Wednesday, November 22, 2023
It's Wednesday, November 22, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas: The JFK Assassination 60 Years Later
It was 60 years ago at about 12:30 p.m. Central Time that John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States, was assassinated on the streets of Dallas, Texas, in a presidential motorcade. That event that took place 60 years ago today is deeply etched in the American memory. Even as President John F. Kennedy was already an important historical figure, he became instantly an iconic historical figure, and the United States was in shock as was much of the rest of the world. A president of the United States, a man holding the most powerful political position on Earth, head of the government of the United States of America and head of state had been killed by a rifle shot on the streets of a major American city. It was so shocking that Americans took some time to come to grips with the reality of it all, as did the American government, as we now know.
However, 60 years later, it's important that we take stock, even on this day before Thanksgiving in the year 2023, because a 60th anniversary is one of those rare occasions to look back in American history and not only come to terms with what happened and what it meant then, but what happened, what was happening at the same time, and what all these things mean now.
As I said, John F. Kennedy was already a figure of historical consequence. He was the first president born in the 20th century. It was his youth in 1960 that was his brand, along with the fact that he was a decorated veteran of World War II. But the family history is a part of this story, and it may well be a part of the assassination story as well. We simply don't know. The fact that we don't know is another big part of the story.
What we do know is that the Kennedy family, by the time John Fitzgerald Kennedy came along, was a well-established Irish Catholic family, particularly in the city of Boston. The patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, was himself a figure of historical substance, but he was also a very dark figure. In order to understand the Kennedys, you have to understand the meaning of both words, Irish and Catholic, because it was the Irish Catholic immigration to the United States from Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that reshaped the political landscape of so many Northeastern cities. Boston and New York became the epicenters. Boston Irish Catholicism became a very powerful political force, arguably larger in that context than the Irish Catholic vote in the city of New York, which was nonetheless considerable.
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both words worked against these immigrants from Ireland, the fact that they were Irish and the fact that they were Catholic. The WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority in the United States that had shaped the culture predominantly ever since the Colonial era, was not particularly friendly to either the Irish or the Catholics. That would change over time.
But Joseph P. Kennedy was intentionally part of an Irish Catholic resurgence during the first half of the 20th century and into the second half. To his enormous family, he intended to make his mark on American culture and win respect for Irish Catholics. He wanted indeed one of his own sons to become the first Catholic president of the United States, the first Irish Catholic president of the United States. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not intended to be that son. Rather, Joseph P. Kennedy, who would later serve in the Roosevelt administration as the United States ambassador to the Court of St James, that means the United States ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy intended his eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., to be the one who would carry the torch, would be elected to the House, then elected to the Senate, then elected the first Irish Catholic President of the United States.
In order to build political capital, you have to have financial capital, and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. spent much of his time building a fortune. He did so, by the way, through what would be considered both dark arts and legitimate business. By the way, it tells you something about the fact that the stock market was such a big story, especially after the stock market crash in 1929. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was looking for someone to head the Securities and Exchange Commission to look out for the integrity of the stock market, he chose Joseph P. Kennedy. That created a scandal because Joseph P. Kennedy had been involved in some of the very speculation and questionable deals that the SEC was supposed to prevent. FDR supposedly said that the way to catch a crook is to hire a crook.
Joseph P. Kennedy would later become the first Catholic appointed as the United States ambassador to Great Britain. Again, the formal title is the United States Ambassador to the Court of St James's. Nonetheless, as you look at that role, the most important thing is that it meant respectability for the Kennedy family. But the second thing is that it meant yet another disgrace because Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. broke with FDR over the question of support for England in the context of the looming menace of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Joseph P. Kennedy simply didn't think Britain could hold out, and it wasn't worth an American effort to try to help the British to do so. Thankfully, for the cause of history and democracy and good and decency around the world, FDR rejected Ambassador Kennedy's advice and basically called him home, sacking him, eliminating any future political influence.
It was during World War II, by the way, that the Kennedy family was further touched by tragedy. There had already been deaths in the family, but it was the death of the eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the object of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.'s political hopes and dynastic dreams. He was killed while piloting a plane laden with explosives on a secret military mission. Thus, the mantle of political expectation fell from Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the next oldest son.
