End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson
I already know what you’re going to say. “Another book about the Kennedy assassination? What new could we possibly learn? What new half-baked conspiracy theory have we not heard?”
Well, cool your jets. Yes, this is another book about the Kennedy assassination, but it is not a conspiracy tome. In fact, End of Days is as straight-laced an account as your likely to get about the tragic events of November 22, 1963. It is a moment-by-moment chronicle that sticks to the facts of the matter, bringing to life an historic moment and its impact that can truly be appreciated by those of us who have grown up in a post-JFK world.
James L. Swanson first came to my attention with his book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. This riveting tale of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination gave a chilling view of the mindset of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators, telling in rich but easily digestible detail why and how he pulled off the killing of the president, his escape, and his eventual capture and death. Manhunt was a great read that combined historical fact with gripping true crime drama.
Swanson duplicates this mix perfectly with End of Days. He takes time to set up the crime, introducing the perpetrator, Lee Harvey Oswald, as a confused young man who was hardly a communist or a patriot, but really just a nobody who desperately wanted to make a mark in this world. The victim, John F. Kennedy, is portrayed in a fateful way as a man of vision and promise with a dark view of his own destiny.
I did my time as a JFK assassination junkie, so I am on top of most of the important details of the case as well as the tinfoil-hat theories that evolved from it. But one piece of information that was new to me in Swanson’s book is the lengths to which Jaqueline Kennedy went in her attempts to memorialize her husband. Some might even say that she was looking to whitewash history.
JFK’s widow made no secret that she wanted to ensure that the country would never forget her husband, his life, or the way he died. From the bloodstained pink suit she refused to change out of on November 22 to the meticulous detail she put into organizing his memorial service and funeral, Jaqueline Kennedy executed her agenda to perfection.
But she didn’t stop at what people saw on the television. She wanted history to record the 35th president in a certain way. On Thanksgiving weekend after the assassination and funeral, Jackie called Theodore White, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Making of the President: 1960. She lured him up to Hyannis Port to give him an exclusive interview for Life magazine. It was a highly coveted article, but Jackie had answers that were not in line with White’s questions.
Instead, she pushed her agenda for what she wanted Life magazine to publish—the myth of Camelot, that one brief shining moment in time when there was the promise of a great future. No Cold War, no Bay of Pigs, no civil unrest in the South, and certainly no troubling historical facts that in any way sullied the memory of John F. Kennedy.
In a way, Jackie succeeded. The passage of time has given us insight into the less than perfect elements of JFK and his presidency, but for some the myth of Camelot still endures. They never wanted to let go of the hope they felt.
It is no different for those who have embraced the various conspiracies about Kennedy’s assassination that have emerged over time. Swanson points out that many of these theories came to be out of a deep sense of confusion and disbelief. No one wanted to accept that a lone 22-year-old loser could single-handedly snuff out a man in whom people had placed so much hope and promise.
Thanks to Swanson’s End of Days, we come to understand the reasoning behind these myths, but we also are encouraged to embrace the dark realities of that cold autumn day in 1963.