Few dates in American history receive as much attention as Nov. 22, 1963. On that Friday, U.S. President John F. Kennedy died as a result of two gunshot wounds to his upper body. More than four decades later, historians, government officials, conspiracy theory buffs and the general public still question exactly what happened.
If you were to gather all of the reports, books, articles, editorials, films and television specials about the JFK assassination in one place, you'd have enough material to fill a library. Every year, more books about the event hit store shelves. Forensics experts continue to review every shred of evidence in an effort to determine what happened on that day.
The number of works about JFK's death should come as no surprise. He was a popular president who has become an almost mythological figure after his death. After his assassination, the resulting investigations left some people unsatisfied. Inconsistencies among eyewitness reports and tenuous connections between key figures involved in the event fueled dozens of different theories.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who officially became president of the United States at 2:38 p.m. aboard the presidential plane, ordered a full investigation into the assassination. Chief Justice Earl Warren was the lynchpin of the resulting investigative body, which became known as the Warren Commission. The Commission submitted a full report to President Johnson on Sept. 24, 1964. The report spanned several hundred pages. The Commission also published records of all of the hearings it held over the course of nearly 10 months. Those hearings filled up 26 volumes.
The report from the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot President Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as the president's motorcade traveled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. The report also stated that Jack Ruby killed Oswald on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963. The commission found no evidence suggesting Ruby was acting on behalf of another person or organization.
Is there a mystery around JFK's death? Is the official story of a lone gunman really a cover for a conspiracy of high-profile individuals? Were foreign powers involved in the shooting? Was the mafia responsible? Or could the assassination be the result of treasonous plans formulated by the CIA? And why are there so many questions about the assassination and the findings of the Warren Commission?
The JFK Assassination Timeline
To understand the assassination, it helps to look at a timeline of events. And to really get down to the bottom of why so many conspiracy theories exist, you need to start well before Nov. 22, 1963.
Five months before his visit to Texas, Kennedy met with Vice President Johnson and John B. Connally Jr., governor of Texas. The purpose of the visit was to bolster Kennedy's popularity in Texas and to present a unified party front in the state. Governor Connally had been feuding with Senator Richard Yarborough. Both men were Democrats, as was Kennedy. Kennedy hoped that by touring the state with both men, he could help unify the party and increase his chances of being re-elected in 1964.
On Nov. 8, 1963, the Secret Service learned of the proposed route from Love Field, where the president's plane would land on the 22nd, to the site of a political luncheon. On November 18, the White House approved the route. On November 19, Dallas papers publicized the route.
When the president arrived at Love Field, he took a seat in the presidential limousine. He was joined by the First Lady, Governor Connally, Connally's wife and two Secret Service agents. Other cars carrying more Secret Service agents, Senator Yarborough and Vice President Johnson followed. They began their route at 11:50 a.m. to the luncheon site, which was just beyond Dealey Plaza.
The motorcade entered Dealey Plaza a few minutes behind schedule after the president stopped to greet friendly crowds. At approximately 12:30 p.m., the assassin fired the first shot. At least two more shots followed. One shot missed the motorcade -- there's still a debate concerning which of the shots missed. One shot hit the president at the base of his neck. The bullet traveled through his neck and out through the base of his throat. Another shot hit the president in the back of his head. This was the fatal bullet. The assassin had fired three shots in just a few seconds -- estimates range from around four to eight seconds.
The presidential limousine immediately rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, which was four miles (6.4 kilometers) away. Medical staff attempted to save the president's life, but doctors pronounced John F. Kennedy dead at 1 p.m.
The Initial JFK Investigation
Eyewitness accounts at the time of the shooting are inconsistent. The buildings surrounding Dealey Plaza reflect sound, making it difficult to ascertain the origin of the shots. Some people thought the shots fired came from the grassy knoll. But others witnessed a man with a rifle firing out of a southeast corner window, six stories up, at the Texas School Book Depository.
