"President Kennedy — shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas …"
39 years ago Friday, the nation learned of President John F. Kennedy's assassination with those earth-shattering words from Walter Cronkite.
But 4,000 miles from Dallas — in a plane high above the Pacific Ocean enroute to Japan on a high-level diplomatic mission — six members of the fallen President's cabinet learned of the tragedy from a lone radio operator, who received the news as it came in via teletype from United Press International.
The radio operator relayed that fated wisp of "ticker" paper to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the highest-ranking official on board.
"It was just as though the world dropped out from under you," recalled Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, also on board that day.
"They passed the piece of paper around," from one stunned man to another, he remembers. "As a matter of fact, I kept it. I have it under glass."
Voices of History
Tapes newly uncovered at the National Archives by National Public Radio reveal the ensuing flurry of radio communication between the White House situation room and the plane, as directed in-flight by Presidential Press Secretary Pierre Salinger — whose codename was "Wayside."
Wayside: Give me all available information on the President. Over.
Washington: All available information on the president as follows. John … and Governor Connelly of Texas have been hit in the car in which they were riding. We do not know how serious the situation is. We have no information …. We are getting our information over the tickers. Over.
Wayside: That is affirmative, affirmative. Please keep us advised in this plane ….
A debate reportedly developed on board the plane: An emotional Salinger wanted to head home because he thought the President might still be alive, but the cautious diplomat Rusk preferred to wait for more official information that seemed painfully hard to come by.
Wayside: Please be kept advised so we can determine whether some member of this party should go directly to Dallas. Over.
Washington: Do you have anything else, Wayside?
Wayside: No. Any other information, get a hold of as fast as possible.
Washington: Alright. The Associated Press is coming out now with a bulletin to the effect that they believe the president was hit in the head. That just came in. Over.
Rusk's hesitation reflected a concern some had at the time that the attack on Kennedy was but one arm of a broader attack on the United States.
"The first thought of a lot of people was, this must have been a conspiracy," presidential historian Michael Beschloss told ABCNEWS' Nightline. "Perhaps it was the Soviet Union, because why else would this have happened at exactly this moment when the Secretary of State and others were out over the Pacific Ocean?"
People wondered, in the words of Jack Valenti, who later was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson and was in Kennedy's Dallas motorcade, "Was this reminiscent of the attempts, not only on the life of Abraham Lincoln, but on [Lincoln] Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton and the rest of the Cabinet? Was this a military coup? Was this some invasion of some terrorists?"
‘The President Is Dead’
But when sure word came from Washington, it was clear to Rusk and all aboard what had to happen.