Reflection on MSC in the Wake of the Kennedy Assassination

By David Swingle, MSU Class of ‘65

Shots fired?  Dallas? JFK wounded or killed?  I moved along with Montana State College (MSC) students who began to gravitate into and around Danforth Chapel near the center of MSC at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963.  Somber, wide-eyed, with soft voices, we shared rumors that President Kennedy had been shot, or at least shot at, in Dallas.  By means of car radios and pocket transistors we gained confirmation of the President’s death by 1:00 p.m..  But who did this? Was this the beginning of a coup, or an attack by right-wingers or Communists or Cubans or by USSR agents, perhaps by a deranged person or even elements of Kennedy’s enemies in our own government?

Uncertainty permeated the Danforth group now jammed into the chapel and surrounded by the exterior crowd. Windows were opened to help the outsiders hear something, to get some sort of guidance. No faculty stepped forward but several students pushed to the front and addressed us from the chapel lectern.  Silence among the crowd was absolute. In several short, lucid speeches they advised everyone present to remain calm and to avoid repeating the tragic and hysterical events following the Abraham Lincoln assassination 97 years previously, April 14, 1865.  The ad hoc leaders led several short prayers and then advised the students to go home and to listen to information being released by radio news bulletins from Dallas.

Bozeman was still isolated and remote in 1963.  Local mass media was limited to two low-power AM radio stations, KXLQ and KBMN.  KXLQ was an NBC affiliate and KBMN was entirely a local station.  Television was received in Bozeman as snowy black and white pictures over 30-inch antennas or via primitive TV cable from KXLF in Butte and KFBB in Great Falls, neither of which was connected to a national feed.  Few homes had TV sets.  The Student Union had one large set in the SUB lounge and the room was packed with students for the next several days as events in Dallas and Washington DC continued.

Ham (amateur) radio was important to transmitting immediate news and rumors about the Kennedy Assassination.  “Hams” around the world relayed news stories and rumors with alacrity but not necessarily with solid journalism.  Local “hams” called their “information” into the radio stations and to the Chronicle.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle was a six-day-per-week, late-afternoon four – eight page paper connected to the news world with an AP teletype and photo facsimile machine.  Because it was printed in the early afternoon, the Chronicle was able to rush early news into the paper.  The Gallatin County Tribune was a weekly compendium of local news and savage anti-progress editorial opinion.  The Exponent was the student weekly for MSC carrying some campus news and student opinion pieces.  The Stiletto was a newly founded student “underground” mimeographed paper devoted to fun and stirring up various campus issues (and never mentioned the assassination in any issue).

Nov.22 was a grey, dreary, chilly day at MSC.  We drifted away from the chapel in small groups of friends, returning to our dorms, apartments and fraternities.  The US flag in the center of the campus was dropped to half-mast.  Our mood was anxious, even fearful.  Since our start in college, mostly in 1960, ’61, ‘62 and ’63, many of us were barely aware of shifting dynamics in the world but were quite aware of severe political fissures here in our remote, somewhat backward campus. That is — until the Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct. 1962 awoke us to international politics.

Only 13 months before the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly ignited thermonuclear war.  When it began in mid-October 1962 we would often look up between classes to see contrails from Air Force bombers being re-deployed away from targeted military air bases.  Some of us listened by radio station KXLQ to Kennedy’s address to the nation 5:00 p.m., Oct. 22, 1962 announcing that medium-range nuclear missiles from the USSR were ready to launch from Cuba, threatening the entire east coast, center and southwest of the US and that he was “quarantining “ Cuba against further ships arriving from the USSR.  It was clear to us that the slightest military miscalculation could escalate into a civilization-destroying war.

