The Kennedy assassination has become known as the “mother of all conspiracy theories.” With the possible exception of Pearl Harbor, no other event in U.S. history has excited so much controversy, with literally hundreds of books—and Oliver Stone’s popular movie JFK—devoted to every detail of the assassination and its aftermath.
The assassination created bitter disputes between conspiracy theorists (hereafter “critics”) and Warren Commission supporters (hereafter “loyalists”). Critics and loyalists accused each other of naivete, cynicism, and selective interpretation of the evidence.
The rising popularity of the conspiracy view generally reflected the increasing skepticism in U.S. society. Just after the assassination, “conspiracy buffs” were regarded as harmless fruitcakes, but by the early 1990s—after Vietnam, Watergate, revelations of CIA assassination plots, and Iran-Contra—opinion polls revealed that most Americans rejected the Warren Commission version of events.
Critics disagreed on the exact nature of the “real conspiracy,” since many organizations and individuals had plausible motives to kill Kennedy. Most theories focused on Lyndon B. Johnson, the CIA, the Mafia, and the anti-Castro Cubans, but all agreed that a “lone nut” (i.e., Lee Harvey Oswald) did not kill JFK.
The Establishment View
John F. Kennedy barely won Texas in 1960, and needed to raise money and build popular support there before the 1964 election. He flew to Texas in 1963 with Vice-President Johnson, and landed in Dallas on 22 November.
Dallas seethed with rightwing hate, but JFK and Jackie Kennedy nevertheless chose to ride in an open limousine with Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson, and Senator Ralph Yarborough followed in another open limousine.
The rest of the motorcade conveyed security, press, staff members, and local dignitaries. At 12:29 P.M., the motorcade entered Dealey Plaza, and turned right onto Houston Street, heading toward the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD). The presidential limousine slowed down to negotiate the tight (120-degree) left turn onto Elm Street in front of the TSBD.
The vehicle then headed away from the TSBD, and began driving toward the “Triple Underpass” (where Elm, Main, and Commerce Streets passed under a railroad bridge). A “Grassy Knoll” lay ahead and to the right of the vehicle, and behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll was a parking lot and railroad yard.
Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots from the sixth floor of the TSBD with a bolt-action Italian rifle: one struck Kennedy in the back, which exited through his throat and then struck Connally, one struck Kennedy in the back of the head, killing him, and another shot missed. The limousine drove to Parkland Hospital, where doctors pronounced Kennedy dead. The body was taken aboard Air Force One to Bethesda Naval Hospital for autopsy.
Shortly after the assassination, Oswald was arrested after shooting a police officer, J. D. Tippit, who tried to question him. Oswald was charged with the murder of Kennedy and Tippit. Two days later, a local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, fatally shot Oswald in the basement of Police Headquarters.
On 29 November, President Johnson summoned Chief Justice Earl Warren to preside over a distinguished panel charged with investigating the assassination. Johnson ordered the Warren Commission (hereafter WC) to complete its work before the 1964 national political conventions, and the WC issued an 888-page report in September 1964.
The report incorporated the accounts of hundreds of witnesses and such material evidence as a movie taken by a spectator, Abraham Zapruder. The WC concluded that Oswald alone killed Kennedy, that his motives were frustration and personal failure, that he had no connection to the U.S. or foreign governments, and that he had no connection to Ruby.
Reaction to the Warren Commission
WC conclusions were widely accepted, at least temporarily, but soon critics would challenge WC evidence, methods, conclusions, and even the integrity of its members. Even loyalists conceded that its work had certain shortcomings. The WC worked very quickly, and relied uncritically on the FBI and CIA to conduct the actual investigation.
They did not have access to autopsy photos or x-rays, and did not consult forensic experts. They assumed from the outset that Oswald acted alone, subordinated all evidence to this preconceived theory, and ignored or disparaged evidence or witnesses that contradicted this theory.
Some critics considered the WC nothing less than a whitewash designed to obscure the truth, protect LBJ politically, and neutralize any potential competing investigations. The FBI allegedly manipulated the WC in order to suppress evidence that Oswald was an FBI informant or was under FBI surveillance, and that the FBI was aware of the assassination plot but failed to warn the president. They also thought the FBI concealed Ruby’s extensive Mafia connections, and that the CIA and the FBI withheld evidence that linked Oswald to Soviet and Cuban intelligence.
Some critics believed that the original purpose of the assassination was to frame Cuba as a pretext for U.S. invasion, and thus the conspirators had built a plausible trail (sometimes using “Oswald doubles”) linking Oswald to communism. When LBJ decided for unknown reasons not to invade Cuba after the assassination, all this evidence needed to be hidden from the WC.
What Happened in Dealey Plaza?
Many critics focused on errors, omissions, and inconsistencies in the WC account of the events in Dealey Plaza. Critics considered that certain people in or near the plaza behaved suspiciously, and that physical evidence and eyewitness testimony called into question the WC theory of the assassination.
A successful assassination necessarily involves a failure of protection, but some regarded Secret Service performance in Dallas as either culpably negligent or downright suspicious. Secret Service men failed to act on information in their possession concerning sniper threats to the president in Dallas, permitted the president to take a dangerous route, failed to close all windows and manholes along the route, and failed to ride on the limousine.
They also reduced the number of police motorcycle and automobile escorts in the motorcade, and stayed up late drinking the night before the assassination. Agents reacted sluggishly throughout the attack, and the limousine driver even slowed down and looked behind him until the fatal shot struck Kennedy. One author argued that after Oswald’s first shot, a Secret Service agent in the following car accidentally shot Kennedy in the back of the head with an AR-15.
Some witnesses claimed that men with Secret Service identification warned them away from the Grassy Knoll area before and after the assassination, but the Secret Service insisted that no agents were in this location. Did these “bogus agents” enable the Grassy Knoll shooter(s) to enter and leave the area undisturbed, or were the “agents” really Dallas plainclothes detectives?
Critics chastised the WC for failing to investigate the possibly sinister behavior of certain individuals in and around Dealey Plaza. For example, a man in the plaza opened and closed his umbrella as the shots began, and some speculated he was signaling to the assassins or firing a paralyzing dart into Kennedy’s neck. Another man seemed to make hand signals and speak (to hidden gunmen?) into a walkie-talkie as Kennedy approached.
