You would have to be living in a cave (without an Internet connection) in order to miss the avalanche of books, television specials and other commemorations during the run up to the 50th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
Anyone alive then – I was ten years old – holds their own searing memories of that fateful Friday in November and the awful days that followed. Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the death on CBS, Kennedy’s casket arriving back in Washington, Lyndon Johnson on the tarmac asking for God’s help, the alleged lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed on live television, the riderless horse, the funeral, Jackie and the children and the eternal flame. The images replay as if they are impressed on a hard drive in the brain.
Still, as several news books explore, the question remains – who did it? And why 50 years later do so many Americans reject the unanimous findings of the Warren Commission that the inconsequential Oswald acted alone?
As University of Miami political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, authors of a forthcoming book on the American infatuation with conspiracy theories, pointed out in a recent New York Times essay: “Conspiracy theories ignite when motive meets opportunity. For reasons we mostly attribute to socialization, some individuals tend to see the world more through a conspiratorial lens than others. We can think of this predisposition as a strong bias against powerful disliked actors that is not caused by partisanship, stupidity or psychopathology. In fact, people disposed to see conspiracies are just as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, and appear just as likely to be lauded (e.g. Thomas Jefferson) as reviled (e.g. Joseph McCarthy).”
Still Uscinski and Parent note that Kennedy conspiracies are different, principally because so many people disbelieve the Warren Commission’s findings. “Polls find that between 60 and 80 percent of Americans reject the idea that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone,” they write. “In fact, more Americans believe that a shadowy conspiracy was behind a president’s death 50 years ago than know who Joe Biden is. Why are Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories so popular? The distinguishing feature of a successful conspiracy theory is power, and the Kennedy assassination has that in spades. The victim was an American president and the potential villains include actors of immense reach and influence. There are so many accused conspirators that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can find a detested powerful actor to blame. For those on the right there is Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union; for the left there is Lyndon Johnson, defense contractors and the military. And this is only a partial list.”
On the far left is filmmaker Oliver Stone whose 1991 film JFK is truly the conspiracy film of all conspiracy films. Stone’s movie – a rich broth of conspiracy details for many and a messy jumble for the rest of us – focuses on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison whose life’s work became his own investigation of the assassination. I listened to a recent interview with Stone and then read the transcript of that interview and couldn’t make sense of who he ultimately believes engaged in the vast conspiracy to assassinate an American president. Let’s just say, from his point of view, that “people high up in the government did it.” For his part Garrison thought right wing elements in the CIA were responsible.
Oliver Stone strikes me as right out of central casting as the chief proponent of a conspiracy – very articulate, with a wide command of facts, at least his facts, and the ability to tease out one little bit of information and weave it into a vast garment of unthinkable conspiracy. He is, of course, not alone. Just Google “JFK murder theories” and you’ll generate more than 700,000 hits.
Typically I can be as cynical as the next guy about much that any government is capable of doing, but I confess to having long ago concluded that the otherwise completely distinguished former Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, a future president of the United States Gerald Ford, a fine and respected Congressman Hale Boggs and two United States Senators – Richard Russell and John Sherman Cooper – both known for their independence, simply could not have cooked up a massive cover-up.
To be certain the Warren Commission acted quickly and left much to second guess, but the question of who killed JFK comes down, for me at least, to an Occam’s Razor calculation, the ancient theory that is sometimes boiled down to “the simplest explanation is usually correct.” Sir Isaac Newton said it a bit more eloquently: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”
Oswald had the weapon, the opportunity and the motive. All of that was well documented by the Warren Commission and others. Oswald also seems to fit well into the American gallery of losers who have historically perpetrated, or attempted, political murder. He is of a type with the outcasts and malcontents who killed Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley and tried to assassinate Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Given evidence of the means, the motive and the opportunity Perry Mason could close this case in one episode, but the real problem I suspect for many of us with John Kennedy’s murder is the issue highlighted by historian Robert Dallek in what is still the best and most definitive biography of JFK.
“The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people,” Dallek wrote in An Unfinished Life his 2003 biography of Kennedy. “The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential – as powerful and well guarded – as Kennedy. To accept that an act of random violence by an obscure malcontent could bring down a president of the United States is to acknowledge a chaotic, disorderly world that frightens most Americans. Believing that Oswald killed Kennedy is to concede, as New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said, ‘that in this life there is often tragedy without reason.'”
The Kennedy tragedy is, of course, the senseless murder of a young and promising man in the prime of his life, a young man with big plans, but our collective tragedy is also the 50 years of what might have been. Given a second term would John Kennedy have become a great president and not merely a popular one? Would Vietnam, arms control, civil rights and a sense of national purpose been different had he lived? These are the imponderable questions we still ponder after half a century. In an odd way, given the imponderables, a conspiracy seems a more satisfying explanation for such a tragedy rather than placing blame for all the lost possibility at the feet of the little man who grandly told Dallas police he wasn’t just a Communist, but a Marxist. If John Kennedy had to die in such a way, so many of us seem to think, it must have been part of some grand and ugly plot and not the lonely, awful work of a loser like Lee Oswald.
“He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” Jackie Kennedy said of her husband. “It had to be some silly little Communist.” In life there is often tragedy without reason. And 50 years on we still wonder.