There was a huge problem, however. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was considered to be very bright, but he was also physically frail. In order to prove himself, he had actually manipulated by politics an assignment in the United States Naval Reserve, and eventually in the United States Navy, an active command of a PT boat. Now, these attack boats were actually quite small and quite fragile. They were made out of plywood covered in order to create an attack boat. They were light. They were nimble. They were fragile.
In the middle of the night in the dark, a Japanese cruiser cut PT 109, under Lieutenant Kennedy's command, in half, and it became a matter of what was considered courageous heroism and something of a miracle that Kennedy and much of his crew survived. Swimming through shark-infested waters, eventually able to be picked up by American forces, it made John Fitzgerald Kennedy a hero, and his father had connections to the media in such a way as to pump his son. Once that was done, John F. Kennedy was not accidentally widely known as a war hero throughout the American media. That set the stage for a political career.
After the war, in 1946, his father, by the way, having persuaded the incumbent congressman not to run for re-election, the newly decommissioned naval officer and war hero, John F. Kennedy, was first elected to Congress. Strikingly handsome, and as I've said, quite intelligent, he was a graduate of several schools including Harvard University. He doesn't appear to have worked too hard at Harvard, but he did have an innate intelligence. There were other traits as well that would show up throughout his lifetime that we now know were quite visible at Harvard.
John F. Kennedy was a young man in a hurry, and he had his father's fortune behind him, a fortune that had been built in all kinds of businesses, as I said, some financial scandal. Nonetheless, he'd been the first head of the SEC. He had been the United States ambassador to the Court of St James's. The Kennedy family at this point seemed to be on the ascendancy. But John F. Kennedy was in a big hurry for another reason. That is, he knew what most others did not know, something that was hidden from the American public, and that was that he had an incredibly frail health. Kennedy himself did not expect to live long.
From the time he was a young teenage boy, he had suffered from numerous physical maladies. It is now known that he probably suffered from what was known as Addison's disease. Since the treatments at the time were quite limited and the symptoms were rather significant, John F. Kennedy spent a lot of his life in pain and, furthermore, a lot of his life in the hospital. But he presented himself as a picture of youth, vigor, and health, and the American public knew nothing of the truth.
He was very handsome, and compared to others, he was very young. When he was elected president of the United States as the Democratic nominee in the year 1960, he was 43 years of age. He was the youngest man ever elected president of the United States. He was not the youngest man to serve as president of the United States because Teddy Roosevelt became president when he was only 42, one year younger, but that was because of the assassination of President William McKinley. Teddy was McKinley's vice president, and upon McKinley's assassination, Teddy Roosevelt at 42 became president of the United States. But as I said, the youngest elected president was John Kennedy. Just compare that now to the fact that the incumbent president will be, in fact, already is the oldest person to serve in the White House, will be if elected, again, the oldest person elected president of the United States. We're at the other extreme in the adult lifespan here.
It seemed something of a stretch for someone of as little political experience as John F. Kennedy had in 1960 to consider a serious run for the presidency. But actually, we now know Kennedy had tried to get on the national ticket four years earlier, hoping to be Adlai Stevenson's vice presidential choice. It was probably fortunate for Kennedy that he was not chosen. He did not go down in defeat as Stevenson did twice. But when John F. Kennedy was running for president, even as his Democratic competitor said, he was one of the most inexperienced candidates ever to run for the Office of President of the United States.
But he had things going for him that the other candidates didn't have. One was the Kennedy political machine. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. put millions upon millions into buying and building a political machine. When I say buying, there is plenty of documentary evidence that he did a lot of buying, that included buying friends and buying favors from groups including organized crime. But Kennedy appeared to be absolutely clean-cut, handsome, the picture of physical vigor and a war hero from the greatest military conflict in American history, the war that made modern America, World War II. He had a beautiful wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and he had young children. When he was elected president of the United States, he appeared to be exactly what he advertised as his campaign theme: the leader of a New Frontier.
In terms of historical analysis and context, John F. Kennedy would be remembered as the first president born in the 20th century, the first president who represented the 20th century, in terms of the second, half America's assertion of its role in the world, American strength in the midst of the Cold War against Soviet communism, American involvement in various conflicts around the world, and a sense of excitement in American mission, because John F. Kennedy is rightly associated with the great impetus behind the American space program, and in particular, President Kennedy setting the goal by the end of the decade of an American going to the moon and returning safely. That was accomplished, as we know, through the Apollo program.
