Texas. Nobody wonders what Lyndon and I wear. . . (laughter) but I’m glad to be here.”
Soon, the President and Mrs Kennedy took their seats in an open limousine, sitting behind Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, and the motorcade set off to travel slowly through the streets of Dallas.
Crowds of cheering and smiling well-wishers lined the route, keen for a close-up view of the charismatic couple. Among them was Abraham Zapruder, a Dallas dressmaker and Russian immigrant who loved making home movies.
He wanted to record the President’s visit for his wife and children. With an 8 millimeter home-movie camera, he stood on a concrete ledge and when he saw the limousines coming round the corner into Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, he began filming.
His silent colour footage of 486 frames lasted just 26 seconds. To Zapruder’s shock and distress, that half a minute captured the President’s assassination.
Three shots rang out at 12.30pm. The first is believed to have missed the motorcade. The second tore through the President’s throat and went on to injure Governor Connally. The third shot completed the assassination.
Among the witnesses watching by the side of the road was 11-year-old Toni Glover who went on to become an associate professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
She told the BBC in 2017: “I’d had a troubled childhood and I thought if I could get Kennedy to look at me, and wave at me, that would mean we had a personal relationship, and everything at home would be perfect.
“It was magical thinking from an 11-year-old. He came by; he smiled and waved. Jackie smiled and waved.
“He turned the corner. I thought, 'I'm going to follow this car until it disappears because it's the President. I’m going to watch every second I can.’ And then his head exploded. It just exploded.”
The section of the Zapruder film which records this event was not released for years after the assassination due to its gruesome nature. It was first seen in a heavily criticised showing by ABC News in 1975. Nearly 25 years later the government paid the Zapruder family $16 million to preserve the film in the National Archives.
Later enhanced by experts, it clearly shows the President’s head exploding as a bullet rips through it, brain matter scattering around. Jackie Kennedy who had been cradling her wounded husband at the time of the devastating shot, then clambered on to the back of the car, it is now believed desperately to retrieve a chunk of the President’s brain.
According to a statement by Dallas police officer Bobby W Hargis, who was riding his motor cycle next to Mrs Kennedy: “The President's blood and fragments of his scalp, brain, and skull landed on the interior of the car, the inner and outer surfaces of the front glass windshield, the raised sun visors, the front engine hood, and the rear trunk lid.
“His blood and fragments also landed on the Secret Service follow-up car and its driver’s arm, as well as on the motorcycle officers who were riding on both sides of the President just behind his vehicle.”
Who could have been responsible for such a cruel and horrific murder? According to the official record, just one man – Lee Harvey Oswald.
His father died of a heart attack two months before Oswald was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1939. His mother Marguerite then moved Lee and his elder brother Robert to Dallas and later to New York. In 1954, Marguerite returned to New Orleans, taking Lee with her. Oswald gave up school at the age of 17. By that time he had lived at 22 locations and attended 12 schools.
After enlisting with the US Marines in 1956 he was given top secret security clearance and was stationed at the American U2 radar base in Atsugi, Japan, where he monitored radar for American military spy planes.
Oswald turned out to be a better-than-average marksman, but he was court-martialed twice in 1958 for having an illegal weapon and displaying violent behaviour.
He ended his military service the following year and went to Moscow, where he declared that he wanted to move to the Soviet Union. Suspicious that they might be harbouring a spy, officials allowed him to stay in the city of Minsk, where he was monitored closely by the KGB.
Two years later, the unsettled Oswald wrote to the US embassy saying he wanted to return to America. The surprising result was that he was given a loan of $435.71 (equivalent to $3,750 today) so he and his new Russian wife, Marina, could fly back to America.
In March 1963, Oswald made a mail-order purchase of a second-hand 6.5mm calibre Carcano rifle for $29.95 – the one used to kill Kennedy.
He began working at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on October 16, 1963. And having learnt that the presidential motorcade would pass by, it was there that he is said to have used cardboard boxes to construct a sniper’s nest beneath a corner window on the sixth floor.
After the assassination he fled the scene but was caught after shooting dead a police officer who had stopped to question him outside the boarding house where he rented a room, a 40-minute bus ride away.
As those events were unfolding, frantic but futile attempts to save the President were being carried out at nearby Parkland Hospital. A priest was called when the doctors eventually conceded what most onlookers reluctantly believed from the start: that JFK was dead on arrival.
