The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week seared an indelible imprint into the memory of every American living at that time. Similar to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941, and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers on 9/11 of 2001, Americans of every age can recall where they were and the combination of disbelief and horror they felt when they first heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot while on his motorcade in Dallas at approximately 1:30 EST. We knew instantly that something had changed in our lives, both individually and collectively, and that the world never would be the same again.
Kennedy was a well-known figure in Winthrop. As a young boy in the 1920s, he summered here with his family at his paternal grandfather’s home on Washington Avenue before his family went to Hull and then to Hyannis for their summer retreats. JFK also made many personal friends here from his days as a student at Harvard and during World War II, when he was convalescing from his wounds at the nearby Chelsea Naval Hospital after his boat, PT-109, had been sunk in the Pacific. He made many more friends in Winthrop when he campaigned for U.S. Senator in 1952 and 1958 and often made visits to Wnthrop in-between those campaigns. Kennedy’s local campaign committee consisted of hundreds of Winthrop residents who came to know him on a personal basis, among them former selectman and Town Counsel Peter Princi, whom Kennedy appointed to the position of Collector for the Port of Boston and later as a U.S. federal court magistrate when JFK was elected President.
Kennedy also was a personal and intimate friend of the late Andrew P. Quigley, our long-time former publisher of the Sun-Transcript, who was the State Senator from this district and Mayor of Chelsea in the 1950s when JFK was a U.S. Senator.
Quigley often told many stories of his interactions with JFK and the Kennedy family and in-laws. One of our favorites was his description of how, when Quigley was driving then-Senator Kennedy back to his Boston hotel after attending a political event in Chelsea, the lanky Kennedy would recline in the front passenger seat and put his feet up on the dashboard as they crossed over the Mystic River Bridge, just casually talking politics and about the other things that young men talk about (Kennedy at the time was in his mid-30s and Quigley in his late-20s).
Could either of them have envisioned then that less than a decade later, this youthful and buoyant Senator would become President of the United States and then be shot in a motorcade in Dallas with his wife by his side?
Such thoughts about JFK before he became President bring to mind the words from the poet Thomas Grey in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”:
Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
When we think of the cultural changes that took place in America in the 1960s, we think of President Kennedy as emblematic of those changes. But the reality is that the ’60s of our popular culture really did not take place until after his assassination. America on November 22, 1963, still was very much as it had been for the previous decade under the Eisenhower Presidency and the first years of JFK’s: We were at peace, we were prosperous, and the evolving rights of minorities, women, and gays still were very much under the national radar screen.
Still to come were the multitude of cultural changes that would shape our personal lives and America as we know it today. Moreover, the war in Vietnam in 1963 was only a clandestine operation with just a few thousand American advisers in the field on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.
So was it a coincidence that America, and indeed the world, changed so drastically in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination? Or would all of these things have happened regardless of whether JFK had not been shot? And if so, might the violence that accompanied so many of these changes have been averted if JFK still had been on the scene? Would Kennedy have escalated the war in Vietnam?
These and many other “what ifs” are questions that historians have been pondering in the decades since his death and will continue to do so. They are the big questions.
But for those of us who were around at the time of the Kennedy assassination, such issues were far from our minds in its immediate aftermath. Instead, we recall the shock, and then the sadness, that was felt universally by all of us as we watched our black and white TV sets and how we grieved for his young widow and their two small children. John F. Kennedy’s assassination made all of us realize the fragility of life and how everything we hold dear can change in an instant, both for ourselves and our loved ones, regardless of our station in life.
So as we think about the events of 50 years ago this week, let us remember that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy profoundly affected the future direction not only of America and the world, but also each one of us — and most especially, his own family.