Reporting JFK's assassination (text version)
- 18 November 2013
- From the section Magazine
The BBC's Peter Watson was reporting from the UN in New York when the news broke of President John F Kennedy's assassination. Within hours he was broadcasting from Dallas. His reports capture the atmosphere of a city in shock, and Texas's shame - and the gloom that soon descended on the country. He typed this summary a few days later, on 29 November 1963. Peter Watson died last week.
To read photographs of his original typed notes click here.
Friday morning was dull, even by United Nations standards. I remember writing a facetious piece on a subject which some seemed to think mighty important - the agreement of a document outlining the legal principles governing the exploration of outer space. Then we went down to the delegates lounge for a drink before lunch. We hadn't been there long - Tony Wigan (my boss), John McVane of the American Broadcasting Company and I, when I saw Sylvia Gould (our temporary secretary) hurrying down the lounge. I said: "You look as if you had some news." She said: "I have; Kennedy's been shot".
The time then must have been about a quarter to two in New York and the President had in fact been shot at half-past twelve, Dallas time, a bare fifteen minutes earlier. After that, time seemed to stand still, or at least move very slowly, so that each time I looked at my watch I said to myself "Good Lord, is that all it is."
We were back in the office. Tony was madly telephoning London and Washington. Sylvia and I were trying to reach the airlines. Under the pressure of traffic, the New York telephone system had packed up; sometimes you got your call; at others you did not even get a dialling tone. American airlines were fully booked but promised to wait-list me on every flight to Dallas. Sylvia remembered that her husband Tom (who is United Nations correspondent for C.B.C.) had once flown there by Braniff; so she got onto them and got me a direct jet booking on the 6.15 flight. By this time, Leonard Parkin from Washington had been through to London with a despatch, lines were booked for continuous broadcasting from then on, and we knew that the President was badly hurt and that the Governor of Texas, John Conally, was also badly hurt.
I ran back to the Bedford and packed, watching television as I did so. They announced that President Kennedy was dead. I picked up my case and ran back to the United Nations, listening to the radio through an earpiece. When I got there, it was still only ten to three and the General Assembly was due to meet at three. I left my case in the office, and ran to the Assembly booth, while Tony talked to London. Joanna van Dam (our permanent secretary) recorded the tributes of the President of the Assembly Dr Sosa-Rodriguez and the Secretary-General, U Thant. Still running, I went back to our regular microphone and put over an eye-witness account of the Assembly ceremony, recalling that it was scarcely two months since that whole Assembly had risen to applaud Kennedy when he addressed it. I heard later that New York office had monitored my piece fifteen minutes later as it was broadcast from London on the General Overseas Service. It was still not half past three when I came off the air and went back to the office.
Joanna and Sylvia had got hold of some coffee and sandwiches (we never did finish our pre—lunch drinks in the Delegates' Lounge) and I think I finished the coffee. I know I could only manage half the sandwich.At 3.45 I decided to go to the airport in case any unscrupulous competitor should try and take up my booking. The first taxi-driver I hailed said he couldn't take me that far, as he had to report back to his garage by five. I promised him an extra five dollars if he could persuade his garage to wait. He did. Since he was in a hurry to get back, we went to Idlewild at a terrifying rate; I think he was probably also working off his emotion at the news. I got my ticket and phoned the office to see if there were any developments. They told me that the President's body was being flown immediately to Washington, but that I was to continue to Dallas nevertheless to cover the search for his murderer or murderers. So I went.
My neighbour on the plane was a man called McCoy, who came originally from Dallas and was on the way back there to visit his mother. He told me he was not very happy to admit to being a Dallas man at just that time. He'd voted Republican at the last election, but the President was the president of all Americans. He'd heard that the police had arrested a man who was a Cuban; but whoever had done the killing, he must have been mad.
We got to Love Field, Dallas, where Kennedy had arrived only that morning and from which his body had been flown back to Washington. It was ten minutes to nine, local time; ten to ten in New York, sixteen hundred miles away; and ten to three on Saturday morning in London. McCoy had a Hertz car waiting for him and drove me into town so that I was in my room at the Adolphus Hotel by half past nine. I knew I was in Texas when I found that my room had two baths - his and hers. I'd bought a local paper on the pavement outside and had the television set on even before the porter had left the room after bringing my bag up. By ten I'd read the Paper and seen enough television to bring myself up to date on the story. I'd already heard on the radio of McCoy's car that the man arrested was Lee Oswald, that he was not a Cuban and that he was being questioned at Police headquarters, so to Police Headquarters I went.
