Today’s blog post comes from Corinne Porter, curator at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.
November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. On that day in 1963, the news of President Kennedy’s tragic death shocked the world and plunged the United States into mourning.
Although five decades have passed, the memory of the day remains vivid to the generation of Americans that lived through the experience. Many of you may know a relative or neighbor who can recall in detail where they were when they heard the tragic news.
In the days and weeks following the death of President Kennedy, the White House received a flood of condolence mail—over 800,000 letters in the first six weeks, a figure that would eventually rise to over 1.5 million letters.
Condolences arrived from around the world. Men, women, and children from diverse backgrounds—social, economic, political, ethnic, racial, and religious—wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy and her children. They declared their shock and disbelief, supplied words of support and encouragement, shared their memories of President Kennedy, and expressed what he meant to them. They also sought to assure the Kennedy family that John F. Kennedy and his legacy would be remembered.
Many correspondents acknowledged that they were just one of the “little people,” and that they did not expect the First Lady would actually read their letters, but that they felt compelled to share their sentiments regardless. Despite the overwhelming volume of mail, Jacqueline Kennedy’s secretaries ensured that almost every condolence letter received a response expressing Mrs. Kennedy’s appreciation.
On January 14, 1964, Mrs. Kennedy gave a televised speech, during which she thanked the public for the outpouring of kindness and support:
I want to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the hundreds of thousands of messages…The knowledge of the affection in which my husband was held by all of you has sustained me, and the warmth of these tributes is something I shall never forget. Whenever I can bear to, I read them. All his bright light gone from the world.
Today, the condolence letters are housed at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Because of the immense volume received in the weeks and years after the death of President Kennedy, the Library kept a representative sample of approximately 250,000 letters. These letters are a reflection of what President Kennedy meant to the American people and citizens of the world. They remain as a transcript of the American experience at a time of great national grief.
Below is a sample of condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy and her children. For further reading, Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book, Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation, contains a selection of transcriptions of 250 condolence letters. Her book was helpful in researching for this blog post. Special thanks go to archivist Stephen Plotkin at the Kennedy Presidential Library for his assistance researching these letters.