Just before the assassination, a man collapsed in front of the TSBD, perhaps to distract police and public attention as the assassins moved into position. Just after the assassination, Dallas police arrested “three tramps” in a railway car behind the plaza, and somehow lost their arrest records after releasing them.
Critics obsessively scrutinized photographs of the tramps, and argued that the tramps were really Mafia hitmen or the same CIA team later responsible for the Watergate burglary. Subsequent investigations found innocent explanations for the Umbrella Man, the “distracting seizure,” and the three tramps, but critics disparaged this evidence.
The Zapruder Film
The Zapruder film created vexing problems for the WC and is probably the strongest objective evidence for conspiracy. The film frames provided a clock that established the exact sequence of events in the plaza, and the reactions of the victims and the forensic evidence are difficult to reconcile with the WC interpretation.
The FBI claimed that the minimum firing time for the murder weapon was 2.3 seconds, or 42 film frames, yet the WC found that both Kennedy and Connally were hit within a 30-frame time span. Thus, either the same bullet hit both men, or there were two gunmen. The WC chose the former explanation, the so-called “single-bullet theory.”
The single bullet purportedly struck Kennedy in the back of the neck, exited through his throat, then entered Connally’s back near his right armpit, exited below his nipple, shattered his wrist, and wounded his thigh. Critics insisted that Connally did not react for ten frames after Kennedy was visibly hit, so they couldn’t have been hit with the same bullet.
The WC rather unconvincingly concluded that Connally suffered from a “delayed reaction” to his extensive wounds. Critics questioned WC assumptions on seating alignment and trajectory, and contended that Kennedy and Connally were seated such that the same bullet could not have passed through both men.
Critics and loyalists alike meticulously analyzed the frames of the Zapruder film that showed Kennedy’s head and body at the fatal moment, and argued fiercely over the results. The film showed Kennedy jerking violently back and to the left in reaction to the fatal shot, and most viewers believed this obviously indicated a gunman on the Grassy Knoll (to the right front of the limousine).
Loyalists claimed that “neuromuscular spasms” or a jet of brain tissue flying from the front of Kennedy’s head caused his body to fly backwards after he was shot from behind. Most viewers found this counterintuitive if not totally implausible.
The Zapruder film was vastly important, and thus unsurprisingly was itself the subject of conspiracy theories. Suspicions were heightened because the film was not available to the public for many years, and supposedly the CIA had access to the film within days of the assassination.
Critics cited anomalies within the film, and apparent disagreements between the film, eyewitnesses, other photographs, and reenactments, as evidence of tampering. Some critics seemed to interpret the film most selectively, accepting the parts of the film that supported their views and rejecting those that did not. Yet, if the CIA could perform a complex editing task on short notice, why did they not make the film completely support the lone gunman theory?
Many people in Dealey Plaza witnessed things apparently inconsistent with the WC version of events. Some witnesses claimed to have seen strange men with rifles on the Grassy Knoll and Triple Underpass before the assassination. Many witnesses, including police officers, thought the shots came from the Grassy Knoll, and surged forward to investigate.
Some witnesses believed they saw a puff of smoke on the Grassy Knoll and a man fleeing the scene. Some critics asserted that this man could be seen behind the wall on the Grassy Knoll in photographs taken during the assassination. Two motorcycle officers behind the limousine were splattered with blood and gore, consistent with a shot from the right front exiting to the left rear.
A bullet fragment slightly wounded James Tague near the Triple Underpass, but the WC could not “conclusively” match this bullet to any of the three Oswald supposedly fired. The WC speculated that the fragment came from the first or second shot, but critics doubted that a mere fragment could travel so far and strike with such force.
Some testimony from TSBD employees raised questions about the WC version of events. One employee noted that on the morning of the assassination, Oswald did not know why people were gathering outside, and seemed unaware the motorcade was coming.
A secretary saw him in the first floor break room at 12:15, although the WC insisted he went to the sixth floor at 11:55 and stayed there. A photograph taken when the shots erupted appeared to some to show Oswald standing in the TSBD doorway. Less than ninety seconds after the final shot, a policeman with a drawn pistol encountered Oswald calmly drinking a Coke on the first floor.
Oswald managed the encounter with remarkable aplomb for a man who had supposedly just shot the president, and the policeman departed. Did Oswald race down six flights of stairs only to pause for refreshment? Or was he not on the sixth floor at 12:30? Several witnesses claimed they saw two or three armed men on the sixth floor at 12:15.
Even moderate readers considered that WC treatment of witnesses was incomplete and selective. In their rush to judgment, the WC ignored many important witnesses, and disparaged—or tried to intimidate—witnesses who suggested that Oswald did not fire three shots from the sixth floor of the TSBD.
Critics maintained that the WC deliberately avoided and suppressed testimony that contradicted their preconceived theory. Loyalists simply noted that eyewitness testimony was notoriously unreliable and that human memory was fallible and easily influenced after the fact.
Kennedy’s Wounds: Parkland Testimony
Doctors at Parkland Hospital had great experience with gunshot wounds, and saw the president and Connally immediately after they were shot. Their testimony on his wounds should thus carry great weight. On arrival, Kennedy was unconscious, with fixed dilated pupils, a gray pallor, and slow, uncoordinated breathing.
He was clearly dying, but the doctors did what they could. They cut away his clothes, and made a small incision to enlarge the throat wound and insert an endotracheal tube. They administered fluids and oxygen and began a chest massage, but to no avail. Kennedy was officially pronounced dead, and placed in a casket.
An unseemly altercation developed between Texas officials, whom Texas law required to conduct Kennedy’s autopsy, and armed federal agents, whom Johnson had ordered to take the body to Washington. Federal guns superseded Texas laws, and the casket was taken to Air Force One, where Johnson was sworn in as president.
Several developments at Parkland fueled conspiracy theories. In particular, the wounds described at Parkland did not match the autopsy reports and photographs later made in Bethesda. At a press conference just after Kennedy’s death, Doctor Perry stated that the throat wound was an entrance wound, and he and other Parkland doctors repeated this claim in subsequent interviews and testimony.
