Thank you Mr. President
In the aftermath of her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy writes two remarkable letters
Exactly sixty years ago, on 22nd November 1963, a nation was plunged into darkness as news spread of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The young, vibrant leader, a beacon of hope during the tense Cold War era, had been struck down as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Within hours, with the shockwave still making its way around the globe, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States aboard Air Force One—a stark image of continuity amidst chaos. In the days that followed, the mourning widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, somehow found the poise to hand-write two extraordinary letters of gratitude: the first letter was to President Johnson, who had walked behind her husband’s casket the day before in a symbolic act of solidarity; the second letter reached across the Iron Curtain to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in an effort to deliver a message of peace and continuity.
Jacqueline Kennedy to President Lyndon B. Johnson
Dear Mr. President,
Thank you for walking yesterday—behind Jack. You did not have to do that—I am sure many people forbid you to take such a risk—but you did it anyway.
Thank you for your letters to my children. What those letters will mean to them later—you can imagine. The touching thing is, they have always loved you so much, they were most moved to have a letter from you now.
And most of all, Mr. President, thank you for the way you have always treated me—the way you and Lady Bird have always been to me—before, when Jack was alive, and now as President.
I think the relationship of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential families could be a rather strained one. From the history I have been reading ever since I came to the White House, I gather it often was in the past.
But you were Jack’s right arm—and I always thought the greatest act of a gentleman that I had seen on this earth—was how you—the Majority Leader when he came to the Senate as just another little freshman who looked up to you and took orders from you, could then serve as Vice President to a man who had served under you and been taught by you.
But more than that we were friends, all four of us. All you did for me as a friend and the happy times we had. I always thought way before the nomination that Lady Bird should be First Lady—but I don’t need to tell you here what I think of her qualities—her extraordinary grace of character—her willingness to assume every burden—She assumed so many for me and I love her very much—and I love your two daughters—Lynda Bird most because I know her the best—and we first met when neither of us could get a seat to hear President Eisenhower’s State of the Union message, and someone found us a place on one of the steps on the aisle where we sat together. If we had known then what our relationship would be now.
It was so strange—last night I was wandering through this house. There in the Treaty Room is your chandelier, and I had framed—the page we all signed—you—Senator Dirksen and Mike Mansfield—underneath I had written “The day the Vice President brought the East Room chandelier back from the Capitol.” Then in the library I showed Bobby the Lincoln Record book you gave—you see all you gave—and now you are called on to give so much more.
Your office—you are the first President to sit in it as it looks today. Jack always wanted a red rug—and I had curtains designed for it that I thought were as dignified as they should be for a President’s office.
Late last night a moving man asked me if I wanted Jack’s ship pictures left on the wall for you (They were clearing the office to make room for you)—I said no because I remembered all the fun Jack had those first days hanging pictures of things he loved, setting out his collection of whales teeth etc.
But of course they are there only waiting for you to ask for them if the walls look too bare. I thought you would want to put things from Texas in it—I pictured some gleaming longhorns—I hope you put them somewhere.
It mustn’t be very much help to you your first day in office—to hear children on the lawn at recess. It is just one more example of your kindness that you let them stay—I promise—they will soon be gone—Thank you Mr. President.
Jacqueline Kennedy to Nikita Khrushchev
December 1, 1963
Dear Mr. Chairman-President:
I would like to thank you for sending Mr. Mikoyan as your representative to my husband’s funeral.
He looked so upset when he approached me, and I was very touched by this.
I tried that day to tell you some things through him, but it was such a horrible day for me that I do not know if my words were received as I wanted them to be.
Therefore now, on one of the last nights I will spend on this White House stationery, I would like to write my message to you.
I am sending it only because I know how much my husband was concerned about peace and how important the relations between you and him were to him in this concern. He often cited your words in his speeches: “In the next war, the survivors will envy the dead.”
You and he were adversaries, but you were also allies in your determination not to let the world be blown up. You respected each other and could have dealings with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relations with you.
The danger troubling my husband was that war could be started not so much by major figures as by minor ones.
Whereas major figures understand the need for self-control and restraint, minor ones are sometimes moved rather by fear and pride. If only in the future major figures could still force minor ones to sit down at the negotiating table before they begin to fight!
I know that President Johnson will continue the policy my husband believed in so deeply—the policy of self-control and restraint—and he will need your help.
I am sending you this letter because I am so deeply mindful of the importance of the relations that existed between you and my husband, and also because you and Mrs. Khrushchev were so kind in Vienna.
I read that she had tears in her eyes as she was coming out of the American embassy in Moscow after signing the book of condolences. Please tell her “thank you” for this.