Nov. 22, 1963, for those alive at the time, is one of those dates seared in the memory – just as Dec. 7, 1941, was for the previous generation and Sept. 11, 2001, is for a generation that would follow.
Recollections of those days are vivid – people remember clearly where they were when they heard the news, what they were doing, even what they had for breakfast that day.
But, the difference between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and those other two dates of infamy is that we know who was responsible for Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The Kennedy assassination? That’s another story … and what a story it is.
The history books tell us in a paragraph or two that Kennedy was killed by three shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald. End of story.
Yet, polls taken over the past 20 years have consistently showed that 60 to 75 percent of people don’t believe that Oswald acted alone and many believe he was, as he claimed when on one of his regular “perp walks” that weekend, “just a patsy.”
The official position of the U.S. government has been that Oswald was the classic “lone nut” assassin. He acted alone. He fired three shots – missing the first, hitting Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally with the second and hitting the president with the fatal head shot on the third.
The problem has been that a large segment of the American public felt that it was being duped. At the time, we lived in a society where we took our government at its word that it was telling us the truth.
The late-1960s, the Vietnam War and Watergate turned public opinion on a 180-degree turn, coming on the heels of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy assassinations that left many young Americans disillusioned with its government and official government versions of events.
The most difficult aspect of the president’s assassination began almost immediately and only snowballed over time. More than half of the eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza believed at least one shot came from the grassy knoll area – following the shooting, dozens of people ran up the slope in search of a shooter.
Medical staff at Parkland Hospital believed that both Kennedy’s neck and head wounds were the result of shots from the front.
Connally maintained until his death he wasn’t hit by the same shot as Kennedy.
Kennedy’s body was illegally removed from Parkland – at the time, killing the president wasn’t a federal crime and local authorities had jurisdiction on murders.
Furthermore, his autopsy was inept and performed by military officials with no experience in conducting a head shot autopsy – so much so that the neck wound wasn’t identified because a tracheotomy had been performed and, despite claiming a full brain was present, bullet paths weren’t tracked. The autopsy photos don’t match the wounds or the testimony of Parkland doctors.
Jack Ruby, a strip club owner, killed Oswald while he was handcuffed to a Dallas policeman, assuring there wouldn’t be a trial.
Almost immediately, researchers were faced with a slew of inconsistencies that gave birth to a multitude of “here’s who did it” conspiracy theories – and for solid reasons.
One idea is the CIA did it – Kennedy had fired CIA Director Allen Dulles after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and threatened to “break the CIA into a thousand pieces and cast the pieces to the wind.” Dulles would later filter information from the CIA to the Warren Commission – a conflict of interest of epic proportions.
Or maybe the Mafia did it. Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer, was steeped in the Mob and Kennedy’s brother Bobby Kennedy, as attorney general, had declared war on the Mafia. Historians have shown that family patriarch Joseph Kennedy had some shady dealings with the Mafia to get votes in swing states and Bobby went after the Mob hard.
Or the Cubans did it. Anti-Castro Cuban revolutionaries felt betrayed by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and pro-Castro Cubans were aware of Kennedy-backed assassination plots directed at Fidel Castro. A case could be made for both factions.
Or Lyndon Johnson did it. The Kennedys and Johnson despised one another, and Johnson’s political career was at a crossroads due to breaking scandals involving longtime friends Bobby Baker and Billy Sol Estes. Additionally, Johnson was in charge of the Texas trip planning, including a parade route that violated motorcade protocol with the sharp turns that slowly took the motorcade under the Texas School Book Depository.
Or the extreme right wing did it. Hard-core politically hawkish Texans who felt Kennedy was selling the country down the river hated him and, with Johnson waiting in the wings if Kennedy died, it was a “win-win” for them for Kennedy to be out of the picture. They had the “home court advantage” to get the job done on native soil.
Or the Russians did it. In 1963, we were at the height of the Cold War, so it got a lot of immediate attention, and fears that World War III could break out was legitimate. Few buy that story now. At the time, however, the Russians were on the short list.
In this climate, conspiracy theories have run rampant, with each of them having some basis in fact. Essentially everyone but a jealous husband was potentially shooting at Kennedy – and, considering his history, even that seems plausible. But the crime was pinned on a lone nut assassin. He was captured within two hours and nobody else has ever been viewed as a suspect, a co-conspirator or even a person of interest. Case closed.
The 24-year-old Oswald was a contradiction unto himself. He defected to Russia at the height of the Cold War in 1959 and returned to the United States two years later.
According to records, not only was he not arrested for treason, he wasn’t even de-briefed by authorities. When arrested in a Dallas theater after not paying 50 cents for a ticket, the response to that call was more than a dozen uniformed officers. Does that make sense? It would be the first of many incongruities that would follow.
The infamous “backyard photos” of Oswald with the rifle and handgun, cited as murder weapons, have been conclusively proved by Texas researcher Jack White, among others, to be clever forgeries.
The “magic bullet” that was claimed to have caused seven wounds in Kennedy and Connally (including blowing out 4 inches of Connally’s fifth rib and going through the dense radius bone in his wrist) was discovered on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital in almost pristine condition without blood or tissue on it. No subsequent re-enactments yielded remotely similar results. Does that make sense?
The Warren Commission wasn’t comprised of investigators. It was made up of lawyers who seemed charged with the duty of making the facts of the assassination fit the matrix of the lone nut assassin and quelling rumors (and other investigations) that there was a conspiracy. The case was incredibly circumstantial. When issues contrary to the apparent mission statement came up, they were either ignored or not followed up.
Additionally, the following unanswered questions remain numerous and troubling:
• Why wouldn’t Oswald shoot Kennedy when he was coming toward him on Houston Street instead of waiting for a more difficult shot on Elm?
• How could the FBI not find fingerprints on the rifle, yet the Dallas police found a latent palm print after Oswald’s death?
• How is the testimony of motorcycle officer Marrion Baker, who encountered Oswald in a second-floor lunchroom drinking a Coke 90 seconds after the shooting, discounted? Baker testified Oswald wasn’t out of breath – or excited with adrenaline.
• If Oswald was the trained assassin as claimed, why would he expend the third shell from his horribly inaccurate Mannlicher-Carcano rifle if he knew there wasn’t a fourth shell to inject into the chamber?
• Why would Oswald wipe the gun of prints and stash it on the run and leave the expended shell hulls behind?
• Finally, why would Oswald shoot JFK from where he works, easily placing himself on a short list of suspects?
Whether Oswald acted alone is the essential issue at the center of the assassination debate. In simple terms, we had a coup d’état in the United States in 1963.
But here’s the critical follow-up question: Did one man kill Kennedy, or it was more orchestrated? The difference between those two answers is about as big as you can get.
There is plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists to investigate. As things stand, those in positions of power still maintain Oswald fired the only shots that hit Kennedy.
The fact that most Americans don’t believe that theory has made the Kennedy assassination a hall of mirrors for researchers.
We may never know the full truth of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. People will still have their doubts, and for some, there is little that can be done to change their minds. One outcome is clear, however. The implications of a coup d’état that succeeded will keep the debate raging for years to come.
Freelancer John Holler has been a
government reporter in Minnesota for 20 years and a JFK assassination “buff” for 30 years. Holler has made three visits to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where he has witnessed the view of the assassination from both the Texas School Book Depository and the grassy knoll vantage points.