JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories
Although the Warren Commission's report failed to calm speculation about who was behind the assassination, there are problems with all the main theories: anti-Castro Cubans, pro-Castro Cubans, Soviets, CIA, Lyndon Johnson, the mafia.
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Snippets of evidence point in many directions, and have helped to generate a large number of conspiracy theories, varying from the plausible to the outlandish.
Emergence of JFK Conspiracy Theories
The first JFK assassination conspiracy theories appeared almost at once, prompted by information in the earliest news reports, and were amplified over the next few days:
- Shots from more than one direction were reported by newspapers, radio and television within hours of Kennedy’s assassination.1
- Evidence of Lee Harvey Oswald’s apparent sympathy with the Soviet and Cuban regimes was also reported very soon after the assassination.2
- The shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, two days after the shooting of Kennedy, was widely interpreted as the silencing of a potentially troublesome patsy. Rumours quickly spread about Jack Ruby’s connections to organised crime in Dallas and Chicago, his history of gun–smuggling, his links to the Dallas police, and his stalking of Oswald in the two days before the murder.3
Oswald as Part of a Communist Conspiracy
The first JFK conspiracy theories claimed that Oswald had been working for the Cuban or Soviet regimes, either as a lone gunman or, more likely, with others.
Oswald’s Role in the Shooting
It is almost certain that more than one gunman fired at President Kennedy:
- Photographic and eye–witness evidence of shots from the front indicates that at least one shot was fired from a location other than the Texas School Book Depository.4
- More shots were fired than one rifle could have managed in the time available.5
Lee Harvey Oswald, however, was almost certainly not one of the gunmen. The only solid evidence linking Oswald with the crime was his apparent ownership of the rifle discovered on the sixth floor of the TSBD.6 Every other important aspect of the evidence suggested strongly that he had not been directly involved in the shooting:
- Oswald almost certainly did not deliver the rifle to the TSBD. The only day on which he plausibly could have taken the rifle to work was the day of the assassination. Only three people saw him before and during his arrival at the TSBD that day; all of them were adamant that he had not carried a rifle.7
- Oswald almost certainly was not on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting. He was seen by two witnesses on the second floor shortly after the final shot; he would not have been able to descend from the sixth floor in time, and none of the witnesses on or close to the stairs saw or heard him descend.8
- Oswald almost certainly was not on the sixth floor 15 minutes before the shooting, when a reliable witness saw two men, one of whom was holding a rifle, on that floor. Another reliable witness saw Oswald on either the first or second floor at this time.9
- Oswald almost certainly did not fire a rifle on the day of the assassination. Paraffin tests showed no evidence of gunpowder residues on Oswald’s right cheek.10
Lee Harvey Oswald as a Conspirator
Oswald almost certainly had nothing to do with the shooting in Dealey Plaza. He may have had a role, knowingly or otherwise, in the planning of the shooting, but there is no solid evidence to support this speculation:
- Oswald’s apparent meeting in Mexico City with Valeriy Kostikov, a Soviet diplomat who was suspected by the CIA of being part of the KGB’s assassinations department, became public knowledge shortly after the assassination. The public was not informed until some time later that Oswald had been impersonated in Mexico City, and that the man who met Kostikov was probably an impostor.11
- The communist conspiracy theory was inflamed by a report from Mexico that Oswald had accepted money from a representative of the Cuban regime as an advance payment for killing Kennedy, but the report was soon shown to be false.12
- Reports that Oswald had discussed the assassination in New Orleans with David Ferrie and Clay Shaw are marginally more plausible, but still only speculative.13
Effects of the Communist Conspiracy Theory
The early communist conspiracy theory quickly prompted a second theory. The blatant evidence of Cuban and Soviet involvement was taken to be a fraudulent attempt by their political opponents to blame those regimes.
Both theories generated public distrust of established political institutions. This in turn led directly to the establishment of the Warren Commission. As J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, noted shortly after Oswald’s murder and before any real investigation of the crime had taken place:
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.14
Oswald and a Right–Wing Conspiracy
The Warren Commission had been given ten months, a staff of 70, and huge financial and legal powers, and was expected to come up with convincing evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of President Kennedy. When the weakness of the Warren Report’s case against Oswald became widely known, the way was open for conspiracy theories to fill the explanatory gap.