Doctors’ statements written the afternoon of the assassination reported gunshot wounds to Kennedy’s temple and a large, gaping wound in the back of the head from which cerebellar tissue extruded. Parkland doctors did not observe a wound in Kennedy’s back, nor did they find a small entry wound high on the back of the head.
Hospital staff found a bullet on an unattended stretcher, and the WC asserted that this bullet passed through Kennedy, lodged in Connally’s thigh, and later fell out onto the stretcher. Critics doubted that this stretcher was really Connally’s, and suspected the bullet was planted or that another bullet was later substituted. Critics noted that the bullet was nearly intact (or “pristine”) despite having passed through two men, smashing numerous bones in the process.
Only a high-velocity bullet could pass through two bodies in accordance with the “single bullet theory,” but only a low-velocity bullet could remain pristine—a clear contradiction. Critics further contended that the weight of fragments recovered from Connally’s body and remaining inside him exceeded the weight lost by the pristine bullet.
Kennedy’s Wounds: Bethesda Testimony
Kennedy’s autopsy was undeniably mishandled. The doctors at Bethesda were clinical, not forensic, pathologists, and had little experience with gunshot wounds. They conducted the autopsy amidst an intimidating crowd of senior officers, FBI, and Secret Service agents. Robert and Jackie Kennedy were in the hospital, and kept pressuring the doctors to finish the autopsy.
An autopsy that might have taken three days was concluded in three hours, and the doctors neglected many essential procedures. They failed to consult the Parkland doctors beforehand to discuss the case. They did not examine the clothing to establish whether or not the clothing holes were consistent with the wounds.
They did not track the bullet path from Kennedy’s back through the body to determine the exit point. Indeed, they were entirely unaware of the throat wound until the next day, when it was too late to reexamine the body. They failed to shave the head for a clear view of its wounds, or to section the brain to establish the path of the fatal bullet.
They did not examine all of the internal organs. Doctor Humes burned his draft autopsy notes and draft autopsy report, and wrote his final report from memory, without access to photographs or x-rays. Given this slapdash performance, conspiracy speculation was almost inevitable.
The first source of controversy was the location of the back wound. If Oswald fired downward from the sixth floor, then the back entry wound had to be higher than the throat exit wound. Numerous credible witnesses testified that the back wound was much lower—some 5–6 inches below the neckline—than the throat wound.
Such a back wound was consistent with the bullet holes in Kennedy’s jacket and shirt, and with the autopsy “face sheet” (a drawing made at the autopsy and verified by Kennedy’s personal physician). However, any shot that entered there and exited through the throat had to be traveling upward, not downward. Critics doubted the WC explanation that Kennedy’s suit and shirt were bunched up, and thus the bullet entered much higher than the clothes seemed to indicate.
Humes did not dissect the bullet’s track—he only probed the wound, and found it a few inches deep. He did not use autopsy photographs to establish the wound’s exact location when writing his final report. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the WC concluded that Kennedy’s wound was at the “back of his neck.”
The head wound created further controversy, because the testimony of Parkland and Bethesda doctors disagreed on important points. A Parkland doctor (Carrico) described a 5–7cm hole in the “right occipitoparietal” area, but at Bethesda, Humes said the hole was much larger (13cm) and located higher (“involving chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the temporal and occipital regions”).
Parkland doctors testified that cerebellar tissue was visible, whereas the Bethesda doctors observed cerebral tissue (the cerebellum is located lower than the cerebrum and looks quite different).
Bethesda doctors said the scalp was “absent” over the wound, but Parkland doctors said the scalp was present. Bethesda doctors found a small occipital wound that the Parkland doctors did not observe, and the autopsy concluded that the bullet entered through this wound and exited through the large parietal wound.
Critic David Lifton accounted for these discrepancies with an elaborate theory that unknown individuals stole Kennedy’s body from the coffin in Dallas, and secretly altered the corpse. The pre-autopsy surgery “reversed the trajectories” (i.e., made evidence of a front shot seem like evidence of a rear shot).
Lifton considered that the Bethesda doctors were honest, but were deceived. Such a complex effort clearly required considerable planning and the cooperation of Secret Service and Navy personnel. Loyalists simply asserted that Kennedy’s casket was never unattended on Air Force One, as Lifton claimed.
Lifton and other critics regarded the autopsy photographs and x-rays with great suspicion. The WC deemed the photographs and x-rays too “morbid” to include in the report—indeed, the WC did not even examine them—but allowed a medical artist who had not seen the body to create drawings of the wounds.
Critics noted that these drawings were inconsistent with photographic and eyewitness testimony, and wondered what the WC was hiding. When autopsy photographs were finally released, critics claimed that they did not match the observations of Parkland doctors.
For example, they argued that in the frontal photo, the throat wound was a large gash rather than the neat incision created at Parkland. They claimed that in photos of Kennedy’s back, a ruler was placed over the “real” (low) entry wound, and that in photos of the back of the head, no massive occipital wound was evident.
They also contended that the skull x-rays showed extensive damage that was not visible in the photographs. Loyalists countered that various experts considered the photographs and x-rays authentic and consistent with two shots from the rear, and thus the Parkland doctors must have been mistaken in their observations.
Further suspicion centered on the disposition of autopsy materials. During the autopsy, doctors made slides of blood smears and took tissue specimens from the wounds. They also preserved the brain in formalin.
They placed these materials in a footlocker and transferred them to the National Archives, where they subsequently disappeared. Critics found speculation that Robert Kennedy disposed of them to prevent their public display unconvincing. If RFK wanted to prevent an unseemly spectacle, why not destroy the far more sensational photographs and x-rays?
Who Was Oswald?
The WC went to great lengths to prove that Oswald had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill JFK, and that he did so alone. The WC Report was widely regarded as the “prosecutor’s brief against Oswald” should the case have come to trial. Critics took the defending lawyer’s role. They delved into every detail of Oswald’s life, and pointed out errors, omissions, and questionable assumptions in the prosecution’s case.
Oswald’s background was unusual: as an enlisted Marine radio operator, he was stationed at the Japanese base from which U-2 aircraft flew secret missions over Russia and China. He developed an interest in communism, and taught himself Russian.
After leaving the Marines, he declared himself a Communist and defected to the Soviet Union. He lived in Minsk for a time, and married a Russian woman, Marina. He left Minsk in 1962, and lived in Dallas and New Orleans. In New Orleans, he started a pro-Castro organization, and then traveled to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City in an unsuccessful effort to enter Cuba.