Four minutes after the shooting, Dallas police identified the depository as the sniper's possible location. An eyewitness named Howard L. Brennan saw a figure in the window and gave policemen a description of the sniper. At 12:45 p.m., police began to distribute a description based on Brennan's observations. The description fit Lee Harvey Oswald.
Meanwhile, police officer Marrion L. Baker was already investigating the depository, entering the building less than two minutes after the president was shot. He met the building's superintendent, Roy Truly. Baker and Truly then encountered Lee Harvey Oswald on the second floor. Truly vouched for Oswald and the two continued up the stairs. Meanwhile, Oswald left the building.
Just before 1 p.m., Captain J. Will Fritz arrived at the scene to take charge. He organized a search of the depository. On the sixth floor, the search team discovered several large boxes arranged to form a sniper's nest. They also found three spent rifle cartridges and a bolt-action rifle with a telescopic sight.
During this time, Oswald headed to the house where he rented a room, arriving there around 1 p.m. He retrieved a pistol and left the house, walking away from Dealey Plaza. At about 1:15 p.m., he encountered Patrolman J. D. Tippit. According to eyewitnesses, Oswald shot Tippit four times, killing him instantly. Oswald attempted to evade capture but was eventually apprehended at the Texas Theatre at 1:45 p.m. According to Patrolman M. N. MacDonald, Oswald said "Well, it's all over now" as he was taken into custody [source: Warren Commission Report].
Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald was born on Oct. 18, 1939. His father died two months before Oswald was born. He had an older half-brother and an older brother. He and his brothers lived in an orphanage for a year while their mother worked. In 1944, his mother pulled Lee and his brothers from the orphanage. She remarried in 1945 but separated from her husband in 1946.
The Oswald family moved around a lot. Oswald went to school in Texas, Louisiana and New York. While in New York City, Lee began to exhibit behavioral problems in school. A social worker deemed him to be an average student who was emotionally starved. He often had fantasies in which he held power over other people [source: Warren Commission Report].
At 16, Oswald dropped out of school and tried to join the Marine Corps. The Marines rejected his application because of his young age. He worked odd jobs and began to read communist literature. He wrote to the Socialist Party of America when he was 17 to express his enthusiasm for Marxism.
Six days after he turned 17, he re-applied to the Marines and was accepted. Oswald qualified as a sharpshooter during boot camp. Later, he would take a similar test and rate only as marksman, one rank lower than sharpshooter. Oswald served in the Marines from 1956 until 1959. Much of his time in the Marines was spent overseas. While in the Marines, Oswald taught himself Russian and continued to study the Soviet Union.
Three days after leaving the Marines, Oswald left home on a long trip to the Soviet Union. He had falsified an application to the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland to obtain a passport. Once in Moscow, he applied for Soviet citizenship. Soviet officials denied his request and ordered him to leave Moscow. On Oct. 21, 1959, Oswald slashed his left wrist in an apparent suicide attempt. Soviet officials said Oswald could stay in the Soviet Union on a year-to-year basis. While Oswald expressed interest in renouncing his American citizenship, he never made it official.
Oswald met, fell in love with and married Marina Nikolaevna Prusakova. After his marriage, Oswald wrote to the Soviet and American embassies, seeking a return to the United States. He had become disenchanted with the realities of the Soviet Union, which failed to meet his expectations. The pair left Moscow on June 1, 1962.
Oswald Back in the States
Upon his return, Oswald stayed with his brother and then his mother before securing an apartment. The FBI interviewed Oswald regarding his decision to move to the Soviet Union and subsequent decision to return to the United States. Oswald agreed to inform the FBI should any representative from the Soviet Union ask him to engage in espionage activities.
Oswald's wife Marina spoke little English and felt isolated. The Oswalds met a small community of Russian-speaking people in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald continued to criticize the United States and capitalism. Marina became close friends with a woman named Ruth Paine, who felt sympathy for the young bride.