The priest, Father Oscar Huber, later wrote: “I was escorted by a policeman to an emergency room where I found the fatally wounded President lying on a portable table. He was covered with a sheet that I removed from over his forehead before administering conditionally the Last Rites of the Catholic Church.
“These Rites are administered conditionally when a priest has no way of knowing the person’s mind or whether the soul has yet left the body.
“Mrs. Kennedy was standing beside the President. She bent over and seemed to kiss the President. During this most trying ordeal, the perfect composure maintained by Mrs. Kennedy was beyond comprehension. I will never forget the blank stare in her eyes and the signs of agony on her face.
“I extended my heartfelt sympathy to her. In a low tone of voice she thanked me graciously and asked me to pray for the President. I assured her I would do so.”
JFK’s body was taken from the hospital to the presidential aircraft Air Force One and a flight to Washington. Before takeoff a judge was called aboard and there, watched by the slain leader’s close advisers and Jackie Kennedy, still wearing her heavily bloodstained pink suit, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States.
One of his first acts was to order an official inquiry into the assassination. Johnson appointed some of the nation's most prominent figures to handle the inquiry, which became known as the Warren Commission after its chairman, Earl Warren. He was then the Chief Justice of the United States.
Back in Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald was responding to questions from reporters at police headquarters. He declared: “I didn't shoot anybody. They've taken me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy!”
The next day he was formally arraigned for the murders of President Kennedy and police officer JD Tippit.
On November 24 it was decided to move Oswald from Dallas police headquarters to a more secure county jail. Naturally at the time, the Press had been invited to witness the move, along with friends of the police and, on this occasion, live television cameras.
The result was that millions of people around the world saw local nightclub owner Jack Ruby step forward and fire a shot into 24-year-old Oswald’s body with a .38 revolver. Since many police officers frequented his club, Ruby was familiar to them and was able to walk around the police station freely.
Ruby said he “acted out of outrage over Kennedy's assassination.” He was charged with murder and sentenced to death at his trial. However, in another twist to the tale, in 1966 the Texas Court of Appeal overturned the verdict and sentence. Ruby died of cancer a few months later while waiting for a new trial.
The shooting of Kennedy was so shocking, so brutal, so unexpected, so horrific, so futile, so cruel and so wasteful that it seemed the world paused, then shook its head in disbelief.
How could the most powerful man on Earth, supposedly protected by top-notch Secret Service agents, be killed by an insignificant disaffected loner, poking a cheap mail-order rifle out of a sixth-floor window at a moving target? It was almost impossible to comprehend and gave birth to dozens of conspiracy theories, many of which persist to this day.
After a 10-month investigation, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald assassinated Kennedy and that he acted entirely alone. It could not say, however, why he did it. In exploring possible motives the commission reported:
“Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment. He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him.
“Long before the assassination he expressed his hatred for American society and acted in protest against it. His search for what he conceived to be the perfect society was doomed from the start. He sought for himself a place in history – a role as the "great man" who would be recognised as having been in advance of his times.
“His commitment to Marxism and communism appears to have been another important factor in his motivation. He also had demonstrated a capacity to act decisively and without regard to the consequences when such action would further his aims of the moment.
“Out of these and the many other factors which may have moulded the character of Lee Harvey Oswald, there emerged a man capable of assassinating President Kennedy.”
The commission may have been certain of its findings but the general public was not. Polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that up to 80 per cent of Americans believed that there was a plot or cover-up.
In a story that contains innumerable twists and turns, more were to come. During the Warren Commission investigation it was revealed that Oswald had been employed by the FBI since September of 1962 at a salary of $200 a month, equivalent today to $1,734 a month.
It was also later discovered that he was a paid informant for the CIA. Former CIA accountant James B. Wilcott told the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 that Oswald “was a regular employee, receiving a full-time salary for agent work for doing CIA operational work.”
Five months before his murder, as relations with the Soviet Union continued to be strained, JFK made a speech at the American University, Washington DC, on the subject of world peace. With hindsight, his final five words would turn out to be a chilling comment. The speech ended:
No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again. . . And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.
For in the final analysis, 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 futures. And we are all mortal.
Published: November 8, 2019
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