Despite all this, the WC insisted that Oswald had no relationship with the FBI or CIA. He got a job at the TSBD, and when he heard the president would pass the TSBD, he smuggled his rifle into the building and constructed a “sniper’s nest” of book boxes.
After shooting JFK, he walked toward his home, but Officer Tippit stopped him for questioning en route. He shot Tippit, ducked into a movie theater, and was there arrested. Police and federal agents interrogated him and tested him for gunpowder residue. Police were transferring Oswald to the County Jail when nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot him fatally.
Mole or Marxist?
Critics were highly skeptical that Oswald had no connection to U.S. intelligence. Oswald was a marine with security clearance working in a sensitive installation, yet he acted like an ardent Communist. He learned Russian, subscribed to pro-Soviet literature, associated with Japanese Communists, and frequented expensive nightclubs.
Somehow, all this failed to alarm U.S. military counterintelligence. Critics speculated that this lack of interest was deliberate: Oswald was a “spy in training” who was building a “leftist” cover story because U.S. intelligence planned to infiltrate him into Russia in the guise of a defector.
Some believed his Russian skills dramatically improved because he attended the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Critics considered that Oswald gained a hardship discharge and was issued a passport with suspicious ease. Further, they questioned how Oswald could have paid for a $1,500 trip to Russia when his bank account contained only $203.
Oswald’s defection to Russia should have sounded many alarms. In the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he announced his intention to renounce his citizenship and reveal military secrets to the Soviets. Strangely, the CIA did not open a file on Oswald for over a year, but only placed him on a list of people whose mail was secretly opened.
The FBI opened a counterintelligence file, but took no action other than to watch for signs of his return to the United States under another name. U.S. intelligence apparently did not assess whether Oswald’s defection could compromise the U-2 program, even though his knowledge might have been useful to the Soviets.
Oswald returned to the United States in early 1962, though not all the details of his trip are known, and the State Department facilitated his journey. They returned his passport quickly, made no difficulties about his citizenship, exempted his wife from immigration restrictions, and loaned him money.
Oswald should have interested U.S. intelligence: did he give military secrets to the Soviets that enabled them to shoot down a U-2 in May 1960? What, if anything, did the KGB ask him after he defected? Were he and his wife Soviet spies? What did he observe in Russia? The FBI interviewed him three weeks after his return, and found Oswald truculent and evasive.
He refused to take a polygraph test, said he might return to the Soviet Union, and immediately subscribed to leftist periodicals. Astonishingly, the FBI nonetheless declared Oswald “unworthy” of further interest, and closed his file. Similarly, the CIA supposedly chose not to interview him, and did not even obtain transcripts of all the FBI interviews.
Critics argued that Oswald was a U.S. intelligence agent—one of many “fake defectors” sent to Russia at that time. Although the precise purpose of the “fake defection” remained speculative, these authors considered that this explained Oswald’s strange behavior and the U.S. government’s favorable treatment of him.
Loyalists denied that Oswald received special treatment, and asserted that when the intelligence agencies ignored Oswald, they were bungling, not protecting their asset. The question of whether Oswald was a Marxist or a mole in Russia was chiefly important in that he displayed a similar pattern of ambiguous behavior after he returned to the United States.
In Dallas in late 1962, Oswald befriended George de Mohrenschildt, a wealthy émigré Russian aristocrat and oil geologist. He was thirty years older than Oswald, far more sophisticated, and a staunch anticommunist. Why did this man waste his time with a callow, penniless, Marxist loser? Whatever the reason, he found Oswald a job and clearly exerted a major influence over him. De Mohrenschildt had CIA contacts, and was a close friend of the CIA’s Domestic Contacts Division chief in Dallas.
Critics speculated that de Mohrenschildt controlled Oswald, debriefed him on his experiences in Russia, and reported the results to this (or some other) CIA contact. Was de Mohrenschildt’s friendship with Oswald sinister? Or was it a casual lark for a bored aristocrat? De Mohrenschildt later testified that Oswald told him he had shot at a Dallas right-winger.
De Mohrenschildt and his wife were the only people, other than Marina, who actually saw the assassination rifle in Oswald’s possession. Critics find this testimony—which confirmed Oswald’s murderous proclivities to the WC—suspiciously convenient, in view of de Mohrenschildt’s CIA connections.
Oswald in New Orleans
In April 1963, Oswald moved to New Orleans, where a large Cuban exile population feverishly plotted against Castro. Oswald opened a chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), a pro-Castro organization.
He handed out FPCC leaflets, subscribed to leftist periodicals, and wrote letters to U.S. Communist leaders exaggerating his exploits. At the same time, he tried to join a CIA-funded anti-Castro group, and offered to train Cuban exiles or fight alongside them. The leader of this group confronted him in the street while he was distributing pro-Castro leaflets, and both were arrested.
Oswald made a point of contacting the FBI and emphasizing his FPCC activities. His trial brought him enough publicity to get radio and TV interviews, until a broadcaster exposed him as a dishonorably discharged defector and probable Soviet tool. The New Orleans FPCC was completely disgraced.
What was Oswald up to in New Orleans? Critics argued that he was burnishing his pro-Castro credentials, perhaps prior to infiltrating Cuba under CIA control. He was also part of a larger CIA plan to penetrate and discredit the FPCC in the United States and Mexico.
These authors noted that Oswald gave his address as 544 Camp Street on FPCC leaflets. From this address, two rabid anticommunists organized anti-Castro activities: Guy Banister (a private detective and violent, alcoholic racist) and David Ferrie (a pilot and adventurer).
The address was also the headquarters of a CIA-supported anti-Castro group. Critics contended that Oswald knew Banister and Ferrie, and freely mingled with anti-Castro Cubans. Oswald, in his FPCC guise, identified pro-Castro individuals in New Orleans so that Banister could prevent them from infiltrating anti-Castro groups, and Oswald only scuffled with the anti-Castro Cuban leader as a staged provocation.
Critics reacted incredulously to the contention that the FBI “lost track” of Oswald for two months in New Orleans. Oswald mailed his New Orleans address to places where the FBI intercepted all incoming mail: the FPCC, the American Communist Party, and the Soviet Embassy.
