Fifty years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 59 percent of Americans still believe it was the work of a conspiracy. I was once among them. Back in the early 1970s, as a high school senior and college freshman, I read Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, Richard Popkin’s The Second Oswald, Penn Jones’ Forgive My Grief, and other tomes, some of them best-sellers, that argued the case for a dark plot.
Then, one day, I looked up the footnotes in those books, most of them leading me to the multivolume hearings of the Warren Commission. I was shocked. The authors had taken witnesses’ statements out of context, distorted them beyond recognition, and in some cases cherry-picked passages that seemed to back their theories while ignoring testimony that didn’t. It was my first brush with intellectual dishonesty.
There’s no space to launch a full rebuttal of the conspiracy theorists. (It took 1,632 pages for Vincent Bugliosi to do that in his 2007 book Reclaiming History.) But it’s worth recounting the conspiracy buffs’ arguments that I found most persuasive—and why they collapse under scrutiny.
The Magic Bullet
The basic facts are these. On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally, and their wives were riding in a slow, open motorcade through Dallas. At 12:30 p.m., as the car turned onto Dealey Plaza, three gunshots rang out. Kennedy and Connally were both shot. The car sped to a nearby hospital, where the president was pronounced dead and the governor treated for wounds. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested as the suspected gunman and was himself shot to death days later. President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. The Warren Report concluded that Oswald had fired all three shots from a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where he worked.*
But the case was far from closed. A man named Abraham Zapruder, one of thousands of people standing along the motorcade route that day in Dallas, captured the shootings on his 8mm home-movie camera. At 26 seconds and 486 frames, it would come to be the most thoroughly examined snuff film in history—and a prime piece of evidence for the Warren Commission and the subsequent “conspiracy buffs.”
At first, it was assumed that Kennedy and Connally had been hit by separate bullets. But the Zapruder film threw a wrench in that notion. The Warren Commission’s analysts concluded that JFK was shot sometime between Frames 210 and 225 (a street billboard blocked Zapruder’s view at the crucial moment), while Connally was hit no later than Frame 240. In other words, the two men were hit no more than 30 frames apart. However, FBI tests revealed that Oswald’s rifle could be fired no faster than once every 2.25 seconds—which, on Zapruder’s camera, translated, to 40 or 41 frames. In short, there wasn’t enough time for Oswald to fire one bullet at Kennedy, then another at Connally.
The inference was inescapable. Either there were at least two gunmen—or Kennedy and Connally were hit by the same bullet. The Warren Report argued the latter. The “single-bullet theory,” as it was called, set off a controversy even among the commissioners. Three of them didn’t buy it. Under political pressure to issue a unanimous report (preferably one reassuring the American public that there was only one gunman and he was dead), the skeptics stifled their dissent, at least publicly; in exchange, the report’s authors toned down their assessment of the single-bullet theory from “compelling” (the first draft’s term) to merely “persuasive.”
That section of the Warren Report drew the most biting attacks. Critics drew diagrams tracing the absurd path that a bullet would have had to travel—a midair turn to the right, followed by a squiggly one to the left—in order to rip through Kennedy’s neck, then into Connally’s ribs and wrist.
For many years, long after I’d rejected most of the conspiracy buffs’ claims, the “magic bullet”—as critics called it—remained the one piece of the Dealey Plaza puzzle that I couldn’t fit into the picture; it was the one dissonant chord that, in certain moods, made me think there might have been two gunmen after all.
Then, in November 2003, on the murder’s 40th anniversary, I watched an ABC News documentary called The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. In one segment, the producers showed the actual car in which the president and the others had been riding that day. One feature of the car, which I’d never heard or read about before, made my jaw literally drop. The back seat, where JFK rode, was three inches higher than the front seat, where Connally rode. Once that adjustment was made, the line from Oswald’s rifle to Kennedy’s upper back to Connally’s ribcage and wrist appeared absolutely straight. There was no need for a magic bullet.
The Grassy Knoll, Part 1: Frame 313
Kennedy was shot twice: first through the neck (by the bullet that went on to pierce Connally), then in the head. The Zapruder film captured this shot too, in Frame 313. The image was deemed so horrifying that it was excised from public viewings of the film until 1975, when President Gerald Ford (who’d served on the Warren Commission) ordered it released. I remember watching the fully restored film on TV. It really was horrifying. You saw the top of President Kennedy’s head literally blown off. But it was creepy for another reason: the blown-off piece of his head blew backward. In other words, it looked like that fatal bullet was fired not from behind Kennedy, like the first bullet, but from in front of him. Were there two gunmen after all—Oswald in the book depository and someone else perched in the area known as the “grassy knoll”?
I went back to the library and scoured the Warren hearings. There I found neurologists testifying that a nerve ending can explode when hit by a bullet and that the two trajectories—where the bullet came from and which way the nerve fragments fly—are not necessarily related. Experiments from the 1940s, in which bullets were fired into the heads of live goats, revealed this fact. So, the evidence of Frame 313 was at least ambiguous; it said nothing, one way or the other, about the plausibility of a second-gunman theory.
