20 December 2019
Christmas stamps are supposed to be jolly and celebratory. This one was, too, but ended up telling a poignant story as Chris West reveals
It was issued on the 1 November, 1963.
It epitomized a dawning new era in America.
It was only the second US commemorative stamp designed by a woman: urban artist Lily Spandorf (the first had been Esther A Richards’ 10c National Parks in 1935). It shows the National Christmas Tree (a tradition since 1923), and behind it, the White House, where the nation’s new, dynamic young President, John F Kennedy, lived with his family.
There are lights on upstairs: the First Family is at home.
Kennedy had replaced the ageing, cautious war leader Dwight D Eisenhower in 1961. Since then, he had talked of a ‘New Frontier’, pledging to fight ignorance and racial prejudice. He founded the Peace Corps, where young Americans volunteered to do service abroad. He had promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He had faced down the Soviets over Cuba. The White House itself had been completely redecorated by his glamorous wife, Jackie, who used it for soirées full of bright, chic, talented, visionary individuals from all walks of life: the Arts, entertainment, politics, business.
Subsequent historians have questioned the perfect image of the Kennedy presidency, citing his infidelity to Jackie and the slow pace of reform despite the worthy rhetoric. They point to his involvement in Vietnam: his successors attracted the criticism for this disastrous war, but JFK began the build-up to it.
His defenders reply that he did not have enough time in office for his reforms to work, and ask what his opponent in the 1960 election, Richard Nixon, would have done in Vietnam. Most powerfully, they argue that great leaders, for all their private faults, are the ones who change cultures and national moods. JFK did that, setting a new tone for America: youthful, positive, liberal, ambitious.
This stamp, in its quiet way, celebrated that change.
Twenty-one days after it was issued, the President and First Lady made a visit to Dallas, Texas. They travelled through the city in an open-topped Lincoln with Governor John Connally and his wife. At 12:29, they reached Dealey Plaza. Mrs Connally turned to Kennedy and said, ‘You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.’
A few moments later, three shots were fired in quick succession. The third one killed the President.
A spectator reported seeing a man firing from the Book Depository that overlooked the Plaza. Police rushed into it and found a rifle with telescopic sights. A description of the suspect was circulated; half an hour later a patrolman pulled over a man fitting the description and was shot dead. The man was pursued and arrested. Forensic evidence linked him to the crime scene. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald.
Two days later, Oswald himself was shot dead. Had he been acting alone? Conspiracy theorists cite the silencing of Oswald and point to a film that seems to show the President struck from the front (Oswald fired from behind the motorcade). Some witnesses claim to have heard further shots from a ‘grassy knoll’ in front of the vehicles. (A recent, intriguing and ironic theory is that Kennedy was shot in error by a security man trying to return Oswald’s fire.)
Whoever fired the fatal shot, the assassination traumatized America. The bright lights of the JFK White House were extinguished. US political life found itself in thrall to violence, with riots and further assassinations occurring in the years that followed.
Not the story one wants to hear from a Christmas stamp.
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