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Memory or History?

A day or so ago, while watching Norah O’Donnell interview Bob Schieffer about the assassination of President Kennedy fifty years ago, it dawned on me that she isn’t old enough to remember the event herself. (I checked: she was born in 1974.)  And that got me thinking about how for everyone under, say, 55 years of age, that moment is a matter of history and not of personal experience. People older than that will be able to say where they were when they heard the news, and how they learned of it, and what it was like to live through it and the events that followed immediately. 

I was a seminarian at the North American College, just three weeks away from ordination to the priesthood. We had just finished dinner and were in chapel for some brief prayer, when the Vice-rector came out into the sanctuary and told us that the President had been shot. By the time that we had walked down to the recreation-rooms, the word had arrived that he was dead.

I had played touch football that afternoon and been injured–two bones in my left hand were broken when I was blocked to the ground.  I spent the night in our infirmary where there was a radio to listen to.  The next day when I had to go into Rome to get my hand x-rayed, several Romans came up to me to express their grief and sympathy for me as an American. Kennedy had visited Rome–and the College–only four months before. (Here’s a video clip.I remember being impressed by all the security around JFK...) The Romans would have remembered that visit, and in any case they loved the first Catholic president.

So we elders can remember the awful day very well, and already the programs anticipating the fiftieth anniversary are bringing back memories. But I wonder how the younger people on this blog–the ones who can’t remember it–came to know about it, and what their own take on the anniversary events and programs will be.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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I always knew frm the time i was very little that everybody always remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Kenendy's assassination. That really struck me- that everyone had such vivid memories of the moment they found out, so I knew it must have really shook the country.  I don' t think there was another event with that kind of impact until  9/11, then I understood.

Not too long ago, I asked my Mom who is 80 if she still remembered what she was doing when she heard; without hesitation she said she was giving my brother, who was a baby, a bottle in the living room.  Then a few years later, when Robert was killed, she said she was giving another sibling a bottle in the living room in the same spot when she heard that news.


Was there a change in the general culture of the country after the assassination?  After 9/11, it seemed like we all pretty quickly and immedately- as a people-  were willing to give up some civil liberties in the name of nationlal security.


Did our country change after the Kennedy assassination?

Rev. Mr., I mean, Fr. Komonchak, are you shown in the film? The assassination has always just been history for me. It wasn't like Watergate or Roe v. Wade or something else that was going on while I was alive and aware. (I was alive but not news-aware for RFK's assassination.) The uniqueness of the event, for me, is the tremendous amount of energy invested in conspiracy theories. I don't know of anything else that has elicited that particular response for so many people.

I was born in 1961, so I was alive but was too young to be aware that it had happened.  I didn't become aware until several years later.  Even Bobby Kennedy's assassination barely registered.  Without meaning any disrespect to those who do remember President Kennedy's assassination and for whom it was a life-altering or at least momentous occasion,the 50th anniversary doesn't spark much interest for me.  I couldn't point to a particular thing that changed as a result.  I guess the lesson for our enemies is, if you're going to attack the US, be a nuclear power first.  

I don't want to sidetrack an important conversation into a debate about the Bologna School, but just to raise the point, I wonder if the event-character of Vatican II was heightened by the event-character of the Kennedy assassination. I was working with some teenagers a couple of years ago--they would be in their late high school/ early college years now--and I was trying to talk with them about those kind of things that happen that change your perspective forever. They had no reference for that. Imagine being 5 or 6 (or younger) on 9/11, and not really having any idea about it. This is after the Berlin wall came and went, long after the Space Shuttle Challenger. A rather sheltered generation!

I was in the sixth grade when Kennedy was assassinated (Jim P., I'm WAY older than you!). I was mostly aware of the disruption to our family and the neighborhood. I think it was the only time Dad came home from work early. School was canceled, and neighbors were in and out a lot. Neighbors were bringing each other food a lot or eating at our kitchen table or over at someone else's house. It was a lot like having a death in the family. 

The conspiracy theories that seem silly now didn't seem so outlandish then; the shooting happened out of the blue in the midst of the Cold War, after the brinksmanship of the Cuban missle crisis, during deep divisions in the nation over civil rights. It's really no wonder that people then felt that it was naive to believe that the assassination could be the random act of a lone nutcase. (Most of our neighbors were working class Catholic Democrats, but I don't remember that anyone floated the idea that the assassination was religiously motivated; I think Kennedy's religion had ceased to be an issue, plus Pope John was so well liked that Catholicism had ceased to be a bugaboo among many Protestants.)

I think the LBJ juggernaut of sweeping social programs, civil rights legislation, and escalation of the war in Vietnam (and the demonstrations and riots) changed the nation much more than the Kennedy assassination itself--but to the extent that Kennedy's death put Johnson in power, I guess the assassination was the catalyst for it all. 