It was pandemonium. The corridor outside the Homicide and Robbery Bureau was jammed with reporters, cameramen and police of various sorts - plain clothes detectives in business suits and broad-brimmed hats, city police in flat caps and state-troopers in enamelled helmets and despatch-riders boots. I recognised one or two British reporters and identified Paris-Match. Half the people there were still wearing lapel badges inscribed: "President Kennedy's Tour of Texas". I don't think many, certainly not I had yet been hit by the full force of the tragedy; it was just a story and it was not until we had stopped working at full stretch that reaction and sorrow set in.
I spent about an hour and a half at Police headquarters and got about all I wanted, and all of which proved substantially accurate, from a police captain in an office away from the hubbub. We were told that Oswald would not appear for a long time, so I went back to the Adolphus to write. New York told me that a forty-five second spot was wanted for the reel within three quarters of an hour and a longer piece of up to four minutes within half an hour after. Here are the two pieces I wrote:
(1) 'President Kennedy was shot at 1235 local time from the fifth floor of a state book warehouse as he drove by on his tour of Dallas. The murder weapon, a 6.5.mm Italian rifle with a telescopic sight was found in the warehouse. Two miles away and forty-five minutes later, after a description of the suspected killer had been broadcast, Police Officer Tippit was shot dead as he went to question a man. This man was Lee Harvey Oswald, who has now been charged with both the murder of Tippit and the President. This much is known about him: He is 24 years old, slim, dark, married, was employed at the book warehouse and had a curious background of connection with the Soviet Union and Cuba. He is a Texan from Fort worth, went to Russia four years ago and returned to this country eighteen months later at United States Government expense. When his wife visited police headquarters she was accompanied by a Russian speaking interpreter. In Cuban affairs he is reported to have claimed to be pro-Castro".
(Then I phoned the above to New York they told me that it in fact ran to one minute and ten seconds, but I said London would have to lump it and I gather that they used it as it stood. There were one or two minor inaccuracies as later events revealed)
(2) This was part of a special programme which replaced F.O.O.C. [From Our Own Correspondent] and the eyewitness on Saturday morning): "After the murder, the weapon with which it had been done - a 6.5.mm Italian-made rifle with a telescopic sight, was found under a staircase in the building. Forty-five minutes later, after a description of the suspected killer had been broadcast over the police network, Police Officer Tippit was driving along a street two miles away. Witnesses saw him stop, get out and approach a man coming from the opposite direction on foot. The man pulled out a .38 calibre pistol and shot police officer Tippit through the head, chest and stomach. He then fled into the nearby "Texas" cinema, where he again tried to shoot it out when police closed in on him. But, on this occasion, his gun jammed and he was overpowered. This man was Lee Harvey Oswald, who was immediately taken to police headquarters, charged with the murder of police officer Tippit and later with the assassination of the President.
"This much is known about Oswald. He's twenty-four years old, slim, dark, with a markedly pointed chin. He's married and has two children. He worked at the warehouse from which the President was shot and he has a curious history of connection with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Oswald is a Texan born, from Fort Worth, the President's last port of call before Dallas, and served for a short while in the United States marines. Four years ago he went to Russia but, after eighteen months was returned to this country at United States Government expense. It is since then that he seems to have become involved in pro-Castro Cuban affairs and is said to have been chairman of the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee". When he appeared on television in New Orleans last August he was asked: "How do you hope to bring about what you call 'Fair Play' in Cuba?" He replied in these words: (Here New York played in 28" of Oswald's rather confused reply in which he denied that he was a Communist and said he was only fighting for what was right as an American citizen.)
Oswald was charged after ten hours of questioning at the heavily pillared and porticoed police headquarters in downtown Dallas. As reporters and cameramen crowded the pale green corridor outside a glass door marked "Homicide and Robbery", detectives came and went to the basement laboratories with handprints and the results of a paraffin test which showed Oswald had at some time in the day fired a gun. At no time has he made any sort of confession.