But we now know a good deal more long before we get to the assassination, but which might actually play into the assassination. For one thing, Kennedy himself was behind several political or attempted assassinations. Just a matter of weeks before he was assassinated in Dealey Plaza there in Dallas, Texas, the Americans had put support behind the assassination of the leader of South Vietnam who had become politically problematic for the fight for democracy, at least in the view of many military leaders. Whether Kennedy gave explicit authorization, let's just say there was a policy that allowed for that action.
Furthermore, long before that, earlier in the Kennedy administration, there had been explicit efforts to try to assassinate Fidel Castro, the communist dictator who had led the revolution in Cuba. Of course, early in the Kennedy administration came what is known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, an attempted invasion of Cuba undertaken under the cover of a Cuban insurgency, but it was the American military that was behind it, providing training, it turned out to be woefully inadequate training, providing arms. It was a fig leaf of diplomatic cover, and no one around the world believed it.
Furthermore, Kennedy and the American government were involved at that time in insurgencies all over the world. That is largely explained by the reality of the Cold War and the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were locked into this battle: American understanding of constitutional democracy over against the Soviet leadership and world communism. Both were attempting to dominate the world, one for democratic self-government, the other for a communist and Marxist revolution. It was a battle, a titanic battle of worldviews. We're in one now, but it's important to understand that shaped the reality in the period of the Kennedy administration in such a way that virtually every single American understood it and understood it quite clearly.
Sexual Promiscuity, the Mob, Cold War, and Conspiracy Theories: The Complicated Entanglements of JFK
We now know a good deal more about John F. Kennedy in terms of his personal life. We know, for example, that his health was extremely frail. We know that he was taking an incredible number of drugs. He was taking dosage levels of drugs that no responsible physician would either apply or apply at those levels now. We know that he was drugged up at least much of the time, especially when it came to pain relievers for what he suffered in terms of chronic back pain, chronic back pain that could have been debilitating for just about anyone. But John F. Kennedy pressed through, but he pressed through with the help of the drugs.
We also know that he was deeply involved in pervasive sexual immorality. We now know that had gone back to his teenage years. We also know that his father knew, but his father had conducted famous affairs, including with the actress, Gloria Swanson, notorious at the time because it was known at the time by so many in Hollywood. Yet, Joseph P. Kennedy presented himself as the patriarch of a great Catholic family. John F. Kennedy followed in his father's example.
During the Second World War, he was actively involved in a romantic affair with Inga Arvad. Inga Arvad was a Danish journalist and a beautiful celebrity. She was also suspected of being a Nazi spy. This became quite an issue, by the way, because at that time, John F. Kennedy was a naval officer. His father had been the United States ambassador to Great Britain. And now the American intelligence agencies are convinced that this young man Kennedy is having an affair with a woman who is suspected of being a Nazi spy and had, at numerous points, interviewed, and at least in journalism, celebrated Adolf Hitler. That should point, if nothing else, to both immorality and a grotesque lack of judgment.
John F. Kennedy was living then and he continued to live in the White House as a man without boundaries and without moral controls. We now know that during the time John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, he was involved in several adulterous affairs, one of them linking him to the Hollywood actress, Marilyn Monroe, very salacious, another actually tying him to a mob boss, because it turns out that John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, was sharing a mistress with the head of a Mafia family. Now, if all this seems unreal, I would invite you to check out the documentation for yourself. It is now very well attested in the authoritative biographies of John F. Kennedy. Frankly, it is out there for everyone to see.
So Who Killed the President and How Can We Be Sure? The Christian Impetus to Seek Truth, Even in the Midst of Uncertainty
By the time the assassination took place on November the 22nd of 1963, one of the most common questions in response to the horrifying assassination of the president of the United States was, "Who did it?" because there were many people who might've had an incredible motive for removing this president of the United States. That included the Russians. It included the Cubans. It included others around the world, including friends of the former leader of South Vietnam. It included persons in Central America. It included organized crime. It included a large number of persons who were offended at some of the affairs that President Kennedy had undertaken.