I also think the Camelot mythmaking (it kicked into high gear pretty much the day of the assassination) put Johnson's mistakes into high relief with Democrats. The general idea was that Kennedy was a martyr (though to what cause or idea was rather nebulous and mutable) who would never have made the mistakes Johnson did. For a long time, people wanted to think that things would have been better had Kennedy lived. 

I feel somewhat weary of the 50th anniversary specials, and I haven't watched any of them. I'm not sure why it's important that we mark this anniversary or what we're supposed to learn from it.

Jean, I must be even older than you, because I was a junior in high school and was, fittingly, in American History class when we heard the news.

I have twin grandsons in the fifth grade, and asked them recently if they have been assigned to interview their older relatives about JFK's assassination; they haven't.  Ancient (and irrelevant) history, no doubt.  

I was also in 6th grade (and therefore am also much older than Jim P. ;)), but I was home sick that day from school. My Mom, a nurse who had worked the night before, was sleeping when Walter Cronkite came on our black-and-white TV to announce that the President had been shot in Dallas. About a half hour later he stated that the President was dead. There are only one or two other things in my childhood that remain more vivid than the events of that day. I recall an overwhelming feeling that I needed to talk to someone about what had transpired, and I woke my mother even though I knew she had a long shift ahead of her that night. Both of my parents were Kennedy supporters, and my Dad had taken some of the older of the ten kids (I'm the eldest) to see Kennedy during a campaign stop in our area during the 1960 election. Oswald's unexpected murder by Jack Ruby a few days later was shown live on TV, and that added to the conspiracy theories that even by then we're circulating. 

Time magazine's cover story this week is titled "The Moment That Changed America": "The victim was one of the most powerful, glamorous, wealthy, charismatic individuals on the planet. This whiplash convergence of extremes--so sudden, so horrific, such enormity--makes the assassination of John F. Kennedy an almost uniquely deranging event. In a matter of seconds the mighty are rendered helpless; the beautiful is made hideous; tranquility is made turbulent; the familiar becomes alien." Time also notes  that the barrage of conspiracy theories that followed the presidential assassination, some of which continue to be debated these five decades later, has resulted in a "legacy of that shocking instant" that "is a troubling habit of the modern American mind: suspicion is a reflex now, trust a figment." 

I'm not sure I fully agree with Time's historical conclusions about the JFK assassination. Much of the JFK aura, and the Kennedy family mythology in general, dissipated over the intervening decades, but the murders of RFK and Martin Luther King a few short years later almost certainly contributed to the conspiracy mentality that was a significant part of American society in the 1960's. 

I think that the Boomers began as a more rebellious group than most, but I also think that the murders of their idols -- Pres. Kennedy, his brother Robet, and Martin Luther King --  confirmed them in their cynicsm about the "over 3o's".  Add to those murders the massacre of the young people at Kent State and it's no wonder their attitudes toward "the city on the hill" has not been the same as many of their ancestors.  So, yes, the sum of all those tragedies is a changed U. S., a non-optimistic one.

I was in the 7th grade in Catholic school at that time.  An eighth grader came to our classroom and announced that "President Kennedy has been shot!  Everyone has to come into the church right now so we can pray for him!"  I think everybody in the room gasped, and Sister and some of the girls started crying.  We all filed into the church (which was attached to the eight-room grade school building and was itself just a simple one-floor building) and the principal, an Adrian Dominican Sister, began leading us in the rosary.  About three decades into the prayer, the pastor of the parish burst into the church, strutted up the main aisle, waved his hands and shouted, "Never mind!  Never mind!  He's dead!  He's dead!"

We abruptly stopped saying the rosary.  I didn't clearly think it through at the time, but as time went by and I realized I had a strong resistance (for the rest of my life, including to this day) to praying the rosary, I came to understand that, on that unforgettable day, I learned that the Blessed Mother could not save the life of the President of the United States.  A CATHOLIC president!  It was a lesson that was "heart learned," rather than "head learned."

I was a "paper boy" for the Detroit News, and being a Friday, it was "collection day."  I had about 40 customers on my route; about one-third of them did not have the TV or radio on that afternoon, so when I knocked on the door to collect for the paper, I could tell by the look on their faces if they knew "the news."  (The photo on the front page of the paper that day was Jackie Kennedy holding a bouquet of roses given to her when she and the president arrive at Love Field in Dallas.)  If the customer (mostly women) was cheerful, I quickly broke the news of President Kennedy's death to them.  It was the longest collection day I ever had, as I served as a grief counselor to my neighbors and friends.

I was teaching at P.S. 32 in the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, not far from Fordham's campus, and remember the upset  among the children that day. The news that the President had been shot spread through the school in a very few minutes. And when we learned he was dead, young and old were in shock.  Obviously we didn't say the rosary, but  we did have an assembly at which the children sang the Navy Hymn in his honor. 