The majority of the post–Warren Commission theories named a variety of establishment and right–wing suspects. Not every theory focussed exclusively on one set of suspects; many theorists filled their plates with helpings from several areas of the conspiracy buffet.
The Framing of Oswald
One crucial factor set a barrier that few of these conspiracy theories were able to overcome. It was clear that whether or not Oswald had been aware of the assassination plot in advance, he had been carefully set up to take the blame:
- The Silvia Odio incident shows that the framing of Oswald was an integral part of the assassination of President Kennedy.
- Oswald’s undercover work shows that he was being directed by one or more US intelligence organisations.
- Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City shows that his framing was facilitated, whether knowingly or otherwise, by elements within the CIA.
So we can rule out as a prime mover in the assassination any individual or organisation that did not possess two things:
- knowledge of Oswald’s undercover activities,
- and access to the workings of the CIA’s office in Mexico City.
Several of the most popular suspects probably knew nothing of Oswald’s undercover work, and certainly could not have had access to the CIA’s Mexico City office.
The LBJ Killed JFK Conspiracy Theory
Lyndon Johnson was the most obvious direct beneficiary of the assassination. He certainly possessed the motive:
- There had been rumours that Kennedy had been planning to replace Johnson as vice–presidential candidate in the 1964 election.
- Johnson’s political career was being threatened by a corruption scandal, which his accession to the presidency allowed him to overcome.
There is, however, no convincing evidence that he had any advance knowledge of the assassination.15
J. Edgar Hoover or the FBI Killed JFK
Kennedy and Hoover did not get on, but that is hardly a credible reason for one to kill the other. The FBI was not under any threat from the Kennedy administration. Hoover’s only plausible motive was that he may have feared that Kennedy would force him out of office when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1965.
The FBI’s lack of willingness to investigate the assassination does not imply that it or its director were involved in the crime. Institutional reasons are sufficient to explain its role in the cover–up:
- The impersonation of Oswald in Mexico City demanded the adoption of the politically harmless lone–nut theory.
- Oswald’s association with Guy Banister in New Orleans, and the rumours that Oswald had been an informer for the FBI, obliged the Bureau to conceal any links it might have had to the alleged assassin.16
The Secret Service Killed President Kennedy
The Secret Service was in charge of the president’s security, and clearly failed in its job. While the Secret Service as an institution had neither a credible motive nor the ability to carry out the assassination by itself, it is not inconceivable that one or more members of the Secret Service facilitated the assassination.
The Secret Service seems to have attracted some of the most implausible JFK assassination conspiracy theories. One such theory claims that Kennedy’s driver, a Secret Service agent, fired the fatal shot. Another claims that the Zapruder film was altered to conceal the driver’s complicity in bringing the car to a halt just before the fatal head shot. An equally absurd non–conspiracy theory claims that a Secret Service agent in the car behind Kennedy fired the fatal shot by accident.17
Anti–Castro Cubans Killed President Kennedy
Most anti–Castro Cubans considered US policy on Cuba to be insufficiently aggressive. Many blamed Kennedy for the failure of the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Oswald’s links to anti–Castro Cubans in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 suggest that if he had been involved in the planning of the assassination, perhaps they had too.18
If elements of the anti–Castro movement were behind the assassination, their actions had no practical effect. There was no significant difference between President Johnson’s Cuban policies and Kennedy’s.
Right–Wing Extremists Killed JFK
Kennedy was very unpopular with racists and fascists, who took exception to his proposed civil rights legislation and to what they considered to be his failure to stand up to the communist menace. One such extremist, Joseph Milteer, appeared to have predicted two weeks before the assassination that Kennedy would be killed by gunfire from a high building, and that a patsy would be apprehended soon afterwards. General Edwin Walker, whom Robert Kennedy had forced to resign from the army, and whom Oswald was supposed to have attempted to kill in April 1963, was alleged to have been the fascist mastermind behind the conspiracy.19
It is plausible that fascist individuals or groups may have had advance knowledge of the assassination, but there is no evidence that they were involved in the shooting.