Similarly, these authors disparaged CIA claims that they had “no information” about Oswald’s New Orleans activities. How could a former defector to Russia walk into a hub of CIA operations against Castro, announce he was a pro-Castro activist, attempt to infiltrate anti-Castro groups, and not generate intense CIA interest?
Either the CIA and FBI were monumentally incompetent, or Oswald was an intelligence asset. Loyalists believed that these agencies indeed bungled, and explained Oswald’s behavior in New Orleans as merely that of a “weirdo” acting out his confused fantasies.
After leaving New Orleans, Oswald took a bus to Mexico City, ostensibly to obtain permission to travel to the Soviet Union via Cuba. U.S. intelligence normally photographed everyone entering the Soviet and Cuban consulates in Mexico City, and taped all telephone conversations. Oswald repeatedly phoned and visited the consulates, yet unaccountably the CIA could provide no photos or tapes of Oswald.
The CIA claimed that the cameras were broken or off when Oswald visited, and that the tapes of Oswald’s calls were “routinely destroyed” after they were transcribed. Thus, there was no incontrovertible proof of what Oswald did and said in Mexico.
Critics suspected that an Oswald impostor visited Mexico at the same time as the real Oswald. The CIA gave the WC a picture of a taller, older man named “Lee Oswald” entering the Soviet consulate, but later claimed they erred when they identified him as the real Oswald.
In any case, “Oswald” made a strong impression on Soviet and Cuban consulate personnel, and flew into a rage when told travel paperwork would take four months. “Oswald” met with a KGB officer from Department 13 (assassination specialists), and slept with a woman who had previously sexually entrapped men for the Cuban government.
He might even have offered to kill Kennedy for the Cubans. Critics maintained that someone wished to create the impression that Oswald was under Cuban control, that he received advice from a KGB assassin, and that he planned to escape via Mexico to Cuba after the assassination.
With his long record as a Marxist hothead, Oswald was an excellent patsy if the objective was to declare war on Cuba after the assassination. Critics argued that the original plan changed after the assassination. Consequently, the CIA withheld evidence linking Oswald to Cuban and Soviet intelligence, and the WC refused to follow any leads in this direction.
Critics maintained that Oswald doubles appeared in the United States as well as Mexico City. For example, witnesses testified that on different occasions, “Oswald” test-drove a car in Dallas, sold a rifle, bought rifle ammunition, test fired a rifle, and visited the Selective Service Office in Austin. Each time, the man identified himself as Oswald, made some reference to Oswald’s experiences, and acted obnoxiously—yet each time, the real Oswald was known to be elsewhere.
Three men visited anti-Castro activist Silvia Odio in Dallas while Oswald was on the way to Mexico. One of the men was introduced as “Leon Oswald.” Afterwards, one of the other men called Odio and described “Leon” as a “loco” ex-marine and expert marksman who thought Kennedy should be shot.
The WC dismissed this story using testimony later determined to be fraudulent. Critics considered that the existence of Oswald doubles disproved the lone gunman thesis—someone was setting up Oswald as a patsy. Loyalists dismissed the stories of doubles—the witnesses were lying or mistaken.
Critics considered that much of the evidence linking Oswald to the assassination was manufactured in order to frame him. For example, they claimed that photos of Oswald holding a rifle in his backyard were faked. They questioned the authenticity of Oswald’s order for the assassination rifle and of his palm-print on the rifle. They noted that there was no evidence that Oswald bought ammunition or practiced shooting regularly.
They doubted that Oswald fired the rifle at a Dallas right-winger, or that he could have stored the rifle and transported it to the TSBD in the manner the WC described. They noted that the police gave Oswald a paraffin test for gunpowder residue. The test was positive for the hands but negative for the cheek, which indicated that he fired a pistol but not a rifle.
Police broadcast a description of the suspect only 15 minutes after the assassination. The WC assumed this was based on the eyewitness testimony of Howard Brennan. Critics wondered how Brennan could have seen Oswald 100 feet away on the sixth floor and described him accurately to police, when he was unable to identify Oswald “for sure” in a police lineup later that night. A great many other eyewitness descriptions were available, so why were the police fixated quickly and specifically on Oswald?
Who Shot Tippit?
Some critics doubted that Oswald shot Officer Tippit. They did not believe Oswald could have gotten from his house to the shooting scene in time to kill Tippit, and doubted the witnesses who saw Oswald at the scene. They questioned that the bullets at the scene came from Oswald’s revolver, or that Oswald owned the revolver the police said killed Tippit.
Other critics accepted that Oswald killed Tippit. However, they asserted that the “real conspirators” sent Tippit to kill Oswald—to silence the patsy—but Oswald beat him to the draw. They alleged that Tippit was the tool of organized crime or right-wing politics.
Critics viewed the WC assessment of Oswald’s motives as particularly vague and weak. Supposedly, he killed Kennedy from hostility to his environment, inability to establish meaningful relationships with others, discontent with the world, and the desire to be a “great man” of history.
Critics noted that Oswald expressed admiration for Kennedy, and had no particular reason to kill him. Oswald was not insane, and steadfastly maintained his innocence even when mortally wounded. Indeed, he explicitly said he was a patsy, and critics believed him.
Who Was Ruby?
Loyalists believed that there was not just one homicidal lone nut in Dallas that November weekend, but two. Jack Ruby was a low-class hustler, perpetually in debt, with a propensity for unpredictable violence. He ran a series of nightclubs and failed businesses in Dallas, and cultivated both police and criminal contacts.
The assassination greatly upset Ruby, and he began hanging out at the police station, where he was well known. He masqueraded as a reporter, and attended Oswald’s press conference. Ruby did not know Oswald was being transferred to the County Jail, and would have missed Oswald entirely if Oswald had not delayed his departure to change his clothes. On the spur of the moment, Ruby pulled out his gun and shot Oswald in the abdomen.
Oswald was taken to Parkland, where he died. Ruby explained that he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy the agony of a trial, and seemed to think he would be regarded as a hero. His lawyer convinced him to plead temporary insanity, but the jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death.
