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Kennedy Tapes: 'Government Improvised in the Air'

On this day 39 years ago, three shots rang out over Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Soon the nation and the world would learn that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, in one of his frequent commentaries for NPR on his personal recollections of reporting the biggest stories of the last half of the 20th century, remembers the day vividly.

"UPI teletypes around the world started ticking out the news," Cronkite says. "One of them was on the communications deck of aircraft 972, where the radio officer blinked in disbelief at what he read." That plane was carrying six members of the president's Cabinet on a trip to Japan. "Another was at CBS News in New York, just across from my fishbowl office off the news room, where my colleague Ed Bliss scanned the words as the machine batted them out.

"Because sound travels faster than Ed could run, he shouted the news across the room. I leaped from my desk to get on the air."

The news shattered the relatively quiet Friday afternoon, and Cronkite was one of a handful of journalists who were first to report the news from Dallas. The nation waited desperately for news. And aboard that jet, 900 miles west of Honolulu, another drama was playing out.

Details of that day in Dallas have been dissected and pored over thousands of times, by experts and amateurs alike. Yet a key document of that day sat largely unnoticed at the National Archive for decades: tapes recorded by the Signal Corps at Andrews Air Force Base of the ground-to-air communications between aircraft 972 and the "situation room" in Washington, D.C.

"They provide a strikingly immediate document of men caught in a historic crisis," Cronkite says. "With the White House so dispersed, there seemed reason to imagine a possibility even more unthinkable than assassination — a coup against the government of the United States."

Walter Cronkite at NPR's New York City bureau.
John Guardo, NPR News / NPR
Walter Cronkite at NPR's New York City bureau.

Then the news was made official: the president was dead. It was up to Cronkite to make the announcement. "Those whose jobs often involve great emotional stress develop an amazing stoic power to defer emotion — a power that momentarily eluded me," he says. "None had it more than the men who had to give aircraft 972 the news." The jet was approaching Honolulu when the men hand-picked by Kennedy to lead his administration had their worst fears confirmed.

The National Archive tapes hold another remarkable document of that day: the ground-to-air communications between the jet carrying Kennedy's casket and Andrews Air Force Base. At the beginning, the jet's designation is simply 2-6000. It would only become Air Force One once the president was on board — and at 3:38 EST that day, Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office. Ten minutes later, Air Force One began the long trip back to the capital. Aircraft 972 was six hours behind, also headed to Washington, D.C.

"Government was being improvised in the air," Cronkite says. The small but necessary details — equipment to transport the casket, an official pronouncement of death — were being made en route. Each of these details, again, is captured on tape.

"For the next three days, Americans would share a mass of sounds and images that would remain with them for the rest of their lives," Cronkite says. "Today, they still seem as real as they did on that weekend four decades ago."

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