Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a majority of Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald — a lone gunman — killed the president shooting a mail-order rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
Conspiracy theories abound, and “statistical support shows that about two-thirds of people believe there was a conspiracy, with the rest split between lone gunman and don’t know,” said Southern Methodist University professor Tom Stone, who subscribes to the theory of Oswald as a lone gunman who was influenced by outside forces.
The CIA, the mafia, the Soviets and the Cubans all had their reasons for wanting to eliminate Kennedy.
Then-Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson “had the most to gain in the short term,” said Stone, who has taught a JFK assassination course at the university since the early ‘90s. “People do not want to accept that this insignificant man could have acted alone. The Kennedy case is overwhelmingly complex. There is no solid ground. Every fact has a counterfact.”
Right from the beginning there were doubters because “the Warren Commission was fatally flawed,” said David Talbot, popular historian and founder of Salon.com.
“History will prove that a lone nut theory is ludicrous,” said Talbot, who is the author of “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” which delved into Robert Kennedy’s search for his brother’s killer. Talbot is working on a new book, “The Devil’s Chessboard,” about Allen Dulles, Kennedy’s first director of the CIA, whom he fingers as involved in the assassination along with the intelligence community at the time.
For many people the official investigation into JFK’s assassination, the Warren Commission, is synonymous with cover-up. President Lyndon Johnson created the commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a week after JFK’s death to investigate the assassination. Its members met for almost 10 months and delivered a detailed, conclusive and controversial 889-page report that said both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone. The commission was needed because with Oswald dead — murdered by Ruby on live TV — there would be no trial to determine Oswald’s guilt or innocence.
The Warren Commission “largely drew the correct conclusions, but the process by which it operated was so flawed. There are so many unexplored areas,” said Stone. “One volume was released, but there were also 26 unindexed volumes of material. They made it too hard for Americans to access, to absorb, to make sense of it,” Stone said. “They found the answer they wanted to find.”
Why the theories
“Conspiracy theories abound because some very bright people in the few years after the Warren Commission studied its 26 volumes of printed evidence and wrote books pointing out in detail how the Commission’s conclusions were not supported by its evidence, from the single bullet theory to the Oswald story,” said Rex Bradford, president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, an online archive devoted to research on John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Page 2 of 3 - At the height of the Cold War with Americans shocked and scared, the commission found an answer that would bring peace of mind, Talbot and Stone said.
The criticisms of the Warren Commission begin with its members. Some of the seven men were political enemies of Kennedy such as Dulles, whom he fired as director of CIA, and banker and diplomat John McCloy, said Talbot. Additionally, “vital information was withheld by the CIA and FBI,” Talbot said.
The Warren report failed to satisfy many people, but it was especially glaring to first-person witnesses who reported hearing shots from the infamous grassy knoll. Additionally, “there was overwhelming medical evidence from physicians at Parkland (Memorial Hospital) where Kennedy was treated that he had wounds in the front of his throat that couldn’t have come from the sixth floor of the (Texas School) Book Depository and that there had to have been more than one shooter,” Talbot said.
Powerful people also had their doubts. Robert Kennedy “wanted more” than the Warren Commission found out, but he also didn’t want to expose his brother’s secrets such as his medical conditions, Stone said.
“RFK secretly dedicated the rest of his life to finding out who killed his brother. He never believed” in a lone gunman, Talbot said.
RFK’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., said his father thought the Warren Commission was “a shoddy piece of craftsmanship,” when he was publicly interviewed by Charlie Rose in January. “The evidence at this point I think is very, very convincing that it was not a lone gunman,” Kennedy Jr. said in the interview.
While people questioned the truth from the beginning, as time went by doubts only increased.
“On the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, people thought it was foolish to believe in one lone gunman,” Stone added.
When the Zapruder film of the assassination was widely seen on network television in 1975, it led to the forming of the House Select Committee on Assassination, which in 1978 found that Kennedy was very likely killed as the result of a conspiracy, Talbot said.
The belief in who killed JFK is handed down through generations, said Southern Methodist University professor Dennis Simon.
“People who weren’t alive then, who don’t understand the culture or politics of the time, have opinions. They know the words ‘grassy knoll’ or ‘magic bullet,’” said Simon. The magic bullet, or single-bullet, theory was introduced by the Warren Commission to explain how the bullet that killed Kennedy entered his upper back, exited his throat, and then struck Texas Gov. John Connally, breaking a rib and shattering his wrist, and finally coming to rest in his thigh. Connally was riding directly in front of Kennedy in the limousine.
Page 3 of 3 - Filmmaker Oliver Stone (no relation to the professor) added fuel to the fire with the release of “JFK” in 1991. The well-crafted, highly rated film “shook people up,” said Simon. “It led to the release of many more documents much earlier than they were supposed to be. It was a very persuasive movie — it was filmed to be — and it changed people’s minds,” Simon said.
“At the time people called him ridiculous, but it was very brave. The film catalyzed debate that the country desperately needed,” Talbot said.
The 50th anniversary brings a flood of new books and documentaries but not any closure, Talbot said. “There’s only more confusion.”