The Mafia Killed President Kennedy
The mafia’s close links to Jack Ruby suggest that it was involved at some level. The notion gained support in the 1970s, when it became known that the CIA had co–opted the services of senior mobsters for its assassination attempts on Fidel Castro.20
FBI wiretaps and informers revealed that several senior mafia figures expressed hatred toward the Kennedy brothers, who had forced the FBI and other agencies to take action against mobsters.21 The House Select Committee on Assassinations lent credence to the ‘mafia killed JFK’ theory. It claimed that although “organized crime, as a group, was not involved in the assassination … individual members may have been involved.”22
No doubt the mafia could have performed the assassination, but they alone, like LBJ, the FBI, the Secret Service, anti–Castro Cubans and assorted fascists, could not have framed Oswald.
The Media and JFK Conspiracy Theories
Perhaps the most common explanation by the media for the existence of JFK assassination conspiracy theories is that people are unable to accept the notion that a great hero could be slain by a maladjusted loser.
This is a reflection of the media’s own representation of Kennedy in particular and the institution of the presidency in general. It is a poor explanation in two ways:
- The historical record shows that JFK conspiracy theories arose very quickly after the assassination and were based on reliable facts supplied by the media: the evidence of shots from the front, Oswald’s contacts with Soviets and Cubans, and his convenient execution by Jack Ruby.
- If JFK conspiracy theories are a reflection of any commonly held ideas, those ideas are more likely to be a general suspicion of US nation–state institutions rather than adoration of one of the state’s figureheads.
The media’s flawed depiction of presidents as hero figures, deciding policy for high–minded reasons and with little interference from social institutions, is not unlike the conception of the world put forward by some conspiracy theorists. The media, like the more naive or paranoid conspiracy theorists, gives little consideration to the wider political context of the JFK assassination.
- As well as reporting the arrest of a suspect who worked in a building that was almost directly behind the president during the shooting, the media also reported evidence of shots from the front: several accounts by eye–witnesses in Dealey Plaza, and a press conference given by two of the doctors who had treated President Kennedy at Parkland Hospital, in which the president’s throat wound was described as the result of a shot from the front.
- Very soon after Oswald’s arrest, the media were revisiting their files for reports of his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959. Within hours, the media had received from an anti–Castro group, the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (Revolutionary Student Directorate), a recording of a radio debate in which Oswald had claimed to be a Marxist sympathiser; see Jefferson Morley, ‘What Jane Roman Said, part 6’, at history–matters.com. Within days, the media was reporting on Oswald’s apparent contacts with representatives of the Soviet and Cuban regimes in Mexico City about seven weeks before the assassination.
- For more about Ruby’s background, see HSCA Report, appendix vol.9, pp.125ff and Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, University of California Press, 1993, pp.127–208. For the Dallas police’s complicity in Ruby’s murder of Oswald, see HSCA Report, pp.156ff.
- About 40 witnesses in Dealey Plaza testified to shots from the general direction of the grassy knoll to the front and right of the president’s car. The home movies by Abraham Zapruder, Mary Muchmore and Orville Nix show the fatal shot sending President Kennedy’s head sharply back and to the left, directly away from the direction of the knoll.
- For the deficiencies of the rifle discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, see Oswald’s Rifle and Paraffin Tests. The Zapruder film shows Governor Connally reacting to a shot after President Kennedy had been shot but too soon for the sixth–floor rifle to have fired both shots; see The Single–Bullet Theory.
- No fingerprint evidence linked Oswald to the crime. The rifle contained no identifiable fingerprints (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, p.258). Of the 19 book cartons by the window in the south–east corner of the sixth floor, only two contained Oswald’s fingerprints or palmprints, and only one of those prints had been deposited within three days of the assassination. This was consistent with Oswald having handled the cartons during the normal course of his work in the TSBD, but not with him arranging the boxes to conceal his supposed sniper’s nest. The cartons contained fragmentary prints, presumably from other employees, as well as one set that could not be attributed to any employee or law enforcement officer (Warren Report, pp.138ff). The rifle was linked to the so–called magic bullet, Commission Exhibit 399, but that bullet could not be linked to the assassination; see Was Oswald Framed?. Contrary to a claim by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA Report, appendix vol.1 p.384), the rifle could not be linked to all the fragments of bullets that were found in the presidential car and retrieved from Governor Connally’s wrist; see Erik Randich and Patrick M. Grant, ‘Proper Assessment of the JFK Assassination Bullet Lead Evidence from Metallurgical and Statistical Perspectives,’ Journal of Forensic Sciences, vol.51 no.4 (July 2006), pp.717–28; for a readable account of the issue, see Gary Aguilar, ‘Review of Reclaiming History,’ The Federal Lawyer, November/December 2007.