But going back to 60 years ago today, November the 22nd, 1963, John F. Kennedy was already setting his sights on re-election in the 1964 presidential campaign, and he was losing support in the South. Now, President Kennedy really always suffered from a lack of support in the South. That's why he had made Lyndon Johnson a United States senator, a Democrat from the state of Texas, and then majority leader of the United States Senate, had made Lyndon Johnson his vice president. That was to carry the state of Texas, which, by the way, in 1960, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket did only narrowly.
Furthermore, there were many people, including Democrats in the state of Texas, who were very angry with the President of the United States, Ralph Yarborough, by the way, United States senator at the time from Texas. Well, it was considered advantageous. It was the argument of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan if ever there was a Texan, that the Kennedys should go to Texas. It was to be a bridge-building presidential visit. It included visits to several major Texas cities.
On November the 21st, it had been an appearance in Fort Worth. On the 22nd, it was an appearance in Dallas. Now, as you know, those two cities are very close. Nonetheless, the presidential plane had flown the president and the first lady, Air Force One, ceremoniously from Fort Worth to Dallas. As you know, they now share a common major airport known as DFW, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, between the two major cities. But it was two metropolitan airports that were then operative.
You had all the ceremony of the president of the United States, who had just been in Fort Worth, flying ceremoniously into Dallas, Texas, on November the 22nd, 1963, greeted by local dignitaries; his wife, elegant and dressed for the occasion. The president and the first lady accompanied by the vice president and Lady Bird Johnson, the vice president's wife, and also accompanied by Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie. Connally was, at that time, also a Democrat and considered a likely contender for the Democratic presidential nomination at some point in the future. So the three men were on the same team, and yet, the three men were also political rivals.
The presidential motorcade was to make its way through Dallas, and it was very much to make a presidential appearance. The presidential limousine, at that time, a Lincoln Continental, had a removable roof. The president and the first lady, along with the governor and his wife, they were riding in the open through a very historic part of Dallas, known as Dealey Plaza. One of the buildings they would cross would be the Texas School Book Depository. As history records, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin, had hidden himself away in the Texas School Book Depository. Using a high-powered rifle, he shot at and assassinated the president of the United States and also seriously wounded the governor of Texas.
All of a sudden, American history was changed. In another sense, the history of the world was changed. We now know, as a matter of fact, that the Soviets were shocked by the assassination. That doesn't mean, by the way, they had nothing to do with it. But it does mean that it came as a shocking event, and it now appears, given the records of the time, that the Soviets were also perplexed as to how this had happened and what it meant. Once this was understood as the assassination of the president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, there was immediate speculation by law enforcement and others in the national security apparatus in the United States: Was this undertaken by a foreign power? Was this a massive conspiracy? Did it involve agents within the government itself?
One of the things that became very evident in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination is that there were already rival intelligence agencies and investigative agencies, law enforcement agencies in the federal government. Not only were they often uncooperative and uncommunicative with each other, frankly, they often distrusted one another. When the announcement of the president's death by assassination came, there were many in Washington and elsewhere who thought this must mean some kind of massive, revolutionary conspiracy. This must be an attempt basically to kill the government of the United States of America. That appears to have been very much on the mind of the man who went to Texas as vice president and flew back to Washington as president of the United States. That would be Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Upon the death of President Kennedy, according to the Constitution, Lyndon Johnson became president of the United States. He came to understand that as he was waiting to hear news inside Parkland Memorial Hospital there in Dallas. The new president's determination was to get back to Washington as soon as possible in order to establish the continuity of the American government. But first, they had to wait for the body of the slain president to be brought upon Air Force One. Thus, began a series of events that Americans living at the time could never forget: the assassination of the president of the United States, the serious wounding of the governor of Texas, a new president of the United States and a new first lady, a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy going back to Washington with the body of her dead husband, the president of the United States slain just hours before.
Then police would announce that they'd made an arrest. The arrest was of Lee Harvey Oswald. Then the story just got more contorted because Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't a man of the right, as many had suspected. Indeed, he was a man of the left. He had actually immigrated to the Soviet Union and then come back to the United States with a Russian wife. He had plotted, it turns out, the assassination of military leaders, political leaders, eventually the president of the United States. The big question was, of course, did Lee Harvey Oswald act on behalf of someone else? It seemed impossible that this loner, also described as a loser, could have successfully pulled off something like the assassination of an American president.