However, in 1975, CBS News, which was doing a documentary on the assassination, hired a tech firm to conduct a high-resolution analysis of the Zapruder film, using instruments that hadn’t existed in the Warren Commission’s day. The firm discovered that, on Frame 312, Kennedy’s head slammed a tiny bit forward, and much more quickly than it jolted backward an instant later on Frame 313. The implication: The bullet hit his head from behind, pushing him forward, then a nerve exploded, which happened to push him backward.
The Grassy Knoll, Part 2: The Acoustical Analysis
In 1976, the House of Representatives formed a special committee to reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination. After many hearings and extensive analysis, the panel concluded that there had been a second shooter after all. This surprise conclusion was based on a newly discovered piece of evidence—an audiotape from a radio transmission from a Dallas policeman who’d been escorting JFK’s motorcade.* According to the House report, an acoustical analysis of the tape revealed that four gunshots were fired—and that, given the echo patterns and the officer’s location, one of those shots came from the grassy knoll.
The report stirred such commotion that the National Academy of Sciences conducted its own analysis of the tape—and concluded that the House report was hooey. First, it turned out that some of those four gunshot-like sounds were not gunshots. Second, the motorcycle cop in question was not where the House report claimed, so even if the sounds had been gunshots, a revised echo analysis put them someplace other than the grassy knoll. Third, some of the sounds on the tape occurred a minute after the assassination.
The Appeal of Conspiracies
Conspiracy theories thrive—about every big event in history—for several reasons. First, there’s a natural human instinct to fantasize about the hidden. As my Slate colleague Ron Rosenbaum (who’s plumbed these depths as immersively as anyone) put it in his brilliant collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune, “The search for the hidden hand, the hidden springs, the hidden handshake behind history attracts a certain kind of glory seeker, Ancient Mariner, mad scholar, Wandering Jew.”
Second, there is comfort in this search for unseen mainsprings. If horrible events can be traced to a cabal of evildoers who control the world from behind a vast curtain, that’s, in one sense, less scary than the idea that some horrible things happen at random or as a result of a lone nebbish, a nobody. The existence of a secret cabal means that there’s some sort of order in the world; a catastrophic fluke suggests there’s a vast crevice of chaos, the essence of dread.
As the old adage has it, “Big doors sometimes swing on little hinges.” John F. Kennedy’s murder was a big door—had he lived, the subsequent decades might have looked very different—and Lee Harvey Oswald was a preposterously small hinge. The dissonance is wildly disorienting. It makes for a neater fit, a more intelligible universe, to believe that a consequential figure like John Kennedy was taken down by an equally consequential entity, like the CIA, the Mafia, the Soviets, Castro … take your pick.
Finally (and this is a point that some defenders of the Warren Report ignore), there are conspiracies. There’s a reason so many serious people started to reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination in the mid-1970s: that was when Sen. Frank Church’s committee unveiled a long dark history of CIA conspiracies—coups, killings, and other black-bag jobs—that only extremists had ever before imagined possible. What other extreme theories might turn out to be true?
The killing of JFK emerged as an obvious source of renewed curiosity. Back in 1971, not long before he died, a retired Lyndon B. Johnson told the journalist Leo Janos that the Kennedy administration had been “running a damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean.”* Nobody knew what he was talking about at the time. A few years later, the Church Committee revealed the details of Operation Mongoose—an intense plot by the Kennedy White House and the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. Revelations also emerged of the Mafia’s cooperation in Mongoose, of JFK’s affair with a Mafia moll, and of his brother Robert Kennedy’s crusade against the same Mafia kingpins. Could Dallas have been a revenge shooting, mounted by either Castro or the Mafia? Even if Oswald had been the lone gunman, could he have been a recruit in some larger power’s plot?
New suspicions also arose about the Warren Commission. The CIA, it turned out, had accumulated vast files about Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union (he had briefly defected in the late 1950s before returning to the United States) and his visit to the Cuban consulate in Mexico—but the agency turned over none of this material to the Warren staff.
No wonder that even as sober-minded a soul as Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a college student at the time of the assassination, recently told NBC's Tom Brokaw, "To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone" or that the Warren Commission "got to the bottom" of his "time and influence from Cuba and Russia."
Yet history plays strange games. The Warren Commission was a compromised outfit from the get-go—and yet, despite a half-century of scrutiny, the report’s central points hold up well. The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives—and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read—first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air)—is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved. And that of course makes conspiracy theories all the more satisfying.
Correction, Nov. 15, 2013: This article originially misstated the year of Lyndon B. Johnson's death. He died in 1973, not 1968. (Return.)
Correction, Nov. 18, 2013: This article originally misstated Lee Harvey Oswald's place of employment. He worked at the Texas School Book Depository, not the Texas Bookstore Depository. (Return.) This article also originally misstated that the recording revealing that four gun shots had been fired came from an audio tape Dictaphone belt worn by a Dallas policeman. The recording transmissions were recorded at the Dallas Police headquarters from a microphone worn by an officer at the scene. (Return.)