Ruby testified before the WC, which concluded that Ruby had no connection to the drug trade, anti-Castro groups, or organized crime. The WC further concluded that the Dallas police did not help Ruby kill Oswald. Ruby was retried, and died of cancer in prison in 1967.
Critics noted that Ruby had a lifelong association with mobsters and closely associated with them in Dallas. He was involved in sordid activities (nightclubs, prostitution, gambling, and drugs) that mobsters typically control.
He lied about the number of trips he made to Cuba in 1959, and did not go there for pleasure but as a mob courier. Ruby’s long-distance calls from Dallas dramatically increased in the months before the assassination, and many of these calls were to people with mob connections. Ruby was heavily in debt to the mob.
Did he “pay off his IOU” by killing Oswald? Since Ruby was a familiar figure in the police station, he was the perfect instrument to silence Oswald. Ruby did not act on the spur of the moment—he clearly stalked Oswald at the police station. Although there was no guarantee he would intercept Oswald, he lurked and waited for the opportunity.
Ruby warned the WC that the assassination was a conspiracy, but fear for his life and the prospect of a new trial inhibited him from speaking frankly. Some critics believed his cancer was no accident—he was eliminated before a new trial gave him the opportunity to tell the real truth.
Loyalists asserted that the Chicago mob was unlikely to trust someone as stupid and talkative as Ruby with important business. He knew mobsters, but was an insignificant hanger-on, and his calls to mob figures before the assassination related to his dispute with the stripper’s union. He lurked in the police station from a pathetic desire to be associated with important events, and his conspiracy claims to the WC reflected mental derangement.
The Garrison Affair
In New Orleans on the afternoon of the assassination, Guy Banister pistol-whipped an associate, who then confided to his friends his suspicions that Banister’s partner, David Ferrie, had driven to Dallas to serve as the getaway pilot for Kennedy’s assassins.
District Attorney Jim Garrison interrogated Ferrie, and handed him over to the FBI, who questioned and released him. In 1966, Garrison found criticisms of the WC compelling enough to begin his own investigation into Oswald’s activities in New Orleans in 1963.
He concluded that Oswald was an agent provocateur for U.S. intelligence—but who controlled him? Banister was dead, but a New Orleans lawyer told Garrison that on the day of the assassination, “Clay Bertrand” asked him to represent Oswald. “Bertrand” turned out to be a pseudonym, and Garrison decided, on thin evidence, that “Bertrand” was prominent local businessman Clay Shaw.
Garrison suspected that Shaw ran a CIA front company involved in anti-Castro activities and the assassination, and that Shaw knew both Ferrie and Oswald. Garrison pressured Ferrie to talk, but Ferrie died of a brain aneurysm without talking. Under pressure himself to produce results, Garrison arrested Shaw and charged him with conspiracy to kill JFK.
Garrison produced dubious witnesses who claimed they saw Oswald, Ferrie, and Shaw together, and used the trial to attack the “lone gunman” thesis (though this was not strictly relevant to Shaw’s case). The jury quickly acquitted Shaw, but the case became a global media circus and was the basis for Oliver Stone’s movie JFK.
The critics fed Garrison, and Garrison fed the critics. Prominent critics advised Garrison, and some had access to the evidence he generated. He obtained a copy of the Zapruder film, and allowed critics to make and circulate “bootleg” copies. Afterwards, critics contended that Garrison was on the right track—the Oswald/intelligence link—but his methods were unsound. They also observed that his key witnesses died (suspiciously, of course).
Loyalists thought that Garrison was a publicity-seeking megalomaniac. Interestingly, some loyalists advanced their own conspiracy theory: Garrison was protecting the Mafia and diverting attention from them with his wild theories about CIA, Nazi, and anti-Castro plots.
They contended that Garrison treated the New Orleans Mafia laxly when he was prosecutor, and never mentioned the Mafia as a participant in the assassination conspiracy. Indeed, he called mob sponsorship of the assassination “a myth.”
In the mid-1970s, after Vietnam and Watergate, public willingness to believe in government duplicity was high. The issue of CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination gained enough momentum that Congress established the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Congress appointed G. Robert Blakey to head the HSCA.
This choice strongly influenced the direction of the investigation, because Blakey was a lawyer who specialized in organized crime. The HSCA critically analyzed the WC report, and found many of its conclusions valid. Most importantly, the HSCA concluded that Oswald fired three shots from the TSBD, and two struck Kennedy, killing him.
Based on acoustical evidence from Dallas police radios, the HSCA argued that there was a second gunman in Dealey Plaza, and thus necessarily there was a conspiracy. The HSCA could not identify this gunman, but excluded the involvement of the Soviet government, the Cuban government, the Secret Service, the FBI, and the CIA in the conspiracy.
The HSCA also excluded the involvement of the Mafia and the anti-Castro groups as groups, although “individual members may have been involved.” Perhaps inevitably, critics were annoyed and suspicious that the HSCA confirmed the Single Bullet Theory and debunked many of their pet theories. Loyalists, however, were dissatisfied with the conspiracy finding.
Some critics asserted that Blakey took charge of the HSCA in order to redirect the investigation away from uncomfortable evidence of U.S. government and anti-Castro Cuban involvement in the assassination. They considered Blakey too cozy with “potential suspects” (the FBI and CIA).
Blakey was unwilling to force these organizations to disgorge what they knew about Oswald, and channeled staff time and effort into the Mafia investigation at the expense of every other avenue. Critics condemned his “soft” handling of scientific and medical experts, and his failure to ask “hard questions” about the missing evidence and the authenticity of the autopsy x-rays and photographs.
In short, as one of the HSCA investigators lamented, the investigation was not even adequate, let alone the “full and complete” effort that Congress mandated. Critics even took issue with the acoustic evidence, which they believed indicated more than four shots.
Congressional investigations generated a few conspiracy incidents of their own. In 1975 and 1976, two prominent mobsters—Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana—were murdered after they testified before Congress about CIA-Mafia assassination plots.
An HSCA investigator planned to interview de Mohrenschildt concerning his relationship with the CIA and Oswald. Alas, the day before the interview, de Mohrenschildt committed suicide. Critics believed that these three important witnesses were silenced before they could reveal what they knew about the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Kennedy.
