New RFK papers show aftermath of brother’s death
BOSTON (AP) — Newly released papers show that in the weeks and months following the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, brother Robert F. Kennedy and other family members fielded expressions of condolences from around the world while dealing with practical issues including the design of the president’s permanent grave and how best to chronicle his life.
Documents that shine a poignant light on the aftermath of the assassination — the 50th anniversary of which was marked last month — were only a few of the thousands from Robert Kennedy’s tenure as attorney general that were opened to public inspection Thursday by the Kennedy library.
“The accomplishments of presidents in office are usually measured in rather exact terms, but your brother gave the country something immeasurable and almost indescribable, for which we all will be forever grateful,” wrote author E.B. White in a Dec. 24, 1963, letter to the attorney general.
Artist Andrew Wyeth and author Thornton Wilder, who along with White had been recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, also wrote letters of condolence.
Kennedy often used short letters to express his gratitude for expressions of sympathy, such as one sent to James A. Wechsler, editorial page editor of the New York Post, thanking him for a series of articles after JFK’s death.
“I just wanted you to know how much he would have appreciated them — I think as much as anyone could do you captured what he was,” Kennedy wrote in the letter, dated Feb. 4, 1964.
A series of correspondences from John Carl Warnecke, the architect who designed JFK’s gravesite, reveal how intimately involved Robert Kennedy was in planning his brother’s permanent memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In a letter dated Dec. 20, 1963, Warnecke asks RFK for the “benefit of your thoughts and ideas.”
Robert Kennedy appeared to make his general vision of the memorial known in a one-sentence memo sent on Feb. 21 to Ramsey Clark, then an assistant attorney general, which stated: “I hope that whatever they do is simple and conservative.”
Correspondences from presidential chronicler and Kennedy confidante Theodore White speak to some of the delicate issues stemming from what would be the inevitable spate of books and movies of the president’s life.
“My dear, dear Bobby,” White, responding to an invitation from the family to pen a definitive biography, begins a Dec. 27, 1963, letter in which he confides to being still in such “emotional shock” over the assassination that he “can’t yet think clearly about anything.”
White asks if he would be given exclusive access to some of the late president’s papers, and also relates his desire to avoid any perception that he was seeking to profit off the tragedy.
The files also include notes, apparently given to RFK, that describe a secret visit made to Moscow by William Walton, a journalist and painter who was a close friend of President Kennedy, one week after the assassination. Walton, who met with top Soviet officials, wrote of sadness and uncertainty JFK’s death had brought in Moscow.
“It is difficult to describe the depth of the Russian reaction to the President’s death — on all levels, from top bureaucrats who brushed aside tears as they spoke of him, to charwomen who sobbed and gave me paper flowers to put on JFK’s grave,” Walton wrote.
Walton, whose visit would not be revealed until decades later, also wrote that Soviet officials were unsure of the new U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, and wanted a meeting between Johnson and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arranged as quickly as possible.
It was the third and final release of papers from Kennedy’s years as attorney general that had long been in the possession of the library but controlled by the Kennedy family under federal rules in effect at the time of RFK’s murder in 1968.