As for Dallas, the brightly lit streets are rather empty but still brightly lit, except for one shop full of children's toys which is dark and bears a neatly printed notice: 'Closed in memory of John F. Kennedy'. The people, many of whom were not so long ago blushing at the undignified treatment accorded to Mr Adlai Stevenson, what do they think? One man with whom I flew from New York said: 'I come from Dallas and I guess I'm not very proud of that just now.'"
By the time I had finished that last piece, it was about half an hour after minute, local time; half past one according to the time I had got up; half past six in London, and three quarters of an hour before the programme was due on the air; and just twelve hours since the assassination. I couldn't sleep immediately, so watched more of the local television coverage and drank the last of the four bottles of Budweiser I had ordered up after getting back from police headquarters. Then I went to bed at two o'clock Texas time.
When I got up again at about seven Oswald was still at police headquarters. I went out into the bright cold day to find the warehouse from which the rifle-shots had been fired. It was a perfect place from which to shoot. It would have been hard to miss and for a marksman, as Oswald was, with a telescopic sight, impossible. I walked the three main streets of Dallas - Commerce, Main and Elm, had breakfast at a drug-store, then went back to the hotel, where I wrote the two following pieces, which would, I thought, wrap up the Dallas end of the story.
(3) "Lee Harvey Oswald, charged with the murder of President Kennedy, is again being questioned at Dallas police headquarters. As in the ten hour questioning yesterday, his interrogators are three in number - a member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a Secret Service man, and the chief of the city homicide squad.
"Police chief Jesse Curry said Oswald continues to deny the murder of the President and of a police officer 45 minutes later. His attitude, said Chief Curry, had been arrogant throughout. To all questions he had replied: "That's ridiculous", or "that's silly". That Oswald's communism did not wane with his return from Russia two and a half years ago is indicated by the very large quantity of Communist books and literature found in his lodgings. Chief Curry revealed that another man who worked in the same book warehouse as Oswald had been questioned. The chief said he was on the police list of subversives because of his left-wing connections, but it has not been suggested in any way that this man was involved in the crime.
"When the police have finished questioning Oswald, he will be taken to the Dallas County Jail which is, ironically, only fifty yards from the place where President Kennedy was shot".
(4) called "Dallas the Day After".
"In a city of a million people there can be few outward signs - even of the death of a President. The sun shines out of a clear blue sky onto the pale brown, brick warehouse from which the assassin's bullets were fired. Only a couple of police cars nearby mark the difference between this and any other commercial building. There are no crowds, but from every car and bus that passes eyes turn upwards towards that fatal fifth floor window. There are no crowds either outside police headquarters where Lee Harvey Oswald spent the night after being charged with the murder of President Kennedy. Outwardly there are few signs in the chilly windswept streets of the city known as "the big D".But inwardly there is only one word to describe the feelings of Dallas and all Texas. It is SHAME, shame not only at the crime, but shame that Texas hospitality could have been breached. In the city itself, the Dallas Morning News talks of "a cruel, shameful mark in this city's history". From the place where President Kennedy made his last speech and which is Oswald's home, the Fort Worth Star Telegram says: ".... there arose a sense of outrage and, especially for those who live in Texas, shame. The shock was all the greater for Texans because this unspeakable thing happened in their midst — in a state known for its goodwill and hospitality to all.
"What is quite remarkable here is that, although Oswald had a known communist record and that his lodgings were full of Communist literature, no-one is talking about a communist plot; no-one is trying to shift the blame or shuffle off the burden of shame".
Although its now a week since those despatches were written, I still think, contrary to the opinion of a good many people that the Texans really were ashamed and will continue to be. Since Oswald himself was murdered, criticism from other Americans of the Texans has grown and I suspect the Texans have earned this, not so much because of what happened in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, but because of the years in which Texas, the land of the fattest cattle, the most oil, the biggest men and the prettiest women, has looked down on the remainder of the United States - in other words, jealousy comes into it somewhere. Before returning to the main thread of my story, let me ride this hobby-horse a little bit farther, at the risk of being a bore. Something about Dallas was familiar from the moment I got there - the bigness, the brashness, the richness, the recklessness and the men and women. I don't know quite when it was, but it suddenly struck me that this was Algiers transplanted to North America and I remembered that none were happier to see the Pieds Noir of Algeria seal their own fate than their less wealthy, less handsome, less daring and less ruthless compatriots of metropolitan France.
