Fifty years ago the world was rocked on its axis by the news that the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been assassinated during a visit to Dallas. That the most powerful leader in the western world had been killed seemed beyond belief. Click on the image below to hear an ITV News report from the scene a few days later.
This event marked the end of a period of huge expectation and hope that Kennedy had brought with him when he came to power. His assassination sent a wave of despair and fear across America and the rest of the world when tensions over the Cold War were at their height.
In the clip below you can hear some reaction to the news from Americans and further on in the clip there are broadcasts from the Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson.
A few years earlier it had seemed extremely unlikely that Kennedy could be successfully voted into office. However at 43 years of age Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by the slimmest of margins (0.2%) to become the youngest ever elected President of the United States and the first Roman Catholic.
To many this unexpected victory was all the more surprising due to his lack of experience in government. Nixon had served under the previous Republican President, Eisenhower and had been considered the favourite candidate. In the following clip you can hear reaction to the news from Londoners interviewed on Waterloo Bridge, as well as a disappointed American Republican voter.
Kennedy came from a privileged East coast background but his undeniable charisma and charm won him lots of support from ordinary people during his grassroots campaigning. While running in the Democrat Primaries he targeted West Virginia where unemployment was at around 30% due to the decline in the coal industry. The following ‘Roving Report’ looks at the real deprivation which was prevalent in the area at the time.
Kennedy’s commendable war record gained him many votes among the large number of veterans who lived in the State and winning West Virginia became a turning point in his successful campaign.
JFK represented a break with the past and the staid post war years. He projected an image of youth and vigour which was in tune with the birth of the Sixties. It was the first Presidential election to be televised and this played to Kennedy’s strengths. Having worked as a journalist in the past he had a good understanding of the media and how to use it to his best advantage, particularly during the televised debates with Nixon. However despite his easy going manner he suffered from several serious health conditions and was often in chronic pain, although details of this were suppressed until many years after his death.
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country
Kennedy’s inauguration speech, delivered on 20th January 1961, is regarded as one of the greatest of the 20th Century. It served as a rallying cry for a new generation to defend freedom and liberty and work towards world peace at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was very real.
With Kennedy as President it must have seemed anything was possible so it was all the more humiliating for him to have been involved in the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco a few months later. The following year he was able to redeem his reputation through the leadership skills he showed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At a time when nuclear war was a hair’s breadth away his level headed negotiations with Kruschev defused a potential Armageddon.
This was a time when the ‘special relationship’ really was special. Britain was valued as America’s staunchest ally in the fight against communism and the Kennedys had strong ties with the UK. JFK had lived in London for several years during the time his father was U.S. Ambassador and his family roots all lay in Ireland.
There was great public excitement about the Presidential visit in June 1961 when the Kennedys were received as a celebrity couple. In this ITV News clip you can watch them arrive in London to cheering crowds but also some CND protests. Click here to see further coverage of their fever-pitch welcome.
In April 1963 Harold Wilson, the Leader of the British Labour Party who was soon to become Prime Minister, spent a short time with Kennedy during a visit to Washington. In this clip from Visnews he is asked about his personal reactions to the President and whether the world belongs to ‘young’ men such as him. Wilson gives his forthright views on the topic – however the fact he is only 15 months older than Kennedy is never referred to. For more on this interesting visit watch the following ‘Roving Report’ Mr Wilson’s Washington.
Kennedy’s success lay in his ability to allow the American people to believe the world could become a better place and they could lead the way in bringing this about. He also had many enemies, possibly including the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, who were plotting to bring him down. Kennedy was living in dangerous times and was killed before he had chance to start campaigning for a second term.
In the panic and confusion immediately following Kennedy’s assassination, the authorities moved rapidly to arrest Lee Harvey Oswald as the prime suspect. No records were made of his interrogation and he was shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later on live television as he was about to be moved to another Police Station. In the meantime Lyndon B. Johnson set up the Warren Commission who reported the following year that Oswald had killed Kennedy alone and unaided. The report was soon discovered to be full of inconsistencies and mistakes and many believe it was a cover-up for a conspiracy. In the following ITV Newsclip you can hear Mark Lane, Oswald’s defence lawyer discuss why he believed Oswald to be innocent of the crime.
Evidence offered by the famous Zapruder film has suggested that more than one gunman was involved and this tallies with many eye witness accounts. Mark Lane went on to develop the ‘magic bullet’ theory which discredits the Warren Commission’s report on how Kennedy was shot. Click on the image below to hear him explain his ideas.
What would we think of Kennedy if he were alive today? During the Sixties his carefully managed media profile combined with his untimely death gained him an almost god-like status. In recent years this gilded image has tarnished following revelations about his lifestyle and infidelities. Whatever our opinion of him may be (American hero or amoral socialite?) the West has remained forever grateful to him for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war. His style and personality changed the look of modern politics forever and in that sense he has influenced all our lives.
If you have any comments to make about the life or death of President Kennedy we would love to hear from you. Just leave a reply below at the end of this post.
- John F. Kennedy: Collection of Guardian articles
- John F. Kennedy: Wikipedia entry
- BBC On This Day : Memories of those who were there
- BBC History – John F. Kennedy : Lots of resources
- JFK Assassination Records : from the National Archives
- The Warren Commission Report : Full text of the document
- The Assassination Archives and Research Center
- John F. Kennedy : Presidential Library and Museum
- Endocrine and Autoimmune Aspects of the the Health History of John F.Kennedy: from The Annals of Internal Medicine, 2009
- Jacqueline Kennedy: Whitehouse Tour – Documentary Film
- PBS NewsHour Extra: The Legacy of President John F. Kennedy
- BBC: Are Conspiracy Theories Destroying Democracy?