President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas on a sunny November afternoon 50 years ago. The images of the event and its aftermath in photos and film still haunt us and find themselves etched in our individual and collective memory. The two shots that killed the President were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald according to the Warren Commission and subsequent inquiries although there are a host of conspiracy theories regarding the assassination. My purpose is not to prove or disprove the official version or any alternative explanation. I personally believe that Oswald was the lone gunman, but I have to wonder if there were others involved in the plot and at times if there was a second shooter.
However today my purpose is to remember Kennedy’s assassination, a horrible event in the life of our nation and to reflect on how easily something similar could happen again.
Kennedy in Berlin
Kennedy was not the first President killed by an assassin. Four Presidents of the United States have died by the hand of assassins. The first was Abraham Lincoln killed by John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday 1865. That assassination carried out by a Southern sympathizer not even a week after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox stunned the nation and most likely altered the course of events after the war.
The second was the assassination of James A Garfield who was shot on July 2nd 1881 by Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a disgruntled supporter who claimed that he had been commanded by God to kill a the President who he believed to be ungrateful for his support. I find it interesting that one of our four Presidential assassins was motivated by what he believed God to be saying. During his trial he said that some important Europeans told him to do it. Garfield died on September 19th probably due to the incompetence of his doctors. Guiteau died of a broken neck, expertly administered by a hangman after dancing to the gallows waving to the assembled crowd.
The third U.S. President to die at the hands of an assassin was President William McKinley who was shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 5th 1901. McKinley died on September 14th once again because of not so great medical care.
In all over 20 attempts have been made on incumbent or former Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was wounded by an attempted assassin after his Presidency and John Hinckley Junior nearly killed President Ronald Reagan on March 30th 1981. Gerald Ford had two close brushes with female assassins within 2 weeks of each other in September 1975. More recent attempts have been made on George H.W Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. A man was arrested for shooting at the White House last week but President Obama was away from Washington during the attack.
However, Kennedy’s assassination tends to be the most talked about and studied. I believe that his assassination left a scar on the country that really hasn’t healed. I can remember the effect that his assassination as well as the subsequent killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy had on my parents in the following years. My mother recounted how she felt when she heard the news of Kennedy’s death on Armed Forces Radio while we were stationed in the Philippines. It was an event that shattered the faith and idealism of many Americans.
I remember the times around the anniversary of his assassination we would watch television shows about it and the movie PT-109. While I do not have direct memories of President Kennedy’s assassination I do remember those of Dr King and Senator Kennedy as well as the subsequent attempts on President Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.
John F Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents. I know that he was a deeply flawed man and I do not gloss over his failings either as a man or some of his decisions while President. He was certainly not perfect but I still I admire him. I think one reason I admire him was his his ability to enunciate ideas that helped shape my more moderately liberal progressive pragmatism. One thing that he said is something that motivates me daily in our divided nation.
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
Kennedy volunteered to serve in combat on PT Boats despite having chronic lower back problems that kept him out of the Army and necessitated a waiver to enter the Navy. His actions in saving his crew after his PT-109 was sunk were nothing short of heroic and his crew knew it. After he his crew was rescued Kennedy elected to remain in action and commanded PT-59 in combat rescuing Marines on Choisuel Island. Kennedy’s citation for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal read:
“For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
After his rescue Kennedy returned to action commanding PT-59 which though low on fuel was part of a two boat mission to evacuate Marines commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Victor Krulak from Choiseul. He remained in action conduction patrols and engaging Japanese forces until he was ordered to relinquish command for medical reasons on November 18th 1943 and evacuated to the United States. He was mentally and physically exhausted from his ordeal and had lost over 25 pounds between the sinking of PT-109
Kennedy’s speeches still inspire me. As a child a had a copy of his book Profiles in Courage. I grew up with his promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the creation of the Peace Corps, his backing of Special Forces, his love of the Navy, the great “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, his support of the Civil Rights movement and and his defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis all inspire me. His inauguration speech where he said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” was and still is a lot of my motivation for serving my country as a Naval Officer. When I was young John F Kennedy symbolized the hope of a country. I wonder so often what things might be like had he lived.
I could be critical and point out all of John Kennedy’s flaws and contradictions. But then too easy to do, People make a living doing that. But in doing so they often ignore the fact that Kennedy was a hero, not a perfect man but a hero.
I wish a quarter of our current elected officials served their country in combat as Kennedy did and understood real danger and heroism. Instead with very few exceptions we have elected men as much or even more flawed and contradictory than John F Kennedy with none of his personal courage to every level of office in the country, mostly because they have the money to win.
Kennedy being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal
Kennedy’s wartime service always earned my respect. I tremble when I think that someone would have such a deep hatred of him or for that matter any other President that they would kill or attempt to kill them. That kind of hatred goes beyond me whether it be the hatred and smallness of John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau or Leon Czolgosz.
Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was a small and pathetic man who needed to be a revolutionary. Oswald needed to be important failing everything else he killed the President. Unfortunately there are people like Oswald on all sides of the political, ideological and religious spectrum who will gladly trade the life of a President or any other public figure for their moment in the spotlight and need to demonstrate their importance to the world.
I fear for our country because of the intense hatred that has become part and parcel of our political landscape. The hatred toward directed toward President Obama and the many threats made against his life and person are chilling. As I looked for images for this article I found pictures of Kennedy’s body after the assassination and they shook me. I have seen far too much in the way of violent and senseless death. Thus I do pray for the safety of President Obama as well as all of our leaders and for God to protect us from ourselves and those so possessed by hatred and their own self righteousness that they would commit such an abominable act.
But I don’t believe that we should be governed by fear and to embrace the future. Kennedy said:
“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”
Likewise I still believe in the call to action spoken by Kennedy:
“Now the trumpet summons us again. Not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’, a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
I also believe in an era where the country seems to be withdrawing from engagement with an ever more globalized, interconnected yet dangerous world that his call to “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
While I do so I remember the President whose life was cut short by the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald and pray that such an event will never happen again and even more importantly that American political leaders would begin to dream again, visions of hope for the country and world and instead of only seeing limitations, ask that one question in terms of ideas of hope and progress: “Why not?” As Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”