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Assassinations in the 1960’s

Assassinations in the 1960’s

by William H. Benson

April 5, 2018

In January 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald—a former U.S. Marine, twenty-four years old, and living in Dallas, Texas—purchased through the mail a .38 Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver. In March that same year, he purchased a secondhand 6.5mm caliber Carcano rifle for $29.95. 

On the evening of April 10, 1963, Oswald approached the home of retired U.S. Major General Edwin Walker, who sat at his desk near a window, in his Dallas, Texas home. From a hundred feet away, Oswald fired the Carcano rifle, but the bullet stuck the window frame.

Oswald escaped the scene, and police officials failed to connect him to the shooting. At home, he admitted to Marina—whom he had met and married in the Soviet Union—that he had shot at Walker.

In the autumn of 1963, President John F. Kennedy authorized American support for a military coup that would gain control of South Vietnam’s republican government. According to the historian Paul Johnson, “the CIA provided $42,000 in bribes for officers to set up a military junta.” 

On November 1, 1963, the military officers seized Ngo Dien Diem, then president of South Vietnam, and the following day, they assassinated him, and his brother. Lyndon Johnson said, “the worst mistake we ever made.” From then on, South Vietnam’s government lacked sufficient strength to withstand Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam’s repeated attacks.

Three weeks after the coup in Vietnam, the U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, was murdered.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald waited in a corner room, hidden behind some boxes, on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where he worked. At 12:30 p.m., as the President’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, Oswald fired his rifle four times. 

One bullet passed through the President’s neck and struck Texas Governor John Connelly. Another struck the back of the President’s head. At Parkland Hospital, at 1:00 p.m., doctors pronounced Kennedy dead. He left behind his wife Jackie, his daughter Caroline, and his son John.

Oswald fled the Depository, took a bus to his rooming house, changed clothes, and walked away on foot. A Dallas police officer named J. D. Tippit drove up next to Oswald, and the two men exchanged words. At 1:15 p.m., Tippit stepped out of his car and approached Oswald, who then aimed his revolver and shot Tippit four times. Tippit left behind his wife Marie, two sons, and a daughter.

Oswald snuck into a movie theater and sat near the back. Dallas policeman Nick McDonald arrived and approached Oswald, who withdrew his revolver, aimed it at McDonald, and pulled the trigger. It failed to fire though, because as McDonald grabbed for the weapon, the hammer struck the webbing between Oswald’s thumb and index fingers. McDonald hustled Oswald out of the theater.

On Sunday, November 24, at 11:21 a.m., Dallas police officers were transferring Oswald from city jail to county jail, when Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, distraught over Kennedy’s death, stepped forward, and shot Oswald in the stomach. At Parkland Hospital, at 1:07 p.m., doctors pronounced Lee Harvey Oswald dead. He left behind his wife Marina, and their two young daughters, June and Rachel.

Fifty years ago this week, on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King, Jr. He left behind his wife Coretta Scott King, two sons, and two daughters. 

Two months later, on June 5, 1968, Sirhan Sirhan, a twenty-four year old Palestinian of Jerusalem, shot Robert Kennedy, who had just won the California primary, as he walked through the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen. Robert Kennedy left behind his wife Ethel and their eleven children. 

Thirty years later, on April 23, 1998, James Earl Ray died in prison of liver disease. Sirhan Sirhan though still resides in Federal prison. Fifteen times he has appealed for parole, and fifteen times officials have denied his request. He turned seventy-four last month. Fifty years in prison.

This series of assassinations were touchstones of the 1960’s, symptomatic of the deep disaffections that separated people then and now: between America and Russia, between West and East, between the Communist and free worlds, between Palestinians and Israelis, and between white and black people. From these touchstones, one can trace the continual tragic events that have unfolded since.

Or as Marc Antony says in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” The unleashed dogs of war of the 1960’s have hounded the world for fifty plus years. 

But how does a person begin to understand Lee Harvey Oswald? 

The Warren Commission said that he acted alone, that, “he was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment, unable to establish relationships with other people, committed to Marxism, and able to act decisively and without regard to the consequences when such action would further his aims of the moment. These factors molded his character, into a man capable of assassinating the President.”