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They are the touchstone moments, the rare flashpoints in American life where all who experienced them remember exactly where they were, how they felt, how their lives changed. The 9/11 attacks provide one such memory, the Pearl Harbor bombings another, and the killing of President John F. Kennedy a third.
Kennedy’s assassination happened 50 years ago, but those affected remember the details of Nov. 22, 1963, as if it were yesterday. In their own words, two Kennedy School professors recall that day:
IN SHOCK, WALKING AWAY FROM THE STORY
Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice Emeritus
I was the chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS News during those days. And I had just been at a briefing that Gov. Averell Harriman gave about a trip to Southeast Asia that he had just completed. He tried to persuade us that all of Southeast Asia was in support of the war in Vietnam. I wrote a 50-second radio spot and went into the radio booth that CBS had on the second floor of the State Department. When I picked up the earpiece to call in to the studio to do the recording of the piece, I heard the voice of Allan Jackson, who was one of the principal radio anchors at the time, telling the American people that the president has just been shot.
I did not immediately understand that he was speaking of President Kennedy. I was in a bit of a haze until I heard him later in the broadcast speak specifically about President Kennedy, about Dallas, and the seriousness of the wound. At the very beginning, I didn’t know which president he was talking about. And I did not think it was Kennedy. My mind simply wasn’t there. And then when I heard him specifically say — I remember sitting in this very small, darkened broadcast booth in a state of some shock. I was not responding in a very professional way, by which I mean: “Wow, what a great big story this is, and I wonder what part I can play in it.” I was in a state of shock, and I sat there until finally, I believe it was 1 o’clock, I heard Walter Cronkite announce quite specifically that “President Kennedy is dead.”
I knew immediately that my bureau chief would call me to come into the studio and help with the anchoring of the CBS News, and I also knew that I couldn’t do it. And so I did what I hope was the only totally nonprofessional thing I’d ever done in my life: I left the broadcast booth, left the State Department, and began to walk around the building itself trying to compose myself. And when I had completed this rather long walk, because it’s four long blocks, I still felt that I could not, that my mind was not clear enough to do a broadcast. That’s why I walked around it a second time. And then I felt as if I was together. I could do anything at that point — I felt I could anyway — and I walked back to the booth. Both phones were ringing. My boss was on both phones, and he was saying something like, “Where the hell have you been?” And I said, “I just found out.” I lied. And I said, “What can I do to help?” He said, “Get your ass in here.” Which I did.
I think it had a major impact on America over the next decade or two. I think it was part of the beginning of massive changes within American society, changes to our politics, changes to race relations, changes to women’s rights, changes to popular uprisings against the continued war in Vietnam. I feel that if Kennedy had lived — I’m not saying these things wouldn’t have happened — but I am saying it would have happened in a different way. And he might, might have had the capacity to take a different view of the war in Vietnam and bring the troops home. I don’t know that he would have done that — in fact, I suspect he would not have — but there was that possibility.
But without Kennedy, without the comfort, the security that comes with knowledge that there is a president doing his job, the White House is occupied, we would not have had to live through the trauma of his death, absorbing what it meant, and I think we would have been better off … And I say that in full recognition that the words may convey something less than I feel. I feel very strongly that, had he lived, America would have been a different and better place.
Professionally, I’m embarrassed to say that I went back and did what I assume was a very good job because I got better and better assignments after that. I can only tell you, at the time, I was quite devastated. Like everybody who read a history book, I knew about other American presidents who had been killed. And of course, Lincoln was always on my mind. But I never believed that in my lifetime presidents would be killed. I thought that was in the past, something we had lived through and advanced beyond. But it was not true. And it is not true even to this day.
“GOOD LORD, I WONDER WHAT’S HAPPENED?”
Francis M. Bator
Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus
I was having lunch at the Metropolitan Club in Washington with an old friend who had been a colleague at the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Center for International Studies. We were sitting at a table fairly near the window. About 10 minutes after we began, [national columnist] Walter Lippmann came in … and sat down for lunch, and we waved hello. About halfway through lunch, I noticed that someone from the desk downstairs at the Metropolitan Club came running up the stairs, literally ran into the dining room to Lippmann’s table, and whispered something in his ear.
Lippmann, 74 years old, not a spring chicken, bolted upright, and headed at a fast trot for the stairs. And I remember … saying … “Good lord, I wonder what’s happened?” Word passed quickly around the dining room that the president had been shot.
At one point soon after the election, I had had lunch with [Kennedy adviser] Ted Sorensen at the MIT faculty club, and he asked if I’d be interested in going to work for the Kennedy administration, and I said yes, depending on the job. But other than occasional minor consulting, nothing came of it until September ’63 when I did go down as economic adviser … for David Bell, who had been Kennedy’s first budget director and went to run the Agency for International Development. That’s why I happened to be in Washington at the time of the assassination. … It was a ghastly thing to have happened, and though I barely knew John Kennedy, there was no doubt an element of personal shock. Wasn’t there for most Americans?
You ask about how it affected my life personally. I am sure that I had hoped that eventually I might end up working directly for J.F.K. in the White House. … As it happens, I continued in my A.I.D. job, but in March or April of ’64, [White House adviser] McGeorge Bundy did ask me to become the senior economist on the National Security Council staff, and I accepted, ending up as deputy national security adviser for Lyndon Johnson.
I suppose it’s not inconceivable that’s where I would have ended up for Kennedy, but that’s just idle speculation. read more
Marvin Kalb, Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice Emeritus
"I remember sitting in this very small, darkened broadcast booth in a state of some shock," says Kalb.
Francis M. Bator, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Political Economy Emeritus
"I remember … saying … 'Good lord, I wonder what’s happened?'" says Bator.