Occasionally there are times something will happen that is so sudden and unexpected that it’s forever ingrained in our memories where we were and what we were doing at the time. Such was the case on Friday, November 22, 1963. I’ll guarantee you that anyone old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy can tell you where they were when they heard the news. Still a kid, I was in third grade, and we were discussing a story called “Boots and His Brothers.” Don’t ask me now what the story was about – I couldn’t possibly tell you, but one thing I do remember was when the principal came on the intercom, told us all to stand by for a news report, and put the microphone near a radio. We heard the news that the president had been seriously wounded by a gunman in Dallas. Within a short time, it was reported that Kennedy had died. Immediately, the principal dismissed us all and sent us home.
Over the weekend that followed, to say that America was stunned by this sudden course of events is an understatement. We’ll never know how differently things might have turned out had the assassination never happened.
It’s impossible for anyone who does any reading at all on the assassination not to wonder what happened. Was Lee Harvey Oswald the assassin? Did he act alone? If not, who else was involved, and why? What if Oswald wasn’t involved at all, and was, as he insisted, a patsy? After all, that one statement alone – that he was a patsy – was probably one of the first things that gave rise to various conspiracy theories.
There are a number of theories that have been bandied about in the 51 years since Kennedy was shot. Most of them have at least some merit, and are worth having a serious look at, but in my research for this article, I found it all too true that there is a lot of bad information out there, particularly among those who claim to know the truth and are peddling their theory with a sort of case closed finality. Any theory is worth at least one look, though, so with that in mind, let’s have a look at a few of them:
The Kennedy assassination was a Mafia hit
As the Attorney General, Kennedy’s brother Bobby had initiated a crackdown on organized crime, which naturally didn’t please the mob bosses at all. In early 1962, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover gave Bobby a file that outlined singer Frank Sinatra’s longstanding association with a number of high level Mafia figures, one of which was Sam Giancana. To make matters worse, or more… incestuous, you might say, President Kennedy was having an affair with Judith Campbell, a companion of Giancana. Whether this was a problem for Giancana or not, it was a big problem for the government, especially since Bobby Kennedy was out to take down Giancana, among many others, not to mention the publicity and political disaster it would have been for the Kennedys if word gotten out about these relationships. Kennedy did what he had to do and immediately severed his relationship with Sinatra. Needless to say, Sinatra was furious. Sam Giancana likely didn’t care about Sinatra or Campbell, but he and many others, especially including Carlos Marcello from New Orleans, wanted to take the Kennedys down. This, among other things, could have helped give rise to the Mafia hit theory.
The Kennedy Assassination was backed or carried out by the CIA
In March of 1961, the CIA gave Kennedy a plan for initiating the overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The CIA had been training Cuban exiles in Guatemala, and the original plan called for a daylight beach invasion by the rebels. President Kennedy, however, didn’t like the idea of a daytime invasion; he wanted a night operation, and a more remote location for the landing so there would be a smaller chance that the US would be discovered to be behind it. As an alternative, the CIA recommended going ashore at Bahia de Cochinos – the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy gave the go-ahead for the invasion to begin April 14, but at the last minute started getting antsy about it. The plan was to provide air support for the rebels with 16 B-26 bombers which were to attack Cuban air bases and disable the Cuban Air Force, but Kennedy cut the number back to eight planes. As a result, there wasn’t enough damage done by the rebel planes, not to mention that the invading forces at the Bay of Pigs didn’t have the air support they were expecting because Kennedy had called off the second round of air strikes. The rebels were no match for Castro’s forces, and in a last attempt at saving the operation, Kennedy ordered a half dozen unmarked planes from the carrier USS Essex into the air to provide additional support, but were ordered by Kennedy not to attack ground targets nor initiate aerial combat with the Cubans. By the 19th, it was all over.
Due to Kennedy’s sudden refusal to use all the forces necessary, the mission was a complete military and publicity failure. However, Kennedy let Dulles and the CIA take much of the blame; something that didn’t endear him to them at all. By November of 1961, Dulles was forced to resign. Some have said that the CIA never forgave Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, as it came to be called. This has often been cited as one major reason the CIA may have been involved in Kennedy’s assassination – simple revenge.
Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the assassination
It’s well known that Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys despised each other. John Kennedy had asked him to be his running mate in the 1960 election because he felt he needed Johnson to win the Southern Democrat vote; particularly Texas, which was Johnson’s home state. Johnson had accepted, only later to regret having done so. He went from Senate majority leader wielding lots of power and influence to vice president, which has practically no power beyond that which the president grants – and Kennedy didn’t grant much. Kennedy rarely consulted with Johnson about important decisions or policy. Furthermore, he sent Johnson off from time to time on diplomatic trips that amounted to nothing more than public relations tours designed to get him out of Washington. Johnson desired a return to the power he’d recently held in Washington, and especially wanted to be president. Kennedy was looking good for the election of 1964, so Johnson knew he didn’t have a chance that year. He was also afraid he would have been out of the spotlight too long for him to have a decent chance at the Democratic nomination in 1968. There was also the very real possibility that Bobby Kennedy might seek the Democratic nomination at that point, which would have effectively killed Johnson’s hopes for the presidency due to the Kennedys’ popularity. Hence there are some who believe Johnson didn’t want to wait, and initiated a plan to achieve his own ends.
