It was fifty years ago, today, that US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade moved through Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas. The shots – three of them – were fired by former US marine and communist-sympathiser, Lee Harvey Oswald, from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building . . . weren’t they?
The Warren Commission stated for the record that Lee Harvey Oswald, and Lee Harvey Oswald alone, was responsible for one of the pivotal moments in 20th century history – but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people proposing dozens of alternative theories of varying degrees of likelihood. Indeed, the assassination of JFK has probably generated more conspiracy theories than any other event in history. The Mafia did it. It was the Russians. It was the Cubans. It was the Cubans acting on behalf of of the Russians. It was the CIA. It was Vice President Lyndon Johnson. It was the military-industrial complex. It was . . . well, you get the point.
My favoured theory for many years was that organised crime was behind the assassination. It all seemed to add up: Oswald was killed (‘silenced’) by Jack Ruby – a nightclub owner who was known to mob boss Sam Giancana; Giancana had, according to some accounts, used his influence to help delivery the presidency to Kennedy, three years earlier; JFK had repaid that favour by appointing his brother Bobby to the position of Attorney General, where he had initiated twelve times as many mob prosecutions as during the previous administration. It seemed obvious that the Mafia would want him dead. Except . . . except . . . the Mafia had more to lose by being implicated in the murder of a president than they could possibly lose by letting events take their course and trying to ride the storm. Remember this is the organisation that sanctioned the murder of one of its own – Arthur ‘Dutch Schultz’ Flegenheimer – because he was planning to kill crusading New York District Attorney (and future presidential candidate) Thomas Dewey. Other senior mob figures feared the ramifications of assassinating such a prominent public figure. No, they may have wanted Kennedy dead, but it’s hugely unlikely they’d have attempted to kill him.
Likewise, any ‘internal’ conspiracy – the CIA, Johnson or representatives of the military-industrial complex – seems unlikely, given what we now know of Kennedy’s personal life. An attention-grabbing assassination seems much less probable than simple blackmail or a smear campaign ahead of the upcoming 1964 presidential election.
But equally implausible, to many, is that Lee Harvey Oswald, on his own cognizance, plotted and executed the assassination of arguably the single best-protected human being on the planet. The credibility-straining improbability of the ‘magic bullet’ theory, the irregularities surrounding the evidence given to the Warren Commission, the questions surrounding the apparent incongruity of the president’s injuries with the rifle and ammunition that was alleged to have killed him, and any number of other factors make Ockam’s Razor at least as unsatisfactory as any of the conspiracy theories.
Which is why, no doubt, we,be felt compelled to return again and again to this moment in November, 1963. Oliver Stone, James Ellroy, Stephen Hunter and Stephen King are just a handful of writers or filmmakers who have felt compelled to add to the narrative of Kennedy’s death. And then there are the ‘what if’s – the likes of Brendan DuBois and Alan Moore, The Twilight Zone and Quantum Leap have all explored what must be the third of the Big Three alternative history turning points, along with the South winning the American Civil War and Hitler winning WWII: what if JFK had lived.
So. Fifty years on and we still really have no definitive answer to the question of who actually killed JFK and why. And maybe that – even more so than the tragic allure of the end of Camelot – is why we can almost certainly look froward to another half century of books, movies, graphic novels and ever-more-crazy conspiracy theories. Because the answer is less important than asking the question.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963).