Memories of a horrible November

As the nation commemorates Veterans Day and prepares for Thanksgiving, the anniversary of JFK's assassination also approaches, and with it a flood of personal, political, profound recollections.
Crosscut archive image.

President John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade

As the nation commemorates Veterans Day and prepares for Thanksgiving, the anniversary of JFK's assassination also approaches, and with it a flood of personal, political, profound recollections.

November is an historic month, marked by such events as Armistice (Veterans) Day, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, countless presidential-election anniversaries, and Thanksgiving. But it has been most remembered, at least over recent decades, because of the anniversaries of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

As a living survivor of 1960s national politics, I frequently hear from researchers and scholars seeking unanswered questions about that era. The questions most recurring are those about the JFK assassination. The same is true at university and school lectures where those in the audience had not yet been born in 1963.

Most of the questions, regrettably, seem fated to remain unanswered.

I have never believed in the "lone-gunman" theory about the assassination, which asserts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing JFK and wounding Texas Gov. John Connally. Neither, at the time, did President Lyndon Johnson, although the Warren Commission he appointed came to such a conclusion.

My own experience of that day will remain in my memory minute-by-minute.

As a former Pentagon intelligence analyst, I was delivering a lecture at the Defense Intelligence School to a group of career military officers from all branches of the service. Midway through my lecture, a Navy captain entered the room, moved me aside at the podium, and announced the following: "President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor Connally all have been shot and killed in Dallas. Stand by for further information." Dead silence.

After a few moments, not knowing what else to do, we resumed our session as if nothing had happened. I cut my lecture short and went to a discussion period. Then, from the back of the room, a loudspeaker announced: "This is a correction and update. President Kennedy is dead. Governor Connally has been wounded. Vice President Johnson is unharmed and has been sworn in as president." We then adjourned. The officers left the room in silence.

I walked, as if compelled, to Lafayette Park, across from the White House. I simply stood there and watched the mansion. After awhile I realized that daylight had turned to dark. Perhaps 1,000 people were standing silently in the park, just as I was. I caught a city bus to my home in northwest Washington. No one on the bus spoke. In fact, I had no recollection of anyone speaking at the intelligence school, in Lafayette Park, or otherwise from the moment of the official announcement.

The Warren Commission, to investigate and make a report on the assassination, was quickly organized. All involved, including the Kennedy family, seemed to want the whole matter quickly put to rest. Among other things, Oswald, a former Marine, at one time had defected to the Soviet Union, and there was concern that some would conclude the Soviets had engineered the killing. We were in a Cold War period and such a disclosure could have led to a nuclear World War III.

There were other concerns. Kennedy's father, former Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, had close ties to Chicago mob figures whose names arose during the Warren investigation. After JFK's 1960 election, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had launched active investigations of the same people. Jack Ruby, the Dallas bar owner who shot Oswald in the Dallas police station, was a known member of the Chicago outfit and thought, perhaps, to be acting under their orders.

Robert Kennedy had been coordinating a CIA/mob effort to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Was JFK's killing payback by Castro? Oswald had ties to a so-called Fair Play for Cuba Committee, nominally supportive of Castro. CIA officers and contract operatives had been bitter over JFK's abandonment of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Had they been involved in the killing?

There were a host of other unanswered questions: The CIA, during the period, was sending supposed "defectors" into the USSR to gather intelligence. Was Oswald one of them? Or was he, in fact, a genuine Soviet asset? As a Marine, he had been stationed at a highly classified facility that monitored CIA spy-plane flights over the Soviet Union. He was on duty at the time that Francis Gary Powers' U-2 was shot down over the USSR. Had he alerted the Soviets? Just before the JFK killing, Oswald had visited the Soviet embassy in Mexico City.

Before his own shooting Oswald had said he was "just a patsy" for the Kennedy killing. He never got a chance to say more before Ruby silenced him. Why had Dallas police allowed Ruby, a known felon, to be present in the jail with a pistol and so close to Oswald?

There also was a theory that the murder had been engineered by Vietnamese taking revenge for the JFK-sanctioned coup against (and eventual murder of) South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Johnson as vice president had been kept largely in the dark about the Kennedys' anti-Castro planning. When, as president, he learned of the Castro assassination efforts, he told White House staff that "we were running a damned Murder Inc. down in the Caribbean."

In 1968 the nation was shocked by the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. But neither threw us as far off balance as the JFK killing. It represented a loss of national innocence.

In ensuing years, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey's assistant and during involvement in several Democratic presidential campaigns, I read and heard many theories about the three assassinations — including those spun by government- and private-sector researchers who had devoted themselves to their investigation. I was convinced that the King killing was not undertaken solely by James Earl Ray but that he was merely the trigger man for conspirators, who might have included Memphis Police Department officials. On the other hand, I did conclude that Sirhan Sirhan acted alone in the murder of Robert Kennedy.

President Kennedy's murder remains an unsolved mystery — and is likely to remain so, since almost all players in the drama have passed away.

For whatever it is worth, my best guess is that a rogue CIA/mob group planned and engineered the assassination, setting up Oswald for blame. He was a part of it but, perhaps, only as "the patsy" he said he was. But my surmise could be entirely mistaken. Future historians, someday, some way, may eventually come to the truth.

But more likely not.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of