On April 10, 1963, four days after losing his job, Lee Harvey Oswald attempted to murder Major General Edwin A. Walker. Oswald used a rifle he had purchased through mail order using a false name. The attempt failed, and the Oswalds decided to leave town before the authorities could identify the assailant. The two left Texas for New Orleans.
In Louisiana, Oswald tried to establish a chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Oswald was the sole member of the chapter, though he attempted to hand out flyers and give interviews as though it were a large organization. In September 1963, Marina left New Orleans to live with Ruth Paine in Texas. Meanwhile, Oswald traveled to Mexico City in an effort to visit the Cuban and Russian embassies.
After several failed attempts to secure a visa to travel to Cuba and the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States and moved to Dallas. He secured a job with the Texas School Book Depository on Oct. 16, 1963. A little over a month later, he would shoot the president of the United States. Two days later, Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald as police prepared to transport him to a secure location. Oswald died in the same hospital as JFK -- Parkland Memorial.
It seems as though Oswald felt he was an outsider and was never satisfied with his surroundings. He left the United States for the Soviet Union, grew disenchanted with the realities of communism, returned to the United States and then tried to get back to the U.S.S.R. From various reports and interviews, it seems as though Soviet and Cuban officials were unimpressed with Oswald. Based on these and other numerous facts, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted as the lone gunman.
JFK Conspiracy Theories
Not everyone is satisfied with the Warren Commission's report. Some think Oswald acted on behalf of another organization. Others think Oswald was speaking the truth when he cried out "I'm just a patsy" to the media. There are enough inconsistencies and unusual coincidences in Oswald's background to sow the seeds of suspicion.
Some conspiracy theorists suggest that the Soviet Union -- in the form of the KGB -- or Cuba contracted Oswald to assassinate the president. No substantive evidence on either of these charges exists. The Warren Commission investigated Oswald's finances dating back a year and half before the assassination -- long before any trip to Dallas was planned. The result of the investigation was the discovery of a little more than $160 in discrepancies -- not enough to merit further concern.
Part of the reason these conspiracy theories exist despite the lack of evidence is motive. Both the Soviet Union and Cuba had reasons to target JFK. The Soviet Union and the United States were at the height of the Cold War. Cuba and the United States had recently been embroiled in a controversial conflict -- the Bay of Pigs. In addition, the CIA, apparently acting under its own authority, had been trying to assassinate Fidel Castro for months.
But other theories abound. One links Jack Ruby to the mafia, suggesting that the mob was behind the president's death. It's true that Robert Kennedy, JFK's brother, was attorney general and had pledged to pursue organized crime with relentless tenacity. This theory hinges on either Oswald being a patsy or working for the mob. If he was a patsy, Ruby was sent to kill Oswald before Oswald had a chance to talk to authorities.
Again, little evidence exists to link Oswald or Ruby to the mafia. Oswald had an uncle connected to the mob in New Orleans, but no evidence suggests the two corresponded. Jack Ruby was a nightclub owner who had some shady business practices but no confirmed mafia connections. While the motive fits nicely with the crime, the evidence just doesn't follow.
Perhaps the most controversial conspiracy is that it was an inside job, possibly ordered by Vice President Johnson. Kennedy had criticized the CIA's intelligence practices. He was also considering scaling down the United States' involvement in Vietnam. Some suggest that Johnson and the CIA worked together to get Kennedy out of the way before he could enact these changes. But again, no hard evidence links them to Kennedy's assassination.
Of course, with conspiracy theories, some argue that a lack of evidence is proof of involvement. It remains that the most conclusive evidence: autopsy results, a rifle with Oswald's fingerprints that Oswald himself had ordered under a false name, the spent cartridges and Oswald's response when he was apprehended all point to him as the perpetrator.