Loyalists took comfort that the HSCA debunked many conspiracy theories and confirmed the basic outline of the WC report. They considered the acoustic evidence flawed, since they disbelieved in a “fourth shot.” Naturally, they regretted that the “blunder” of introducing this evidence only opened the door to new conspiracy speculation and to a flood of people fraudulently confessing that they were the Grassy Knoll shooter.
Many critics approached the assassination like a detective solving any other crime: first identify someone with the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the murder. Some critics considered motive much more important than means or opportunity, especially as time passed and few truly new facts about Dealey Plaza seemed likely to emerge.
Some believed that the government had so effectively hidden the truth and deceived the public that to ask “How?” was futile. All that remained was to ask “Why?” or, put differently, “Who benefited?” The list of plausible suspects was long, and included LBJ, the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the military-industrial complex, the Soviets, the Cubans, and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
Lean and Hungry Lyndon
Craig Zirbel argues that LBJ was the central conspirator who orchestrated Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson most directly benefited from the killing and had the most power to cover his tracks. Zirbel believes that the deeply immoral vice-president hated the Kennedys, and was capable of murder.
LBJ was obsessed with becoming president, and feared that Kennedy would drop him from the ticket in 1964. He expected that his presidency would bring great political and economic benefits to himself and his friends in the oil industry and military-industrial complex.
The assassination occurred on Johnson’s “home turf” (Texas) where he had many connections to the police and organized crime. Johnson was intimately involved in planning the trip, and tried to put his political enemy, Senator Yarborough, in the presidential limousine instead of his ally, Governor Connally.
After the assassination, Johnson, as the new president, used his power—and particularly his friendship with J. Edgar Hoover—to ensure that the Kennedy autopsy and the WC reached the “correct” conclusion (i.e., that Oswald was the only assassin) and that evidence to the contrary was destroyed. Zirbel presents a strong circumstantial case for motive, but has no information whatsoever on how Johnson planned and implemented the plot.
David Scheim and Robert Blakey, among others, contend that the Mafia had the motive and the capability to kill Kennedy. Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, waged a relentless campaign against mob bosses Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello, and against Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.
Declassified wiretaps revealed these men venting furious complaints against the Kennedys and predicting they would be killed. These mobsters thought Kennedy double-crossed them.
They helped Kennedy win the 1960 election, provided him with a mistress, and cooperated with the CIA, yet RFK persecuted them. Scheim insists that both Oswald and Ruby were connected to Marcello, but were sufficiently distant to make excellent tools (i.e., Marcello need not implicate himself or his lieutenants).
Marcello somehow induced Oswald to shoot Kennedy, but had backup hitmen in the Plaza. Oswald’s primary role was as patsy, and he was not expected to survive to reach custody. When he did, Marcello ordered Ruby to eliminate him. Scheim presents a great deal of evidence that Ruby was a longtime low-level mob functionary but, like Oswald, completely deniable and expendable.
The conclusions of the HSCA essentially supported this theory, although Blakey’s book stated the theory more directly than the HSCA Report. However, despite thousands of hours of wiretaps of top mobsters, no conclusive proof exists of mob involvement in the assassination. More problematically, how could the Mafia engineer a cover-up? How could they be sure that the federal government would not discover the plot and crush them after the assassination?
Mark Lane asserts that the CIA killed Kennedy because JFK planned to destroy the organization. Kennedy betrayed the CIA at the Bay of Pigs, and his efforts to bring the Agency under control afterwards threatened the organization’s existence. The CIA benefited from the assassination, because the organization survived and prospered.
Supporters of this theory observe that the CIA obviously had the capability to kill Kennedy, and the Agency was involved in many other assassination plots at this time. Such a plot did not require the participation of the entire Agency, but only a small, compartmentalized subgroup.
These authors cite the abundant evidence of a CIA relationship with Oswald discussed elsewhere in this essay, and some argue that the CIA used mind-control techniques to program Oswald to kill. Others argue that Oswald was not a robot, but a patsy (the real assassins were the CIA’s pet Cubans). Ideally, from the CIA viewpoint, the United States would blame Castro for the assassination and invade Cuba.
Supporters of this theory have long sought to prove that known CIA agents were in or near Dealey Plaza, but so far none have succeeded. For many years, speculation focused on the identity of the “three tramps.” When the Dallas City Council released the arrest records of the tramps, they were revealed as genuine tramps.
Mark North asserts that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover hated JFK and RFK personally and politically. Hoover detested their immorality and liberalism, but more importantly, he resented their plans to force him to retire.
Hoover allegedly attempted to blackmail the Kennedys into waiving his retirement, but failed. North argues that Hoover then learned through surveillance and informants that the Mafia planned to kill Kennedy. Hoover realized that if the Mafia succeeded, his close friend Lyndon Johnson would waive his retirement.
North contends that Hoover did what he could to ensure that the plot succeeded. He withheld information about threats to the president from the Secret Service, and allowed the Mafia plans to proceed undisturbed.
North believes the FBI monitored Oswald, but let the Mafia manipulate Oswald into his role as patsy. After the assassination, Hoover ensured that the FBI championed the “lone gunman” thesis, and suppressed, as much as possible, evidence of Oswald’s relationship with the FBI.
North considers that Hoover suppressed evidence of Mafia involvement in the assassination, because this avenue of inquiry might reveal that he knew but did nothing. His triumph complete, Hoover remained FBI director until his death in 1972. North’s theory, of course, relies heavily on other theories, particularly with respect to Mafia assassination plots.
The Military-Industrial Complex
The military-industrial complex (“MIC”) derived great benefit from the cold war. The military had plenty of shiny weapons, defense contractors reaped huge profits, and politicians had many happily employed constituents.
Kennedy’s efforts to secure U.S.-Soviet détente in the autumn of 1963 threatened the MIC, and some authors consider that the MIC played a role in the assassination. Peter Dale Scott, for example, relates the assassination to Vietnam: Kennedy began to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam, but after the assassination, LBJ dramatically escalated U.S. involvement.
Indeed, the Kennedy assassination preserved the “entire cold war status quo” for another twenty-five years. Scott believes that when Oswald acted strangely in New Orleans, Dallas, and Mexico City, he was acting under orders from military intelligence.
Scott claims that three Army Intelligence agents were in Dealey Plaza during the assassination. He speculates that police officers and Secret Service agents who were reserve Army Intelligence officers facilitated the killing of Kennedy and Oswald. Regrettably, Scott’s work contains much conjecture but little specific, verifiable detail.
