Brother Jeff Sharlet was peripherally involved in events leading up to the assassination of President Diem of South Vietnam (SVN), while I bore distant witness to the violent death of President Kennedy (JFK) many thousands of miles away. Until two weeks before Diem’s demise in a military coup, Jeff was based in the Saigon area spying on the South Vietnamese generals planning the coup; JFK had given the generals the ‘green light’, but wanted to make sure he had behind-the-scenes information. My mission in Moscow was much more benign – a PhD student from Indiana University-Bloomington on the US-USSR Cultural Exchange – I was researching my dissertation on Soviet jurisprudence. At the moment JFK was shot on a Texas street, I was hanging pictures in my dorm room at Moscow State University (MGU) in the Lenin Hills outside the USSR capital.
Except that we were brothers in far corners of the world, I didn’t give much thought to the low-intensity guerrilla war in former French Indochina, and I doubt that Moscow was very much on Jeff’s mind as he worked his equipment to monitor the generals’ conversations. News of the larger world was not abundant in either locale. In Saigon, Jeff could read the official military newspaper, Stars and Stripes and listen to Armed Forces Radio, mostly country music, while my main sources of information were the censored Soviet press and Radio Moscow. Nor was correspondence with family and friends timely; letters took 10 days to two weeks to reach their destination. In effect, during the fall of ’63, Jeff and I each lived in a relatively isolated, self-contained world.
Then on October 31st, a Yale professor was arrested in downtown Moscow by the Soviet secret police, aka KGB, charged with espionage. News appeared the next day in a brief notice in the official Soviet paper Izvestiia. The American exchange students were jolted out of their routines as word of the arrest got around. The professor, Frederick Barghoorn, was known by reputation to all, and it was implausible that he had come to Moscow for anything other than scholarly purposes.
While the arrest was buried at the bottom of a column, the coup in Saigon the next day, November 1st, was the big front page news story in the same issue; Communist North Vietnam, backer of the Viet Cong (VC) insurgency in SVN, was a close ally of the USSR. The following day brought the even more dramatic news that Diem had been assassinated. None of us missed the news from Southeast Asia, but we were distracted and worried about Professor Barghoorn’s arrest and its implications for the exchange program. After several days of Vietnam coverage, the front pages of Pravda and Izvestiia again returned to Soviet high politics and economic plan fulfillment. Meanwhile, official silence had descended upon the Yale professor.
US Ambassador Foy Kohler lodged a vigorous protest with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding release of the American academic. In Washington the State Dept avowed that the professor was a private citizen on a scholarly research trip. However, all appeals were to no avail as the prisoner continued to languish in Lubyanka prison not far from Red Square. A week passed, and another brief notice appeared in the press that the scholar would be bound over for trial. At the end of the second week of Barghoorn’s incarceration, at what would be his last press conference on November 14th, JFK, in a rare presidential intervention on an individual case, called Professor Barghoorn’s arrest unjustified, emphatically stated that he was not on an intelligence mission, and called for his swift release.
Another day passed with Barghoorn still locked up, and our group was notified to prepare for immediate departure from the Soviet Union. To everyone’s enormous relief, especially the prisoner’s, Frederick Barghoorn was abruptly released on November 16th, declared persona non grata, and expelled from the Soviet Union. The crisis that had kept us on edge for weeks had been happily resolved, and full attention once again returned to research work. Life returned to normal or as ‘normal’ as it would ever get in Moscow, where even the simplest daily task required careful planning and much time waiting in lines in that scarcity-ridden society. It was like living in a slow motion film. Later we would learn that the FBI had nabbed a Soviet spy, and Barghoorn had been seized as a high value hostage for exchange purposes.
Meanwhile back at his base in the PI, Jeff found himself the unwanted object of attention by the military hierarchy from the Pentagon down to his platoon commander (CO). While in Vietnam, he neglected to write home. Our mother, knowing he had left for the war zone, became worried and called their Congressman, who in turn forwarded her inquiry to the Army’s Adjutant General and on down the command structure. Word went back up the chain of command that Jeff was safe, but obviously, since he was then in the midst of a clandestine operation to overthrow the head of state of a sovereign country, the Army wasn’t sharing details. When Jeff returned from Saigon, his perturbed CO sat him down in the office to write a letter to his parents. Otherwise, Jeff slipped back into his regular duties reading North Vietnamese military intercepts in a windowless building surrounded by heavy security. For both of us in our respective bubbles, Thanksgiving abroad was just over a week ahead.
Those of us assigned to the law school were hustling to catch up on time lost during the Barghoorn crisis since we all intended taking a couple of days off for the American holiday. Ambassador Kohler and his wife had invited the 25 or so of us to Thanksgiving dinner at their official residence. For a change, a great meal beckoned after months of bland university food. The week before the holiday a visiting US graphic arts exhibition opened in Moscow under auspices of the Cultural Exchange. I heard it was thronged by Soviet visitors anxious to see Western art, so on my trip to the embassy that week I picked up prints of some of the art works to decorate my bare bones Soviet dorm room.
Friday evening, the 22nd of November, with law school classes over for the week, I borrowed a tack hammer and was hanging the graphic prints on my wall. I was feeling pretty good – Soviet colleagues were welcoming, research was going well, and my spoken Russian had greatly improved. It was just after 8:30 Moscow time when my friend Al Lichtenstein burst into the room, gasping, “The President’s been shot.” Radio Moscow had interrupted its evening classical music program to announce the shocking news from Dallas shortly after noon that day. Al was a historian living on the other side of the huge dorm complex, the size of a college campus, and upon hearing the terrible news had raced over to tell me. We quickly turned on my room radio; it was nearing the evening news hour, and Radio Moscow had switched to very dark funereal music. At 9 o’clock the news reader recapped the shooting in a somber voice, then broke off his text a few minutes later to announce that word had just come from the Dallas hospital, "The President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, is dead."
