What Do People Think About the JFK Assassination?

Public opinion about the JFK assassination does not agree with that of the news media. The lone–nut hypothesis, strongly promoted by the media, is rejected by the general population not because people get their information on the subject from conspiracy–oriented books, but because they adopt the same critical attitude to the assassination as they do to other, similar topics.

Opinion Polls About the JFK Assassination

The main polling organisations take surveys of popular opinion about the assassination from time to time. In most cases, the survey questions have been restricted to a simple choice: lone nut versus conspiracy.

The figures in the following table are taken from Sheldon Appleton, ‘The Mystery of the Kennedy Assassination: What the American Public Believes’ [PDF: 7.2MB], The Public Perspective, October/November 1998, pp.13–17, with the addition of a later survey, by Gallup in 2001:

JFK Assassination Public Opinion Polls, 1963–2001
Date Organisation Lone Nut Conspiracy No Opinion
Nov 1963 NORC 29 52 19
Dec 1963 Gallup 29 52 19
Sept 1964 Harris 45 40 15
Oct 1964 Harris 56 31 13
Dec 1966 Gallup 36 50 15
Feb 1967 Harris 35 44 21
May 1967 Harris 19 66 15
Sept 1967 Harris 24 60 16
Oct 1975 Harris 20 65 15
Dec 1976 Gallup 11 81 9
Sept 1978 Harris 18 75 7
Mar 1981 Harris 21 67 12
Oct 1983 Gallup 11 74 15
Nov 1983 ABC/Wash.Post 13 80 7
Oct 1988 CBS/N.Y.Times 13 66 21
May 1991 Washington Post 19 57 24
May 1991 PSRA 12 73 15
Dec 1991 Yankelovich 11 73 16
Jan 1992 CBS/N.Y.Times 10 77 13
Oct 1993 CBS News 11 75 14
Nov 1993 Gallup 15 75 10
Mar 2001 Gallup 13 81 6

Survey Questions

Of course, the precise wording of the questions can be expected to affect the replies. Here are the questions from the Gallup surveys:

  1. 1963: Do you think that the man who shot President Kennedy acted on his own, or was some group or element also responsible?
  2. 1966, 1976: Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think that others were involved?
  3. 1983, 1992: Do you think that one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think that others were involved in a conspiracy?
  4. 1993, 2001: Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think that others were involved in a conspiracy?

Reasons for JFK Assassination Beliefs

Books About the JFK Assassination

Hundreds of books have been published on the JFK assassination. Most of them are given little publicity, and presumably do not sell in large quantities. Those with the largest publicity budgets tend to be uncritical or sensationalist, and pose little threat to the lone–nut hypothesis. Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, for example, received coverage in newspapers and magazines, and on television and radio, that was quite out of proportion to the credibility of its analysis.

The conspiratorial book most heavily promoted in the media was probably David Lifton’s Best Evidence, which proposed that President Kennedy’s body was surgically altered to conceal evidence of shots from the front. To the majority of the general public, unfamiliar with the details of the JFK assassination, such a proposition must seem too far–fetched to be taken seriously. Best Evidence was a safe book to promote. As Roger Feinman pointed out, Lifton “is the perfect public spokesman for the assassination research community, only if we look at things from the perspective of both the government and the established news media”.

Although Lifton performed some useful research, his theory is far from conclusive and is not a central part of the argument against the lone–nut hypothesis. The books that make the most convincing case for conspiracy, such as Gerald McKnight’s Breach of Trust and Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact, have received hardly any publicity in the mainstream media, and are surely unknown to almost everyone who takes part in opinion polls on the subject.

Newspapers and Television

The general public gets its information about the JFK assassination largely from the established media, which, in the US at least, overwhelmingly depicts the assassination as the act of a lone nut named Lee Harvey Oswald. On the rare occasions when the possibility of a conspiracy is acknowledged, Oswald is assumed to have been an active participant in the plot.