MSC was mainly a science and technology school and nearly everyone on campus had enough background to understand the implications of radioactive fallout and total social disruption that would follow an all-out thermonuclear war.  All male MSC students had to enroll in two years of basic Army or Air Force ROTC.  Modern tactics and defenses were taught thoroughly including means of protecting ourselves from fallout.  Many of the ROTC students knew and discussed with other students that the Northwest was a primary strike zone for Soviet missiles.  There were Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Tactical Air Command (TAC) bases throughout the northern border states and these would certainly be hit.  We did not know that Malmstrom Air Force Base (AFB) in Great Falls had fully deployable Minuteman nuclear missiles but clearly it was a prime target.  (Note: these Montana-based instant-launch intercontinental nuclear missiles were what Kennedy termed his “ace-in-the-hole” in dealing with Khrushchev and the Soviet nuclear war threat during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

The world was impinging on our sheltered student lives.  The Civil Rights Movement was flaring in the South and race war seemed distantly possible.  1950’s McCarthyism was still engendering fear, especially in college faculties and had badly damaged MSC.  Ugly in-state politics had produced a series of nationally publicized incidents on both the MSU (now U of M) campus and MSC campus, particularly the Leslie Fiedler incident.  Due to his politics Fiedler, a nationally recognized writer and literary critic and professor at Missoula was not allowed to speak at the Bozeman campus after being invited by MSC departments.  The national press widely publicized this bit of political theater and many students were well aware of it as a disgrace and an impingement on academic freedom.

As we began college the fierce battle continued between ultra conservative Governor Don Nutter, newly elected in 1960, and Dr. R. R. Renne the dynamic president of MSC over salaries, curriculum content and facilities.  By 1963, much of the more senior MSC staff had departed for states where higher education was respected, not denigrated and was better paid.  Nutter was killed in an airplane crash in 1962.  Harvey Griffin, editor and publisher of the Gallatin County Tribune provided endless editorials excoriating MSC, its leadership, civil rights, students, the New Deal and social progress in general, intentionally dividing Town and Gown.

Classes were cancelled for Monday, Nov. 25.  The state funeral for Kennedy was scheduled for that day, a national day of mourning.  On Sunday, Nov. 24, I needed solitude from the endless speculation on the assassination.  Was it a conspiracy? Was there a shot from the “Grassy Knoll” from in front of the President’s car as well as from the rear?  Why had Kennedy insisted on a visit to Dallas, a city in a state filled with enemies?  I chose to [sort of] go elk hunting on foothills east of Ross’s Peak, not really good elk habitat but a good place to walk and think. I arrived back in Bozeman after dark and went to a friend’s house for supper and was greeted by the news that Oswald had been murdered that morning while in police custody in Dallas.  I was astonished.  The local radio news had carried little useful news on this event but the filmed replays of it on Montana television appeared late in the evening of Jack Ruby walking right up to Oswald and shooting him point-blank.  Late into the evening our discussions were filled with conspiracies, cover-ups and incredulity at the Dallas police department for exposing this key witness to assassination.  We felt a sense of despair that these violent events would never be properly explained.

On Monday, Nov 25, most of us listened to the Kennedy funeral on radio.  The TV in the Student Union was only carrying KFBB’s and KTVM’s [flown-in] stale footage from the previous days’ events.  The somber drums, the sound of the caisson passing, the quiet narration, the volleys at the burial all were live on KXLQ radio which had patched in to its NBC network.  Finally in the evening we saw the film footage of the funeral, film footage that had been flown in late that day to Great Falls and Butte for delayed broadcast.

Tuesday, Nov. 26 classes resumed but most students had left for the security of their homes on Thanksgiving, Nov, 28. Gradually during December the pall over the campus lifted but our prior sense of security had been shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis and shattered by the deaths in Dallas of Kennedy, Officer J.D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald, their murderer.

Now the turbulent ‘60’s were well underway, into war, rebellion, political disorder and polarization, cynicism, racial and gender politics, and a general loss of faith in the post-WII order we had been born into.  Yet, our college generation chose to be activist, as JFK had advocated in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

Most of us graduated in the mid ‘60s and began our professional lives amid turbulence and uncertainty.  The War in Vietnam divided friends, families and political alliances.  The Cold War’s MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) dynamics loomed over civilization for three decades more.  Remaking nearly every aspect of US society was painful but has yielded a much more enlightened nation much truer to our founding principles.  Racism is less overt; human rights for all have somewhat improved; resource management better considers eventual outcomes; the Cold War has retreated but still lurks in the shadows of world politics; but we are not the same innocents that we were before Nov. 22, 1963.

We were no longer passive.

Mr. Swingle is Teaching Professor of Museum Studies at MSU and the founding director of the Bridger Alternative School, a division of Bozeman High School.