O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
While Al ran off to spread the word I sat on my narrow bed too shocked to think. Grief overcame me. With his flair, style, and charisma, JFK had been an extraordinarily popular president, especially for my generation just making its way in the world. There was a knock at my door. I pulled myself together; it was a delegation of Soviet law students, my floor mates, who had heard the news and come by to formally and very sincerely – Russians are soulful people – tender their condolences to me as an American amongst them. We stood there, our heads down in the dimly lit hall. One of them very politely asked me how such a thing could happen in America. At that point I assumed that it was a rightwing assassination and described to them the off-the-wall right-wingers in the States, the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and others. They nodded gravely; that was a political explanation they could readily understand.
While standing outside my room we suddenly heard a commotion in the common area down the hall. Russian curses and indignant shouts filled the air. We rushed down where a large group of Russian students were milling around the bulletin board. A spokesman angrily related the cause. The third floor below in our wing of the dorm was occupied by a large contingent of North Vietnamese students. Right after news of Kennedy’s death broke, the North Vietnamese had drawn up a large poster praising the assassination and condemning the United States and posted it on our bulletin board. Upon reading it, the Russians in a fury ripped it down, tore it to shreds, and were shouting curses at the culprits who had wisely fled the scene – the Russian guys were twice their size. The Russians, all speaking at once, apologized to me, the only American present, for the outrageous behavior.
That weekend was a blur. On Saturday, Izvestiia ran a front page story with a black-bordered photo of JFK along with official statements of condolence. Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine sharpshooter, had been arrested. Suspicion fell on Moscow once it was learned that he identified with the pro-Cuban left in the US and had lived for a time in the USSR with his Soviet wife. On Sunday Oswald was shot dead at point-blank range in the police station; the event was witnessed on live television by millions, adding to the chaos. His assailant was Jack Ruby, a shady nightclub operator.
The state funeral for the President was scheduled for Monday, November 25th. The embassy made arrangements for the American students to be invited to the private quarters of various Foreign Service Officers in the US diplomatic residence where we all watched a very emotional half hour of the long funeral on Soviet television. The Soviets had agreed to permit the first Telstar transmission for the occasion, but after 30 minutes the satellite moved out of range. I vividly remember the riderless black horse behind the caisson on Pennsylvania Avenue. As we sat in the comfort of an American living room far from our spartan dorms, we forgot for the moment that we were a long way from home.
The following day I went to the law school to attend class though my heart wasn’t in it. Upon entering the large common office of the Jurisprudence faculty, all present rose. With the chairman Professor Doctor Andrei Ivanovich Denisov (who was also my adviser) in the lead, they all came forward to offer condolences, bowing their heads slightly as they shook hands with me, as is Russian custom in the face of death. I was deeply touched by the feelings of the Russians that terrible week.
As Thanksgiving Day approached, we all assumed that the dinner would be off. On the contrary, the ambassador sent word that it was more important than ever for the Americans in Moscow to assemble on our national holiday. On Thursday I donned Sunday best with a suitably dark tie and, still with heavy heart, made my way with friends into Moscow. It was my first visit to the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House, a magnificent early 20th century structure built by a wealthy Russian. Shortly after the US diplomatically recognized the Soviet regime in 1933, the house was acquired as home to American envoys during their time in the USSR.
We passed through the front gardens to the entrance portico. Inside we were ushered into a beautifully appointed, high-ceilinged dining room with very large windows. We were seated at tables of four or five with fresh floral arrangements on heavy white linen tablecloths. Ambassador and Mrs. Kohler sat at a table near the windows with the most senior American scholar in Moscow as their dinner companion. On a small table nearby sat a silver framed picture of President Kennedy with a black ribbon across a top corner and the late President’s personal inscription to Foy Kohler below. As a senior State Department official in ‘61, he had played a significant role in helping JFK peacefully resolve the tensions in Berlin over the East Germans’ surprise erection of the Berlin Wall.
Before the dinner was served, the ambassador rose and spoke to our small group softly and warmly of his personal memories of JFK, of the loss he shared with us, and of the need for all of us to move on. It was a magical moment, we all felt a lifting of our seemingly limitless grief, and soon conversations blossomed around the room as spirits revived. I wish I could say that Jeff and buddies had also experienced such a healing moment, but that was not to be. When the terrible news arrived from Dallas, it was already after noon on the following day, Saturday, November 23rd, in the Philippine Islands.
Meanwhile, as soon as the president was struck by bullets, the Pentagon flashed a full alert to all US bases worldwide. On the aircraft carrier Saratoga, when the captain piped the announcement of the President’s assassination to the ship’s complement, a sailor wrote that 4000 men on the ship were stunned into silence. At bases with artillery units the next day, per standing orders following the death of a president, one gun was fired every half hour from reveille to retreat.
Monday, the day of the state funeral, November 25th, had been declared a National Day of Mourning. Per protocol, troops at bases in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East held parades in memory of the fallen leader, while artillery bases fired 21-gun salutes beginning at noon. At US bases in Asia, it was to be simply a stand-down day of personal mourning with neither drills nor ceremonies – but not in Jeff’s unit. In the moronic military tradition of keeping the troops busy, a general ordered a full field inspection, angering both officers and enlisted men alike on that solemn occasion.