On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down as he rode in a motorcade through Dallas. That killing, and the subsequent murder of his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody, traumatized a nation so intensely that the feeling has never quite faded.
The Warren Commission, a board of inquest appointed by JFK's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, produced a voluminous report to substantiate the official conclusion that Oswald had indeed killed Kennedy and acted alone.
Yet many people found that story difficult to accept.
How could someone who displayed abysmal marksmanship skills in his brief Marine Corps career, manage to hit a distant, moving target with two of the three shots that he fired from a sixth-floor window? What if Oswald was telling the truth when, after his arrest, he said, "I'm just a patsy"? And wasn't it a bit too convenient that Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with conspicuous organized crime connections, got close enough to Oswald to kill him, before he could talk further?
It didn't help when, in 1979, a Congressional committee that reopened the case concluded that the original investigation had been less than complete, and raised the possibility that JFK had been killed by a conspiracy [source: National Archives].
Yet, to this day, there is no hard evidence of one, despite all the theories and names tossed out over the years. "The reason is, there is [no conspiracy] to leak out," Vincent Bugliosi, attorney and author of "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy" told the Dallas Morning News in 2013.
Still, skeptics continue to peruse grainy home movies of the event and study arcane documentation from the investigation, looking for the proverbial smoking gun that will crack the case. Here are 10 theories that offer conspiratorial explanations for what happened, some more believable than others.
Jimmy Hoffa Got the Mafia to Do It
There have been persistent rumors over the years of links between JFK and the Mafia. A purported presidential mistress, Judith Campbell Exner, once claimed she had arranged a meeting at JFK's behest with Chicago crime boss Sam Gianciana, so that JFK could seek Gianciana's help during the 1960 presidential race [source: Associated Press]. It's also well-documented that the CIA sought mobsters' help in its plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro [source: Kessler].
But the Mafia eventually came to view JFK and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, as bitter adversaries because of the latter's efforts to eradicate mob influence over the Teamsters union [source: Krauss]. Frank Ragano, an attorney who represented Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, wrote a 1994 book in which he alleged that Hoffa asked mob bosses Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello to arrange JFK's assassination. (Of course, Hoffa mysteriously disappeared in 1975 and was declared legally dead in 1982.) Ragano also claimed that, in 1987, a dying Trafficante confessed to having a role in the president's killing and expressed his regrets, saying, "We should have killed Bobby" instead [source: Noble].
The mob hit is probably the conspiracy theory that comes the closest to being plausible — even House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) counsel G. Robert Blakey said in 1979,"I think the mob did it" [source: Bugliosi].But with the possible suspects and their associates long dead, the chances of turning up solid proof seem increasingly remote.
Fidel Castro Retaliated
As a congressional inquiry discovered in 1975, the CIA hatched numerous plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro during Kennedy's presidency, including an attempt to poison his food [source: Kessler]. Did Castro decide to return the favor? Lyndon B. Johnson harbored such suspicions. In a 1967 phone call to acting Attorney General Ramsey Clark that was secretly recorded, LBJ even described a rumor he'd heard about how Castro had captured plotters against him and tortured them into revealing that they were working for the CIA.
"So he [Castro] said, 'Okay. We'll just take care of that,'" LBJ said. "So then he called Oswald and a group in, and told them to ... go set it up and get the job done" [source: Holland].
Oswald was involved with pro-Castro activism and even tried to obtain a visa to visit Cuba in the summer before JFK's death. But clear-cut proof of a Cuban role in the assassination has yet to emerge, and in a 1977 interview, Castro himself said that killing Kennedy would have been "absolute insanity," because the U.S. might have attacked Cuba in retaliation [source: Volkman].
Anti-Castro Cubans Were Angry at Failed Coup
During the CIA-orchestrated invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles in April 1961, the president made a last-minute decision to keep U.S. bomber aircraft on the ground. Apparently, JFK was concerned that U.S. fingerprints on the operation might be too obvious [source: Lawrence].
With the lack of airpower, the coup failed, and many in the exile community blamed Kennedy. Even though he continued a clandestine CIA effort to eliminate Castro, it wasn't enough to satisfy the scores of armed militants who were eager to try another invasion. They grew even angrier after federal authorities shut down many of their training camps and confiscated weaponry in the spring of 1963.
In October, just seven weeks before JFK's killing, one anti-Castro militant warned, "We're going to give him the works when he gets in Dallas," according to a tape of the meeting in Dallas. In the wake of the assassination, an informant told the FBI that on the day before JFK was shot, another anti-Castro activist who was seeking to buy arms illegally boasted that his wealthy backers would put up the money "as soon as we take care of Kennedy" [source: HSCA].
