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A Magazine of Ideas

JFK's Assassination, 50 Years Later

Friday, November 22, 2013

When great events are precipitated by little people, it is common for conspiracy theories to abound.

For everyone then alive, it remains, even after 50 years, a moment frozen in time.

I was a 19-year-old Vanderbilt University sophomore having lunch in the Gold Room, as Vanderbilt’s snack bar was called. I was sitting in an overstuffed leather chair and in the act of inserting a hot dog into my mouth when one of the ladies who worked the counter came in from another room where there was a television set. In a voice as devoid of emotion as if she were announcing, “They say it’s going to rain this weekend,” she said, to no one in particular, “They say the president’s been shot.”

There was at first no reaction. Then I and the student sitting in the leather chair next to me looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “What did she say?” We both got up and ran into the television room, where Walter Cronkite was giving the latest news bulletins.

Soon he announced, visibly choking back emotions the whole country was feeling, that John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was dead, felled by an assassin.

It seemed incomprehensible, almost impossible, that this young, handsome, vigorous,  witty man could be dead. To say that the nation was stunned would be to very considerably understate the case. All was confusion.

It seemed incomprehensible, almost impossible, that this young, handsome, vigorous, witty man could be dead.

Lyndon Johnson needed to be sworn in before he could act as president, but no one in his entourage knew where the text of the oath could be found (it’s in the Constitution) or who could administer it (the Constitution does not specify and it is usually administered by a judge — a U.S. District judge, Sarah Hughes, was summoned in this case — but Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a mere justice of the peace, after President Warren Harding died).

When the oath-taking on Air Force One was over — recorded only in one of the iconic photographs of the 20th century — the plane took off and headed for Washington.

The Soviet Union grounded its entire air force, something it knew would be picked up very quickly by American intelligence. It was saying, in effect, “We had nothing to do with this.”   

I had a sociology class at 3 p.m. and, more or less on autopilot, I stayed on campus to attend it, although the course was boring and badly presented by a professor with zero teaching skills. The students who showed up wanted to talk about the assassination but he insisted on acting as if nothing had happened. Thereupon about half the students got up and walked out, including me.

Today the president lives in a bubble, cut off from the people and the world.

As I walked across the campus to West End Avenue and my apartment, I noticed a 707 flying high over Nashville, on a heading that would take it to Washington. I wondered then — and I still do — if it was Air Force One, carrying the body of the fallen president. The timing and the course were right, but I’ll never know.

I spent the weekend just watching history unfold on television: Air Force One being met at Andrews Air Force Base by Robert Kennedy, his brother’s body being off-loaded, Johnson’s speech at the airport. It was soon announced that a suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been apprehended. On Sunday, I and millions of others watched as he was murdered by Jack Ruby.

On Monday there was the state funeral, with all its panoply, its riderless horse with reversed boots, the world leaders — including General de Gaulle and Prince Philip (the Queen was pregnant) — walking behind the army caisson, and the salute by three-year-old John-John Kennedy.

On Tuesday, the world — a changed world — slowly began to lumber back to normality. The stock market, which had closed on the news, re-opened; classes resumed; sports teams began to play again. But a certain joy had gone out of American life. It would not return until the Reagan years. A certain openness withered as well. The presidency, once the most accessible major office in the world, began to be hemmed in by ever-greater layers of security. Today the president lives in a bubble, cut off from the people and the world.

President Johnson convened the Warren Commission to determine exactly what had happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963. It decided that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. But a vast journalistic industry immediately sprang up to dispute its findings, an industry that flourishes to this day.

Conspiracies both great and small were postulated to explain how the most powerful man in the world could have been struck down by someone as obscure and unimportant as Lee Harvey Oswald. To describe Oswald as a twerp would be to flatter him. He was just a not very bright (and very troubled) soul who happened to be a very good shot.

A certain joy had gone out of American life. It would not return until the Reagan years.

It is, of course, common when great events are precipitated by little people for conspiracy theories to abound. There were “sightings” of John Wilkes Booth reported as late as the 1920s. But despite all the pyramids of conjecture and fact built by the conspiracy-mongers, “Occam’s Razor” — the dictum that the simplest explanation is almost always the correct one — commands that the Warren Commission was right.

A minor industry in alternative history also sprang up. How would the world have been different had Kennedy lived and Lyndon Johnson remained in the powerless vice presidency? Kennedy was a more cautious and conservative man than Johnson, who was an unreconstructed New Dealer. Would Kennedy have avoided the quagmire of the Vietnam War or waged it more successfully? Would the Great Society programs pushed through Congress by Johnson, thanks to his unsurpassed legislative skills, have evolved more slowly and perhaps been better designed under Kennedy?

We’ll never know. We only know that the world we have lived in for the last 50 years would have been a very different place had only the 35th president somehow avoided the lethal consequences of a lunatic’s obsessions.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “‘A Few Appropriate Remarks’,” “Obama, Johnson, and Congress,” and “The Scariest Day of My Life.” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg contribute “Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories?” and “50 Years of Conspiracy Theory Polling.” Tevi Troy offers “‘The Simpsons’: Poking Fun at U.S. Presidents for a Quarter Century” while Jessica Leval gives “A Brief History of the Modern Presidential Debate.” Michael Barone observes “The Enduring Character of Democrats and Republicans in Times of Political Change” while Mark J. Perry shares “President Kennedy Responds to Paul Krugman.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group