JFK’s Assassination: What Prompted The Conspiracy Theories? | History Hit

JFK’s Assassination: What Prompted The Conspiracy Theories?

60 years on from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, conspiracy theories abound. Here we take a look at how these arose.

Amy Irvine

22 Nov 2023
President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News / Public Domain

At 12.30pm on 22 November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas as his open-topped limousine moved through Dealey Plaza.

A young and popular president, by autumn 1963, ‘JFK‘ had been preparing for the 1964 presidential campaign. Earlier that day, the Kennedy’s had greeted crowds of well-wishers on arrival in Dallas before joining their motorcade to head to the Trade Mart where JFK was scheduled to speak.

As Kennedy’s car reached Dealey Plaza and passed the Texas School Book Depository, shots were fired, fatally hitting Kennedy and injuring Texas Governor John Connally. Kennedy’s body was later transported to Air Force One, where before flying to Washington D.C., Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was swiftly sworn in as President, with Jackie Kennedy at his side still wearing her pink Chanel suit stained with her husband’s blood.

2023 marks 60 years since the assassination, an event that continues to spark fascination and speculation due to the myriad of conspiracy theories that have emerged since. What prompted these, and why is there still such intrigue 60 years on, despite many government investigations?

Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One at Love Field Airport, 2 hours and 8 minutes after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas. Jackie Kennedy (right), still in her blood-soaked clothes, looks on.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Cecil W. Stoughton / Public Domain

Lee Harvey Oswald

Most witnesses to Kennedy’s assassination reported hearing three shots, with one sighting a gunman firing the third shot from the Texas School Book Depository’s sixth-floor corner window. 24 year-old ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald would become America’s chief suspect.

Oswald was a recently hired Book Depository employee, and had left swiftly before police sealed the building. Police later found his abandoned rifle, and evidence of a ‘sniper’s nest’ made from book cartons, along with three spent bullet-shells.

After taking a taxi to his apartment to change clothes and grab a gun, Oswald left on foot. 45 minutes after JFK’s assassination, Oswald encountered, then fatally shot, police officer JD Tippit, before seeking refuge in a nearby cinema, slipping into a film already in progress. A witness alerted staff and police were called. After a brief struggle, Oswald was arrested. At Dallas police headquarters, another officer recognised Oswald’s name as the only Book Depository employee unaccounted for, which had made him a suspect in Kennedy’s assassination.

Lee Harvey Oswald Mug Shot, November 23, 1963

Image Credit: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

The authorities firmly believed they had captured the assassin: a Depository employee who was an ex-marine with a sharpshooting record – with Marxist sympathies. However, whilst Oswald was held in custody, none of his police interviews were recorded or documented. Oswald later claimed to the media he was “just a patsy” – the fall guy. This sewed the seeds of doubt in the public’s minds.

Two days later, during a scheduled transfer to the county jail, Jack Ruby (a local nightclub owner), fatally shot Oswald on live television from point blank range. This act removed the chance for Oswald to be interrogated, leading to decades of conspiracy theories.

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The Warren Commission

A week after Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson launched an inquiry. 10 months later, The Warren Commission’s 888 page report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had assassinated Kennedy (and police officer Tippit), and had acted alone. Ballistics evidence helped confirm this conclusion. They also concluded that local nightclub owner Jack Ruby had acted alone when he killed Oswald 2 days later in an act of spontaneous revenge, finding no evidence that either man was part of any conspiracy.

According to the Warren Commission, Oswald fired three shots in 8.6 seconds: the first shot missed, but they claimed the second shot somehow struck Kennedy in the back, exited through his throat, then hit Governor Connally, breaking a rib, shattering his wrist, and ending up in his right thigh. This became known as the ‘magic bullet theory’, and had in part relied on the fact a bullet had been found on Connally’s hospital stretcher on his arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Members of the Warren Commission officially present their report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to President Lyndon Johnson. Cabinet Room, White House, Washington DC.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / White House photo by Cecil Stoughton / Public Domain

Increasing mistrust

Whilst the majority of the public seeming willing to accept The Warren Commission’s conclusions, over the next few years, many critics and various conspiracy theories emerged; soon over half of Americans believed there was a conspiracy or cover-up behind Kennedy’s assassination. Why?

The first conspiratorial bestsellers about Kennedy’s murder appeared in 1966, a time when public discontent with the Vietnam War was at its peak. A climate of distrust had been created by the government’s lies about Vietnam, popularising the concept of a ‘credibility gap’.

Mark Lane’s book Rush to Judgement (1966) questioned the Warren commission’s findings. For many, increasingly Oswald, the lone gunman, didn’t seem a big-enough answer to the assassination of the American President – and why had he claimed he was a ‘patsy’? Furthermore, Oswald’s own assassination also began to seem too convenient.

