In her recent book Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation (New York: Ecco, 2010), historian Ellen Fitzpatrick published 250 letters from ordinary Americans written to Jackie Kennedy following the assassination in November 1963 of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. The letters in Fitzpatrick’s book were culled from thousands she discovered at the Kennedy Library in Boston. The letters detail in deeply personal ways how Americans from all walks of life were touched by the death of their young president.Perhaps a more astonishing story of the impact of tragedy can be found in the papers of Foy D. Kohler that are housed in UT’s Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections. The collection contains more than 100 similar letters written in 1963 to Kohler, who was then serving as the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union. These letters were not from Americans, however, but rather were written by citizens of the Soviet Union.
Coming at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States and Russia had aimed nuclear warheads at each other, these letters show a surprisingly different side of the Soviet Union. Rather than a Cold War, they reveal the great warmth of the Soviet people and the profound sense of tragedy they felt on the death of America’s president.
“Allow me to present my deep and sincere condolences and sympathy in connection with the death of the president of your country, John F. Kennedy. I am only an ordinary Russian citizen, but nevertheless I presume to convey to you my sympathy, since I am so deeply shaken by the tragic death of your distinguished compatriot, a good, wise and great man,” stated A. I. Odintzov, in a letter penned Nov. 23. The letter humbly ends, “Excuse me for bothering you.”
Leonid Victorov, who identified himself only as “a reader,” wrote, “In a period which was critical for the world, this man overcame the most difficult obstacles and took the road toward improving relations between our great peoples. Let us remember the words of another distinguished American, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: ‘Hope springs eternal’ and lead ourselves to this great truth.”
The letters are from Russians of all walks of life, from a class at a middle school to students at Moscow University. One contained a poem:
As a soldier at the battle post
In the prime of his life and creative deeds
He was slain by a villain.
Deserted is Kennedy’s family,
Deserted are the people,
Deserted is all the earth.
Grief and pain are left.
The Frenchman is grieving.
Italy goes into mourning.
Chairman Khrushchev stood silent minutes in Sadovaya
In memory of him —
He stood for us, for Russians.
The poem was simply signed “Iazarev.”Most of the letters convey a common theme. In addition to the senselessness of the tragedy, there is the fear that any hope for world peace was lost. Many of the Soviet citizens appear to have seen President Kennedy as a voice of reason in an unreasonable world. “For us, ordinary peoples of the world, he was the defender and the protector of the peace, the defender and protector of our rights, of our liberties, of our dignities. With these human values his name will always be linked,” wrote M. Mandossian. “We and the Soviet people knew Mr. Kennedy as a very good realist. He saw that the people of the whole world want only the peace,” wrote Igor Yova. Tamara and Volodya Kulishov noted President Kennedy was “known as a great statesman, as a prominent fighter against racism, who has done so much for peace, to promote further cooperation between our two countries. We came to respect him.” One letter even included a photograph of the writer’s two young children.
In addition to providing insight into the thoughts of everyday Russians, Kohler’s papers also reveal the more formal side of the ambassador’s duties following such a shattering event. Included is a copy of the letter sent by Kohler to his counterpart, Andrei Gromyko, minister of foreign affairs, on Nov. 23 that officially conveyed the news of Kennedy’s death and the succession of Lyndon Johnson to power. The letter notes that beginning that day, the American embassy would recognize 30 days of mourning, and that a book of condolences would be available to leave messages of sympathy. Kohler’s papers include that book. It contains the signatures of most of the ambassadors from countries with embassies in Moscow. It also contains the signature of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and several of his close associates.
Ambassador Kohler was clearly moved by the outpouring of sympathy he received on the death of President Kennedy. The files also contain a letter he sent to the editor of Izvestiya, a Moscow newspaper, asking that the paper publish “a notice of our deep appreciation for the sharing of our grief by so many Soviet citizens.”
Foy Kohler remained in Moscow as ambassador through 1966. In his later career, he served as deputy undersecretary of state for political affairs, as a consultant to the Department of State, and a professor at the Center for Advanced International Studies at the University of Miami in Florida. His last position was a senior associate at the Advanced International Studies Institute in Washington, D.C.
Kohler died in Jupiter, Fla., in 1990. Because of the fondness he felt for The University of Toledo, which he attended from 1924 to 1927, he donated his papers to the Canaday Center. The collection of more than 90 linear feet of historical material documents all aspects of Kohler’s career, including that fateful day in November 1963.
Floyd is director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections.