Forty years on: who killed JFK?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11

Seconds before the fatal shooting-the presidential cavalcade enters Dealey Plaza. (James Altgens)

Seconds before the fatal shooting-the presidential cavalcade enters Dealey Plaza. (James Altgens)

As President John F. Kennedy prepared to leave Ireland after his June 1963 visit he spoke of his love for the nation and promised to return ‘in the springtime’. ‘This is not the land of my birth’, he told the crowds, ‘but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection. I am going to come back and see Old Shannon’s face again.’ As he was being driven to Air Force One he heard one last chorus of Danny Boy before he waved and went inside. An aide noticed a sign in the crowd: ‘Johnny we hardly knew ye’. Five months later his dream of a return to the land of his forefathers was shattered when he was assassinated on a fund-raising trip to Dallas, Texas. While people throughout the world were stunned at the news, in Ireland it was as if a family member had died. To this day there are Irish people who claim to know exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. But what really happened on that tragic weekend 40 years ago?
In 1964 the Warren Commission investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination concluded that he had been killed by a lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the findings were accepted by the majority of the American public. However, a significant minority greeted the findings with instant scepticism. A public opinion poll immediately afterwards revealed that 56 per cent accepted the Commission’s conclusions. By the beginning of the new century, however, scepticism had turned to incredulity. Opinion polls now showed that only around ten or eleven per cent of Americans believed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President Kennedy.

Labyrinthine conspiracy theories

The assassination of JFK has held a fascination for three generations of Americans. Forty years on it has become the great ‘whodunnit’ of the twentieth century. And the plots have become labyrinthine in their complexity. The Mafia, the CIA, the military-industrial complex, Texas oilmen, pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the KGB, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Lyndon Johnson, southern racists and the joint chiefs of staff have all come under suspicion. However, no credible evidence has surfaced to support these theories. The enduring popularity of conspiracies makes them a highly lucrative enterprise and vested interests keep the myths alive. Six million people a year visit the JFK assassination site, where ‘researchers’ peddle books, autopsy pictures and signed ‘grassy knoll witness’ photos. The visitor can experience a virtual ‘Disneyland’ of assassination themes, from limousine rides tracing JFK’s route from Love Field to Dealey Plaza to bus trips following Oswald’s escape route.

Only five months earlier President Kennedy had been sharing a cup of tea with his relations in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford.

Only five months earlier President Kennedy had been sharing a cup of tea with his relations in Dunganstown, Co. Wexford.

It is a multi-million dollar industry promoting books, videos, CD-roms, T-shirts and even board games. Conspiracy theories have brought the assassination into the world of entertainment.
So how did we arrive at this position? From the start, the fact that a crazed psychotic could have changed the world in a single moment beggared belief. The American public simply could not believe that such a monumental crime could have been committed by such a pathetic individual. The cause—Oswald was a self-appointed champion of Castro—seemed so disproportionate to the consequences.
Another answer lies in how the investigation of Kennedy’s murder was handled by the American government. In the hours following the assassination America’s leaders feared that public hysteria would demand revenge for the death of the president. At the very least their hopes for détente with the Soviet Union would be dashed. Some believed that a world war would be imminent if evidence was found that the Soviets or Cubans were behind the murder. Although intelligence agencies, using sophisticated methods, confirmed that Kruschev and Castro were not involved, President Johnson was fearful that suspicions alone could lead to conflict. The government therefore decided that they must convince the public that the president’s death was the work of a lone madman, not of some vast communist conspiracy. In the context of the time this strategy was well intentioned, but many leads pointing to Oswald’s peripheral connections with foreign agencies were ignored or swept under the carpet.
The actions of succeeding American administrations can also explain why the American public became open to persuasion by conspiracy advocates. The American people faced a litany of lies, distortions and half-truths by government agencies during the administrations of Johnson (Vietnam war), Nixon (Watergate) and Reagan (Iran–Contra), and therefore allegations of a cover-up did not appear unusual or outrageous.
The seeds of the assassination myths, however, were sown with the Warren Commission itself. Had the Commission carried out a more thorough investigation and demanded complete cooperation from the FBI and CIA, questions about Oswald and his nefarious activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination might have been immediately answered. If the FBI and CIA had been more forthcoming with the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which reinvestigated the crime in the 1970s, some of the ‘mysteries’ might never have taken hold. Had the information they held on Oswald been released to investigatory bodies there would have been little room left for the conspiracy theorists to manoeuvre.
Blame for the way suspicions were engendered can be shared. The Dallas Police were careless with Oswald, a carelessness that led to the assassin’s murder by Jack Ruby. But they were not conspiratorially involved. The FBI failed in their duty to protect the president and failed to keep Oswald under observation during the presidential visit. They had a file on Oswald that traced his movements back to his time in the Soviet Union. Two weeks before the assassination Oswald had marched into the local FBI office in Dallas and created a scene, complaining about the harassment his Russian wife was receiving from its agents who were trying to keep track of the ex-Marine defector. And former CIA Director Allen Dulles, a Warren Commission member, failed to tell his colleagues on the Commission or staff investigators about the assassination attempts against Castro. This knowledge could have given investigators an important lead on Oswald’s time in Mexico City in the short period before the assassination. In this sense the ‘cover-up’ is a historical truth.
The CIA had their reasons for withholding files from the Warren Commission and the House Assassinations Committee. During the Cold War information concerning the electronic bugging and surveillance of the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City was deemed sensitive (as it is to this day). The agency’s capabilities and the methodology of its electronic intercepts are the most highly guarded of secrets. Information gleaned from bugging is protected on the grounds that it may inevitably lead to the discovery of intelligence-gathering methodology or the exposure of undercover agents. Even though the CIA files were (and are) central to proving that Oswald was not the agent of a foreign power (or an agent of the CIA, for that matter) they have remained partially classified for these reasons. Commission members Richard Russell and Gerald Ford also knew about the Castro assassination plots. However, if no link existed between Oswald and the Soviet or Cuban governments, they reasoned, there was no reason to inform their staff investigators who wrote the Commission’s report.

Media fanned the flames of conspiracy

Initially the Warren Commission Report was well received. However, as time passed, a series of pro-conspiracy books and newspaper revelations began to chip away at the Commission’s lone assassin conclusions. The Zapruder film apparently revealed how Kennedy had been shot from the right-front; new witnesses spoke of how Oswald and his killer, Jack Ruby, had known one another; independent researchers and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison alleged that Oswald had been tied in with anti-Castro Cuban groups. Some researchers believed that shots had been fired from a nearby grassy knoll; ‘eyewitness’ after ‘eyewitness’ claimed that they had recovered their memories and were ‘now ready to talk’. Their tales were rightly treated with scepticism by government investigators but they convinced many a conspiracy author as well as the American public.
The media must also take some responsibility for fanning the flames of conspiracy thinking. Following the assassination, every witness, no matter how remote from first-hand knowledge, became a ‘news-maker’. The spotlight confused many of them; seldom did any respond with a ‘don’t know’ answer to media questions. The result was a flood of distortion and misinformation. In 1966 LIFE magazine may have played a greater role in turning the majority of Americans away from the conclusions of the Warren Report than any book written. In those days most of the country still relied heavily on the print media for its news. LIFE was an honoured part of the American scene. For an institution as conservative and important to endorse such an idea seemed, in itself, to validate the notion of conspiracy.
Thousands of new documents, released following the enactment of the JFK Records Act in 1992, also show how the Kennedys may have inadvertently fed the conspiracy machine themselves. Jacqueline Kennedy and the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, asked many of those present at the autopsy to promise not to talk about the procedure for 25 years. They feared that JFK’s health problems, about which he had lied to get elected, might be revealed. Conspiracy theorists pointed to this wall of silence as ‘proof’ of a continuing cover-up, when in fact the doctors and staff were merely adhering to the wishes of the family. Beyond the autopsy, Robert Kennedy may have worried that the Warren Commission might stumble onto the government’s plots to kill Castro. He did not want the Warren Commission investigating Cuba even though the plots had nothing to do with the assassination.

Chaos versus control

Even though assassination conspiracy theories have been successfully challenged time after time and found to be without merit, they have remained very appealing. Conspiracy theories are powerfully seductive, offering mystery and intrigue to the reader. Additionally, a conspiracy with a valid aim suggests control; the psychotic actions of a lone individual suggest chaos. And people are always looking for simple and straightforward answers. Furthermore, conspiracy theories are like the legendary Hydra—cut off one of its heads and a score of others will replace it.
Conspiracies, imagined or otherwise, are part of the culture of American society. Far-reaching and complex conspiracy themes have been the staple diet of Hollywood, with movies like The Manchurian Candidate, Conspiracy Theory, The Parallax View, Total Recall and JFK. Even television and the internet have joined forces to promote the sinister and anti-libertarian motives of the United States government. Conspiracy theories have, in the past, been promoted by idealogues, left and right alike. During the 1950s and 1960s conspiracy theorists were generally right-wingers like Joseph McCarthy who saw an America subverted by communists. By the late ’60s it was the idealists of the left who tended to see America subverted by right-wing conspiracies.

Aerial photo of Dealey Plaza used by the Warren Commission.

Aerial photo of Dealey Plaza used by the Warren Commission.

JFK conspiracies have undergone a similar shift. Early targets were the Soviets or the Cubans. By the late 1960s it was popular to suggest that the president’s death was brought about by clandestine groups or agencies that had a natural right-wing bias like the CIA, the Pentagon or right-wing Texas oilmen. Whilst the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba were busy subverting democracies in Latin America, conspiracy theorists in the United States began to look inward to the subversion of democratic institutions by faceless and powerful groups dedicated to the advancement of American corporations and the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Eisenhower spoke of.
Conspiracy advocates have promoted the JFK conspiracy myth by adopting changing tactics in their desire to keep the issue alive. When named ‘conspirators’ were discovered to have been innocent or when no evidence could be provided to support various allegations, conspiracy theorists accused the government and suggested scenarios which were impossible to discredit—a very powerful group of individuals inside officialdom killed the president, a group powerful enough to engage vast legions of workers to cover up the conspiracy. These circumstances led Professor Jacob Cohen to criticise ‘the platoons of conspiracists [who] concertedly scavenged the record, floating their appalling and thrilling “might-have-beens”, unfazed by the contradictions and absurdities in their own wantonly selective accounts, often consciously, cunningly deceitful’.

No ‘smoking gun’

Research, scientific and historical, throughout the 1990s, together with the release of government files, has now established the true circumstances surrounding the assassination, despite the protestations of the conspiracy-minded. All the major issues of the case, which centre around the existence of single or multiple assassins, have been successfully addressed by America’s leading scientific and legal experts.
Even though conspiracy advocates continue to insist that a conspiracy killed JFK, the evidence does not support their arguments. No ‘smoking gun’ from the JFK assassination files has been unearthed. Sophisticated re-enactments of the assassination using state-of-the-art technology (computer models and laser-assisted weaponry) have shown that three shots were fired, all from the direction of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where eyewitness Howard Brennan placed Oswald at the time of the shooting.

 

Oswald ephemera collected by the Warren Commission.

Oswald ephemera collected by the Warren Commission.

The rifle and the pistol were traced directly to Oswald. Spectrographic analysis of photographs purporting to show gunmen on the grassy knoll reveals only light and shadows. Neutron-activation analyses of bullet fragments support the single-bullet theory that was central to the single-assassin conclusion. A computer-enhanced version of the Zapruder film has confirmed that Oswald could have fired the three shots in the time sequence required. Ballistics experts have testified that Oswald’s rifle was more than adequate for the job. Forensic pathologists and physicists have proven that the backward snap of Kennedy’s head is consistent with a shot from the rear. Incontrovertible evidence links Oswald with the murder weapon. And credible eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence establish that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots which killed President Kennedy. His fleeing the scene of the crime established his ‘consciousness of guilt’. Incontrovertible evidence establishes that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered Police Officer Tippit within an hour of shooting President Kennedy.
Researcher Don Thomas’s acoustics research, published in 2001, alleging that more than three shots had been fired, has now been rejected by the National Academy of Sciences as flawed. Reports of Oswald’s alleged contacts with anti-Castro Cubans, KGB agents, rogue elements of the CIA and Castro’s intelligence agents have been researched fully and found to be the product of guilt by association and gross speculation. The Jim Garrison investigation, made famous by Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, in which the New Orleans District Attorney claimed to uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination, was found to be politically inspired and bogus when his files were opened for scrutiny by the Assassination Records Review Board, which reported the results of its five-year investigation of government files in 1998. Books by Gerald Posner and Patricia Lambert revealed how conspiracy advocates, fuelled by a public hooked on conspiracy theories, have continually abused the evidential record. The authors have shown how conspiracy theorists misrepresented the facts of the case through a selective use of witnesses and a presentation of crude scientific opinion about the physical evidence, and how they accused government officials of involvement without providing concrete proof. Furthermore, over a period of 40 years, documents connected to the case have been proven to be forged, ‘conspiracy witnesses’ have provided no corroborative evidence and conspiracy authors have accused innocent individuals of involvement in the crime.
Conspiracy advocates have never been able to address many logical aspects of the crime that decisively argue against conspiracy. For example, how could a conspiracy which would have to have involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people remain a secret in an age when ‘whistle-blowers’ have succeeded in everything from revealing corruption in government to initiating the impeachment of presidents?

