The Innocent 1960s: Politics in the Kennedy Years
2 The Innocent 1960s: Politics in the Kennedy Years
In the early 2000s, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was widely esteemed as one of the most important leaders in U.S. history. In fact, a 2003 poll conducted by Ohio University and the Scripps Howard News Service revealed that 14 percent of Americans listed Kennedy as their favorite president, placing him second only to Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), who led the United States during the Civil War. Yet it is difficult to point to tangible reasons for Kennedy's popularity: on domestic issues, he promised far more than he accomplished and passed no important legislation; in foreign policy, he fumbled an invasion of Cuba, narrowly averted a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and enmeshed the United States in what became the protracted war in Vietnam. Clearly, it was not his lackluster record of political accomplishments that won Kennedy the love and respect of Americans, both at the time and in the following decades. What Kennedy offered instead was an inspiring challenge for Americans to live up to their higher ideals and, for Americans looking back, a nostalgic reminder of a less complicated time in American life. In the early twenty-first century, Kennedy remained a symbol of the simpler side of the 1960s.
The election of 1960: religion, Cold War politics, and television
As the presidential election of 1960 drew nearer, Americans were faced with a choice between two very different candidates. Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994), the Republican Party's nominee, was well known to voters. He had served as vice president for eight years under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61), who was the popular hero of World War II (1939–45). Nixon ran on Eisenhower's record, which called for minimal government involvement in the economy and a mild commitment to civil rights reforms, then an emerging political issue. Nixon also presented himself as a staunch opponent of Communism, the political system favored by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Loved by few, Nixon was yet the choice of the Republican establishment, and he faced no serious challenges to his nomination bid.
Kennedy, on the other hand, offered a real change from the go-slow politics of the Eisenhower era. Just forty-three years old when he ran for president, the youthful son of a powerful political family told Americans that it was time for their country to accomplish great things. That message was positive, but Kennedy had one great liability: he was Catholic. No Catholic had ever been elected president, for many Americans feared that a Catholic president would take orders from the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. In the primary race and again in the general election, Kennedy was forced to confront the issue. For example, in a September 12, 1960, speech he said, according to Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960: "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners how to vote." Once he put this issue to rest, Kennedy was able to focus on his campaign goals to improve the country's economic performance—which had been stalled for several years—and make the United States a more powerful world leader in part by encouraging its people to commit themselves to public service.
Early polls showed that the race between the candidates was too close to call, and as the November election neared every campaign statement was scrutinized for how it would affect the outcome of the election. In September, the two candidates agreed to a series of nationally televised debates—the first presidential debates ever seen on national television. The more experienced Nixon believed he could beat the man he considered a political lightweight, but under the hot glare of the TV lights a different impression was conveyed. Kennedy's youthful, handsome appearance and cool, easy demeanor came off well on TV; Nixon, by contrast, had had his makeup applied poorly and he looked tired and tense. Though people listening to the debates on the radio felt that Nixon had mastered the issues, the 115 to 120 million TV viewers judged Kennedy the clear winner.
After these debates, Kennedy began to win more supporters. Just before the election, Kennedy won the endorsement of Martin Luther King Sr., father of the emerging civil rights leader. The endorsement helped swing the African American vote to Kennedy in the South, which contributed to his ultimate victory in North Carolina and Texas. On election night, however, the vote was nearly too close to call. With 64 percent of Americans voting, Kennedy received 49.7 percent of the vote (34,227,096 votes), while Nixon won 49.5 percent (34,107,646 votes). In the end, Kennedy won by just over 119,450 more votes than Nixon. (The margin was greater in the electoral college, where Kennedy took 303 votes to Nixon's 219.)
