The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and the End of Our National Innocence

JFK and wife in car main

President John F. Kennedy symbolized youth and promise. He spoke of a “new frontier” that the country would enter. The 1960s promised to be a time of optimism, which ended on November 22, 1963. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald (though not everyone believes that). The nation mourned together, watching the events on television. His death led to the ratification of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment which helped to address the possibility that the president or vice president might become unable to serve.

The Age of Camelot 

“There’ll be great presidents again … but there’ll never be another Camelot again.”

Jacqueline Kennedy

The 1960s started optimistically with a young, energetic new president with a charming wife and two children. Their White House was nicknamed “Camelot” after King Arthur’s castle, a place honored for its idealism.  Arthur symbolizes courage, diplomacy, and power. 

President John F. Kennedy’s message was that the nation was at a “new frontier” — “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.”

Brown v. Board of Education upheld the principle of racial equality. The Kennedy Administration supported racial equality as well. It was a hopeful time, even regarding racial justice.  

The age of dark times, including the Great Depression and World War II, was over. The stolid 1950s, with fears of McCarthyism, were over. A new generation of hope and promise arrived. 

Why Was JFK In Dallas?

President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, while riding a presidential motorcade in downtown Dallas. Gov. John Connally was also shot but later recovered. 

His trip to Dallas was part of a western campaign trip. He was preparing for his re-election campaign. A feud among the party leaders in Texas could threaten his chances. Kennedy hoped a visit would help unite the party and gain public support for his re-election.  

Lee Harvey Oswald 

Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-63) was born in New Orleans. He joined the Marines, where he proved to be a better-than-average marksman. Oswald also showed anti-social tendencies, being court martial twice for having an illegal weapon and violent behavior.

Oswald went to Moscow after leaving the military. He wed Marina Prusakova. They had two children. Oswald was interested in communism and originally planned to live in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, he did not like life in the Soviet Union. He moved with his wife back to the U.S.

Oswald supported Fidel Castro, the communist leader of Cuba. He ordered a handgun and rifle. Marina took a photo of him in their backyard. Oswald was holding a communist newspaper and rifle. The same type of rifle that someone later used to kill Kennedy. 

In April 1963, Oswald allegedly tried to shoot right-wing ex-general Edwin A. Walker through the window of his home but missed. He obtained a job at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. It was a perfect location to wait and shoot at the passing motorcade.

Witnesses saw him flee the scene. Oswald also killed a police officer who questioned him. The police did eventually arrest him. Two days later, on the way to the county jail, Jack Ruby murdered him on live television. There was no chance to prosecute Oswald for his crimes. 

A National Tragedy 

The assassination of President Kennedy was a national tragedy. The country mourned together. People decades later remembered where they were when they heard the news. Many today remember similar details regarding the attack on September 11th. It is our November 22nd. 

The fact that Jack Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald on television is typical of this whole tragedy. Abraham Zapruder filmed the Kennedy motorcade, providing a memorial of the events. 

Television helped to unite the nation. The Kennedy and Nixon presidential debates were a significant moment in television history. Television provided a chance, in real-time, for people to find out that their president was shot, that he died, and to watch the funeral.  

Every moment was dramatic. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the airport, still wearing blood-splattered clothes. Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office. 

President Johnson promised to continue JFK’s mission. Nonetheless, something had changed. 

A Loss of Innocence 

The country was not unfamiliar with presidential assassination. Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were all murdered. Multiple presidents afterward died in office.  

That was history. Roosevelt died naturally at the end of World War II. Wasn’t this supposed to be a time of change and new beginnings? Instead, Kennedy’s death began a period of riots, war, and more assassinations, including two civil rights leaders and Kennedy’s brother.  

Kennedy became a martyr. A symbol of a happier time. A symbol of unfulfilled promise. 

Twenty-Fifth Amendment 

President Johnson began his term without a vice president. The Constitution did not provide a means to replace a vice president when the office was vacant during a presidential term.

President Eisenhower was older and had health problems. A dangerous world requires clear rules on addressing a presidential vacancy or the possibility of an extended period of incapacitation.  

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment addresses these concerns. Procedures provide what happens if a president cannot perform their duties. If there is a vice presidential vacancy, the president nominates a new one, which Congress has to confirm. Just ask President Ford

The Warren Commission 

Horrible events often appear unexplainable. The president of the United States was murdered by some nobody? And, then Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner with alleged mob ties, kills him? Is this really what happened? Many did not think so. It must be something more profound! 

People have many conspiracy theories about what happened. Many possible scenarios involve shadowy governmental agents, the mob, Cuba, or the Soviet Union. Lee Harvey Oswald could be a “patsy,” the real guilty parties involved behind the scenes.  

President Johnson immediately established a special commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate. The Warren Commission released an extended report. Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There was no conspiracy.  Many still do not believe them.  

No matter what, as President Johnson said, the nation had to continue.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.