“I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.” -Michael Scott
Today marks the 53rd anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. For 53 years, the public has created and debated dozens of conspiracy theories. But is there truth to any of them? Because I am way too interested in this, I decided to do some digging.
Author and attorney Vincent Bugliosi told CNN that over the years, conspiracy theorists “have accused 42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people of being involved in the assassination.”
Between my curiosity and a seemingly endless supply of articles, I fell into the rabbit hole of the internet (I wrote this over the summer when I didn’t have homework).
Below I have listed some of the more prominent (and unusual) conspiracy theories with evidence I found for and against them.
Theories about the assassination & investigation
There was a cover-up
This theory says that high-ranking CIA officials hid evidence from their investigation of Kennedy’s assassination that would have questioned the ultimate conclusion that Oswald was a acting alone.
Evidence for: CIA Director John McCone hid some information in his testimony, Politico reported. Information McCone withheld includes CIA plots to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro that involved working with the Mafia. That information gives the Cuban government a motive to kill Kennedy, so the Warren Commission might have investigated that possibility had it known about the Castro plots. It also makes sense that the CIA would want to hide this, since it would fuel conspiracy theories accusing the agency.
Oswald was pro-Castro and shared office space with an anti-Castro group when he was in New Orleans. That anti-Castro group was backed by the CIA, according to Business Insider.
Oh, and he was associated with Guy Banister, who had ties to the FBI and the CIA. But the CIA didn’t tell the Warren Commission that.
Oswald’s murder before his trial could serve evidence of a cover-up (if he didn’t work alone, that is). Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer, had connections to organized crime. Theorists say Oswald was killed because whomever he worked for didn’t want Oswald to talk.
Evidence against: Based on the information, there really isn’t any evidence against a cover-up in the investigation. The CIA definitely withheld some information (Castro plots). The question in this case is why did the CIA hide that information? And did they, or others, cover up anything else?
Lee Harvey Oswald is actually innocent because he was drinking Coca-Cola at the time of his arrest, this theory says. (You read that right.)
Evidence for: Oswald fired shots from the sixth floor of the building at 12:30 p.m., but officers found him less than 2 minutes later on the second floor drinking a Coca-Cola — a time gap way to small for him to have been in both places, theorists say. I was a
little lot confused by this argument, but you can see the full (and much longer version) here.
Evidence against: Apparently Oswald was a Dr. Pepper fan, and there was a Dr. Pepper machine on the first floor of the building, closer to the lunch room where these theorists say he was eating at the time of the assassination. So going along with the notion of analyzing soft drink machine locations, why would Oswald buy a Coke upstairs when his first-choice drink was at a more convenient location if he really was innocently eating lunch?
Also, having just shot the leader of the free world, Oswald probably had enough adrenaline to run down a few flights of stairs really quickly.
There was a second gunman
You’ve probably heard the theory that there was another gunman present at the assassination, and Oswald did not act alone. And the notion of a cover-up certainly doesn’t help counter doubts of a larger plot.
Evidence for: Experts have determined that there were four shots fired on the day of the assassination. G. Robert Blakey, an organized crime expert, told ABC News three of those shots were fired from the depository where Oswald was (two of his shots hit Kennedy). Playback of the tape and witness accounts suggested the other shot (the second of the four) was fired from the grassy knoll (that shot missed Kennedy). That means there was another shooter at the assassination, Blakey says.
This evidence prompted the House Select Committee on Assassinations to say in 1979, “Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy.”
Kennedy and Connelly were shot too close together for it to be two different Oswald bullets (that evidence comes from a photographer who was taking pictures at the time, according to Slate). That means that either Kennedy and Connelly were hit by the same bullet, or there was a second gunman present. The Warren Commission opted for the former.
Evidence against: To address the House Select Committee, an ABC news article points out that the findings were based on sound recordings from an motorcycle police officer’s microphone on the day of the assassination. That officer did not know his microphone was on, and nobody knows where exactly he was standing at the time of the assassination.
In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Ballistic Acoustics said that sound recordings did not support the second gunman theory. Someone on that committee told ABC that the committee couldn’t conclude that the sounds on the recording were gunshots, so they couldn’t make any conclusions.
Also, scientists have concluded that it actually was possible for one bullet to inflict all seven wounds on Kennedy and Connelly. Where would a gunman have to fire from for that to happen? The sixth floor of Texas School Book Depository/Dealey Plaza — where Oswald was. The graphics in this article show a single bullet was possible, and the “magic bullet” is a slight exaggeration.
All in all, you can’t prove a second gunman was there.
My conclusion: The federal investigation of the assassination was impaired by the CIA’s cover-up. It is possible that the Warren Commission would have investigated other suspects/theories if they had known some of the information that the CIA chose to keep classified. We don’t know if the CIA hid other information, but we do know that because the CIA hid some important details, we cannot take the Warren Commission’s conclusion as definitive. There is information missing.
As for the second gunman, I think that could go either way. Because of the acoustic evidence, you can’t definitively say Oswald was the lone gunman, but you can’t say there definitely was a second gunman, either. Even though it’s possible Oswald’s bullet hit both Kennedy and Connelly, you can’t rule out that Connelly was hit by a different bullet. In short, the facts are messy. We probably will never know the truth, but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility hat Oswald was part of a larger conspiracy, which brings us to…
Theories about who did it
(Buckle up. This is where it gets interesting)
See the man with an umbrella in this grainy photograph? Yeah, he’s a suspect. Some conspiracy theorists believe the man later identified as Louie Steven Witt carried an umbrella that doubled as a gun. They say “Umbrella Man” killed Kennedy.
