Did Oswald Kill President Kennedy?

The rifle and bullet shells found at the scene of the crime suggested very strongly that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired three shots at President Kennedy. Other evidence quickly emerged which indicated that he had not been the only gunman:

  • The Texas School Book Depository was behind Kennedy at the time of the shooting, but many of the closest eye–witnesses described one or more shots coming from the opposite direction.1
  • The medical staff who gave emergency treatment to Kennedy considered his throat wound to be one of entrance, not exit, and described a substantial exit wound toward the back of his head.2

Public Scepticism: Two Lone Gunmen

This evidence of gunfire from the front was reported by newspapers, radio and television very soon after the assassination. Although governmental and, eventually, media opinion settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the only assassin, the early news reports caused a great deal of public scepticism of the lone–gunman explanation, both in the USA and abroad. Suspicion increased when Oswald was himself murdered two days later, while in police custody, by another lone gunman, a man with connections to organised crime.3

Public scepticism of the lone–gunman account was expressed as public distrust of the governmental and media insitutions which promoted that account.4 These institutions were instrumental in the creation of the Warren Commission, which was given the explicit purpose of convincing the general public that Oswald alone had killed President Kennedy.5

More Evidence Implicating Oswald

The Warren Commission’s report endorsed and expanded an earlier FBI report, and presented more evidence against Oswald to add to the bullet shells and rifle found in the Texas School Book Depository. Photographs were discovered of Oswald holding what appeared to be the same rifle.6 His wife admitted that he had owned the rifle,7 and that he had planned to kill the former vice-president, Richard Nixon.8

In addition to the shooting in Dealey Plaza, Oswald was held to have shot dead a policeman in a suburb of Dallas about forty minutes later,9 and to have attempted to assassinate a retired general in Dallas several months earlier.10

The Fate of the Investigation

The Warren Report was issued in one volume in September 1964, and was immediately and widely praised in the print and broadcast media. More informed and disinterested voices, however, found it less convincing.11

The Evidence Supporting the Warren Commission’s Case

Two months later, once the reviews had appeared, the report’s twenty–six volumes of hearings and exhibits were published.12 Of those who took the trouble to examine the supplementary volumes, a substantial number discovered that most of the report’s conclusions were either:

  • not strongly supported by the evidence it cited, or
  • actively contradicted by the evidence it cited.

Over time, as more research was undertaken, and as more and more previously classified documents became available to researchers, public trust in the Warren Commission’s conclusions and objectivity diminished even further.13

Later Investigations into the JFK Assassination

Other official investigations and reports were commissioned to deal with various aspects of the case. The most prominent was the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977–78, which concluded, in an almost universally derided compromise, that Oswald had been the assassin, and that an unidentified person had also fired a shot, which missed.14

The HSCA’s case against Oswald largely followed that of the Warren Commission. Although the Commission had successfully refuted one or two of the earliest and more improbable conspiracy theories, neither it nor the Select Committee was able to provide a convincing account of exactly how Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy.

