The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, shattered the American psyche.
This traumatic event has been repeatedly revisited and commemorated, but little attention has been paid to how close Kennedy came to being killed slightly more than a year before his death in Dallas. Had the president been assassinated at this time, it probably would have led to a catastrophic war between the United States and the Soviet Union that would have totally changed the face of history.
While paying a visit to the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, in Springfield, Ill., at the height of the Cuban missile crisis on Oct. 19, 1962, a gunman had Kennedy in his telescopic sight as he was riding in a slow-moving open limousine. The scenario was eerily similar to what occurred in Dallas the following year, but for whatever reason, the Springfield gunman held his fire, sparing the nation and the world a potential assassination.
Kennedy was in Springfield to campaign for Democrats running for House and Senate seats in the 1962 midterm elections. Before delivering a public speech at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, the president paid a private visit to Lincoln’s tomb. On his way to the tomb, an “employee of the Illinois Department of Public Safety” noticed two men along the president’s motorcade route with a rifle.
According to the Secret Service report, the alert public safety official “saw a rifle barrel with telescopic sight protruding from a second-story window. The local police took into custody and delivered to Special Agents of the Secret Service” two men who were brothers-in-law. The Secret Service noted that “a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle and a full box of .22 long rifle ammunition was seized.” The men admitted “pointing the gun out the window on the parade route. However, they claimed that they had merely been testing the power of the telescopic sight to determine if it would be worthwhile to remove it in order to get a better look at the President when the motorcade returned. As there was no evidence to the contrary, and neither man had any previous record, prosecution was declined.”
These two men had a loaded rifle pointed at the president during his motorcade route, but decided not to pull the trigger. Secret Service stepped in to apprehend the men before the president’s limousine passed the men for a second time. For a brief moment, however, the president’s life hung in the balance based on the decision of a 20-year-old not to pull the trigger.
There is no evidence to suggest a connection between these two men and the Soviet Union. But at the time, any violence waged against Kennedy probably would have set off war. After all, this near miss in Springfield occurred three days after Kennedy was informed by the Central Intelligence Agency that the Soviet Union was constructing nuclear missile sites in Cuba. The Kennedy administration had been denying rumors of any such construction for months, and the president was shaken by such a bold and deceptive move by the Kremlin.
What followed was the famous “13 days” of secret deliberations on the part of Kennedy and a small circle of advisers known as the “ExComm,” (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), and equally secretive exchanges with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev conducted by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and a KGB operative. These exchanges helped avert a war, one that would have had catastrophic results.
In fact, the most critical period of the Cuban missile crisis turned out to be the 72 hours after Kennedy’s near-assassination in Illinois. It was the international crisis, not the gunman, that made Kennedy cut short his campaign trip to Illinois to return to Washington and deliberate on a response to the Cuban missile crisis. The president feared that the crisis could spiral into a nuclear conflict, the “final failure,” as he put it, and resisted the advice of those urging a preemptive strike on the missile sites. In the end, Kennedy rejected entreaties to bomb or invade Cuba.
If Kennedy had been killed or wounded in Springfield, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and a core of advisers already leaning toward some type of airstrike or invasion of Cuba probably would have approved such an attack. An assassination attempt on a U.S. president amid an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation with the Soviet Union would have led many officials to suspect Kremlin involvement. The Soviets had already been caught lying over the missiles in Cuba, and any Soviet denials regarding the attempted assassination of Kennedy would have been seen in the same light.
Kennedy’s removal from this decision-making process, either because of death or a serious gunshot wound, would have altered the course of history. An enraged public and a core group of advisers predisposed to think the worst of Soviet intentions would have exerted enormous pressure upon Johnson to respond with force.
Generations of scholars and practitioners learned much about conflict resolution from studying Kennedy’s management of the Cuban missile crisis. Sadly, as the events of Nov. 22, 1963, revealed, nothing was learned by government security officials in the aftermath of the near miss on the road to Lincoln’s tomb. Had they grasped the red flags from the close call, such as the risk of open limousines and the need to protect against shootings, they might have saved Americans from the searing trauma ahead.