21 Nov 2013

Harold Wilson on the Kennedy legacy – ITN archive (1963)

Harold Wilson had been Labour leader for 10 months when he attended John F Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963. He tells ITN Kennedy’s legacy will be “speedier action on human rights”.

An ailing Harold Macmillan, damaged by the Profumo affair and increasing backbench unrest, had resigned as British prime minister in October 1963, so it was left to his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and the Labour leader, Harold Wilson, to speak to the nation following the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963, writes Ian Searcey.

Douglas-Home accepted that he could offer no comfort to those devastated by the tragic events, but believed that “..this dreadful deed should shock us all to dedicate ourselves anew to those things which he liked, which he loved, and for which he worked during his life… If we can help to bring to men the liberty, justice and peace for which he did so much, then we shall be doing something to serve the causes in the service of which he himself died.”

Wilson, as many had done, compared Kennedy to President Lincoln: “I think that is the way in which we shall think of the death of President Kennedy – a young man cut off with only a small fraction of his work completed.”

Only a year older than the president, Wilson worked hard to harness the Labour party to the feelings of youthful optimism and social equality growing in Britain, promising a country forged in “the white heat of technology”. Labour went on to narrowly win the 1964 general election, ending 13 years of Conservative government.

In November 1963 Harold Wilson had been leader of the Labour party for less than a year.

Interviewed by ITN on his return from President Kennedy’s funeral, Wilson talks about the “deep sense of shock” felt by Americans and about the huge crowd that attended the funeral and burial at Arlington cemetery in Washington.

Wilson, who had become Labour leader in February 1963 following the death of Hugh Gaitskell, says he briefly met the new president, Lyndon Johnson – “But I obviously didn’t try to discuss any political implications, and it would have been wrong to have done it”.

He predicts that there will be a “deep determination” for the United States to push on “with some of the things in which he (Kennedy) had led the country, particularly the civil rights issue – the question of the settlement of racial conflict”.

And he concludes that the first memorial to the late president “will be speedier action on civil rights”. Seven months later, in July 1964, Congress passed the civil rights act, a landmark piece of legislation outlawing most forms of racial segregation in the United States.