Back Channel The Kennedy Years
Inside the John F. Kennedy White House

The Assassination of the 35th President

This is a preview to the chapter The Assassination of the 35th President from the book Back Channel The Kennedy Years by William Bertram MacFarland.
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My Response to the News – 1:45 p.m.


I’ve been dreading to get to this part of my narrative, but there is no way around it. The world lost a great leader, our nation lost its last chance of avoiding involvement in a grotesque war in Vietnam and all Americans lost a true visionary who inspired the country and united everyone around him. I lost my best friend. His death was the end of Camelot. All of this happened because of one man’s insatiable greed and lust for power.

It is astonishing to think that some fifty years after the event, there is still no (public) certitude as to who or what organization was responsible for the assassination. Someone – or some organization – has literally gotten away with murder. How is it possible that the President of the United States can be murdered in broad daylight, in full view of the public, and fifty years later the culprit is still unnamed? All sorts of conspiracy theorists have spent (and in many cases are still spending) countless hours investigating all sorts of trivia. How many shots were fired? From what angles? Was there a shooter on “the grassy knoll’? It goes on and on but the reality is that the answers to those questions make no real difference. The immutable fact is that a man who was arguably the most powerful man in the world and certainly one of the most popular was gunned down in full public view in the middle of a large American city and fifty years later, there is no indisputable proof of either who did it or why they did so.

On November 22, 1963 I was sitting in my office in the West Wing working on the troop withdrawal plan for South Vietnam when around 1:45 p.m. I heard somebody running down the corridor yelling, “Everybody drop what you’re doing and get to the Staff Dining Room!” There was an unmistakable note of panic in the voice and although I didn’t want to interrupt my train of thought on the mathematics of the model construction, I was concerned and figured, “What the hell. My train of thought has already been interrupted.” I wrote down some details of the mathematical trail I had been following, put everything in the safe for classified materials, and went out into the corridor. There were an astonishing number of people jogging towards the staff dining room and a palpable sense of fear and panic in the air. I asked someone what was going on and he told me he wasn’t sure but he had heard someone say that the President had been shot. To this day I clearly remember the icy knot that instantly formed in my gut and when I stumbled but recovered, my ‘jogging companion’ glanced at me and told me I should stop for a minute and sit down and put my head between my legs because my face had lost all color and he thought I was going to faint. I assured him that I was OK and that fainting wasn’t what I had in mind.

When we got to the dining room somebody had shoved three or four tables against the far wall, put a chair on each table and a TV on the seat of each chair. We silently watched the unfolding events in Dallas with mounting horror and when it was finally announced that President Kennedy was dead, the room erupted with groans and cries of grief. Some people couldn’t move and stood frozen watching the broadcast. Stunned, I went back to my office and spent the next half hour trying to get through to Bobby on his personal line. It was swamped and I tried the private line of Angela Novello, his personal secretary with no more success. Finally, I quit trying and just sat back in my chair to think. It was just so hard to take in. How could President Kennedy be dead? It was incomprehensible, impossible – but deep down, I knew it had to be true and I was completely heartbroken. I wanted to go back to my apartment and try to assimilate things and that’s when the realization of how much everything was going to change began to hit me. Did I still have a car and driver? I picked up the phone and got the White House car pool folks on the line and asked them and was told that since my limo privileges had been established by Presidential order, they were going to stand until another Presidential order cancelled them. I asked for a car in fifteen minutes. It was easier to think about the small things rather than the global issues that would have to be faced. In the meantime, I had some work to do. Like it or not, Johnson was now President and I didn’t want his people rifling through my files and finding the several files filled with my handwritten notes on Johnson which I had so meticulously compiled.

Putting together My Insurance Policy

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