To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. Michael A. Nelson of Presbyterian College’s History Department hosted a discussion of the myriad of conspiracy theories and suspicions that the assassination has spawned.
And the JFK assassination has spawned an avalanche of conspiracy theories. The finger of blame for the young president’s death has been pointed at the Cubans, the Soviets, the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, and even the limousine driver. These conspiracies have transfixed an entire generation of Americans.
For Dr. Nelson, his fascination of the JFK conspiracies came from watching a late night episode of “In Search Of,” that covered the topic, when he was only eight years old.
However, his interest in the assassination “ebbs and flows.” It flows when new information surfaces, and ebbs when once again it becomes evident a clear explanation will never be found.
“That is the most frustrating part,” he said. “There are no answers.”
Much of this frustration is due to the fact that amateur historians, not academics, pen most literature about the assassination. The entire subject of President Kennedy’s assassination is widely considered a nonacademic one. Whether or not the average conspiracy theorist is credible or not, is beside the point. Throughout his discussion, Dr. Nelson presented a number of points that point to some kind of nefarious governmental involvement.
Irregular behavior can be identified before the actual assassination. The army detachment given the job of aiding the Secret Service in protecting Kennedy had been ordered to stand down by the Dallas Chief of Police. In addition, the two Secret Service agents tasked with riding on the back of Kennedy’s motorcade were ordered to back off. In one grainy film, a Secret Service agent can be seen gesturing with frustration at this break in protocol.
The actual assassination of the president has caused the most controversy. Some suggest that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, did not have the skill to hit a moving target from that far away. Others point out that the rifle Oswald used could not have fired the three shots as fast as recorded. Others still say that the way Kennedy’s body jerked after the third shot indicates he was shot from the front, indicating he was shot from the front. All of these conclusions point to an accomplice, whom has since been obscured from history.
Oswald himself is an eccentric individual. A high school dropout from a dysfunctional family, then a Marine, who was court-martialed twice, then defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. At first, the Soviets denied him asylum; then, after Oswald tried to commit suicide, they relented and allowed him to stay, to prevent an international scandal. After three years he tired of Russia, despite having married a Russian woman, and moved back to the United States. It was then the Texas School Library Book Depository hired him, and on its sixth floor he would officially assassinate the President.
Oswald’s behavior after the shooting is highly erratic. A police officer whom entered the depository a mere 90 seconds after the final shot found Oswald calmly drinking a Coca-Cola on the second floor. He was not sweaty nor out of breath, despite having just murdered the President and sprinted down four flights of stairs.
After that, reports begin to conflict. Some eyewitnesses suggest he took a car and drove away; some say alone, some say with an accomplice. More commonly, it is believed he boarded a bus, but due to the traffic, switched to a taxicab. Oswald departed the cab at his boarding house, but was confronted by Office J.D. Tippit, whom Oswald shot and murdered. In an attempt to escape police Oswald snuck into a movie theater without paying, which prompted the manager to call police, whom swiftly arrested Oswald inside the movie theater.
Two days later, Oswald would make history as being the first man murdered on live TV. His murderer was one Jack Ruby, a businessman who ran strip clubs and had ties to the Mafia. His official story is that he wanted to prevent Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s wife, from having to testify and relive the events at Oswald’s trial. Conspiracy theorists have suggested instead that the Mafia killed Oswald to keep him from talking to the police.
The incongruities don’t end there. The police work after the killing was extremely sloppy. Only a third of the 700 people who witnessed the event were interviewed. Gore was still being cleaned days after the shooting. The crime scene was so neglected that Oswald’s jacket, which he had left at the depository, wouldn’t be found until six months after the assassination; not by law enforcement, but by his former coworkers.
The investigation itself was marred by internal strife. Since there was no federal law pertaining to the assassination of a president, the FBI had no jurisdiction, and the investigation instead fell to local Dallas police. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, was so angered by this, he told FBI agents to not cooperate. Perhaps even worse was the inconsistencies concerning the Warren Commission Report. The federal government sanctioned the WCR, which officially put forth the lone gunman theory. However, records show that witnesses lied to the Warren Commission, and Earl Warren himself, the head of the Commission, withheld information related to meetings with Jackie Kennedy from his colleagues. This dishonesty has only fueled conspiracies.
Even today, there is misinformation being spread. The Sixth Floor Museum, which is located inside the former Texas School Book Depository, intentionally portrays President Kennedy as a heroic figure, in order to make the emotional impact of his assassination more profound. JFK was the proverbial knight in shining armor, felled by dark, shadowy forces.
In the end, Dr. Nelson does not pretend to hold the true answer to what happened that tragic day. No one truly knows what exactly happened; but there is a reason, Dr. Nelson believes, that people so fervently cling to these theories. To many, the idea that a lone gunman could kill the President simply doesn’t make sense.
“That just doesn’t jive,” Dr. Nelson said. “There has to be more to this.”
People want to be able to blame something that is more powerful than the President himself. “It’s more comforting to say it’s the CIA,” Dr. Nelson said. The idea that not even the President, the most powerful man in the free world is safe from the murderous intentions of a single madman frightens Americans.
It would be comforting to say that a conspiracy of this magnitude couldn’t be orchestrated today, but sadly that isn’t the case. The current revelations about the extensiveness of the National Security Agency’s spying program has once again shaken Americans’ faith in the honest of their government. Until the government is 100% transparent, there will always be conspiracy theories, and with them come professors like Dr. Nelson, who will always wonder how much of them is true.