Evidence for: Witt was the only man holding an umbrella on the sunny day in Dallas, and he was standing around the spot where gunshots started firing into the car. Too weird to be a coincidence, right?
Evidence against: Well, the umbrella man came forward in response to the conspiracy theories. He testified in front of Congress in 1978. Turns out, he was protesting Kennedy’s father’s appeasement policies toward Nazism as ambassador to the Court of St. James. The umbrella was a reference to Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister who advocated appeasement before World War II.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Some theorists say Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the mastermind. The motive? To seize the presidency for himself. (For those of you who have ever watched an episode of “House of Cards,” this concept is actually pretty believable.)
Evidence for: Craig Zirbel has written two books making the case against Johnson. He told USA Today Johnson was the only one with motive, means and opportunity to kill Kennedy. After all, Kennedy was killed in Johnson’s home state.
Also, Kennedy’s motorcade route had been changed from the usual to pass right by Dealey Plaza — where Oswald was. Connally was the one with the idea to change routes, and he was an ally of Johnson’s, Zirbel pointed out.
Other key evidence in favor of this theory stems from Madeleine Brown, who said she was Johnson’s mistress for 21 years.
“After tomorrow, those son’s of b—— (the Kennedy’s) will never embarrass me again,” Johnson reportedly told Brown the night before the assassination. (For more of what Brown said, read this article.)
It’s worth noting that Johnson appointed the Warren Commission that headed the investigation. So if he was involved, this would have reduced his chances of getting caught.
Evidence against: Madeleine Brown’s testimony has some lies mixed into the details — like a party she says LBJ attended that he didn’t attend. Because of the inconsistencies, you can’t take her words as serious evidence against Johnson.
Connally may have been the one to suggest a changed route, but he also got shot. A stray Oswald bullet could have easily killed him. Would he really put his life at stake to help Johnson commit treason?
Furthermore, a lot of people didn’t like or trust Johnson anyway, so the theory of his guilt could be influenced by confirmation bias. The information supporting Johnson’s guilt essentially say it would have been easy for him to be the mastermind, but that doesn’t mean he was.
Between the Bay of Pigs and the plots to work with the Mafia to kill Castro, Kennedy had become pretty anti-CIA. This theory says the CIA feared they would be disbanded, so the agency went rogue ordered the assassination. (Cue the Jason Bourne music).
Evidence for: The main evidence of this theory is that you cannot disprove it. The CIA is a spy agency, so it would be able to cover its tracks. If the CIA was responsible, we will never definitively know it.
This would explain why the CIA withheld information, and the agency certainly had plenty of motive and opportunity. Allen Dulles, former head of the CIA who was fired by Kennedy, was on the Warren Commission, so the agency could have used him in a cover-up.
A few years ago, the CIA released a letter from Kennedy to the head of the CIA asking for access to confidential information about UFOs. That letter was sent November 12, 1963 — 10 days before the assassination. So if you also believe in UFOs, this would make you think the CIA killed Kennedy to keep him from learning the truth. But if you’re like me, this possible motive is interesting, but also irrelevant, because UFOs are not a thing.
The most convincing evidence comes from Dave Perry, who has been investigating Kennedy assassination records since 1976. He told CNN that the only conspiracy theory he hasn’t been able to debunk is the theory that the CIA did it.
The most compelling evidence is that the CIA cannot prove its innocence.
Evidence against: If the CIA killed Kennedy, it (obviously) would not want the American people to know. But the agency has released documents on Kennedy’s assassination, including the Castro plots (And they are set to release more classified information on the assassination in 2017, according to CNN).
Furthermore, McCone, an engineer, was appointed by Kennedy to replace Dulles after the Bay of Pigs. He was an outsider, not a spy guy, and that’s why Kennedy appointed him. While McCone withheld a lot of information from the Warren Commission, it seems unlikely he would be involved in the assassination. Sure, some other high-up official could have been the mastermind, but is it really possible CIA agents arranged the assassination without the knowledge or consent of their director?
Others worth mentioning
Some other interesting theories that I did not write up are the Mafia, the Cuban government, the mob, oil companies and a lot of others.
I’d speculate the Warren Commission rushed the investigation into whether a second gunman was present. Though the single bullet theory is probable, we cannot discount the second gunman theories. It would not surprise me if the Warren Commission rushed other aspects of the investigation or forced other pieces to fit.
But in the same breath, I don’t believe these lapses were malignant. Kennedy was the first president to be assassinated since William McKinley about 58 years prior. Kennedy was killed in the middle of the Cold War, a little over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. For this to have happened when it did must have been terrifying. Imagine the level of fear people would have experienced if they found out there was an elaborate conspiracy to kill the president, and it worked. Those who withheld information were probably doing so because the narrative of a crazy lone wolf aligned better with what the country needed.
That doesn’t make it ethical, though. While the truth can be inconvenient, it always is better than a lie — even a lie well intended. Maybe if the commission was thorough at the onset, hundreds of people (myself included) would not be spending so much time over 50 years later speculating what we will never know.
We have a right to the truth, even if it isn’t clean cut.