The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination is upon us.
John F. Kennedy was the first—and so far only—American president to be Catholic.
He was not a particularly good Catholic.
His policy on Church-state relations has been widely faulted as contributing to the marginalization of religion in American society.
But nobody deserves to be gunned down in the street the way he was, and the Kennedy assassination has left us with an enduring mystery.
At present, only 29% of the American public accepts the claim that he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting as a lone gunman.
By contrast, 62% of the American public thinks that he was killed as the result of a conspiracy. Another 8% apparently isn’t sure.
That means that 70% of the American public don’t buy the version of the story that major elements in the government and the mainstream media have pushed for the last 50 years.
Does this show that 70% of the public are naïve? That they are fools? That they are crazed conspiracy theorists?
No. Whether or not there was a conspiracy, you don’t have to be crazy to think there was.
Here’s why . . .
The Two “Official” Investigations
Shortly after the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson convened a panel of dignitaries headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the event.
This was dubbed “the Warren Commission,” and it reported its results in 1964.
It concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted on his own and was not part of a conspiracy.
Although this was the official version promulgated by government and mainstream media channels, subsequent polls over the years have shown that a large numbers of Americans—even a large majority of Americans—are skeptical of its conclusions.
This led to a second investigation, conducted by the U.S. Congress to begin its own investigation. In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations came to the opposite conclusion—that President Kennedy had been killed as the result of a conspiracy.
The American public was thus presented with two official investigations coming to opposite conclusions.
Both the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee has been criticized, and there is reason for both to be criticized. Neither was perfect.
The fact that they reached opposite conclusions, though, means that a closer look at the evidence is warranted. This leads to . . .
My Own Study
The Cold War is one of the periods in history that I study, and over the years I’ve done quite a bit of reading about the Kennedy assassination.
I’ve made a point of reading books by both the defenders of the claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and by critics of this view.
Books on both sides of the issue make good points—as well as bad ones. There are a lot of problematic arguments and claims made both by supporters and defenders of the lone-gunman hypothesis.
Because of this, I’ve tried to take a skeptical stance toward the arguments made by both sides—to dismiss ones that aren’t solid.
In particular, I dismiss out of hand claims that aren’t supported by primary sources. There’s too much junk among the secondary sources.
In a piece of this length, there’s no way that I could review the voluminous material that’s out there, but I would like make a few points that converge on the conclusion that you are not crazy if you think there was a conspiracy.
I’m not saying that there was, but there is enough evidence that the claim should not be dismissed out of hand.
So here we go . . .
1) Conspiracies exist
The first point is the rather obvious fact that conspiracies exist. That’s why we have laws against them. If two persons agree together to commit a crime, they’re engaging in a conspiracy, and that happens all the time.
It wouldn’t be necessary to make this point except that the mainstream media has done its best to make everyone who thinks there was been a conspiracy in this area sound like a kook. The very term “conspiracy theory” is pejorative.
Admittedly, many JFK conspiracy advocates are kooks, but that doesn’t make the idea itself kooky, because conspiracies do exist.
You can probably name some—even famous ones: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Mafia.
2) Assassinations can involve conspiracies
Sometimes, conspirators agree to commit the particular crime of assassination.
This has happened repeatedly in history: Julius Caesar was killed by a conspiracy. Caligula was killed by a conspiracy. So were many other historical figures.
What about American presidents?
Four have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.
- The first assassination involved a conspiracy: John Wilkes Booth was the leader of an anti-Lincoln conspiracy.
- The second involved a lone gunman: Charles Guiteau seems to have been a lone nut, acting on his own, when he shot President Garfield.
- The third case is ambiguous: Anarchist Leon Czolgosz may or may not have been acting in conjunction with other anarchists when he shot President McKinley.
- And the fourth case—the Kennedy assassination—is the one we are considering.
So if the idea that a presidential assassination can be the result of a conspiracy is not to be dismissed out of hand, what particular evidence might lead one to think that the Kennedy assassination involved one?
