by SCOTT K. PARKS / The Dallas Morning News
It’s time to accept that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy all by himself, according to a growing consensus of historians, journalists and legal scholars who have investigated the case for decades.
The 50th anniversary of the assassination on Friday seems the perfect occasion to settle the historical facts once and for all. But that would require an emphatic rejection of fanciful conspiracy theories. And that’s not likely. Most Americans still believe Oswald did not act alone, according to public opinion polls.
“People cannot believe someone as inconsequential as Oswald could kill someone as consequential as an American president,” said historian Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life, a 2003 JFK biography. “The city of Dallas would be well-served by accepting and supporting the proposition that Oswald was the only killer.”
The lone-gunman theory, however, is pretty boring compared to a good murder mystery starring conspiratorial characters lurking through myriad subplots played out in dark corners.
You’ve got Oswald, the misfit ex-Marine who defected to Russia; Jack Ruby, the Dallas strip club operator who murdered Oswald; Jack and Jackie Kennedy, the glamorous and sophisticated power couple; Lyndon B. Johnson, JFK’s vice president and the most powerful politician in Texas.
The Cold War with Russia, fear of communism and an obsession with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro percolated through American culture in 1963. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion, carried out by CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles, had been a disaster in 1961. Anti-Castro Cubans blamed JFK for the debacle.
The president redeemed himself by facing down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. And the threat of nuclear war or a communist takeover hovered over Dallas and the United States.
The nooks and crannies of politics and international policy, combined with the life tales of the main characters, produced innumerable theories about the assassination, described in countless newspaper stories, magazine articles and books.
Problems arose when so-called assassination researchers went too far, connecting dots and publishing conspiracy theories with no evidence to back them up. Who Really Killed JFK? became a cottage industry.
Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, grew up in Dallas during the 1960s and has written extensively about the assassination’s impact on him, his family and his East Dallas community. He is among those who believe acceptance of Oswald as the lone gunman is long overdue.
“Conspiracy theories, like flies, they gather around big dead things,” said Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There is so much evidence, it’s ridiculous to think there is another explanation.”
The LBJ angle Take the case of LBJ, who died in 1973 and is no longer around to defend himself. A barrage of books published during the last decade accuses him of engineering the assassination, or, at the very least, knowing about it ahead of time.
The theory goes something like this: Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general, hated each other. Bobby and JFK planned to leak information to the press implicating Johnson in political scandals. Then they would use the resulting bad publicity as a pretext for dumping him from the Democratic ticket in 1964.
Motive is paramount in the LBJ-did-it scenarios. Who, after all, had more to gain from JFK’s death than the man who would succeed him as the world’s most powerful leader?
“That is so childlike,” said Vincent Bugliosi, author of Reclaiming History, which is considered by many experts to be the definitive assassination book. “In real life, motive is just the starting point. The conspiracy theorist writes hundreds of pages establishing motive. Then, they say they’ve found the killer. But you can only do that through real evidence.”
Bugliosi, a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles, prosecuted cult killer Charles Manson and dozens of other criminals in the 1960s and ’70s before he started writing books. He spent years assembling his 1,632-page book on the Kennedy assassination. And he flatly rejects speculation about a second assassin on the grassy knoll or anywhere else at Dealey Plaza.
Bugliosi’s conclusions are not sexy. They mirror those of the Warren Commission, the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the assassination in 1964. It concluded that Oswald killed Kennedy, firing three shots through an open window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as the presidential motorcade moved west down Elm Street at 10 miles per hour.
A trial of Oswald would have produced a quick conviction, Bugliosi believes. Sadly, Ruby’s murder of Oswald meant the case could never be closed. That, in turn, helped spawn a half-century of conspiracy theories.
“Beyond any doubt, Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter at Dealey Plaza that day,” Bugliosi said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “And beyond any reasonable doubt, he was the only one involved in the planning. Who knows? He may have told someone he was going to do it, but that was never discovered.”
Bugliosi scoffs at the conspiracists.
“To show you how noncredible the conspiracy theorists are, over the past 50 years they have accused 42 groups, named 82 assassins and a total of 214 people as being involved in the assassination,” he said. Yet, “not one single word or syllable has leaked out about the existence of a conspiracy. And the reason is, there is none to leak out.”