The day was also memorable for us Gannons because I had a medical appointment that afternoon and would learn that I was expecting our daughter. The next few days were strange, as we were so happy and yet caught up in the mourning that seemed so universal.

I remember being in the second grade in my classroom at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Staten Island, when it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot and we should pray for him in our classrooms.  I remember following the TV coverage about the event.  I have a memory of watching Oswald being shot, but I presume it was on the evening news, not live like I remember.

I had graduated from college the previous year, and been married about six weeks. I was home for the day (a Friday) because Nov. 22 is the national holiday in Lebanon, and I worked at the Lebanese delegation to the UN. We were set for a big reception at the UN that evening to celebrate the founding of the modern state in 1922, if memory serves. Naturally, the reception was cancelled, and the food donated to a charity.

The mood was very somber. Not having a TV, I went to a neighbor's apartment and we watched  the news all day and for the next few days. Incredibly sad, numbed, shocked, in mourning. That riderless horse and the drums left an indelible memory, as did Jackie and the children. Unforgettable experience.

LBJ came to address the General Assembly shortly thereafter to reassure the world the US would carry on. Sitting there listening to him, all felt grey. The Lebanese delegation was seated right in front of the podium; lots are drawn yearly for the position so Albania not always favored. I had seen JFK in the hallway some months prior and was surprised at how tall he was in person.

Our charge d'affaires had visited the LBJ ranch and wondered at the different personas of JFK and LBJ -  the urbane, sophisticated former president vs the big Texan with a drawl on the horizon.   

I will ask my children now in their mid-40's plus what impressions they have. Their enthusiastic response to Obama reminded me of my great excitement about Kennedy.

On November 22, 1963, I was a graduate student in Chemistry and a lab assistant in the Friday afternoon lab (not an easy task with college students in the all male university at that time). About 15 minutes before the class one of the students ran in and said: “The president has been shot.”  The professor overseeing the lab looked at me and said: “Sit down. Can I get you a cup of tea?”

Over the years I have wondered what he was going through the professor’s mind, since he was a Cuban exile.

The young man who gave us the news went on to write several books. I think I can get in touch with him via email this Friday to remind him of that day. I bet he remembers it.

On that afternoon, I had just received at the NCWC Foreign Visitors Office a South Vietnamese colonel who was visiting Washington.  I recall commiserating with him over the brutal assassination just three weeks earlier of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, both killed on All Souls Day with US complicity. I had met Diem some years before and admired what I knew of him.  After the colonel left, my secretary came in with tears in her eyes: They shot the President!  I listened to her radio for a minute, then got in my car and simply drove aimlessly for an hour, shaken and despondent.  Washington at that time was full of eager Kennedistas, several of whom were part of the post-Council Catholic sub-culture that seemed so vibrant then. One of the effects of the assassination was that I broke down my opposition to that worthless novelty, television, and bought our first set.  I stood in the crowds at St. Mathew's Cathedral as the cortege passed and can see in my mind today the unusually tall Charles deGaulle and Haile Selassie. Memorable indeed.

Tom:   Good to hear from you!

I seem to remember that Mrs. Diem--Madame Nhu--, convinced that President Kennedy had ordered the assassination of her husband and brother-in-law, after hearing of the assassination of Kennedy, remarked, "I hope he had a chance to go to confession before he died." 

On November 25th, the Council Fathers were told there would be a solemn Mass for Kennedy at St. John Lateran's to which they were all invited. Nothing similar had been done for the Diem brothers who had been assassinated on November 2nd.  To make up for this, Archbishop Pierre Ngo dinh Thuc celebrated a Month's Mind Mass for his murdered brothers at the beginning of the Council session on December 2nd. Madame Nhu was denied permission to attend the Mass. "In a woman," she commented, "the Church always sees Eve instead of Mary."

Fr. Komonchak,  Is there evidence that JFK ordered or allowed the assassination of the Diem brothers to take place?  I have never heard of denying anyone permission to attend Mass. 

I was a freshman in college when I came out of class and saw a group of students gathered around a car.  I approached them and asked what was going on.  A girl replied "The president's been shot, but he is okay.  He is up walking around."  I walked nine blocks home and put on the TV.  It was obvious after a few moments that everything was not okay.  In about ten minutes Walter Cronkite made his announcement.  Our housekeeper and I cried softly.  My mother did not cry.  She never cried when people died unless they were close friends or relatives. 

Verity:    I do not know what the latest historical judgments are about Kennedy's approval of the assassination of the Diem brothers, but certainly at the time it was believed that it could not have taken place without the approval of the U.S.A.  And Madame Nhu certainly was convinced of it.

Thanks, Kathy.  Beauty, sometimes somber, will indeed save the world.

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