3) Who Oswald Was
Lee Harvey Oswald was a troubled young man who spent time in the U.S. Marine Corps before defecting to the Soviet Union in 1959 and then defecting back to the U.S. in 1962.
Despite this being the height of the Cold War (a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis—which brought us to the brink of nuclear war), Oswald was granted permission to return to the United States, with his Russian bride and their baby girl.
His status as a multiple-defector raised questions about his having possible connections with Russian intelligence, American intelligence, or both.
After he was fingered as the assassin of President Kennedy, people could and did raise the question of whether he was acting on behalf of the Soviets.
- Given his Soviet connection, he would have been plausibly viewed as part of a Communist conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
- Given his troubled life, he could plausibly be viewed as a lone nut who decided to kill Kennedy on his own.
- Given both of these two things, paradoxically, Oswald could make a suitable “patsy” or “fall guy” for the crime—someone who could be seen either as a Soviet agent or a lone nut.
4) Oswald’s Attitude
Unless they are hired by others, assassins tend to really hate the person they are killing. Think about it: They are so angry at this person that they are willing to take human life.
They also frequently think they are doing so as part of some higher cause.
As a result, they are frequently proud of what they have done. They may even expect to become justly famous for it.
- Thus John Wilkes Booth, after shooting Lincoln, jumped on the stage at Ford’s Theater, held a knife above his head, and shouted in triumph to the audience. Witnesses said he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis”—the Latin phrase meaning “Thus always to tyrants!” This is widely attributed to Marcus Junius Brutus when he assassinated Julius Caesar. It was also the Virginia state motto. Some witnesses also said they heard Booth shout “"I have done it, the South is avenged!"
- Charles Guiteau was similarly unrepentant after killing President Garfield. In custody of the authorities, he declared: “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. . . . Arthur is president now!” (The Stalwarts were a group in the Republican Party that Garfield did not belong to, but his vice president—Chester A. Arthur—did.)
- Similarly, Leon Czolgosz was proud of what he did. Just before his electrocution, he stated: “"I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people—the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."
All of this contrasts with Oswald’s attitude. Rather than proudly claiming responsibility for his action (which one might have expected from a dedicated Communist angry enough to kill the U.S. president), Oswald denied involvement and famously stated: “I’m just a patsy.”
His attitude is so different from that of other presidential assassins that it’s worth further consideration.
5) The assassin assassinated
Remarkably, Oswald did not live to stand trial. He was himself assassinated while in the custody of the Dallas Police Department.
The event occurred on Sunday, November 24, less than 48-hours after the presidential assassination.
The Dallas police were in the process of transporting Oswald from their headquarters to the county jail.
They had gotten Oswald down into the basement garage of police headquarters, intending to place him in a protected vehicle for transportation to the county jail.
Then, Jack Ruby (a.k.a. Jacob Rubenstein), a local nightclub owner with ties to the Mafia, emerged from the crowd and shot him in the chest.
Since Oswald’s transfer to the country jail was being televised live, across the U.S., this was the first murder committed live on U.S. television.
Though he was friendly with both the Dallas police and the mob, Jack Ruby had no authorization to be in police headquarters during the transfer, raising the question of how he got in to the supposedly secure facility.
The killing of Oswald by Ruby would seem to be explainable in two ways:
- Ruby was a second lone individual who was able to infiltrate police headquarters and who then killed Oswald for his own reasons.
- Ruby was sent to kill Oswald and granted access to the facility (or was known in advance to have it).
The first would be surprising on two grounds: (1) It would present us with a second “lone nut” and (2) this second lone nut was able to gain access to the first during an extremely short window of opportunity, amid high security conditions, with a deadly weapon, without the complicity of others.
The second would be consistent with the idea of a broader conspiracy on two grounds: (1) If Oswald was a patsy (or, at least, not the only person involved) there would be reason to eliminate him quickly, lest he spill what he knew, and (2) other people involved could have granted Ruby access.
