By Benjamin Shapell
On November 19, 1963, the country marked with solemn pride the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address. But three days later, President Kennedy’s fateful ride through the streets of Dallas cost America not only the loss of one [of] her most beloved presidents, but her innocence as well. These two November events form an indelible part of American history. In fact, every five years the memory of these events is respectfully acknowledged. This year’s 130th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech was predictably met with the release of new books and exhibitions from coast to coast. But thirty years after the President was shot in Dallas, the country still mourns. No doubt, the Kennedy assassination will likewise be remembered 130 years from now, with the controversial events of that day still hotly debated.
That November day in Texas is, without question, the saddest and most shocking single day event in over 200 years of American history. Thirty years later, outlets of expression and frustration continue to appear in the form of Oscar-nominated movies, countless television programs, and an endless flow of books (10 new conspiracy books in the past year alone) all trying to solve the assassination riddle. Question after question continues to be raised due to our insatiable thirst and yearning for the truth. The country has never stopped dwelling on conspiracy theories ever since the famous Apruder film was first viewed by the public in 1975 (a surprising twelve years after the events which took place in Dallas). The basic questions raised in 1983, on the twentieth anniversary, were similarly and persistently raised in 1988 and 1993: Who was behind the assassination? How many shots? How many shooters? Was the evidence tampered with?, etc.
There is no question that thirty years and seven Presidents later, the hold that John F. Kennedy had on this nation remains strong. He was the first President born in the twentieth century. He was the first President who was a Roman Catholic. He was the first President whose parents survived him. And he was both the youngest President ever elected and the youngest President ever to die.
The utter shock of Kennedy’s untimely death was certainly magnified by the fact that, in 1963, it had been over 62 years since a U.S. President had been assassinated. Perhaps America thought it had somehow outgrown Presidential assassinations.
But this article is, foremost, a Kennedy retrospective and a Kennedy tribute. Its intention is not to chase shadows on the grassy knoll or analyze the circuitous path of the now-famous “magic bullet.” This past November was saturated enough with article after article on the assassination enigma. As lovers and admirers of the written word, our intention here is to focus on a life lived to the fullest, as revealed by the very correspondence that shaped Kennedy’s life and accomplishments. That is our perspective as the year winds down, a year in which that perspective is clearly defined more than ever before.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once described his feelings about the assassination this way: “I suppose there’s no point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. But we thought we’d have a little more time.” What, then, made Kennedy so great, so beloved? Charles Daly, director of the Kennedy Library in Boston, notes that Kennedy’s greatness lies in the “intangibles.” He believes that ordinary historical standards cannot be applied to the 35th President: “He should not be judged by the number of bills signed, treaties negotiated, crises managed and programs initiated. Kennedy must be ranked among the greatest American leaders ‘for making us really believe.'”
Ranked he is, this President who tapped among young Americans a deep well of idealism and pride-of-country. Kennedy’s name topped a recent poll of the most influential people of the last 1000 years. Quite impressive, if not tinged with perhaps some hyperbole. Still, while Winston Churchill may have surpassed all men of his time in his genius of the written English word, John Kennedy’s command of the spoken word remains unparalleled until today. As Daly notes, “Kennedy’s rhetorical legacy is unmatched by later Presidents, and his unfinished story is one that will hold allure for generations.”
And what a story it was. “November, 1963 was not the end,” said Caroline Kennedy on the occasion of the dedication of the remodeled Kennedy Library and Museum. There are just too many memories and events of her father’s life and Presidential years that form this lasting legacy. Indeed, the dedication on October 29 was just another event in a long line of reminders of Kennedy’s Presidency this year. In fact, there have been some potent reminders of the assassination which have reverberated throughout 1993, forcing us to reflect and draw our attention once again to the shocking events of 1963. Jim Garrison, whose book On the Trail of the Assassins became the centerpiece for last year’s movie, “JFK,” died during this 30th anniversary year of the Kennedy assassination. Also passing this year on June 15 was John Connally, the Texas governor seated in front of Kennedy in the Presidential limousine, who continued to insist that he and Kennedy did not “share” the same (magic) bullet, the single and most important argument of Garrison and others who refute the findings of the Warren Commission. Adding to the agonizing drama in June was the request by the Assassination Archives and Research Center to the Attorney General to have bullet fragments that might still be lodged in Connally’s wrist and thigh removed for examination. Matching fragments were removed from Connally and Kennedy after the shooting, but if a new autopsy yielded unmatched fragments, it might mean the end of the single-bullet theory and suggested a second gunman. The family refused.
Curiosity emanating from the release of “JFK” last year continued to filter down in 1993. In August, the National Archives made public 800,000 pages of documents related to the assassination which revealed nothing surprising, but hardly discouraged conspiracy buffs who continue to press on. In September, newly-released White House telephone transcripts showed that President Johnson used the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union to persuade key national leaders to participate in the Warren Commission’s investigation. Unverified rumors about the involvement of Soviet or Cuban officials in the assassination led Johnson to believe that the United States might be pushed into a war that could kill 40 million Americans in an hour.