Bugliosi’s findings constitute a legal brief more suited to a criminal trial than a mass-market book. He presents evidence for 53 points implicating Oswald as the assassin. Among them:
Records show that Oswald was the buyer and owner of the rifle used to kill Kennedy. No other weapon has been found that can be linked to the assassination.
No bullet other than those from Oswald’s rifle has ever been recovered and linked to the assassination.
Oswald was the only Texas School Book Depository employee who turned up missing after the assassination.
Forty-five minutes after Kennedy was shot, Oswald shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit with a .38-caliber revolver at the intersection of 10th Street and Patton Avenue in Oak Cliff.
Minutes after Tippit was shot, Oswald pulled the same revolver on a Dallas police officer attempting to arrest him at the Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff.
The Warren Commission in 1964 and the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s spent a combined four years investigating JFK’s murder and never found evidence linking the CIA, the Mafia, anti-Castro Cubans or any other group to the crime. Investigators conducted 25,000 interviews and never linked Oswald to any of those suspect groups.
“One would think that anyone faced with these facts would fold up his tent and go home,” Bugliosi said.
“Undaunted and unfazed, they continue to disgorge wild allegations, lies and deliberate distortions of the records.”
A theory rebounds
The 50th anniversary has pumped new life into the market for JFK assassination books and documentaries.
One of the strangest conspiracy theories now enjoying a second act was initially outlined in a 1992 book, Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK.
The book, written by Bonar Menninger, a Kansas City journalist, was based on ballistics analyses by firearms expert Howard Donahue. It alleges that Secret Service Agent George Hickey, riding in a convertible right behind the presidential limousine, accidentally shot JFK in the back of the head with an AR-15 assault rifle.
So goes this theory:
Forensic evidence of an entrance wound in the back of JFK’s head indicated that the “kill shot” was fired from street level, not from a sixth-floor window high above Dealey Plaza. After Oswald fired, an alarmed Hickey grabbed his AR-15 from the floorboard, clicked off the safety and stood up. Just then, the driver of the convertible accelerated unexpectedly, causing Hickey to fall back and accidentally pull the trigger. The bullet struck Kennedy in the back of the head. Witnesses reported smelling gunpowder at street level.
Hickey, of course, denied firing his rifle. And none of the other seven people in his car — five other Secret Service agents and two presidential advisers, Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell — reported a gunshot flying past their heads.
Author Menninger has an explanation for that: The Secret Service, he says, engineered a cover-up to protect its reputation.
Bugliosi and other critics call this a classic conspiracy theory: There’s not a stitch of evidence to support it. But that’s because the evidence has been covered up by powerful forces.
Before he died in 2011, Hickey sued St. Martin’s Press, the publisher of Menninger’s book, for libel. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement. Now that the Secret Service agent is no longer around to defend himself, an obscure cable television channel has aired a documentary, JFK: The Smoking Gun, that resurrects the accidental-assassin theory.
“It’s too preposterous to talk about,” Bugliosi said. “I won’t dignify it.”
Follow the evidence
Reporters, investigators and Warren Commission staffers instinctively searched for a conspiracy after the assassination. No glory would be found in a report naming Oswald and Ruby as unconnected lone gunmen.
Burt W. Griffin, a Warren Commission staffer from Ohio, admitted that he had political ambitions and hoped that uncovering a dramatic conspiracy might launch his career. His job was to investigate Ruby’s background and track his activities before the assassination.
“Make no mistake — I wanted to find a conspiracy,” said Griffin, a retired judge, at a recent JFK symposium in Dallas.
David W. Slawson, another Warren Commission staffer, was assigned to track down the possibility of an international conspiracy. Were the Russian secret police behind the assassination? After all, Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and spent almost three years there.
“We had some information, evidence rather, that the KGB had evaluated Oswald for some kind of secret agent purposes, but found it easy to determine that he was too unstable and unreliable to put into any spy program that required discipline,” Slawson said.
Slawson, now a retired law professor, said Warren Commission staffers all ended up in the same place. Oswald did it alone. Ruby did it alone.
Jim Lehrer, the noted broadcast journalist and author, was a young reporter at the Dallas Times Herald in 1963 and wrote many assassination-related stories. He, too, moved from dreams of conspiracy to grudging acceptance of Oswald as the lone gunman.
“There was no Pulitzer Prize to be won by showing a lone assassin did it,” Lehrer said recently.