6) Ruby’s reaction
Just as Oswald’s reaction after the events of November 22 is significant, so is Ruby’s reaction after those of November 24th.
Early on, he stated that he had killed Oswald on the spur of the moment, to prevent Jacqueline Kennedy from having to come to Dallas to testify in the foreseen trial of Oswald.
At one point, Ruby reportedly gave a note to his attorney, Joseph Tonahill, which stated:
"Joe, you should know this. My first lawyer Tom Howard told me to say that I shot Oswald so that Caroline and Mrs. Kennedy wouldn't have to come to Dallas to testify. OK?"
Later, in a press conference, he said the following:
RUBY: The world will never know the true facts of what occurred—my motives. . . .
The people had, that had so much to gain, and had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world.
REPORTER: Are these people in very high positions, Jack?
Ruby also, in his testimony to the Warren Commission, repeatedly requested to be taken to Washington, D.C., so that he could tell what he knew—apparently fearing for his life.
In his transcripted remarks, we read:
Mr. RUBY. Is there any way to get me to Washington?
Chief Justice WARREN. I beg your pardon?
Mr. RUBY. Is there any way of you getting me to Washington?
Chief Justice WARREN. I don't know of any. I will be glad to talk to your counsel about what the situation is, Mr. Ruby, when we get an opportunity to talk.
Mr. RUBY. I don't think I will get a fair representation with my counsel, Joe Tonahill. I don't think so. I would like to request that I go to Washington and you take all the [lie-detector] tests that I have to take. It is very important. . . .
Mr. RUBY. There is only one thing. If you don't take me back to Washington tonight to give me a chance to prove to the President [i.e., Lyndon Johnson] that I am not guilty, then you will see the most tragic thing that will ever happen.
And if you don't have the power to take me back, I won't be around to be able to prove my innocence or guilt.
The assassin of Oswald—who initially claims that he did the deed on the spur of the moment, to spare Mrs. Kennedy an emotional trauma—thus becomes much more ambiguous, stating that his original story was recommended to him by his original lawyer, giving a press conference in which he hinted at larger reasons involving people in high positions, and also asking to be taken away from Dallas so he could tell the full story in safety.
7) Ruby dies
Ruby himself did not live long. He died on January 3, 1967 from a pulmonary embolism secondary to lung cancer.
He apparently claimed, though, that his death was not natural.
Dallas Deputy Sheriff Al Maddox claimed: "Ruby told me, he said, 'Well, they injected me for a cold.' He said it was cancer cells. That's what he told me, Ruby did. I said you don't believe that b***s***. He said, 'I damn sure do!'”
I have no idea whether it’s possible to inject someone with cancerous cells to cause cancer. Ruby’s understanding of what happened may well have been mistaken.
But we do know that the U.S. government was researching ways to kill people with various substances. Fidel Castro was the intended target for some of these.
And some cases of assassination by radiation poisoning in other parts of the world have come to light.
Regardless of why Ruby died, he died at a very interesting time.
After failing to get transferred out of Dallas when he spoke to the Warren Commission, Ruby’s lawyers attempted to get a new trial for him outside of Dallas, where they said pre-trial publicity had made it impossible for him to get a fair hearing.
Eventually, the courts agreed, and preparations were being made for a new trial in Wichita Falls, Texas in February 1967, just the month after Ruby died.
If Ruby had any co-conspirators, they might well have been afraid that, upon finally getting out of Dallas, he would tell the story he was afraid to tell there.
In fact, Deputy Sherriff Maddox went on to claim:
[Then] one day when I started to leave, Ruby shook hands with me and I could feel a piece of paper in his palm… [In this note] he said it was a conspiracy and he said … if you will keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, you're gonna learn a lot. And that was the last letter I ever got from him."
8) The Zapruder Film
In the Zapruder film (the best footage available of the assassination), at least to the casual eye, it does look like Kennedy is struck from the right front and then thrown backwards and to the left.
If so, he would have been shot from the so-called “grassy knoll,” not from (or not just from) the Texas School Book Depository.
