JOHN F. KENNEDY: Memories of an assassination

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Thursday, November 30th, 2017


The memories come flooding back, all the way from fifty four years ago. A young leader is shot on a happy ride through happier crowds, his beautiful wife cradles his bloodied head in her lap as the limousine carrying them rushes to hospital, men and women on the sidewalks suddenly in tears after the cheering of only seconds and minutes earlier. Camelot was no more. The young, handsome President of the United States was dead. It was the end of a world.


When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, I was in class three, playing football with my classmates on the school playground in Quetta, Baluchistan. Midway through our game, the bell sounded in what appeared to be quite a mystifying manner. Students from all classes were asked to assemble on the large space before the principal’s office, where Father Joshua Sterk, the principal, let us know there would be no more classes that day. We could all go home early as something dreadful had happened. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, had been murdered in Dallas. We had no idea where Dallas was, but we did imagine it was far away.


That was the first time I knew that America had a President named Kennedy. It was also the very first occasion when the word ‘assassination’ made its way into my lexicon. When Father Joshua told us the President had been assassinated — he used that word — all of us, and we were children well below ten years in age, cried hooray. We thought something good had happened. The principal swiftly silenced us, to explain that it was a sad thing that had happened, that JFK had been killed. We felt properly ashamed for our display of callous behaviour.


For me, the subsequent few days were given over to a discovery of JFK, of his family and presidency and his murder. My father used to keep Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper, which used to reach our hands a full day after its publication in Karachi. Newspapers in those days were transported from Karachi to Quetta by Bolan Mail, which reached Quetta at eleven in the morning. By the time the newspapers were distributed across the city, it was generally three in the afternoon. On 22 November, my father too came home early from work and told my mother about the tragedy in Dallas. He had heard about the tragedy on the radio at his office. We had no radio at home at the time. He then gave me what amounted to a crash course on President Kennedy.


The next day, 23 November, when our copy of Dawn arrived, it was the banner headline on the front page, ‘Kennedy assassinated’, with the President’s picture, that stared at me. It was a cold November day and I spread the newspaper out on our concrete courtyard in the sun and read every word about the assassination in Dallas. Over the next few days, it was a collage of images — a member of JFK’s security detail climbing on to the presidential car, with a distraught Jacqueline Kennedy appearing to be holding out her hand to him; Vice President Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as Kennedy’s successor aboard Air Force One, with his wife Lady Bird and a sad Jackie, her clothes stained with her husband’s blood, beside him; the Kennedys’ two children Caroline and John-John with their mother beside the casket containing their father’s body and John-John innocently saluting the dead president; world leaders — Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, Anastas Mikoyan, King Baudouin, Ludwig Erhard and others — walking in the funeral procession; and Jackie Kennedy lighting the Eternal Flame on the grave of the murdered president at Arlington national cemetery — that shaped my thoughts.


I was too young to be taking interest in that dark moment in history, but I did. And I guess that was the moment, the assassination of President Kennedy, that set me off on a study of American political history, a subject which has fascinated me ever since. In these fifty four years which have gone by since that macabre act in Dallas, I have not missed reading any article or book that has appeared on JFK. If in the beginning it was the story of a young, handsome President cut down in the prime of life that I read in its various forms, it was subsequently all the sordid details about Kennedy’s sexual peccadilloes that I diligently went through. In my teens and early youth, JFK was a personification of all the good and all the beauty the American presidency could symbolise. In my thirties and through my forties, the realisation dawned, at first incrementally and then in swiftness, that his leadership had its major flaws, that while he was young and handsome, he was not intellectually oriented in the same measure. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster for him in 1961; the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 caught him unawares; his administration was always bent on putting the life out of Fidel Castro; and on his watch and with his knowledge South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed in a coup in Saigon twenty one days before the shots rang out in Dallas.


And yet President Kennedy has for me always been a figure deserving detailed study. His sense of humour had the spring breeze rush through the White House. He and his wife were the first presidential couple to turn the White House into a regular arena for writers, poets, musicians and aesthetes to come together. His press conferences were lively instances of a President in touch with his people. On Kennedy’s watch, the first moves toward civil rights for his country’s African-Americans were made. The man was admired by De Gaulle, was loved by Berliners — ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ — and trusted by Martin Luther King Jr. At the Vienna summit in 1961, he was nervous before the rampaging Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union, an experience he was to learn lessons from. In his time, talk of a nuclear test ban treaty was the earliest hint of the difficulties that lay ahead in the Cold War climate of the times.


In 1965, a documentary on the JFK presidency, ‘Years of Lightning, Day of Drums’, was shown to us in school. In early 1993, days before he was sworn in as America’s new President, Bill Clinton knelt and prayed at Kennedy’s grave, for JFK had always been his hero.


In June 1999, I stood before JFK’s grave in Arlington as a soft summer breeze passed through the place, whistling through the trees as it did so. I watched the Eternal Flame Jackie Kennedy had lit decades earlier burn as it had burned for years, and I observed Jackie’s grave beside the President’s. Those old images from Dawn, of November 1963, flashed through the mind. I recalled the presence there of all those global leaders, almost all of whom had gone to their graves by then, on the day President Kennedy was buried even as a cold wind blew through Washington DC.


On a cold, windswept day in February 2000, I stood at President Kennedy’s grave one more time. It had been a difficult climb up the hill, in that ferocious weather, to the place. But I could not resist the impulse, that strong urge, to stand beside that grave once more. I knelt and prayed.


The Eternal Flame burned on, as it had burned since the day Jacqueline Kennedy ignited it in a cold November hundreds of moons earlier.


(John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963)

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