From Russia with Love
Michael Eddowes asserts that Khrushchev ordered Kennedy’s assassination to avenge his humiliation in the Cuban Missile Crisis and intimidate future presidents. According to Eddowes, Oswald defected to the Soviet Union but did not return—a KGB assassin took his place.
De Mohrenschildt controlled “Oswald” for the KGB, not for the CIA. Jack Ruby was also a KGB agent, and intended to help “Oswald” escape to Mexico. However, “Oswald” was caught en route to Ruby’s house, and Ruby had to silence him instead.
Among the many fallacies in this theory, why would a KGB assassin behave as Oswald did in New Orleans, and draw attention to himself as a Communist troublemaker? How did the double fool the real Oswald’s relatives? Why would Khrushchev want to kill Kennedy, when this would bring a cold warrior like Johnson to power? Eddowes’s absurd theory received a decisive rebuttal in 1981, when Oswald was exhumed and examiners found that he was the same man who defected to Russia.
The Soviets probably had no role in the assassination, but still feared they might be blamed. In January 1964, a KGB officer, Yuri Nosenko, defected to the United States with the electrifying claim that he handled Oswald’s case when Oswald was in Russia.
Nosenko insisted that the KGB found Oswald of no intelligence interest, and did not recruit him or his wife. The CIA suspected that Nosenko was lying, and had defected on KGB orders. Nosenko cooled his heels in solitary confinement for three years until the CIA decided he was a genuine defector.
If Khrushchev had little reason to kill Kennedy, Castro had less. True, Kennedy had ordered the CIA to “get Castro,” but in late 1963 Kennedy was moving toward reconciliation with Cuba. If Castro were caught, the Americans would destroy him, and he would hardly choose such an unreliable (and overtly pro-Castro) creature as Oswald for this delicate task.
Nonetheless, in September 1963, Castro threatened to assassinate U.S. leaders if they continued to try to assassinate Cuban leaders. From 1967 to 1976, gangster Johnny Roselli spread rumors that Kennedy’s assassination was indeed Castro’s retaliation. Most authors consider this just another CIA-inspired effort to frame Havana.
The anti-Castro Cubans were powerfully motivated to kill Kennedy. They believed JFK betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs, and he was shutting down their covert operations while he sought détente with Castro in late 1963. Many Cuban exiles were trained in guerrilla warfare and assassination, and thus had the raw capability to kill Kennedy.
The WC considered and rejected the theory that the anti-Castro Cubans could somehow have used Oswald to kill Kennedy, hoping to divert the blame onto Castro. The HSCA investigated the “most violent and frustrated” exile groups, but concluded that Oswald had no contact with these groups. HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi was not so sure—he argued that the committee did not fully explore this possibility.
A Conspiracy So Immense
In Our Dumb Century, the satirical magazine The Onion has a parody news article about the assassination: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons: President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles.”
This parody mocks the numerous critics who believe a broad alliance of motivated individuals and organizations conspired to kill Kennedy. For example, Peter Dale Scott accuses a “coalition of forces inside and outside government” that included the Mafia, CIA, military intelligence, the Texas rich, drug networks, the “Vietnam Lobby,” and perhaps Johnson and Hoover.
Similarly, Jim Marrs brings nearly every conceivable suspect into his big conspiracy tent, including the FBI, CIA, anti-Castro Cubans, the military, LBJ, Texas oilmen, international bankers, and the mob. Jim Garrison is somewhat less inclusive—in his book, he names only the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Dallas police, and the military.
These critics have perhaps demonstrated that Dark Forces (the “shadow government” or the “business-banking-politics-military-crime power structure”) lurk in America’s basement, but they have not provided specific, incontrovertible evidence to link the Dark Forces to the Kennedy assassination.
How could such vast conspiracies remain secret for nearly forty years? Scott responds that the Kennedy assassination was not the isolated act of a few bad men, but a reflection of structural imperatives in U.S. “Deep Politics.” The assassination resulted from “ongoing, unacknowledged processes” that link normal political activity to the criminal underworld.
Scott cites alleged longtime U.S. government support for drug trafficking as another example of such processes. In his view, a “conspiratorial network” existed in 1963, and still exists today, that could easily have killed Kennedy and maintained secrecy afterwards.
Carl Oglesby presents a unique synthesis in The Yankee and Cowboy War.He contends that JFK and LBJ represented the two competing factions in U.S. politics: “Yankees” and “Cowboys.” The Yankees were the classic “eastern establishment”—New York financiers, lawyers, and plutocrats—while the Cowboys were the scions of “new wealth” such as the oil, aviation, and defense industries based in the South and West.
Every administration from 1933 onward, Democratic or Republican, was a coalition of Yankees and Cowboys, but in the early 1960s, factional cooperation began to erode. The basic issue was policy toward the Soviet Union—the Yankees favored détente, while the Cowboys favored containment.
Containment implied high military spending, maintenance of forward positions in Eurasia, and intervention in Cuba and Vietnam. Détente implied lower military spending, withdrawal from Eurasia, and no intervention in Vietnam.
Oglesby asserts that the assassination resolved the debate in the Cowboys’ favor, and thus the cold war continued and the United States fought in Vietnam. The Yankees struck back in 1973, when they trapped Nixon (a Cowboy) in the Watergate scandal, forcing him to resign and allowing the Yankees to pursue cooperation with the Soviet Union.
Case Closed, or Perpetually Open?
The Warren Commission offered a single, relatively coherent explanation of the Kennedy assassination. This explanation immediately captured the “high ground”—it became the dominant paradigm that critics had to refute decisively before presenting their own paradigm.
After 1964, critics identified apparent anomalies in the dominant paradigm, but never displaced the WC from the “high ground” because they could not resolve the apparent anomalies more effectively than the WC. They offered a plethora of competing hypotheses, but no single, coherent paradigm.
Now four decades since the shooting, there seems little agreement about many of the most basic facts, and the debate remains as fierce and emotive as ever. With little hope that any consensus will ever emerge (not least because beliefs often seem to be held as a matter of faith), what is certain is that Kennedy assassination lore has become part of everyday American culture.