Oswald was seen and identified on the second floor of the book depository less than two minutes after the fatal shot, so he could not have been on the grassy knoll. If there were any shots fired from there, there would have to be another gunman, and thus a conspiracy.
Now: I am not saying that the Zapruder film shows that there was a shot from the right front.
There are counter-arguments seeking to show that it does not.
My point is: To the casual eye, it looks like there was a shot from the right front, whether there was or not, and thus you don’t have to be crazy to think there was.
9) Ear-Witness Perceptions
Numerous eye-witnesses perceived shots coming from the grassy knoll.
Among them were presidential aides Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, who were riding in the Secret Service backup car, immediately behind the presidential limousine.
Some Secret Service members perceived the same thing, as did dozens of pedestrians.
In fact, just after the event, numerous pedestrians and Dallas police officers rushed up the grassy knoll to apprehend the shooter they thought was there.
Does this prove that there was a shooter there?
No, but it does show that, even in the heat of the moment, many reasonable people thought there was.
The Bottom Line
None of the individual things we have considered here prove that there was a conspiracy, but taken together they show that a reasonable person could think there was, and thus that the conspiracy hypothesis should not simply be dismissed.
- There are such things as conspiracies, and sometimes they involve assassinations, even when the American president is the target.
- In this case, we have an assassination in which the alleged shooter fails to behave like a normal, proud and unrepentant assassin. Instead, he denies involvement and claims to be a patsy.
- His background is so bizarre that he would, in fact, make a rather good patsy.
- Then, before he gets legal representation and before he tells what (if anything) he might know about the people who he thinks set him up as a patsy, he is shot dead while in police custody!
- The man who shoots him, though, is not a policeman. It’s a nightclub owner with ties to the Mafia.
- The second assassin then claims that there is much the public doesn’t know about the situation, indicating that there was a conspiracy. He begs to be taken out of Dallas so that he can tell his story, and then when he finally secures a new trial outside of the city, he drops dead the month before, after claiming that he was the victim of foul play.
- The best footage of the assassination, at least to a casual eye, suggests that the president was hit from a direction that would indicate a second gunman, and numerous witnesses on the scene perceived shots coming from that location and even rushed to the site in an attempt to capture the gunman.
You don’t have to be crazy to look at this fact pattern and think there was a conspiracy!
And we’ve only scratched the surface. We’ve only looked at top-level facts that are widely agreed upon. We haven’t descended into the detailed evidential arguments that lurk below.
Of course, there are arguments and counter-arguments concerning all of this.
My concern is not to tell you who is right. In fact, to put my cards on the table, I’d probably count myself among the 8% of Americans who aren’t sure if there was a conspiracy. At least, at this point, I’m not willing to confidently assert that there was. I’d want to do more work on the question.
But I do think that, even just considering these top-level facts, there is ample reason to take the conspiracy hypothesis seriously.
And I don’t think people who take it seriously should be sneered at.
Sympathy for the Warren Commission
The Warren Commission, which endorsed the lone-gunman hypothesis, has been widely criticized, even by people who support its ultimate conclusion.
The charge is that it did sloppy work in order to reach a pre-determined conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin.
To tell you the truth, whether Oswald acted alone or not, I don’t blame the Warren Commission for acting the way it did.
Oswald had undeniable links to the Soviet Union, and if the public had come to the conclusion that the Soviets had engineered the assassination of an American president, the demand for war would have been massive.
There is no doubt about it: We would have gone to war with the Soviet Union. We’d already had several close brushes just during the Kennedy Administration (e.g., the Bay of Pigs could have led to war, and the Cuban Missal Crisis led us to the very brink of war with Russia).
Had the public concluded that the Soviets killed our president, we would have gone to war, and it would very likely have gone nuclear.
The Warren Commission thus may have saved us from the horror of global, thermonuclear war.
Given that, it’s hard not to have sympathy for them, whatever flaws they had.
On the other hand, now that we’re fifty years on and passions have cooled, that’s no reason not to take another look at their version of events.
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