SIXTY years ago today, President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Those old enough to remember it probably know where they were when they heard the news. It was a more pivotal moment in Western politics than could even be imagined at the time and is still troublingly relevant today.
A few days later the alleged assassin, a lowly government clerk called Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed by a shady character called Jack Ruby while being transferred out of a police building. No one else was arrested in association with Kennedy’s killing. Within one year, a commission chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone in shooting the president.
There began a phenomenon with us to this day – the conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are as old as humanity, with witches and Jews the favoured historical protagonists of some evil secret plot (the latter still prove handy for that purpose). But the term only came into popular use in 1964, coined by the CIA to try to discredit critics of the Warren Commission’s report.
The cry of ‘conspiracy theory’ is familiar to anyone questioning the ‘climate emergency’ or the efficacy of Covid vaccine and lockdowns. It’s a shorthand for dismissing inconvenient ideas, even though those who point the finger are often guilty of the same thing. It wasn’t so long ago that Hillary Clinton had all the mainstream media touting conspiracy theories of Russia’s role in losing her the 2016 presidential election.
The CIA had good reason to target those sceptical of the official explanation. Within one month of Kennedy’s death, most Americans thought more than one person was involved in his death and that has remained so. One might imagine the early 1960s was an era of high deference and trust in government. However, the public were open to the belief that the state was up to no good and trying to hide it from the public. Dwight Eisenhower had sown the first major seeds of doubt in his presidential farewell address in January 1961 when he warned of ‘the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.’ And so it has remained. Before Kennedy’s assassination more than 70 per cent of Americans trusted the government. The figure had fallen to 62 per cent by 1968 and has been below 50 per cent for most of the time since then.
The problem with conspiracy theories is that there are so many of them that one can’t fairly evaluate any but a fraction of them: faked moon landing, 9/11 as an inside job, our rulers as alien lizards are only the beginning of your choice of evil cabals. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories run the gamut of credibility. Robert Kennedy Jr believes there’s ‘overwhelming evidence’ of CIA involvement, but there’s also the Mafia, Cuba, the Soviet Union, George H Bush, as well as Israel (the Jews, of course). Then it gets properly crazy: the presidential limousine driver did it, Kennedy was shot accidentally by one of his security team, it was a gunman firing from a storm sewer. The Red Dwarf episode in which Kennedy travels back in time to assassinate himself is only slightly more far-fetched than some assertions. One estimate is that there have been 42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 individuals accused at some time of being involved in the assassination.
My rule of thumb on conspiracy theories is that 95 per cent are nonsense, 4 per cent have some element of truth and 1 per cent are true. So disbelieving all conspiracy theories means you’ll be right most of the time but, like playing Russian roulette for too long, following simplistic probabilities has its limitations. While you laugh out loud when Alex Jones screams that ‘they’re turning the freaking frogs gay!’ it turns out he had a sort of point, which makes it difficult to dismiss out of hand even the most outlandish jeremiahs.
While most conspiracy theories are long on assertions and short on evidence, there’s plenty of readily available material to make you doubt that Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman. The amateur film of the assassination, taken by Abraham Zapruder, a dressmaker on a lunch break, shows Kennedy’s head violently forced back and to the left by the final fatal shot, placing that gunman in front and to the right – on the infamous grassy knoll. How Oswald, employed at the Texas School Book Depository, nearly directly behind Kennedy at the moment of his death, could have fired that bullet defies the laws of physics. Nor is it credible to believe the Warren Commission’s claim that one bullet could have passed through Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connelly (sitting in front of him in the presidential car and injured) and then been found virtually pristine, unless you believe it was a ‘magic bullet’.
Sneering at Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists also runs you into the awkward fact that the US Congress is one of that number. In 1979, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations agreed with the Warren Commission that Oswald killed Kennedy, but concluded that there was a ‘high probability’ that two gunmen fired at Kennedy, and that a conspiracy was probable. So now it’s merely which conspiracy theory you wish to back.
I have my own assassination conspiracy theory. The key figure doesn’t get as much attention as one might expect for the most obvious suspect. No one gained more from Kennedy’s death than Lyndon Johnson, who went from vice president (the job described as being worth no more than a bucket of warm spit) to the most powerful man in the world. Johnson was a nasty, ruthless political dealer, personally disliked by Kennedy and his Attorney General brother Robert but electorally useful, certainly in 1960 where he was suspected of stitching up the presidential race in Texas. Rumour had it Johnson was going to be dropped from the ticket for the 1964 presidential election. No one was better placed than Johnson to co-ordinate the various elements of the assassination operation and the subsequent cover-up. No one was better placed to dupe the Warren Commission into believing that the Soviets had killed Kennedy and thus, to avoid the risk of a cataclysmic world war, they had to dupe the American people into believing it done by a lone nut. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, released files showed the KGB’s own investigation put Johnson as the prime suspect for the murder. And there is an intriguing photograph from the motorcade on that fateful day showing Johnson seemingly missing from the car in which he was riding, two vehicles behind Kennedy, like a man who knew shooting was about to start and had ducked to keep out of harm’s way.
And what of Lee Harvey Oswald? As he said of himself shortly before his murder, he was just a ‘patsy’, a fall guy in the right place to take the blame. It’s most likely he didn’t shoot at Kennedy. Oswald was a sad figure, without stability in his life, using his history of having defected to the USSR (although the KGB thought him ‘a bit crazy and unpredictable‘) to ingratiate himself with pro-Cuban groups in the US, on whom he may have been spying for the CIA; as the CIA have a history of lying about their knowledge of Oswald, everything is possible. It was very easy to mark him as a communist out to get Kennedy.
And here is where the Kennedy assassination is still relevant today, for I have to admit something about my conspiracy theory that you, dear reader, must also – however reluctantly – accept about your own carefully constructed explanations of sinister goings-on in places of power. However convincingly we think our ideas explain the facts to hand, information has been withheld over decades (and continues not to be released) making it impossible to be certain exactly what happened, who precisely was involved and what motivated them. But what we can be sure of is that the official narratives don’t make sense.