Kennedy entered the office of the presidency with no clear mandate from the American voting public and with a reduced Democratic majority in both the House and Senate. Yet the narrowness of his victory did not prevent him from announcing an ambitious agenda for his presidency and for the American public. In his inaugural address—delivered on a day so cold that the event was nearly cancelled—Kennedy delivered a stirring call to action to the American people, as quoted on the Library of Congress Presidential Inaugurations Web site. The speech was focused primarily on foreign policy, and he committed America to protecting the world from the spread of communism when he stated: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." When it came to domestic policy, Kennedy asked Americans, simply and elegantly, to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
With his impassioned address, the dashing president helped launch the Kennedy myth. In fact, much of Kennedy's legacy rests on what he said and not necessarily what he did. Kennedy frequently appealed to the highest ideals of American politics: love of freedom and equality, and commitment to public service. He asked Americans to "struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself." He told them that they were part of a "new generation" of Americans who would shape the world of tomorrow, and though he believed that the United States faced great obstacles, he encouraged people to face those problems with hope and energy. (Many of Kennedy's speeches are collected on the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum Web site.) Kennedy's inspiring words, his youthful energy, his dynamic and charming wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1929–1994), and the group of young, talented assistants he brought into office—all of these fed the image of Kennedy as a dynamic and forceful leader.
Kennedy's public words were bold, stirring, and somewhat vague, yet he had definite and pragmatic goals for his presidency. In foreign policy, he wanted to improve relations with the communist world, even while demonstrating that he would stand up to any aggression on the part of the Soviet Union or China. Kennedy wanted to establish America as the clear world leader by increasing American economic and military assistance to countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And he wanted to strengthen the American military. At home, Kennedy wanted to jump-start the economy by creating jobs, reducing widespread poverty, and improving government aid for urban housing, education, and health care. He also pledged that he would take actions to end racial discrimination. He labeled his plans the New Frontier, for he wanted to take the United States forward into a new era of accomplishment. In truth, Kennedy accomplished few of his goals, for his presidency focused on frequent foreign policy crises and continual domestic policy frustrations.
Cold War foreign policy: Missteps and triumphs
When he took office, John F. Kennedy inherited from his predecessor a series of difficult foreign policy situations, all of them informed by the ongoing conflict known as the Cold War (1945–91). The United States and the Soviet Union, the two most powerful countries in the world, had very different political and economic systems. The United States was committed to democratic political systems, free-market economies, and freedom of religion and expression. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, had a totalitarian political system (one in which powerful leaders made the important decisions without consulting citizens) and a communist economy. Communist Party leaders controlled all elements of Soviet life. Following the end of World War II (1939–45), both the United States and the Soviet Union had committed themselves to world leadership. The two countries did not want to fight a war with each other; both sides possessed nuclear weapons, with the capacity to destroy each other and possibly the entire world. In fact, both sides were interested in signing treaties to eliminate the possibility of nuclear warfare. Rather than fighting directly, the two countries sought to attain influence over other countries, especially smaller countries that were struggling to define or change their own political systems. This competition to establish their irreconcilable political systems was called the Cold War, and during the Kennedy administration it was fought in diplomatic clashes over Cuba, the German city of Berlin, and the civil war in Vietnam.
During his presidential campaign, Eisenhower had been involved in a dramatic confrontation with the Soviets over Soviet charges that Americans had been spying on them. On May 1, 1960, a high-altitude U.S. spy plane called a U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union. Eisenhower denied that the plane was spying; he said it was a weather research plane that had strayed off course. Delighted to catch the American president in a lie, the Soviets produced the captured American pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) spoke out publicly against the spying and demanded an apology. He proclaimed: "Our country is a strong and mighty state.…If the U.S.A. has not yet suffered a real war on its territory and wants to start a war, we will fire rockets and hit their territory a few minutes later," as quoted in Gini Holland's The 1960s. This angry rhetoric frightened the world and proved deeply embarrassing to Eisenhower, but he steadfastly refused to apologize. In the end, the incident derailed a summit conference between the two superpowers, Great Britain, and France and increased tensions between the countries.