Nevertheless, the Congressional probers who reopened the investigation of JFK's assassination concluded that the anti-Castro militants were more vociferous than menacing, and probably hadn't been involved [source: HSCA].
If you think that American society is politically polarized to a scary extreme today, here's a news flash: Things were bitterly partisan back in 1963, too. Dallas, in particular, was a seething hotbed of right-wing extremists, who tended to view JFK as a Communist sympathizer or worse.
On Nov. 22, The Dallas Morning News greeted JFK with a full-page advertisement, placed by the local branch of the far-right John Birch Society and paid for by Texas oilmen, that accused him of abandoning the Monroe Doctrine in favor of "the spirit of Moscow" [source: Parks]. It's no wonder, then, that many suspect that Dallas right-wingers had something to do with JFK's murder, even though Oswald was a self-proclaimed Marxist.
To muddle things even further, in 1967 New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison accused local businessman Clay Shaw of being involved in a conspiracy with a shadowy group of right-wingers to assassinate JFK (a premise that helped to inspire the 1991 movie of the same name). Shaw's acquittal after just one hour of jury deliberation didn't kill this meme [source: Times Picayune].
Oswald Was a Soviet Agent
After obtaining a discharge from the Marine Corps in 1959, Oswald promptly defected to the Soviet Union, where he lived for 32 months before he grew disillusioned and returned to the U.S. with his Russian wife Marina. But even back home, Oswald continued to dabble in pro-communist activism, and in September 1963 took a bus to Mexico City, where he visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies, in an effort to obtain travel visas [source: Associated Press].
Or was it for other reasons? Oswald's curious history has led some to speculate that he was an operative recruited by the Soviets to kill Kennedy. According to investigative journalist Edward J. Epstein, Oswald's final phone call in Mexico City was to an official who was a secret agent in the espionage and assassination branch of the KGB, the Soviet equivalent of the CIA [source: Time].
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB's files on Oswald — turned over to President Bill Clinton by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and translated into English — actually revealed that the Soviet spy agency had decided against recruiting Oswald. As it turned out, the Soviets saw Oswald as mentally unstable and unreliable, and even harbored suspicions that he might be a CIA spy [source: Schorr]. Of course, the truly conspiracy-minded might question whether the Russians turned over all their documents.
The Military-Industrial Complex
This is a scenario that's resonated among conspiracy buffs since 1991, after director Oliver Stone made it the premise of his box-office smash "JFK" [source: Canby].We like to think of the slain president as a noble, wise leader, one who would have realized that the burgeoning American involvement in Vietnam's civil war was a potential disaster in the making, and who would have decided to cut his losses early.
Such a decision likely would have irked the dreaded military-industrial complex, the alliance of Pentagon officials and defense contractors that Kennedy's predecessor Dwight Eisenhower had warned Americans about in his farewell speech in 1961. Eisenhower felt that these contractors were gaining enormous influence over what the armed forces spent on weaponry [source: NPR].
So, is it possible that forces inside the military-industrial complex could have arranged the murder of an uncooperative commander in chief? One big problem with the theory is that there's no conclusive proof that JFK actually contemplated preempting the Vietnam War. To the contrary, in a 1964 oral history interview, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy — who himself would be assassinated in 1968 — said that his brother was convinced the U.S. had to remain in Vietnam to challenge the spread of communism [source: Grier].
LBJ Orchestrated the Assassination
It's no secret that smooth, dashing Massachusetts blueblood JFK and his gruff Southern good-old-boy vice president had a political marriage of convenience, and weren't particularly fond of one another. Indeed, according to a 1964 oral history interview with Jacqueline Kennedy, Kennedy was so worried about what Lyndon Johnson would do if he succeeded him that he'd begun to have private conversations with political movers about preempting the Texan's expected presidential candidacy in 1968 [source: Klein].
Some conspiracy theorists have argued that LBJ may have decided to beat Kennedy to the punch, and preempt his reelection by arranging for him to be murdered when he visited Johnson's home state of Texas. In a 2011 book, author Joseph Farrell suggested that Johnson acted at the behest of, or perhaps in concert with, powerful Texas oilmen who feared that JFK would end the oil depletion allowance, their lucrative tax break [source: Farrell].
Another writer even claimed that LBJ tried to get his friend, then-Texas Gov. John Connally, and his wife to switch seats with another political couple in the Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, presumably to keep Connally out of the line of fire [source: Smith]. The theory has a certain appeal, from the "who stands to gain" perspective. But it falls considerably short in terms of actual documentation. Indeed, author Robert Caro, who in 2012 released No. 4 of a planned five-volume work on Johnson says that he has found absolutely no evidence that Johnson was involved in JFK's murder [source: Italie].
