You will find Britain’s memorial to JFK at Runnymede, an area of meadow land on the banks of the River Thames in the county of Surrey. The 35th President of the United States of America was gunned down in Dallas aged 46 on 22nd November 1963, having been in office for less than 3 years. His memorial is contained within an acre of British land, gifted by the people of Britain to the people of America in perpetuity. The spot is a pleasant one, and appropriate; Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which many believe laid the foundation for English (and later British and American) civil liberties was sealed nearby in 1215.
The memorial is more than an inscribed monument. The designer, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, was inspired by Bunyan’s allegory of life in Pilgrim’s Progress to create a memorial that starts as soon as you step through the simple wooden gate. You proceed through the wild woods of human existence along a stepped cobbled path, the cobbles symbolising people met along the way and the 50 unique steps representing the States of America. I’m not sure I get all of that, but the memorial itself, a 7 ton block of Portland stone from the same quarry used to build St Paul’s Cathedral, seems to float in the air. Carved on it are some noble words from President Kennedy’s inaugural speech on 20th January 1961:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
It is hard, more than half a century on, to understand what the brutal slaying of John Fitzgerald Kennedy meant to many in these islands at the time. Even now, it does more than simply attract the interest of conspiracy theorists. Clearly, the man was no saint and his father was, from what I’ve read, an unpleasant individual who also seemed to nurse a particular brand of tribal bigotry against my country. But JFK appeared to reach out everywhere and, in the words of Harold Macmillan, was “one of those rare personalities who seemed born to bridge the gulf dividing races and creeds and help build the unity of all mankind.” Not everyone will agree with that and someone obviously disliked Kennedy enough to go to a great deal of trouble to get rid of him. However, in a civilised democratic society, you do not solve your differences through violence and at the point of a gun – for there lies the path to anarchy or totalitarianism. Moreover, taking out a properly elected political leader undermines everyone’s sense of security; if ‘they’ can get to him/her, are any of us safe? I believe Kennedy did inspire, and symbolised something positive – a sincere belief in liberty – perhaps youth, a fresh approach less than 20 years after the bloodiest war the world has ever known? And who amongst us can fail to see the human tragedy in his passing? Irrespective of what anyone thought of his personality, beliefs, or policies, it was – and is – the manner of his murder that disturbs people most. I am just old enough to remember the grainy TV news coverage of his assassination and the horrified reaction of my parents; they were stunned. Harold Macmillan and his wife Dorothy’s personal message to Jackie Kennedy said, “We are numbed by the shock of Jack’s death.” That feeling crossed political divides in Britain and I’m sure was echoed in most homes.
The Runnymede Memorial was made possible by a huge public response to a government-led appeal. It was officially opened on 14th May 1965 by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Jackie Kennedy, her two children and the late president’s brother, Robert – himself later gunned down, on 6th June 1968.
But there was also enough in the memorial fund to enable the creation of a living memorial, by establishing the Kennedy Memorial Trust on 4th July 1964. The Trust provides scholarships for British graduates to study at two of the USA’s top universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
You’ll notice the Trust was established on a fitting anniversary for the USA – Independence Day, of course, the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their freedom from tyrannical British Rule, cricket, decent ale, bad teeth, awful plumbing and a whole lot more besides. We joke about the differences – two nations divided by a common language and all that – but sometimes forget the things we have in common. So I think the Kennedy Memorial represents something else too. It symbolises friendship, ties of shared heritage, culture (mostly), values and, yes, blood as well. The world is a much smaller place now. In an idle, idealistic, moment I speculate that there should be a friendship monument to every other signed up nation in every respective capital across the globe. Remember we’re all related anyway. Which, if you’ve ever wandered along the seafront at Blackpool after dark, is a terrifying thought.