Political Assassinations: John F. Kennedy
Friday, November 22, 1963, became a date forever enshrined in the hearts and minds of Americans old enough to recall what they were doing when they heard the news. Their bright young president, just 46 years old, had been shot and killed by an assassin while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas. His death and the death of his assassin just two days later changed the nation. The newspaper columnist Mary McGrory, a Kennedy confidante and admirer, lamented that “we’ll never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a United States senator, served as a Kennedy aide at the time. “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again,” he told her. “It’s just that we will never be young again.”
Kennedy, often affectionately known by his initials, was the rare public figure whose death transformed him into something he had never been in life: A cultural hero. During his life, he had been an icon to young people, but he also had been an elected official, which meant that he amassed his share of political enemies. William Manchester, an early historian of the assassination, wrote that “Martyrdom had transformed John Kennedy so swiftly that even those closest to him found adjustment difficult. Friday morning he had been a popular but controversial young President.” Within days, his status changed. “Death had swept away both affection and enmity; they had been replaced by idolatry.”
As dramatic and gut-wrenching as the original shooting appeared, the circumstances grew even more traumatic and suspicious during the days that followed. The subsequent arrest and murder of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, prolonged the angst and presented a never-to-be-forgotten drama. The subsequent search for answers and the rise of multiple conspiracy theories has ensured that the event will be enshrined on the American psyche for decades to come.
Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, discusses the JFK assassination. Although the mystery of the event will never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, evidence suggests that the president’s killing was far more prosaic than conspiracy theorists believe. When his life is examined closely, Oswald appears to be a classic lone wolf gunman. He was a strange figure hovering around the fringes of organized groups. Perhaps he met with anti-Kennedy figures when he was in New Orleans, Dallas, or Mexico City. His movements and associations were always a bit murky. He may even have resented the Kennedy administration’s harsh policies toward Cuba and Fidel Castro. Nonetheless, no credible evidence exists to show his participation in an organized conspiracy.
The overriding concern in Oswald’s life—far outranking his Marxist ideology—was his family. He expressed genuine love for his wife and children even if he frequently acted abusive and moody. Counterfactual scenarios are always tricky, but a dispassionate observer can be forgiven for asking the “what if” question. What if his estranged wife, Marina, had reconciled with her husband on the evening of November 21, 1963, as he had hoped? He probably would not have headed into Dallas that day to alter the course of American history. If Lee Oswald somehow could have overcome his personality deficiencies and lived a typical middle class American life, as he sometimes told Marina he wanted, perhaps he would have been content to buy a small house on a tiny tract of land, buy his wife the washing machine she desired, and reveled in the growth and development of his young children.
History is filled with “what if” questions, but they can never be answered. Instead, historians are left with facts, some of which are unknown and unknowable, about the patterns in people’s lives. Lee’s pattern of destructive behavior was tied to his personal circumstances. When he felt emasculated or powerless, he acted out his frustration by blaming others. With his personal life out of control and feeling unable to arrest its decline, Lee Oswald acted out by attacking a public figure in a desperate quest to gain acceptance, recognition, and status.
He was a Type 2 actor. He was not a fierce ideologue, as a Type 1 killer is, despite his insistence that he was a pro-Cuba Marxist. His political leanings were always a bit confused and confusing. His desire to kill Kennedy was not because he detested the president’s politics. He needed to kill a famous man, and John Kennedy was one of the most famous men on the planet in 1963.
He was not a Type 3 actor, who is a nihilistic that believes nothing matters. The Type 3 actor has become exhausted with the world and sees little practical distinction between life and death. It matters not whether he kills his target, for the Type 3 assailant has lost his capacity to feel much of anything. Lee Oswald’s case was exactly the opposite. He lashed out violently not because he felt too little. He felt too much. Frustrated and angry that his sad, pathetic life was stuck in a rut, he resolved to change his circumstances by arming against a sea of troubles. He would show the Cubans that he was a genuine revolutionary. He would show his co-workers that he was special. He would show Marina that he was a man. The way to accomplish these objectives was to show them what he could do with a rifle. Gun violence was his prescription for demonstrating how much of an impact he could have on the world.
Oswald was not a Type 4 personality; he did not suffer from hallucinations or altered states of reality. He did not hear voices directing him to kill the president. Rational and balanced, but neurotic and emotionally needy, he used a gun to show others what he could do. He was a little man who sought to be a big man. He could not find the wherewithal to succeed in the normal avenues of human achievement, so he looked elsewhere. He was as far removed from John F. Kennedy as a man could be. Kennedy was handsome, charismatic, rich, famous, and powerful. Lee Harvey Oswald was none of those things. If he could take John Kennedy’s life, however, he would earn his own measure of fame and prove to the world that he was somebody.
An objection might be raised that Oswald fled the scene and subsequently denied his involvement in the shootings of Kennedy and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit. “I didn't shoot anybody,” he told the police and press. If he were so desperate for attention, why would he flatly deny his involvement when pressed to explain his actions?
Understanding human psychology is never a linear process, but Oswald must have recognized that he could not evade capture for long. He had left virtually all of his money with his wife on the morning of the shooting. He had not established a safe house, a reliable means of transportation to effect escape, or a destination outside of Dallas where he could hide. Despite the supposed conspiracy supporting his efforts, Oswald was all alone in dealing with the aftermath of the assassination. Fleeing the building within minutes of the shooting, he surely understood that his absence would be noticed quickly. Everything he did suggested that while Oswald sought a temporary reprieve from police custody, he had not planned to hide his identity indefinitely. “Everybody will know who I am now,” he reputedly told a police officer when he was apprehended. Indeed, they did.