Notes

  1. The earliest newspaper accounts mentioned several witnesses who described shots coming from the western end of Dealey Plaza. Charles Brehm, who was standing very close to President Kennedy, “seemed to think the shots came from in front of or beside the President,” according to the Dallas Times Herald on the evening of 22 November. Ochus Campbell, the vice–president of the Texas School Book Depository Company, “says he ran toward a grassy knoll to the west of the building, where he thought the sniper had hidden” (Dallas Morning News, 23 November 1963). Mary Woodward, a journalist on the Dallas Morning News, was standing on the north side of Elm Street, about halfway between the TSBD and the knoll. She wrote in the next day’s edition that “suddenly there was a horrible, ear–shattering noise coming from behind us and a little to the right.” Altogether, around 40 witnesses claimed to have heard shots from the general direction of the grassy knoll.
  2. In a press conference given shortly after Kennedy’s death (ARRB MD41, p.6), Dr Malcolm Perry stated that “the wound appeared to be an entrance wound in the front of the throat; yes, that is correct”. The rear head wound is described in several of the accounts made by the medical staff immediately after the treatment: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.17, pp.1–22 (Commission Exhibit 392). For example, Dr Kemp Clark, professor of neurosurgery and the most senior doctor present, described “a large wound in the right occipital–parietal region” (ibid., p.3). The parietal bones are on the sides of the skull; the occipital bone is at the back of the skull.
  3. Jack Ruby’s links to organised crime were glossed over by the Warren Commission but acknowledged by the HSCA in a 1000–page report: HSCA Report, appendix vol.9, pp.125ff.
  4. As an example of the attitude of many upstanding citizens to the case, see FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–15.
  5. Within hours of Oswald’s own assassination, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, said: “The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr Katzenbach [the deputy attorney general], is having something issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin. Mr Katzenbach thinks that the President might appoint a Presidential Commission of three outstanding citizens to make a determination.” (HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.472). In a memo written later that day, Nicholas Katzenbach made the case for establishing what became the Warren Commission. For an example of pressure by the news media, see Alsop to Johnson, White House Telephone Transcripts, 25 November 1963, 10:40am, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas. For more about the political necessity of the lone–gunman explanation and the creation of the Warren Commission, see “A Little Incident in Mexico City”.
  6. Photographs of Oswald with a rifle: Warren Report, p.126.
  7. Marina Oswald described the weapon found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as “the fateful rifle of Lee Oswald”: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.1, p.119.
  8. Oswald’s intention to kill Richard Nixon: Warren Report, pp.187ff.
  9. The killing of J.D. Tippit: Warren Report, pp.156–175.
  10. The attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker: Warren Report, pp.183–8.
  11. See e.g. Bertrand Russell, ‘16 Questions on the Assassination’, Minority of One, 6 September 1964, pp.6–8. Also unconvinced about the Warren Report’s conclusions were three of the seven Commissioners. One of them, Senator Richard Russell, objected strongly to the central part of the case against Oswald; see Richard Russell and the Warren Report.
  12. Although hundreds of thousands of copies of the Warren Report were issued in paperback to coincide with the publication of the official edition, public access to the documentary evidence was carefully rationed. Only 5000 copies of the complete supplementary volumes were printed, all in expensive hardback format; see http://www.acorn.net/jfkplace/09/fp.back_issues/31st_Issue/wc_notes.html. Much of the background material was not published at all, but placed in the National Archives. Other material was deemed to be dangerous to national security, and was ordered to be kept secret for 75 years. Law suits under the Freedom of Information Act enabled some of this material, such as the transcripts of the Commission’s executive sessions, to be made public.
  13. A CIA document claimed in 1967 that “46% of the American public did not think that Oswald acted alone.” According to an opinion poll in 1976, the figure was 81%.
  14. The HSCA Report’s conclusions: HSCA Report, p.3. A recording had come to light of a police radio broadcast that appeared to contain evidence of a fourth gunshot. Acoustic tests indicated that the evidence was credible and that the fourth shot originated from the infamous grassy knoll at the north–west corner of Dealey Plaza. The HSCA was unable to dispose of this evidence before its report was due to be published, and so was obliged to suggest the existence of a third, albeit unsuccessful, lone nut in addition to Oswald and Ruby. The acoustics evidence is technical, and its interpretation is disputed. For the case in favour of a shot from the grassy knoll, see D.B. Thomas, ‘Echo Correlation Analysis and the Acoustic Evidence in the Kennedy Assassination Revisited,’ Science & Justice, vol.41 no.1 (January 2001), pp.21–32. For the case against, see R. Linsker, R.L. Garwin, H. Chernoff, P. Horowitz, and N.F. Ramsey, ‘Synchronization of the Acoustic Evidence in the Assassination of President Kennedy,’ Science & Justice, vol.45 no.4 (October 2005), pp.207–26. For a readable overview, see G. Paul Chambers, Head Shot: The Science Behind the JFK Assassination, Prometheus Books, 2010, pp.116–144.

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