The Shot Felt ‘Round the World — Reactions to the JFK Assassination
On November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while traveling with his wife in a presidential motorcade. The reactions and repercussions of the assassination are flawlessly expressed in an interview of Ambassador Brandon H. Grove, Jr.:
“Much has been said about the shock and grief that followed not only in our country but all over the world. Kennedy was the post-war symbol of a revitalized America, a leader determined to move forward at home and abroad on the issues of his day.
His style, wit and elegance, his wife and children, captivated the media who made him larger than life and ignored his foibles….When he died, so, once again, did American innocence and a large piece of our native optimism….As individuals, we seem to have shorter time for being young.”
–Brandon H. Grove, Jr., Former Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo
Below, diplomats describe both their experiences with the assassination overseas and the reactions of the countries they were stationed it. William Bodde, Jr. was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1998; Lucian Heichler was interviewed by Susan Klingaman in February 2000; Fisher Howe was interviewed by Kennedy in February 1998; James D. Phillips was interviewed by Kennedy in May 1998; Wells Stabler was interviewed by Kennedy in February 1991.
Elden Erickson was interviewed by Kennedy in June 1992; Robert Theodore Curran was interviewed by Kennedy in November 1998; Caroline Sure Dillon was interviewed Ruth Kahn in October 1990; Thompson R. Buchanan was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in March 1996; Ralph E. Lindstrom was interviewed by Kennedy in October 1994; William M. Rountree was interviewed by Arthur L. Lowrie in December 1989; Lawrence P. Taylor was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 1998.
Go here to read about JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
Austria — William Bodde, Jr.
Jack Kennedy was assassinated while we were in Vienna and there was a tremendous outpouring of grief and sympathy….Austrians tend to be emotional, and the outpouring of sympathy was tremendous. Thousands of people came to the embassy to sign the condolence book….One of my most vivid memories of that time was the memorial mass for Kennedy held in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As protocol officer I was very involved. Austrian Cardinal Koenig officiated at the mass. The huge church was packed. I sat next to the Nobel Prize author John Steinbeck. He wept throughout the ceremony.
Germany — Lucian Heichler
Like most people I remember exactly where I was when we got the news of the assassination. The cultural affairs officer was giving a reception for returning Fulbright students, to which I was invited. And a few minutes after the reception began, we got the news on the radio that Kennedy had been shot. And very quickly thereafter came confirmation that he had been killed. Well, the reception broke up instantly, as did everything all over Berlin. It was amazing. Theaters closed. Movie houses closed. Restaurants closed. Bars closed. The city died.…
I went to the “bunker” – a situation room we had at headquarters which was used for emergency situations – spent the night there with colleagues from the mission and the military, mostly trying to figure out what to do — protocol matters. Nobody knew what the protocol is when a sitting president dies. So we occupied our minds with that, and somebody was sent out to buy condolence books and this and that and the other thing, and it was a good way to keep from being emotionally overwhelmed. Nobody — but nobody — was prepared for the reaction of the Berliners — that once these condolence books had been placed in strategic locations, people would line up for days on end and blocks on end to sign them, millions of signatures. We got condolence notes from strangers, from neighbors, from waitresses who had once worked a cocktail party for us.
The Netherlands — Fisher Howe
We were having cocktails before a white-tie big diplomatic dinner dance when [Ambassador to Germany] George [McGhee] got word of the Kennedy assassination. The people all heard it and all knew that the party would be off….We got into a car, drove back immediately to the Netherlands, to Hague. It was a three-hour drive at least from Bonn to the Hague.…We went immediately to the embassy to make sure that things were in order, that the [condolence] book had been put out and all the rest of it. It was all well arranged. There was a line for 200 yards in front of the embassy of people — and here it was 1:00 in the morning — lined up to come in and sign the book. Everybody in The Hague had heard about it and came and needed to sign the book. I went out so see the line and there, well down the line, just standing like anybody else was the minister of agriculture who was a friend. A very moving experience.
