On 22 November 1963 the world was stunned to learn that Kennedy had been shot to death as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Within hours of Kennedy's shooting, the Dallas police arrested his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a mysterious, twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine who had lived in the Soviet Union, brought home a Russian wife, and sympathized with Castro. He was unfortunately never brought to trial because two days after his arrest, in full view of a national television audience, he was shot and killed in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who reportedly was grief-stricken over Kennedy's assassination. Less than a year later, a presidential commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy, that Oswald had not been part of a conspiracy. But from the time of the assassination itself, a significant part of the public was incredulous at the thought of a lone assassin, and the Warren Commission's findings and methods were subjected to endless second-guessing. In 1979 a special congressional investigation concluded that it was probable that more than one person was involved in Kennedy's assassination, though it was unable to identify anyone besides Oswald or to determine the nature and extent of the conspiracy. Articles and books about the crime number in the thousands and range from careful and thoughtful investigation and analysis to unsupported speculation and maudlin fantasy. On one level, the fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy's death, a mass wish somehow to make it explicable or, in a sense, to undo it.
The depth of the public reaction to Kennedy's assassination can be explained in several ways. Although there had been attempts on the lives of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman, no American president had been assassinated since William McKinley in 1901. Television brought the Kennedy tragedy into people's lives with an intimacy that had never been known before. Many thousands had stood by the tracks as Lincoln's funeral train passed by, but now the entire country mourned at a presidential funeral. But it is probably safe to say that even if Kennedy had died suddenly of natural causes or through an accident, the public grief would have been great. Kennedy had become identified with many of mankind's hopes and aspirations—peace, racial justice, economic development, public service, social reform, a striving for excellence, and a seeking after New Frontiers on earth and in space. Toward these goals, he brought vitality, grace, and reason. Then, unexpectedly, irrationally, at the age of forty-six, he was dead, and the world was left wondering what might have been. His death at an early age called up the unfairness and tragedy of life.