Today marks the 50th anniversary of a presidential procession through Dallas, shots ringing out and the death of John F. Kennedy that rocked a nation.
Kennedy was the youngest elected president in American history at 43 years old, but his presidency didn’t last three years. It was cut short by Lee Harvey Oswald shooting him with a rifle while his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, sat next to him in the car on the sunny day.
“The photos of the Kennedys arriving in Dallas, Jackie in the bright pink and navy blue Chanel suit, that’s iconic,” said history professor Lori Clune. “Many people have also seen parts of the murder that graphically and violently depict what happened. I think it sets it apart because you can see it – it’s accessible. It continues to have an impact in that way.”
Dr. Sudarshan Kapoor, professor emeritus at Fresno State, still remembers the effect of that day’s events. As a graduate student at Florida State at the time, he remembers one of the school’s deans sharing the news.
“I got the news while meeting with professors,” Kapoor said. “I was a graduate student and a teaching assistant, and one of the deans came and told us what had happened.”
For Kapoor, Kennedy was the first president in office as a new American citizen.
“It was a numbness that it happened in the United States,” Kapoor said. “They are still trying to figure out why it happened. I was hoping to meet him. He had a great way of dealing with people. As a young man, I was fond of him.”
Recently arrived from India, Kapoor said the shock of the news spread around the world.
“Kennedy was young and brilliant. He was very well respected in India,” Kapoor said. “He had such an admiration for India and Gandhi. When Kennedy appointed John Gilbreath as ambassador to India—to send a person of that caliber to be ambassador was indicative of respect.”
How quickly the news spread and affected people was influenced by television, Clune said.
The country watched as he was assassinated, and millions of people watched Walter Cronkite struggle to contain his emotions as he announced that the president was dead.
“There’s an immediacy there that I think presidents prior to TV don’t quite have,” Clune said. “When he’s assassinated, at such a young age, there is such a sense of the death of the hope and promise of his presidency.”
As a result of Kennedy’s death, Lyndon B. Johnson became president. The change in leadership had a dramatic effect on U.S. history, Clune said.
“There’s a sense among historians that perhaps – and that’s a big perhaps – Kennedy would’ve softened his tone in terms of the talks with the Soviet Union, especially if he was reelected in 1964,” Clune said. “There’s a sense that was a possibility.”
In contrast, Clune said Johnson had a much more hard-lined stance, believing that he could not allow Vietnam to become a communist nation. He believed that would show weakness to the world.
In the end, for many it is one of the greatest “what-if” scenarios in U.S. history: “What would Kennedy have done if he wasn’t assassinated?”
It’s a question with a thousand possible answers.
“It’s so hard, because we don’t get to see him get old,” Clune said. “It’s very hard to judge an administration. Even a four-year administration is challenging, let alone two-plus years. It’s very hard to judge that short period of time. Some historians say you need the full eight years to know of what a president is capable of.”