Almost immediately, there was fear that this was a widespread conspiracy. The question was, where else is this conspiracy going? How deep does this conspiracy go? Where can it be traced? The president of the United States believed it, most people hearing the news basically intuited it, and there were those in law enforcement who were quite sure of it as well. Lee Harvey Oswald was undoubtedly in the Texas School Book Depository. He undoubtedly did fire some of the shots. Was he alone? Was he working on behalf of others? One of the reasons we don't know is that Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered two days later by Jack Ruby, a local restaurateur, shady businessman who had himself been associated with organized crime in Dallas. The mystery just got thicker. The questions just got deeper.
In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination changes were made, of course, in the protection offered by the Secret Service. No more presidents traveling in open limousines, no more exposure as had been so evident on the last day of President Kennedy's life. But there were also big questions to be answered, and the American government responded with what was known as the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of the President. Earl Warren was, at the time, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. It brought a report saying that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and that there was no conspiracy to kill the President, rather that Oswald had acted alone.
At the time, it was noteworthy that there were millions upon millions of Americans who did not believe the story. I was four years old when the president was assassinated. The main thing I remember from age four is the scream that came out of my mother when the news came out of the radio. I really didn't understand it, of course. My mother and father were certainly not Kennedy supporters, but the assassination of an incumbent president of the United States seemed unthinkable. America moved forward, but the questions remained. What we now know is that the conspiracy theories may not be true, but the official story wasn't true either.
I want to be very honest. From a Christian worldview perspective, we should not jump to conclusions. We should not embrace conspiracies. We should nonetheless look at the evidence and weigh it as carefully as possible. I want to state very precisely and very carefully the bottom line in all of this. We do not know if there was any conspiracy to assassinate the president of the United States. We do know that the official story was not true, or at least that it included massive untruths. Some of them were known to be untrue at the time. That leads to questions upon questions, rings upon rings, because there are huge questions. Like, was the cover story that was offered by the United States and its government, was that necessary for national security? In other words, was it at least in part untrue and other parts true in order to come up with a plausible account that would be less costly in terms of national security and the national interest? We don't know.
You know from a Christian worldview perspective that reality is one of the most difficult realities we can face. The honest reality, that there are huge looming questions here, and we simply don't know the answers. Even more frustrating, we may never know the answers. It was actually believed by many, and that includes many in my generation, that eventually evidence would be released that would connect to the dots. Some of that evidence has been released. Some of the dots have been connected. In the assassination of a president of the United States, it's the unconnected dots that continue to haunt the American mind.
It's also important for us to recognize that the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a part of the maelstrom of the politics and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. By the time you get to the end of the 1960s, the Democratic Party would be far to the left where that party had been when John Kennedy was elected president. Frankly, members of his own family involved in politics would be far to the left where President Kennedy had been in terms of policy.
We also, over the course of time, have come to know a lot more about the private life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and that is a very ugly story. At the very least, there was a vast conspiracy to hide the reality of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his life, his moral life, his marriage, to hide all of this and all of that reality from the American public. There certainly was that conspiracy. Was there a further conspiracy, and was the president of the United States the victim of a conspiracy that led to his assassination? Frankly, there isn't enough evidence, I believe, to state that answer categorically either way. I will just speak of my own frustration. That's a frustration that at this point is simply shared by the entire nation.
One final thought in terms of worldview significance, a lot of what we've talked about today is now very well known, very well attested, completely documented, but it was unknown to the American people for decades. In those specifics and in the larger question, even the question of conspiracy, we might not know the truth now, but Christians must pursue the truth and must pursue it with the confidence that, eventually over time, the truth will be at least more adequately revealed. It may take time to get there, but we have to pursue the truth in the hope and in the determination of getting there.
It just seemed on this day, which marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of the 35th president of the United States, that we should pause for this one day to think about that event and what it means.
A Day of Joy and Thanksgiving to God: Celebrating Thanksgiving Christianly
But I also want to acknowledge that tomorrow in the United States is Thanksgiving Day. I want to say to listeners of The Briefing, my hope and prayer, my encouragement to you is that this day be marked by genuine thanksgiving, not just thanksgiving for being thankful, but thanksgiving to God, and I pray that the grace of this holiday will appear in your family, in your celebration, and in this Thanksgiving Day.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler.
For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.