- Buell Wesley Frazier, Linnie Mae Randle and Jack Dougherty saw Oswald before or during his arrival at the TSBD on 22 November 1963. For details, see How Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill Kennedy?. Before the rifle’s discovery in the TSBD, its only plausible location was the garage of the house occupied by Oswald’s wife and children. Oswald’s only opportunity to retrieve the rifle was when he stayed there the night before the assassination.
- For the timing of Oswald’s encounter with the policeman, Marrion Baker, and the TSBD building supervisor, Roy Truly, and for the eye–witness evidence that the gunman did not resemble Oswald, see How Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill Kennedy?. For evidence that Oswald was on the first floor at the time of the assassination, see Who Is ‘Prayer Man’?.
- Arnold Rowland (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.171) saw two men on the sixth floor of the TSBD at about the same time as Carolyn Arnold saw Oswald elsewhere in the building. The testimony of two TSBD employees, Harold Norman and James Jarman, indirectly places Oswald on the first floor several minutes after the sighting of the gunman on the sixth floor; see Lee Harvey Oswald’s Alibi.
- For the neutron activation analysis tests that showed the presence of nitrates on Oswald’s hands but not on his right cheek, see Oswald’s Rifle and Paraffin Tests.
- For the impersonation of Oswald, and the activities of the impostor, see “A Little Incident in Mexico City”.
- For Gilberto Alvarado’s claim that a Cuban had paid Oswald $6,500, see Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, University of California Press, 1993, pp.121ff, and Warren Report, p.307. The supposed encounter took place in Mexico City on 18 September 1963, when Oswald was known to have been in New Orleans.
- For reports of Oswald conspiring in New Orleans, see Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Assassination of President Kennedy, Sheridan Square Press, 1988. The hypothetical episode was dramatised in Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK.
- HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.472. Nicholas Katzenbach expressed the same thought in a memo written the same day: “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin.… We need something to head off public speculation.”
- The ‘LBJ did it’ theory was first put forward in print by Joachim Joesten, The Dark Side of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Peter Dawn Ltd, 1968. One especially ludicrous version of the LBJ conspiracy theory claimed that Johnson attended a party on the evening before the assassination, at which he announced to a room full of senior politicians and Texan oil millionaires that the president was to be killed the next day; see Madeleine Brown, Texas in the Morning, Conservatory Press, 1997. For examples of Johnson’s legendary corruption, see Clark R. Mollenhoff, Despoilers of Democracy, Doubleday, 1965.
- Mark North, Act of Treason: The Role of J. Edgar Hoover in the Assassination of President Kennedy, Skyhorse Publishing, 1991, argues for Hoover’s involvement. The rumours that Oswald had been an FBI informer were taken seriously by J. Lee Rankin and Earl Warren. For criticisms of the FBI’s performance in the investigation of the JFK assassination, see the Schweiker–Hart Report.
- For the ‘Secret Service driver shot Kennedy’ theory, see Dan Robertson, Definitive Proof: The Secret Service Murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Lulu.com, 2006. Sadly for the theory, the Zapruder film shows clearly that William Greer, the driver, was holding nothing more dangerous than the steering wheel, and that the fatal shot hit Kennedy on the right side of his head while Greer was sitting to the president’s left. For the Zapruder film hoax theory, see The Zapruder Film: Genuine or Fake?. For the theory that Kennedy was shot by the Secret Service agent in the following car, see Fiction, Propaganda and the Media.
- For Lee Oswald’s links to anti–Castro Cubans, see The Career of Lee Harvey Oswald.
- Joseph Milteer’s prediction that Kennedy would be shot “from an office building with a high–powered rifle … they will pick up somebody within hours afterwards … just to throw the public off”: HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, pp.447ff. For the case that General Edwin Walker was involved in the JFK assassination, see W.R. Morris, The Men Behind the Guns, Angel Lea Books, 1975.
- The use of mobsters by the CIA in the assassination attempts on Castro was first documented by the Schweiker–Hart Report.
- For the mafia’s attitude to the Kennedys, and for a representative sample of the ‘mafia did it’ theory, see David Scheim, Contract on America: The Mafia Murder of President John F. Kennedy, Zebra, 1989.
- For the HSCA’s opinion on mafia involvement, see HSCA Report, p.147.
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