The Peace Corps: The Softer Side of the Cold War
In most dramatic expressions of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, such as in Cuba and Berlin, military forces stood on guard and leaders brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. While shows of military strength were an important means of waging the war for world dominance, they were not the only means. In fact, one of the most effective means of communicating American values was the Peace Corps, created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
In the late 1950s, Democratic congressmen Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin and Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota had argued for sending U.S. volunteers into developing nations to help relieve the suffering from poverty, disease, and illiteracy (the inability to read). Kennedy took up this idea in his 1960 campaign for the presidency, and on March 1, 1961, he signed a bill establishing the Peace Corps and appointed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to head the organization. The Peace Corps recruited, trained, and supplied mostly youthful volunteers to travel to countries around the world. Kennedy promoted the Peace Corps as one of the many ways that Americans could commit themselves to higher ideals. He believed that this volunteer service was a good way to show the world the true meaning of American values.
Though some critics have accused the Peace Corps of serving American political interests, in fact the agency worked to distance itself from political issues. Peace Corps volunteers were not out to promote American political causes but rather to help people in poor countries to develop successful farming practices, healthcare facilities, and businesses. Between its formation in 1961 and the early 2000s, the Peace Corps sent some 170,000 volunteers to 137 countries, and it continued to receive bipartisan (Republican and Democrat) support in Congress into the twenty-first century.
Other tensions from the Eisenhower years carried over into the first days of the Kennedy administration as well. In the Caribbean island nation of Cuba in 1959, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro (c. 1927–) overthrew the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973), a long-time U.S. ally. Within the following year, relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated, and Castro's government began to side with the Soviet Union, which was eager to provide assistance to a newly communist nation just ninety miles off the coast of the United States. Cuba's acceptance of Soviet-style Communism was deeply troubling to U.S. policy makers. They worried that other countries in the Caribbean might follow Cuba's example and also that the Soviet Union would put missiles in Cuba.
At the request of President Eisenhower, in 1960 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) laid plans for an invasion of Cuba to bring down the Castro government. Kennedy inherited these plans, but he changed them. He ordered U.S. troops to not to become directly involved in the invasion, which was carried out by pro-U.S. Cubans who had fled or were kicked out of the country following Castro's takeover. The Bay of Pigs invasion, named for the bay in Cuba where it took place, was launched on April 17, 1961, and soon turned into a disaster. U.S. intelligence predictions that there would be little armed opposition and widespread civilian support proved wrong, and the Cuban invasion forces were quickly routed: their boats were sunk and those men who landed on the beach were gunned down or captured, all while U.S. ships and planes stood by and watched. According to historian George Moss, writing in America in the Twentieth Century, "America stood exposed as both imperialistic and inept, a pathetic combination of wickedness and weakness." It had funded and helped organize the invasion, but did not possess the strength of will to put its own troops into action.
The United States fared better in its clash with the Soviets over of the German city of Berlin. Ever since the end of World War II, Germany had been divided in two, with communist East Germany allied with the Soviets and democratic West Germany allied with the United States. The split between the two Germanies was mirrored by the split in the city of Berlin, which lay entirely within the borders of East Germany and was divided into East and West Berlin. On August 13, 1961, the East Germans closed the border between the two halves of the city in order to prevent East German citizens from "defecting," or leaving their country, to the West. Backed by the Soviets, the East Germans began to build a wall along the border to block free passage across the border. Soviet and East German soldiers shot and killed anyone attempting to escape East Germany for the freedom of West Berlin. In 1963, President Kennedy traveled to West Berlin and announced, to an adoring audience of West Berliners: "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.… Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in—to prevent them from leaving us.… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner,' [I am a Berliner]" as quoted at the American Rhetoric Web site. Thanks in part to Kennedy's speech, the wall came to stand as a symbol for the way the governments in Soviet Bloc countries repressed their citizens. The wall's destruction in November 1989 signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Cuban missile crisis
In 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union clashed once again, in what became the single most dangerous clash in the long history of the Cold War. Following the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Soviet Union agreed to provide military advice and assistance to the tiny nation. The United States monitored as carefully as it could the interactions between the two communist nations, and on October 14, 1962, the worst fears of American strategists were realized. On that date, a U.S. U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba took photos that revealed that the Soviets were assisting in the construction of launch sites for both medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which were capable of delivering nuclear warheads to major American cities—including Washington, D.C. Intensified spy missions revealed that the missile sites—twelve in all—could be operational as early as the end of October.