While the assassination might have been the tragic endpoint of a life cut unexpectedly short, this year, more than any other “Kennedy-related” year to date, has brought back memories of an amazing life story. In essence, 1993 has brought to mind many important Kennedy milestones and anniversaries – some tragic, some heroic and some sentimental.
These events, more than just the assassination, have contributed to heavily to the Kennedy legacy and folklore: the heroism and romanticism of PT-109, the Lincoln-esque brilliance of his Inaugural Address, his initial failure and subsequent success in Cuba, the global impact of his Peace Corps, the 30th anniversary of major breakthroughs in the Civil Rights movement and the ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
If Kennedy were alive today, it is very probable that he would have served two terms as President and remained politically active. This would have been a special anniversary year for him: August would have marked the 50th anniversary of his brush with death as the commander of PT-109, which was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two during the early hours of August 2, 1943 in the Solomon Islands. Two of the 13 crewmen were killed instantly, but Kennedy managed to save all ten of the men who survived the initial crach, including the severely burned Patrick McMahon. Kennedy put McMahon across his back and kept him there by clenching McMahon’s lifejacket strap in his teeth. Having saved his life, Kennedy sent a handwritten letter to McMahon’s wife, just nine days after their rescue, reassuring her of her husband’s recovery. This published, but never before seen, letter is reproduced on the cover.
This is just a short note to tell you that your husband – though bothered by a hand injury – is alive and well. It is impossible to say now exactly what has happened – but you can have the satisfaction of knowing that through an extremely hard and trying period, your husband acted in a way that has brought him an official commendation – and the respect and affection of the officers and crew with whom he served. He will shortly be able to write himself. With sincere regards, John F. Kennedy/Lt. USNR/Boat Captain of boat on which your husband rode as engineer.
The rescue of the PT-109 crew is legendary, with the folklore fondly remembered through books, movies and songs. Living on coconuts and hope, and moving from one island to another, the crew waited four days before Lieutenant Kennedy succeeded in contacting a group of natives, to whom he gave a coconut with a message scratched on its shell. Later that night, all eleven survivors were picked up. Kennedy returned to base to find himself a hero. He received the Purple Heart, the Navy Medal and the Marine Medal for this action.
September 12 would have marked another important anniversary in the life of John F. Kennedy. It was on that day, 40 years ago, that he was married to Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. Kennedy had remained in contact with Patrick McMahon through the years, and wrote a four-page handwritten letter to him on November 7, 1953, as the newly-elected Senator from Massachusetts (in part):
We were in L.A. during our honeymoon but didn’t know your address…Incidentally, I received this summer a letter from the commander of the Japanese destroyer who read about the (PT-109) incident in Time magazine – The name of the Jap destroyer was the Amagiri – Strange, isn’t it –”
This year the country commemorated the 25th anniversary of the tragic death of another Kennedy, JFK’s brother and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, on June 6, 1968 in Los Angeles. Robert Kennedy was assassinated at a searing moment in one of the most turbulent years in America’s history. The occasion was marked with events around the nation as never before seen, with a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery attended by President Clinton.
The best of Robert Kennedy may be not in what he did, said President Clinton, but in what he has inspired in others. Then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who was an admirer of JFK, was deeply affected by the shooting of Robert in 1968, and sent an urgent telegram on June 5th to Kennedy’s wife at Good Samaritan Hospital:
I know there is little anyone can say at such a time but if there is anything we can to do be of help in any way please let us know. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Like Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy had his admirers and his critics, which, at times, crossed party lines. Fellow Democrat and former President Harry Truman stated in a letter to Dean Acheson September 25, 1961:
You must remember that our head of state is young, inexperienced and hopeful. Let’s hope the hopeful works…
Future two-term Republican President Ronald Reagan, in a 1967 letter as governor, was critical of then-President Lyndon Johnson:
I really don’t know the answer to your question about our course if President Kennedy had continued. I do know I thought him a much more intelligent and perceptive man than the present President.
But Kennedy’s Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, writing on November 4, 1963, just eighteen days before the tragedy at Dallas, had little praise for JFK:
…a number of people have taken Kennedy’s re-election as a foregone conclusion – I personally have never agreed to this. On the contrary, I have publicly and privately told people that I believe the present administration has been so filled with errors and blunders and mismanagement that if the entire story can be placed before the public in persuasive fashion, the defeat of the ‘new frontier’ ought to be completely feasible.
Certainly Kennedy was saddled by the debate over his intentions in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, his youth and a host of other negatives. But just as strong are memories of his facing up to Khrushchev in Cuba, his tremendous international appeal which culminated in his celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, and his uncanny prediction that America would land a man on the moon before 1970.
Against everything else, however, what is remembered perhaps most of all is the Kennedy mystique and charm. JFK also had a sense of humor, even laughing at death, having cheated it so many times since that black night on PT-109. It was widely reported in 1983, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the assassination, that President Kennedy had made a home movie depicting his own death just two months before his trip to Dallas, with the President going so far as to clutch at his chest, falling flat on the ground, with a gush of red surging from his mouth and covering his sport shirt. A sad and tragic irony to be sure, for no one was prepared for November 22.
Yes, 1993 was a year when we buried John Kennedy once again. But it was also a special and unique time to reflect on his life through the allure and contribution of letters, one of the most revealing windows we have to history.