France — James D. Phillips
I was at a dinner party [in Paris] the night he was shot, November 22nd. Somebody at the party came late and said the radio reported the President was injured. I left the party to get more news. I walked to the Champs Elysées, close to the Arc de Triumph, at 11:00 p.m. to see if I could get an early edition newspaper. As I got close to the drug store just across the street from the Arc I could see several hundred people milling about outside and they were all sobbing, these were French people, and I thought the news must be really bad. Of course by then they knew he was dead. So that is how I learned. Everyone remembers where they were that day. I was moved by the French reaction, by the outpouring of grief. I was at the requiem mass at Nôtre Dame which de Gaulle attended. It is indelibly etched in my mind.
It was interesting to see the lack of certainty on the part of the Gaullists as to what they should do. I happened to be in Nice [France] at the time that Kennedy was assassinated attending the Gaullists’ – UNR’s [Union for the New Republic party] – National Congress….The next morning I went to a plenary session of the UNR in a huge big hall and as I walked down to my seat it was interesting to me to see who amongst my French Gaullist friends would stop and say something to me and which would somehow look the other way….
It was the whole question of the relationship of the United States. They were mixing up their human sentiments with their belief that somehow the Gaullist party was not all that close to the United States. This was even more apparent on the stage of this hall where there was a flag pole of one sort or another. When I came in the French flag was flying right up at the top. One could see that there was a discussion going on, which seemed to relate to the flag. It was only during the course of the morning that they apparently resolved their problem and brought the flag down to half staff.
Again this was this sort of love/hate relationship. Some obviously said what did this have to do with us, this is the Gaullist party congress and why should the French flag take into account at all what’s happened. They did resolve this but it obviously took them some time to do so. This, I think, was not untypical of the dichotomy in their thinking in terms of the Gaullists at different levels. I think in the case of de Gaulle that he would not stoop to be quite so petty about something of this sort. I mean the grand gesture was part of his makeup. There was an extraordinarily beautiful Memorial Service for Kennedy in the Cathedral of Notre Dame which my wife and I attended. De Gaulle came and it was really a very emotional moment in which de Gaulle most willingly participated. Of course that was in 1963.
USSR — Thompson R. Buchanan
I was at the French commercial counselor’s smoking a large Cuban cigar, which was making me increasingly green when the Agence France Press correspondent went to the phone and came rushing back and told us the shocking news. I was happy to be able to dash out of the room at that point. The Russians treated this as though we had killed their leader. In a certain sense he was, for he was their ideal, the sort of young leader they would have liked to have had. So, there were recriminations from people in the streets of how could we have allowed this to happen. Khrushchev came and signed the condolence book at the embassy. It was a very moving period.
Consular affairs, of course, had a flap to find out what they could on Oswald, pull out the file. But the Soviet press didn’t publish it for obvious reasons. We, on the political side never thought this was a KGB plot to kill Kennedy. We just thought Oswald was a nut.
Ralph E. Lindstrom
I remember learning about it on the Voice of America [while in Moscow]. Roger Kirk was living in the same building with me and he came up to tell us that Kennedy had been assassinated. We rushed down and listened to the commentary on Voice of America. And insofar as the Soviets were concerned, Khrushchev personally came over and signed the condolence book in the embassy and was crying. They’re very impressed by death, perhaps because at that time they didn’t believe there was any place else to go. I think insofar as the man on the street was concerned, I was traveling at that time, and we talked to taxi drivers, and the typical line was that Kennedy had been a great man. They didn’t say so while he was alive. But then they’d say that [Lyndon] Johnson is a very bad man. No real basis for that, just something they didn’t like about Johnson’s looks. It seemed to be almost a standard thing you’d pick up all across the Soviet Union. But they clearly seemed to be very sorry to see Kennedy perish that way.
India — Ernestine S. Heck
President Kennedy’s death had a tremendous impact [on India]….I for the next three years was the deputed person to go out and meet Indians of all types and levels of society and education, who came in bearing the most extraordinary range of gifts for Mrs. Kennedy usually, sometimes for the United States in general. These were almost always things that were handmade, and they were about President Kennedy or pictures of President Kennedy, articles about President Kennedy, poems to Mrs. Kennedy or to the children. I have seen his face woven into cloth, painted on things, wood-crafted, just an extraordinary range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but all very heartfelt.