Official JFK Inquiries and Investigations
Some people have accused the Warren Commission of performing shoddy work and covering up evidence. The official report is several hundred pages long and supported by 26 volumes of testimonial hearings. It's available at the National Archives Web site. The report details a thorough investigation of the assassination.
But conspiracy theories and distrust in the government were on the rise after Kennedy's assassination. Many pointed to the infamous Zapruder film, footage taken by Abraham Zapruder of the motorcade at the time of the assassination. From the footage, it looks as though Kennedy's body moves in a way that is inconsistent with being hit from behind. The United States government responded to concerns about the Warren Commission by forming the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). In 1976, the committee investigated the JFK assassination.
The HSCA's findings complicated matters. The investigation uncovered recordings that seemed to indicate four shots rather than three. This led the committee to conclude that there was a second shooter in the JFK assassination but that the second shooter missed. Later examinations of the acoustic evidence suggested that the HSCA was mistaken and that there were only three shots fired. The HSCA failed to find any connection between Oswald and a co-conspirator.
In 1975, another investigation touched on the events of Nov. 22, 1963. The investigative body was known as the Rockefeller Commission and its task was to examine claims of CIA misbehavior. Part of that investigation centered on the events surrounding JFK's assassination. This investigation invalidated the "three tramps" theory, which stated that the police detained three hobos who were really CIA agents. In truth, the three men were transients.
The U.S. government has released hundreds of thousands of records regarding the assassination. While conspiracy theorists still search for proof that Kennedy was killed as part of a conspiracy, no hard evidence has yet to surface. What has come to light is that agencies like the CIA and the FBI attempted to bury mistakes and questionable acts. But it still looks like the Warren Commission's report was accurate. Perhaps we just find it hard to believe that a lone gunman with no perceivable motive could kill one of the most powerful people in the world.
Learn more about the assassination and related topics by following the links on the next page.
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- Appleton, Sheldon. "The Mystery of the Kennedy Assassination: What the American Public Believes." The Public Perspective. Oct./Nov. 1998. pp. 13-17.
- Bland, Eric. "Tech Puts JFK Conspiracy Theories to Rest." Discovery Channel. Nov. 13, 2008. (April 14, 2009)http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/11/13/jfk-forensics-tech.html
- Delano, Anthony. "Kennedy Assassination: 40th Anniversary." BBC History Magazine. November 2003, pp. 14-20.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Kennedy, John F." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2009. (April 16, 2009) http://www.library.eb.com/eb/article-3869
- Gest, Ted and Shapiro, Joseph P. "JFK: The Untold Story of the Warren Commission." U.S. News & World Report. Aug. 17, 1992. p. 28.
- Locke, John. "The Unofficial JFK Assassination FAQ #19." 1997 (April 13, 2009)http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/faq.txt
- McAdams, John. "The Kennedy Assassination." 1995-2008. (April 13, 2009)http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm
- McReynolds, R. Michael. "Records on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy." National Archives and Records Administration. Winter 1992. pp. 384-388.
- Morley, Jefferson. "Conspiracy Theories; Decades after that trip to Dallas, some writers still have grave doubts about the Kennedy assassination." The Washington Post. Nov. 27, 2005. p. T 04.
- National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). "National Archives Opens Additional JFK Assassination Materials." Dec. 20, 2004.
- Patterson, Karen. "Experts Explore Why We Cant' Stop Obsessing over JFK." The Dallas Morning News. Nov. 17, 2003.
- Ross Jr., Bobby and Penny Cockerell. "Assassination Still Stirs Memories, Debate 40 Years Later." Associated Press. Nov. 15, 2003.
- Stern, Sheldon M. "A Prosecutor Takes On the JFK Assassination." Skeptic. Vol. 14, Issue 4, p. 64.
- Thomas, Evan. "Who Shot JFK?" Newsweek. Sept. 6, 1993. pp. 14-17.
- Warren Commission. "Warren Commission Report." The National Archives. Sept. 24, 1964 (April 13, 2009) http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/warren-commission-report/intro.html