Kennedy quickly convened his top military and political advisors to help him decide how to confront this serious threat to U.S. security. These advisors (including the president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy [1925–1968] and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara [1916–]) presented Kennedy with several options, including going public with the information and demanding negotiations, conducting negotiations in private, placing a naval blockade around the island, launching a tactical air strike on the missile sites, or conducting an all-out U.S. invasion of Cuba. For an agonizing week, Kennedy's team, named Excomm, for Executive Committee of the National Security Council, deliberated over what was the correct path for the nation to follow. Each of the members believed that the future of the country, and perhaps of the world, was at risk.
On October 22, the president briefed Congress and then gave a dramatic, televised address to a shocked nation. He described the Soviet presence in Cuba and his decision to impose a naval blockade on Cuba that would bar any military materiel (military equipment and supplies) from reaching the island. He also warned that a missile attack on the United States would trigger a U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, with consequences that no one could foretell. Across the globe, the armed forces of both countries were placed on alert, and U.S. military vessels soon stopped and searched Soviet ships en route to Cuba. On October 25, several Soviet ships stopped in mid-route rather than risk search.
Publicly, leaders from both sides presented a stern demeanor and demanded that the other side back down. Behind the scenes, however, intense, back-channel negotiations began. TV reporters delivered messages to Soviet spies, while diplomats exchanged terse letters. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sent one letter offering to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba; less than a day later, he sent a rambling letter demanding that the United States also withdraw missiles from the country of Turkey. While Kennedy pondered his response on October 27, events worsened: Soviet radio broadcast Khrushchev's demands, and Cuban forces shot down a U.S. U-2 plane flying over their country. That night, Kennedy made what many historians consider to be a brilliant tactical move: he responded to Khrushchev's first request (not to invade Cuba) and ignored the second (removing the missiles from Turkey). On October 28, Soviet radio announced the acceptance of Kennedy's terms. People across the globe breathed a sigh of relief. Through careful diplomacy, Kennedy had negotiated the best possible outcome. Within a month, Soviet forces had dismantled the missile sites. In a goodwill gesture, the United States eventually removed their missiles from Turkey as well.
The intense standoff known as the Cuban Missile Crisis was a pivotal moment in the Cold War. Both sides seemed to come to the realization that they could not play bluffing games in which the risk was so great for the entire world. Following the crisis, both sides worked harder to communicate with the other. They installed "hot lines," or direct telephone links, to provide instant communication between American president and Soviet premier, and committed themselves to treaties limiting nuclear testing. Though the Cold War continued until 1991, during those years the world did not again so closely approach nuclear annihilation.
Vietnam: Trouble to come
Of the many foreign policy problems Kennedy inherited when he took office in 1960, the brewing conflict in the distant nation of Vietnam hardly seemed to be the most pressing. The United States had had a tortured relationship with the small East Asian country for nearly twenty years. American forces had supported Vietnamese forces when they fought against Japanese occupation during World War II. After the war, however, the French had reestablished control in a region that they had controlled since the late nineteenth century. Faced with either supporting Vietnamese patriots led by a man named Ho Chi Minh (c. 1890–1969) or supporting their historical European ally, the United States made the difficult decision to back French rule. This decision was made easier by Ho Chi Minh's embrace of Communism.