The problem of Oswald’s motive

Confusion about motive was at the heart of the Kennedy murder. The Warren Commission failed to conclude decisively that Oswald was anything but a deranged assassin, which left open many avenues for speculation. Yet there was definitely a political motive for Oswald’s actions. He had spent his adolescence and early manhood pursuing a communist dream and searching for some kind of involvement in revolutionary activities. Disillusioned with his time spent in the Soviet Union, the young Oswald returned home searching for a new cause. He found it in Fidel Castro and began planning a way to help the revolution. As his wife Marina said, ‘I only know that his basic desire was to get to Cuba by any means and all the rest of it was window dressing for that purpose’. His friend Michael Paine said that Oswald wanted to be an active guerrilla in the effort to bring about a new world order.
During the time he spent in New Orleans he set himself up as an agent provocateur for the cause and imagined himself as a hero of the revolution. In New Orleans it was common knowledge that anti-Castro exiles had been planning another invasion of Cuba and had also been attempting to kill Castro with the assistance of the CIA. As an avid reader of political magazines and newspapers, Oswald could not have failed to see a September 1963 New Orleans newspaper article in which Castro threatened retaliation for attempts on his life. It is plausible that Oswald was inspired by this article.
Oswald’s political ideals remained with him up to the moment of his death at the hands of a Dallas self-appointed vigilante, Jack Ruby. It was inevitable that someone as politically motivated as Oswald would wish to reveal his political sympathies to the world following his arrest for the murder of the president and a Dallas police officer. However, he did not accomplish this by confessing but instead paraded around the Dallas police department giving a clenched-fist salute. Most conspiracy advocates have assumed that Oswald had been merely showing his manacled hands to reporters. But two photographs taken that tragic weekend show clearly Oswald’s left-wing salute. His actions were confirmed by Dallas police officer Billy Combest, who accompanied Oswald in the ambulance as he lay dying. According to Combest, Oswald ‘made a definite clenched-fist salute’.
However, conspiracy advocates continue to muddy the waters with the release of new books to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the assassination. Engaging in indiscriminate presentations of ‘fact’ and applying a fractured logic, they continue to construct false theories.

Oswald being escorted from a Dallas police station, seconds before he was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Some conspiracy theorists claim that they knew each other.

Oswald being escorted from a Dallas police station, seconds before he was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Some conspiracy theorists claim that they knew each other.

The end result is a narrative of half-truths and speculation ‘proving’ that President Johnson and a mixed bag of intelligence agents, military officers, gangsters and police officials conspired to eliminate a ‘dangerous’ president. Even the most erudite reader would have to spend a considerable amount of time filtering the information they present, eventually becoming overwhelmed by the masses of esoteric and highly technical data, most of it the work of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ who have been ridiculed by the scientific community. Conspiracists are, however, at an advantage in that their use of facts and evidence which supposedly support their theories is not easily verifiable. On the other hand, books which reject the conspiracy solution to the Kennedy assassination have been relatively unsuccessful because there are no real dramatic discoveries.
The true facts cannot now be established with absolute precision. Too many false leads have been sown, too many witnesses have died, and the volume of material pertaining to the case can be misinterpreted by anyone who wishes to construct a false story. And time has a way of eroding the truth. However, after 40 years of speculation we can now say, for the purposes of historical accuracy, that no evidence has been produced which can decisively point a conspiratorial finger, nor has any evidence negated the argument for Oswald’s sole guilt.

Mel Ayton is a writer and researcher.

Further reading:
M. Ayton, The JFK assassination—dispelling the myths (Woodfield, 2002).

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