From the point of view of most media commentators, such conclusions are perfectly rational. Two official inquiries concluded that Oswald was a gunman. According to the first, he acted alone; according to the second, he almost certainly acted alone, but may perhaps have had associates. The inquiries were official, so their conclusions must by definition have been justified. Therefore Oswald was a gunman who almost certainly acted alone but may perhaps have had associates.

A Correlation Between Opinion and Information

The media’s coverage is not entirely one–sided. Critical information does occasionally get through the media’s filtering mechanism. The public’s changing attitude to the lone–nut explanation seems to reflect the varying amount of critical information it receives:

  1. In the first few days after the assassination, a majority took seriously the idea of a conspiracy, as information inconsistent with the lone–nut explanation was widely broadcast: evidence of shots from more than one direction, Oswald’s apparent contacts with representatives of the Soviet and Cuban regimes, and Jack Ruby’s connections to organised crime.
  2. Towards the end of 1964, the balance swung towards the lone–nut explanation as the media heavily promoted the Warren Report’s conclusions.
  3. The public had adopted a more critical attitude by 1967, following the publication of the first wave of properly researched critiques of the Warren Report, such as Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact: the Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report.
  4. In the mid–1970s, public belief in conspiracy intensified following two events: the broadcast on national television of a copy of the Zapruder film, which contained prima facie evidence of a shot from the front; and the Schweiker–Hart Report’s revelations of assassination attempts by US intelligence agencies on official enemies such as Fidel Castro.
  5. The proportion of those questioned who believed that the JFK assassination was the result of a conspiracy rose to about three out of four in late 1991, when Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, got into the news. The proportion seems to have remained at or above 75 per cent in the two decades and more since JFK was released.

What People Actually Believe, and Why

Whatever their views on the JFK assassination, only a small minority of those questioned can have had anything more than a superficial knowledge of the subject. Few will have heard of Lee Harvey Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City, which does not form part of the standard media narrative despite being a central event in the assassination. Even among specialists, hardly anyone is familiar with the neutron activation analysis of Oswald’s paraffin casts, which suggests very strongly that he had not fired a rifle at all on the day of the assassination.

It is not only the general public that lacks specialist knowledge. Pundits in the media, who for institutional reasons overwhelmingly endorse the lone–nut hypothesis, give every impression of being just as poorly informed as the general public.

Certain uncontroversial facts are, however, in common circulation and can be assumed to form the basis for popular opinions about the assassination. Many people will be aware, for example, that:

  • President Kennedy’s head moved sharply back and to the left after the fatal shot, which implies a shot from the front;
  • a large number of witnesses claimed that shots came from the grassy knoll;
  • the single–bullet theory is incompatible with the known laws of physics;
  • and that the Warren Commission did not perform an honest investigation into the assassination.

Even though the majority of the information that reaches the general population is supportive of the lone–nut hypothesis, enough contradictory information gets through to allow the official interpretation to be rationally questioned.

Are JFK Assassination Beliefs Rational?

Religious Belief in the United States

The surveys quoted above were of US residents only, and may or may not be consistent with opinion elsewhere. There is one type of belief in which north America differs notably from most industrialised countries: the US and Canada contain a disproportionately super–sized number of believers in fundamentalist religion. The figure usually given for belief in one or another form of creationism has consistently been not far from 50%, according to Gallup: 44 per cent in 1982, and 46 per cent in 2012. For the results of a detailed survey from 1988 of religious belief in the US, see George Gallup, Jr, and Jim Castelli, The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90s, Macmillan, 1989.

Perhaps the ‘dumb Yank’ stereotype applies also to the JFK assassination, and the large pool of ignorant and credulous folk who cannot find Africa on a map, or who believe in young–earth creationism, includes those who believe that a conspiracy assassinated President Kennedy.

The JFK Assassination as a Superstitious Belief

No overlap has been demonstrated between beliefs in religious fundamentalism and in a JFK assassination conspiracy. There is, in fact, a crucial difference in the sources of information that underly the two beliefs, which makes a significant overlap unlikely. The former belief is heavily supported by a large network of propaganda institutions, while the latter is strongly opposed by the only available propaganda institutions:

  • Churches and religious radio stations are easily accessible to the reactionary and poorly educated sectors of the population which form the main audience for fundamentalist religion.
  • There is no such network for those who question the official doctrine on the JFK assassination, a group which surely relies extensively on the mass media for its information on the subject.