From 1945 to 1954, the United States provided financial and military support to the French as they fought an increasingly intense war against Ho Chi Minh and his forces, called the Vietminh. By 1954, the war had killed 95,000 French soldiers, 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers, and as many as a million Vietnamese civilians. In that year France withdrew from the area by negotiating a peace treaty that divided Vietnam in half and granted Cambodia and Laos independence. North Vietnam was controlled by communists led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam was ruled by a corrupt government led by Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) and backed by the United States. American policy after 1954 consisted of supporting the South Vietnamese regime with economic assistance, arms, and military training. Over the years, however, their support for the Diem regime in South Vietnam became increasingly embarrassing. Diem enjoyed little support in his own country, and he ruled by oppressing, even torturing and killing, those who opposed him. Increasingly, people within South Vietnam began to join guerilla forces fighting against their own government. These people were known as the Vietcong; "cong" means "commies," a slang term for communists, because they supported communist North Vietnam.
Kennedy did not like the policy of support for South Vietnam that he had inherited, but he felt that it was important for the United States to help the South Vietnamese defeat the communist uprising among its own citizens. He subscribed to what is known as the "domino theory," the idea, first described in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53), that if one Asian nation fell to Communism, others would follow (as in a row of dominoes, once the first domino falls it knocks down all the rest of the dominoes in sequence). Kennedy committed to sending more money and U.S. weapons to South Vietnam, and though he did not send combat troops, he did increase the number of military advisors to 12,000 in 1963. He hoped that with this additional support, the South Vietnamese could defeat the communists and give the United States an excuse to withdraw by declaring victory. This policy of gradually increasing support existed when Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. It would be up to Kennedy's successor to guide American policy in Vietnam. (For complete coverage of the Vietnam War, see Chapter Five.)
Kennedy's domestic policies
For much of his brief term in office, Kennedy was occupied with foreign policy issues. With regard to foreign policy, the U.S. Constitution gave him wide latitude to act as chief executive. In terms of domestic policy, however, Kennedy was constrained by the need to seek support and approval from a Congress that was not willing to move quickly on the major issues Kennedy supported.
Though Kennedy is often remembered as a champion of justice and civil rights, in fact he accomplished little in these areas. During his campaign in 1960 and while in office, Kennedy publicly proclaimed that he supported major civil rights legislation. Yet he failed to introduce such legislation, knowing that he could not win votes for his programs from the Congress. Despite the fact that his party controlled Congress with a majority of 263 to the Republican's 174, Kennedy knew that a voting bloc of conservative southern Democrats would side with the Republicans to stop his more ambitious programs. Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in 1961, but this action was not enough to settle the criticism he faced from civil rights leaders who complained that he supported the movement in word only.
Over the three years of his presidency, however, Kennedy was pushed to deepen his commitment to civil rights. Several dramatic civil rights actions—including the "Freedom Rides" and the attacks of civil rights demonstrators ordered by Montgomery, Alabama, police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor (1897–1973) in 1961; the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962; and the famous "March on Washington" of 1963—demanded presidential reaction, and Kennedy increasingly committed himself to the cause. He issued several executive orders and sent federal authorities to ensure the safety of demonstrators in the South; increasingly, he grew willing to use federal power to force states to live up to promises of equality. By mid-1963, Kennedy had prepared a full civil rights legislative package, but he was unable to see its passage because of his unexpected death in November of that year. (For complete coverage of the civil rights movement, see Chapter 8.)
Perhaps the greatest domestic accomplishment of the Kennedy administration was the stimulus Kennedy gave to the U.S. economy. Unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy was willing to use the power of the federal government to improve the economy. He proposed and passed a number of measures to expand the economy, including a large cut in the income tax and tax breaks for businesses. But he also continued a Democratic tradition of providing support and protections for working Americans. He increased the minimum wage from $1.00 to $1.25 per hour, expanded Social Security benefits to a larger group of people, and presented legislation to help farmers and improve federal housing (housing provided for the poorest Americans). The stimulus package began to work quickly, prompting the economy to expand continuously almost to the end of the decade. Thanks in large part to Kennedy's programs, the 1960s were prosperous years in the United States.