But, back to my story, which has reached about noon on Saturday November 22nd. The President has now been dead for nearly twenty-four hours and I have done what I came to Dallas to do. I went out to have lunch - a really big Texan steak, with a glass of beer; no cocktail before it because this hard-drinking state does not approve of the public consumption of hard liquor. I read some of the newspapers while I was waiting for the steak to be cooked, and 3/4 lb of steak takes quite a long time. For the first time the emotion of the tragedy hit me as I read the eye-witnesses accounts of what had happened at the entrance to the triple underpass, at the Parklands hospital.
The waste and the pathos brought me closer to tears more often than I have ever been before. It was worse, or perhaps easier for Americans who wept openly and unashamedly in the streets, and it didn't wear off for nearly a week. Not a day went by without some new element to tug at the heartstrings. Perhaps the worst was the description of the President's widow Jackie, for whom hitherto I had always had a considerable dislike, arriving back in Washington with the body on Saturday evening, still dry-eyed, still wearing the costume stained with blood, where she had cradled him in the back of the car. When I think of that, I think of Flecker's Hassan after seeing the young lovers in the Procession of Protracted Death and moaning: "Her hands, her hands."
My plane was not due to leave Dallas until nearly six o'clock, so there was nothing to do but walk for a bit after lunch. It doesn't take long to cover all that's interesting in downtown Dallas. There are three main streets, parallel to each other, Commerce (where my hotel and police headquarters were), Main (which has the fabulous Neiman Marcus store) and Elm Street down which the Presidential motorcade drove to the fatal appointment by the entrance to the triple underpass. I took them in that order and found myself back outside the book warehouse and close to the county jail. By this time there was a small crowd there and the word had gone around that Oswald was expected at any minute from the city jail in police headquarters. I waited, because it was here if anywhere that it seemed that somebody might take a shot at him to avenge the honour of Texas, which he had besmirched. That just shows how wrong you can be.
The crowd wanted Oswald to die but they showed no sign of intending to anticipate any court sentence and lynch him. Anyway, the security precautions at the county jail, unlike those at the city jail, were good. Except for journalists and photographers, nobody was allowed within fifty feet of the garage entrance into which it was planned that Oswald should be driven. It must be remembered that Oswald had at no time admitted to the killing of the President, yet one man introduced himself pleasantly to me as the Justice of the Peace (no less) for the district in which, as he put it in words that were scarcely judicial, "the son of a bitch lived".
I waited two hours then just had to leave to catch my plane to New York. Owing to bad weather and a coincidental radar failure at Idlewild, we were late and I was not back at the Bedford until after 10 p.m. I slept through until nearly nine, then joined Tony at the office. We didn't stay there very long and left at about mid-day, I with the intention of going back to the Bedford and out to lunch. I was scarcely there before the phone rang. Oswald had been shot. Back to the office to discover that it had been done not by an outraged Texan defending the honour of his state, but by an unsavoury operator of striptease clubs from Chicago, called Jack Ruby. He hasn't been tried yet but my impression is that, if there was not some extraordinarily complex plot, as some are suggesting, he did it to show off (and so far as is known, nobody ever committed murder on television before) and in the belief that no Texas jury would ever see him electrocuted, even if they found him guilty, which they might well not do.
There, with this unfortunate missing of the boat ends any part I had in this chapter of history. It remains only to say that until Thanksgiving Day, on 28th November, when people began to snap out of their gloom, life in New York at least was ghastly. The commercial television networks dropped all advertising until after the funeral on Monday 25th and mounted a marathon news and outside broadcast operation which was done with perfect good taste and a technical competence which left one open-mouthed. The funeral and all that surrounded it were horribly moving. Americans are emotional people and so, I suppose, are we when such a terrible drama unfolds. It is something to have been a journalist covering that drama but of course one would cheerfully have traded all the professional pride and the congratulations which followed for the sake of not having it happen.
29th November 1963.
Peter Watson was born in Essex in 1925. He joined the BBC in 1950 or 1951, after serving in India during WWII and studying PPE at Oxford. He worked as a newsroom sub-editor before assignments in Algeria, Paris, Cyprus, Beirut and the US. Later he presented From Our Own Correspondent and edited Yesterday in Parliament. When he left the BBC in 1975, his reports from Dallas, and on the August 1963 civil rights Freedom March, were described as "outstanding". David Witherow, then Editor of External Services News, wrote: "We shall miss his knowledge and professional ability, and also his pleasant companionship."