Although mainstream newspapers and television give little positive publicity to those who question the scientific consensus on evolution, they give even less to those who question the political consensus on the JFK assassination. Followers of institutionalised superstition do so not because they are overly influenced by the mass media, but because a large proportion of the information they receive comes from non–mainstream sources. Those who doubt the lone–nut hypothesis, on the other hand, do so because:

  • they reject most of what they are told about the subject,
  • and they seize on the few items of critical information that the mainstream media does provide.

The JFK Assassination as a Subversive Belief

Although there are plenty of irrational JFK assassination conspiracy theories, it is quite rational to conclude that a conspiracy of some sort took place. This rational belief should be compared not with superstitious beliefs, but with other rational beliefs. Sheldon Appleton has examined the few surveys that attempt to place opinions about the JFK assassination in the context of other political opinions:

Over a substantial period of time, belief in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy has been related to a political world view which sees the government as failing to provide its citizens with the help they feel they need to cope with the problems of modern life. This failure is not seen as being due to the inability of the president — the symbol of our government — to do a great deal to solve them. Rather he, and the government, could solve them, but choose not to, preferring to put the needs of the upper classes above those of working and middle class Americans.

(Appleton, op. cit., p.17 [emphasis in the original])

The tendency to take seriously the notion of a JFK assassination conspiracy correlates with a general tendency to analyse political events in ways that are critical of official doctrine. There are many other topics in which the opinions of political elites, or at least those of their publicists in the media, are rejected by the general population. For example:

  • Many opinion polls, mostly unreported outside the specialist literature, show a large majority in favour of such subversive notions as a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. According to one survey of the literature, 82 per cent of the US population believes that the “government is run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people” (Everett Carll Ladd, ‘The 1994 Congressional Elections: The Postindustrial Realignment Continues,’ Political Science Quarterly, Spring 1995, p.13). The best–known case is probably the opinion poll taken by the Boston Globe in 1987, on the 200th anniversary of the US constitution, in which respondents were given a list of sayings and were asked to identify those that were so obviously reasonable that they had to be part of the constitution. 45 per cent of the respondents approved of the notion ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ (see Laurence H. Tribe, ‘To Praise the Constitution or to Bury It?’, Boston Globe Magazine Special Supplement, 13 September 1987, pp.8f; the respondents were not told that the quotation was from Karl Marx).
  • The public has consistently adopted a critical attitude to the Vietnam War, in notable contradiction to the media, which has published even less dissent on this topic than on the JFK assassination. Even though opposition to the war has decreased along with its relevance to everyday lives, the population has always rejected the media’s strongest criticism, the tame notion that the Vietnam War was a worthy cause that was improperly carried out: “respondents were asked how they felt about the statement that the Vietnam War ‘was more than a mistake; it was fundmentally wrong and immoral.’ In 1986, 66% of the public concurred, compared with 72% in 1978 and 1982. A total of 27% disagreed ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ with the statement, compared with 21% in 1982 and 19% in 1978” (John E. Reilly, ed., American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy 1987, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 1987, p.33).

Questioning the Official Account

It is hardly surprising that the population is willing to reject the media’s dominant interpretation of the JFK assassination, given that it recognises that the corporate media is not an objective source of information about established power. According to Thomas B. Rosentiel, ‘Serious Reservations on Fairness are Cited, Poll Finds Most Americans Believe Press,’ Los Angeles Times, 16 January 1986, p.1, “53% of those surveyed thought the press was one–sided when presenting political and social issues. … [T]he public thinks powerful groups and institutions push the press around. … We find almost no evidence that the public regards the news media as too adversarial.”

The widespread belief that the JFK assassination was the result of a conspiracy is just one aspect of a widespread recognition that national institutions do not represent the interests of the general population.