There is also the argument that Johnson, being sworn in as president just two hours after the death of Kennedy was further evidence of his burning desire for the presidency, but I have to give Johnson the benefit of doubt on this. Don’t get me wrong, I was never a fan of Lyndon Johnson in the least, but at the time there was good reason for his wanting to be sworn in quickly. The country had just been dealt a major blow with the death of the president, and no one knew what was happening – as always, there are the worrying thoughts of further assassinations. It wasn’t known at the time whether Kennedy’s assassination was an isolated event or part of a larger plot; the country was for a short time without a president (although in reality Johnson ascended to the presidency immediately upon Kennedy’s death,) and he merely wanted to assure Americans that there was, in fact, a new president.
Lee Harvey Oswald
The problem with the first three scenarios above is that each of them would, without exception, involve the knowledge of many people complicit in a massive cover-up. Each of them would depend upon perpetual silence from those who were a part of the plot, and in all three cases this would have meant lots of people. And, one can never be sure who would eventually talk and who wouldn’t. That would have ruined not only careers, but lives. By far, the simplest answer to what happened in Dallas that day rests in the official version – that Lee Oswald was the assassin, shooting from the sixth-floor corner window of the Texas School Book Depository. For those who love a mystery, this is a huge letdown, I know, but from everything I’ve been able to find out, it’s the one that most likely happened. And I wasn’t always convinced of this, myself. To be sure, there are questions remaining, but I think they can be answered satisfactorily – at least most of them, and that’s far more than any of us can say about other theories.
For a start, there is no question that Oswald owned the rifle, an Italian made Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 mm carbine. He had ordered it by mail in March of 1963 from the February ’63 issue of American Rifleman magazine. There is also no question that the weapon was found on the sixth floor of the book depository building shortly after the assassination.
It’s also been argued that no one could fire a bolt action rifle with the necessary amount of accuracy and get off three shots in just under eight seconds, which is the most accurate guess of Oswald’s time. In fact, this was done by three expert riflemen on March 27, 1964 at the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Using distances of 175, 240, and 265 feet respectively, each of the three attempted to place one shot in each of the targets. After two tests, the times varied from 4.6 to 8.25 seconds. All six rounds hit the first target, four of the six completely missed the second target, and five out of six hit the third target. It should be noted that although these were the distances Oswald was firing from, these targets were stationary. Also, the men had had no prior experience with the Carcano.
In the photo below, taken within seconds after the shots rang out, Bonnie Ray Williams and Harold Norman, both employees of the Texas School Book Depository, are looking out the fifth-floor window directly below where Oswald fired his shots from the sixth floor. Norman later testified that he not only heard the shots coming from just above him, but he heard the cartridge casings hit the plywood floor between shots as Oswald worked the rifle bolt:
But there’s also the lingering question many people want answered about a second shooter on the grassy knoll. Probably the best and most famous footage of the assassination was taken by Abraham Zapruder, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1920. In the Zapruder film below, although Zapruder’s back was to the grassy knoll, when the fatal shot was fired into Kennedy’s head, it’s not likely it could have come from the grassy knoll. You can see once the presidential limo comes back into view from behind the sign, Kennedy lurches forward and grabs just below his throat. Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, appears not to have immediately been aware of what was happening, but when she leans over to see what’s wrong, the fatal shot strikes Kennedy in the head. If a gunman had fired from somewhere behind Zapruder at that time, his round would have gone into the right side of Kennedy’s head, exiting where Jackie was, most likely striking her in the head and probably killing her. There is also the argument that Kennedy’s head snaps back violently at the moment of the bullet’s impact, which has been touted as evidence that someone fired the head shot from in front of him, but it appears the bullet went into the back of his head because all the blood spray is exiting Kennedy’s head from the front. His head appears to move forward onto his chest briefly before snapping back rearward:
After quickly leaving the school book depository, Oswald made his way back home where he got his pistol, a .38 Special revolver. Making his way to the corner of 10th Street and Patton Avenue, he was confronted by Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippett, who stopped him based on the description he had received from the police dispatcher. They exchanged a few words, and when Tippett got out of his car, Oswald shot him four times, killing him. At that point, Oswald ran toward the Texas Theater, and once there, ran past the ticket clerk and into where the movie was playing. The clerk immediately called the police, and it wasn’t long before they entered the theater, found Oswald, and arrested him.
Less than 48 hours later, on Sunday the 24th, Oswald was being transferred from his holding cell at the Dallas Police Department to the county jail, but before he could be escorted to the waiting vehicle, Jack Ruby, a local strip club owner stepped forward and shot him once. Oswald died two hours later at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
A final note:
Near the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I take a less-than-serious view of those who are absolutely certain of their pet assassination theories. So just how sure am I of what I’ve written here? Well, pretty sure, because it makes the most sense when everything is taken into consideration. At least to me. However, I’ll admit I could be wrong. Let’s face it, the Kennedy assassination is receding farther into the past, and new revelations today are highly unlikely. Not surprisingly, after all this time many of the participants and witnesses are dead.
When I started writing this article, I was enthusiastically looking forward to writing everything I knew about the assassination, but it wasn’t long before I woke up to reality and became dismayed at the length it was going to become. If I had written all I’d planned, it would have stretched – in my best guess – to somewhere around ten or twenty thousand words, which is far beyond the scope of this blog. Consequently, I had to pare it down, and one of the hardest choices was deciding what to include and what to omit. Briefly, I also considered a series of articles about this so I could include everything I wanted, but in the end, I felt that returning to the same subject matter over several posts would become tiresome for readers. To be honest, it would for me also. With that in mind, please remember that this isn’t an exhaustive, or even comprehensive article, but merely a general overview of what happened in Dallas all those years ago.