In fact, it seems that Oswald was much like the modern-day, mentally disturbed loners who shot up a theater in Aurora, Colo., a congresswoman’s town hall meeting in Arizona and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Why, then, do some researchers — they don’t like to be called conspiracy theorists — persist in selling rumor and speculation as fact?
Victoria Pagan, professor of classics at the University of Florida, has spent 15 years studying conspiracy theories dating back to the Greek and Roman empires. The stages after a tragedy — whether it be the murder of Julius Caesar or JFK — start with shock, then run toward rampant speculation about who was involved and why, Pagan said.
“What’s interesting,” she said, “is seeking proof of the unseen hand.”
She, like many others, would like to see an end to the cottage industry profiting from fake stories about a terrible misfortune — the death of a president.
“We need to embrace the truth as part of our history,” Pagan said. “It’s nothing we have to fight over anymore. To continue to do so in 2013 seems pretty hollow.”
John Judge, executive director of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, disagrees. He and other assassination researchers insist that more CIA documents need to be uncovered and that JFK’s autopsy needs more forensic analysis.
Judge said he is working on a theory that the Joint Chiefs of Staff engineered JFK’s assassination. Hawkish military leaders wanted to escalate American involvement in Vietnam and end Castro’s socialist regime in Cuba. And they believed JFK was not sufficiently committed to either goal, Judge said.
Of course, those five military leaders are all dead and can’t answer the accusation.
“I don’t think this is an insoluble parlor mystery,” Judge said. “I don’t think we are just flailing in the dark.”
Judge said he has no intention of accepting the Warren Commission’s conclusions.
“I don’t think Oswald was on the sixth floor, and I don’t think he killed Officer Tippit,” he said. “I think Oswald was being paid to penetrate left-wing groups.”
The Coalition on Political Assassinations will conduct a symposium at a downtown Dallas hotel next weekend. Judge says more than 200 colleagues from around the world will attend. It will be the first time in 49 years that they will not gather on the grassy knoll for speeches and a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22.
The city of Dallas has reserved Dealey Plaza for a commemoration ceremony on that day. Dallas police will be guarding the perimeter, as an estimated 5,000 ticketed guests pass through security checkpoints to attend the open-air ceremony.
Unless they somehow wrangle tickets, Judge and other assassination researchers will be kept away from the scene until midafternoon.
“What I get from this is that the city of Dallas is not interested in our message,” Judge said. “They know the world press is coming and they want us to be invisible so they can control the message entirely.”
10 POPULAR CONSPIRACY THEORIES
1. The Mafia theory: Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was conducting aggressive prosecutions and deportations of mobsters. Killing his brother put an end to that.
2. The LBJ theory: Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had the most to gain from JFK’s murder. He and Robert Kennedy hated each other. Johnson feared the Kennedy brothers planned to dump him from the Democratic ticket in 1964. But he and his fellow conspirators struck first.
3. The anti-Castro Cubans theory: Many “freedom fighters” died in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Cuban exiles living in the United States exiles never forgave JFK for failing to provide close air support for the invasion. So they had him killed.
4. The CIA theory: JFK and the CIA had their differences throughout his thousand days in office. CIA leaders feared that the president might disband the agency, especially after the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs fiasco. So they engineered his murder.
5. The Israelis theory: JFK did not support Israel’s drive to build nuclear weapons. The Israelis believed Joe Kennedy, the president’s father, was anti-Semitic and wielded influence over his son. LBJ reversed U.S. policy on Israeli nuclear arms once he became president.
6. The KGB theory: Russia was humiliated when its leaders backed down during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Oswald became a KGB operative after his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959. The Soviets “programmed” him to kill JFK.
7. The UFO cover-up theory: JFK wrote a letter to the CIA demanding to see secret UFO files. The insistent president might have leaked information about secret aerospace projects. He had to be silenced.
8. The Texas oil magnates theory: JFK planned to reduce or eliminate the oil depletion allowance, which brought millions in profits to oil producers. The oilmen made sure LBJ, a supporter of the depletion allowance, became president.
9. The J. Edgar Hoover theory: He hated his boss, Robert Kennedy, and didn’t think the Kennedys gave him the respect he deserved. Hoover and Johnson were old friends. So Hoover made sure LBJ became president.
10. The Secret Service theory: Agent George Hickey accidentally shot JFK in the back of the head from the car behind the presidential limousine. The Secret Service covered up the horrible accident.