Sceptics also fixated on the single bullet, finding it difficult to believe that it could have caused as many injuries as it did, and to two separate men.

The Zapruder film

Ukrainian-born American clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder had used his cine-camera to film 26 seconds of Kennedy’s motorcade as it progressed through Dealey Plaza. Contained in his 486 frames of footage, specifically frame 313, he recorded the headshot that had killed the president. His film is regarded as the most complete footage of the assassination.

2 days after the assassination, Life magazine bought the rights to Zapruder’s footage, and stills from it were used in the Warren Commission’s investigation. However, it was only when the footage was broadcast on American network television in March 1975, that an array of theories about the existence and location of a potential second gunman emerged.

The footage shows a headshot knocked Kennedy backwards, suggesting the gunshot had come from the front, not from behind, opening up the possibility of a second gunman. Indeed, as the gunshots rang out, many bystanders had rushed up the grassy knoll to where Zapruder had been standing, believing the shots had come from there.

Left: Frame 150 from the Zapruder film. Kennedy’s limousine has just turned onto Elm Street, moments before the first shot, and the President is apparently waving. Right: Frame 371 showing Jacqueline Kennedy reaching out across the back of the presidential limousine as Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs aboard.

Zapruder’s footage remains the cornerstone of many conspiracy theories, and in 1976, (after Vietnam and Watergate had shaken Americans’ faith in government) led to the commissioning of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. In 1979, its investigation claimed it had found no evidence of CIA, Soviet or Cuban involvement, but concluded (using questionable acoustical analysis) that although Oswald had shot JFK, there was a high ‘probability’ of a second gunman and thus a conspiracy.

Despite this bombshell, the Committee failed to name any accomplices and sealed many of its findings for 50 years, inevitably prompting further speculation and conspiracy theories, and adding to public cynicism over the Warren Commission report. If the CIA and the FBI had lied to the Commission, some thought they – or even the media – clearly had something to hide.

Conspiracy theories

Kennedy’s assassination remains shrouded in intrigue, spawning numerous conspiracy theories that have captivated the public imagination for decades.

Among the most famous theories is the CIA Conspiracy, suggesting the involvement of rogue elements within the CIA seeking retribution for Kennedy’s policies, aggravated by his knowledge of the agency’s attempts to eliminate Fidel Castro

Another prominent theory, the Mafia Connection, posits organised crime’s involvement due to displeasure over Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s crackdown on the mob and the closure of mafia-run casinos following the failed Cuba policy. Additionally, the Grassy Knoll Theory proposes a second shooter on the grassy knoll, challenging the lone gunman narrative, based on eyewitness accounts and forensic anomalies at the crime scene.

These enduring theories, among others, continue to fuel debates and investigations, and have been the basis for many famous books and films about the assassination, including Oliver Stone’s JFK, which called for the release of official records, leading to the 1992 JFK Records Act, which aimed to disclose all relevant remaining official records within 25 years, by October 2017.

Release of new files and information

On 26 October 2017, thousands of previously classified documents pertaining to the assassination were released by America’s National Archives as part of a set of documents scheduled for public disclosure under the terms of the JFK Records Act. These offered insights into various aspects of the investigation, including FBI and CIA reports, witness testimonies amongst other records.

Nevertheless, former President Trump and President Biden allowed postponements on the advice of the FBI, CIA, and other national security agencies. However, in June 2023, almost 60 years after JFK’s assassination, America’s National Archives concluded their review of the JFK assassination documents. 99% of the documents have now been made public. Whilst this is clear progress, inevitably queries over the remaining 1% continue.

The newly released documents highlighted the Warren Commission’s failure to provide a clear motive for Oswald, as they lacked crucial intelligence context withheld from them. This revealed extensive surveillance on Oswald by American intelligence agencies, including the CIA’s monitoring of his activities and threats made in Mexico City – information never shared with the Commission. It’s likely Oswald’s pro-Castro connections were possibly downplayed to avoid public outrage and potential military conflict with Cuba during the Cold War.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas. 22 November 1962

60 years on, new files and information are still being revealed. Former Secret Service agent Paul Landis, in his 2023 memoir The Final Witness, disclosed finding a bullet in the back of JFK’s limousine, which he later placed on Kennedy’s stretcher at the hospital. Landis speculated that Kennedy and Connally Jr’s stretchers might have collided, shifting the bullet between them, challenging the single-bullet theory of the Warren Commission.

However, Landis’ account contrasts with earlier statements he made post-assassination and lacks corroboration from other witnesses like Clint Hill (the agent who famously jumped onto the back of the Kennedy’s car to protect the president), and hospital accounts, raising doubts about its accuracy.

It’s likely that we’ll never know the full story, but until all the related documents are declassified, conspiracy theories continue to abound. 

Amy Irvine