The CIA Gave Oswald LSD
In 1983, Rolling Stone magazine published an article recounting how New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Edward Gillin had been visited unexpectedly in 1963 by a young man who told him about a wondrous drug called LSD, which he believed would change the course of human civilization. The young man asked Gillin if the drug was legal, and whether he could import it from overseas. Gillin was puzzled and concluded that the young man was crazy. A few months later, when Gillin saw Lee Harvey Oswald on TV news reports about JFK's assassination, he realized that was the young man who had talked to him about LSD.
The article went on to lay out a speculative scenario. While Oswald was serving as a Marine Corps radar operator in Atsugi, Japan, he was recruited by the CIA to go to the Soviet Union as a fake defector in a "deep cover" operation. He was then given LSD as part of his training, by researchers who were studying whether it had value as a "truth serum" drug, and feared that the Soviets might already be using it for interrogations or to brainwash subjects. But after the CIA and JFK had a falling out over the Bay of Pigs and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union, Oswald was reactivated as a "Manchurian Candidate" to off the uncooperative president [source: Lee, Ranftel, and Cohen].
Granted, that probably sounds farfetched, unless you happen to be tripping on LSD when you read it, in which case it's utterly cosmic.
The Federal Reserve Did It
A lot of people are deeply suspicious of the Federal Reserve system, which tinkers with interest rates and the availability of money to lend stability to the U.S. economy. Or at least, that's what the Trilateral Commission, the Knights Templar and the Masonic elders want us to think. (Before they put out a hit on us, we should emphasize that we're just kidding).
So it's not too surprising that conspiracy theorists would posit that the Fed had a role in JFK's murder, as well. Some have suggested JFK ran afoul of the central bankers by issuing Executive Order 11110 in June 1963, which would have taken away the Fed's power to allow the U.S. Treasury to bypass it and issue paper currency backed by silver. This supposedly would have eliminated the demand for federal notes but vastly reduced the U.S.'s national debt [source: Rense.com].
Or maybe not. For one thing, silver certificates, as such paper currency was called, already existed. For another, JFK actually wanted to get rid of silver certificates, and had just signed a bill passed by Congress that allowed the government to melt down its silver reserves and use the metal to make coins. To ease the transition, JFK issued the executive order in question, which allowed the government to keep printing the certificates for a while longer [source: Associated Press]. Finally, none of this really had anything to do with the Fed.
Part of the Government's UFO Cover-Up
It was perhaps inevitable that the continuing torrent of JFK assassination conspiracy theories would converge with another irrepressible conspiracy meme, the belief that the U.S. government has long been engaged in a massive cover-up operation to prevent the public from learning about visits to Earth by extraterrestrial beings.
Adding impetus to this theory are early November 1963 memorandums, unearthed by author William Lester through the Freedom of Information Act, in which JFK asked for a review of all intelligence files related to UFOs. The information was sought as part of the preparations for a joint U.S.-Soviet space effort that JFK hoped to initiate, and Lester believed that Kennedy was concerned about the Soviets mistaking UFOs that flew over their country for U.S. spy aircraft [source: Daily Mail].
But in the feverish minds of conspiracy buffs, it's not hard to imagine a cabal of generals or CIA officials dispatching a team of Men in Black to make sure that the president didn't find out about those alien autopsies being conducted at Area 51, or about the clandestine effort to breed a super-race of human-alien hybrids. Oh wait—that's an old "X-Files" episode that we're thinking of. Never mind!
HowStuffWorks learns about some very colorful alleged members of the 1860s gangs including Hell-Cat Maggie of the Dead Rabbits.
Author's Note: 10 Conspiracy Theories about the JFK Assassination
I remember the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963 very vividly — the nuns herded me and my first-grade classmates upstairs to church and began leading us in seemingly endless, teary rounds of the rosary, without explaining why. I was convinced that the world was about to end. It wasn't until I got home that I learned from my mom that the president had been killed in Dallas.
Two days later, I remember sitting in front of our black-and-white TV and watching replay after replay of Jack Ruby gunning down the suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Even to my youthful mind, the official explanation of events didn't seem to ring true. Years later, as a newspaper reporter in California, I had the occasion to actually meet and interview a man who had served in the Marine Corps with Oswald. He described the alleged assassin's wretched marksmanship skills—of how Oswald frequently scored a "Maggie's drawers," a white flag waved when a shooter missed the target. That put further doubts in my mind about the official story. Unfortunately, as the event fades further and further into history, I doubt that we'll ever know the full truth about what happened.
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