We had a memorial service for him in the Anglican cathedral in town. The mob was tremendous. The church was absolutely packed, and there were people outside, and everyone wearing white. White in India is the color of mourning. People stopped you on the street to say how sorry they were. No, the outpouring from India was absolutely tremendous. President Kennedy grabbed the imagination of the world, certainly of the Asian world in a way that perhaps no one else had done, as far as I know, up till that time….We were joined by the love of many, many thousands of people in Bombay over the death of President Kennedy.
Japan — Elden B. Erickson
I was going to be the chief rapporteur for the Japan-U.S. Ministerial Conference. I had just gotten to Tokyo the day before and was staying with a USIA friend. He was called during the night and told about the attempted assassination–at that point he hadn’t died. He and I went down to the press club and watched the tickers come in. It was really a very exciting moment. The conference was canceled and I immediately went back to Osaka. There was the most remarkable outpouring of sympathy I have ever seen in my life. The Japanese, who never show emotion, would come up to you and cry and say how sorry they were to hear about the President. We had a service in Osaka and one in Kobe. Absolutely jammed packed. It is hard to think that the Japanese who are unemotional normally, would express themselves like that.
Yemen — Robert Theodore Curran
I was in Aden [Yemen]…the morning we heard about it. The first reports were that he’d been shot but not killed, and by the time we got back to Taiz, we knew that the President was dead. Not only were the Americans struck, but the Yemenis were terribly, terribly affected. And we had a condolence book at the chargé’s house, Jim Cortada’s house, and I think it took us three days to accommodate all the people who wanted to express their grief.
Guests cried and tore their hair. I suppose there were two reasons. One is that they saw America as kind of being the “great hope of the world,” as it were. And I think Kennedy came across generally to the world as a new spirit in international relations.
So it was a very, very sad time, and the Yemenis were casting around for some way to honor the fallen President, and they fixed on the city water system for Taiz. And after a debate, the Kennedy family agreed, so there exists still in Taiz the John F. Kennedy Municipal Water System.
Sudan — William M. Rountree
It came as a surprise to me that so many Sudanese all over the country felt a sense of personal loss in the death of President Kennedy. It became evident, not only in the Sudan but throughout the world, that the impact of John Kennedy had been much greater than Americans had imagined. In the Sudan I was attending a basketball game, an American team playing a Sudanese team, sitting next to President Abboud.
One of my embassy officers leaned over my shoulder and told me that my secretary was on the phone saying that the President had been assassinated. I said that couldn’t be true, the President was there. He said, “No, she means the President of the United States”. I left immediately for the Embassy and turned on the radio….Even as I listened to those early reports before President Kennedy’s death was actually confirmed, Sudanese — this was late at night — came to the Chancery door to express condolences. Many of them were weeping.
Within hours, every taxi in Khartoum had a black banner on its radio aerial. It was evident that people were not merely giving lip service, but felt his death very deeply and emotionally.
Guatemala — Dr. Dorothy Dillon
The Guatemalans started to pour into our office in USIA and pour into the embassy expressing their condolences and asking what had happened and could we explain it. It was simply a tremendous outpouring of sorrow and shock in the country. I didn’t leave Guatemala till January of 1966, and between November of ’63 and January 1966, I cannot tell you how many ceremonies and inaugurations I attended of schools, libraries, clubs, etc., all named in honor of John F. Kennedy.
Colombia — Lawrence P. Taylor
It hit me like a sucker-punch in the solar plexus, but what was, I think, more interesting is the effect it had in the community. I’ll never forget it. I think that community and every community I knew of or later heard about in rural Colombia seemed to be as affected by that event as America was, and I still remember the endless lines of mules and horses and people that walked out of the countryside to come in and tell us, who were the only Americans they knew, how sorry they were and that in this Catholic country they all burned candles on the night after, when people knew that he had died.
The whole countryside, as far as an eye could see, was full of candles. There’s no electricity out there, but every little hut for as far as the eye could see had lit a candle in remembrance of President Kennedy. It was, in a depressing sense, kind of a magical moment.