Starting the space program
Kennedy also created a space program capable of placing a man on the moon. When Kennedy took office in 1961, the United States lagged far behind the Soviet Union in what was widely known as the "space race," the effort to launch satellites and eventually men into space. The Soviets had placed the first satellite, called Sputnik, in space in 1957, and in 1960 they had launched two dogs into space and returned them safely to earth. Then, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit Earth. Though the United States' space program followed with a manned spaceflight on May 5, 1961, few were satisfied with coming in second—especially President Kennedy.
Kennedy viewed the space race as an important part of the American competition with the Soviet Union. Along with many Americans, he wanted the United States to win that competition. He told Congress in May of 1961 that the United States should have the goal of sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade. This challenge led to unprecedented spending on space exploration: by 1965, the nation's space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), received $5.25 billion in funding, its highest level in the decade. Within two years of Kennedy's challenge, Project Mercury astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper had orbited Earth for thirty-six hours. Though Kennedy did not live to see it, American astronauts eventually became the first to orbit and eventually land on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the Moon on July 16, 1969.
Assassination shocks nation
By mid-1963, Kennedy was hitting his stride as president: his economic incentive program had spurred the American economy to substantial gains; he had stood up to the Soviet challenge in Cuba, earning the respect of the world; he stood prepared to introduce significant civil rights legislation; and he looked forward to seeking reelection in 1964. Though Kennedy had his detractors, he was among the most popular presidents in American history, with an approval rating that never fell below 59 percent during his time in office. People admired his personal style and his charming wife and were encouraged by his stirring speeches challenging Americans to work to fulfill their nation's great destiny. And so it was a
Who Really Killed JFK?: The Warren Report and Conspiracy Theories
On November 29, 1963, just a week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an independent commission to investigate the circumstances leading to the shooting and to the subsequent murder of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald. To head the commission, Johnson appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974), one of the most respected men in the United States. In the course of its investigation, the Warren Commission questioned 552 witnesses and sifted through mountains of data, including a grainy film shot by a Texan named Abraham Zapruder, known later as the Zapruder Film. The commission's report, known as the Warren Report, was released to the public on September 24, 1964. Designed to put questions about the assassination to rest, the report instead stirred up controversies and conspiracy theories that continued into the early 2000s.
The key conclusion of the Warren Report was that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. The report also sought to dispel a total of twenty-two myths and rumors concerning the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Soviet Union, mysterious Cubans, and others who might have planned together with Oswald to kill the president. Over the years, however, many contested the conclusions drawn in the Warren Report. A New Orleans, Louisiana, district attorney named Jim Garrison attempted unsuccessfully to convict a local businessman for his involvement in the killing in 1967. In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone brought the issue back to the public's attention with the movie JFK: The Untold Story, which was seen by fifty million people. The movie explored several different theories, including the idea that high U.S. government officials might have been involved in a conspiracy to kill the president. In the early 2000s, conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy's death continued to surface on the Internet.
great and terrible shock to the entire country when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy was traveling in a motorcade with his wife, Texas governor John Connolly (1917–1993), and Connolly's wife, Nellie, on that sunny November day. As the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza several shots rang out. Terrified spectators looked on as the president slumped forward, and Jackie Kennedy cradled her husband's shattered skull in her hands. The motorcade sped to nearby Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead at 2:00 p.m. Within a matter of hours, vice president Lyndon B. Johnson (1909–1973; served 1963–69) was sworn in as president. That evening, after flying back to the nation's capital, Johnson spoke on television and assured Americans that their government was secure.
Anguished reactions to the president's assassination swept the nation as it entered into a period of intense mourning. News coverage of the assassination and its aftermath was nonstop, and so it was that when Kennedy's alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963), was led from his jail cell and gunned down by a man named Jack Ruby, the entire episode was broadcast live to the nation. The violent events and the intensity and immediacy of the media coverage—Kennedy's funeral was watched by 93 percent of Americans—heightened feelings of sorrow and anxiety. New York Times columnist James Reston, quoted in Four Days in November, wrote: "America wept, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best." Reston captured the sense that the death of Kennedy marked also the death of an era of innocence and optimism. From that moment forward, the 1960s seemed a far more troubled decade.
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