The JFK Assassination
How should we regard the conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy?
by Brian Dunning
November 19, 2013
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Also available in Russian
November 22, 1963, did not dawn just like every other day for Lee Harvey Oswald, a former US Marine and self-described Marxist who had lived for two and a half years in the Soviet Union. But today, living in Dallas with his Russian wife and two young children, Oswald brought two extra items to his job at the Texas School Book Depository, a warehouse where his job was to fill orders for textbooks placed by local schools. He brought his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, and his 6.5-millimeter Mannlicher-Carcano 91/38 scoped rifle. And on that same day, American President John F. Kennedy, known for his anti-Communist actions against Cuba, was going to drive right past Oswald's workplace on an official visit.
On a sunny day, with thousands of fans applauding, Kennedy rode past the Book Depository in the open-roofed Lincoln Continental. And then, beginning at 12:30pm and lasting for 8.4 seconds, three shots rang out.
The first bullet sparked off the pavement. The second burst through Kennedy's shoulder and plunged into the abdomen of Texas governor John Connally riding in the front seat immediately in front of Kennedy. The third and final shot blew Kennedy's head into what soldiers call the "pink mist", an explosion of blood and brain matter that left a crater in his head the size of a softball, and launched what was to become the mother of all conspiracy theories.
A man matching Oswald's description had been spotted holding a rifle in a window of the Book Depository's sixth floor, and the description went out over police radio. 45 minutes later, police officer J. D. Tippit stopped a young man on the street who fit the description. The young man pulled out a pistol and fired four shots, killing Tippit; and within a matter of minutes, citizens and other officers pursued the young man into a movie theater and arrested him with the murder weapon. It was Oswald, the same man whose rifle other officers were just finding clumsily hidden at the Book Depository.
But Oswald never got his day in court; he was assassinated himself just two days later at the police station by bar owner Jack Ruby, which served only to thicken the conspiracy theories that gradually gelled over the years. The conspiracy theories have become so prevalent that today, depending on which poll you look at, between 2/3 and 3/4 of Americans believe that Oswald was not the lone killer of Kennedy.
I don't want to burst any bubbles, but it's not my intention here today to analyze any of the various conspiracy theories about the death of JFK. That's already been done in a format much more comprehensive than a 10-minute podcast; and the place I recommend you go for that is the 2007 book Reclaiming History. Author Vince Bugliosi, the famous attorney and author, successfully prosecuted Lee Harvey Oswald in a 1986 mock trial held in London. Bugliosi is best known for prosecuting Charles Manson and, more recently, for his book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, in which he lays out the legal foundation for convicting Bush for the deaths of all American servicemen in Iraq. Bugliosi is no pawn of the government, and yet his 1,648 pages of Reclaiming History disassemble 214 JFK conspiracy theories that include 82 different trigger men.
For those who might possibly be uninitiated, the most popular conspiracy theories include the Sicilian Mafia killing Kennedy for his actions against organized crime; the Central Intelligence Agency killing him because of his dissatisfaction with their progress against the Cuban regime; the Federal Bureau of Investigation killing Kennedy not for any clear reason, but only because they seemingly must have since Oswald was thought to be an FBI informant; the Secret Service, also for no reason other than their failure to protect his life that day must have been deliberate; the Soviet KGB, to retaliate against Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba; the Ku Klux Klan, because Kennedy was a Catholic and a civil rights advocate instead of a Protestant and a racist; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, as a way to succeed to the Presidency; and Cuba's Fidel Castro, to kill Kennedy before Kennedy could kill him. And in all of these theories, and in scores and scores of others, there is always some implication that Lee Harvey Oswald was set up to be the fall guy due to some perceived connection.
Almost immediately, Johnson launched an investigation, chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren. The Warren Commission took nearly a full year to produce its 889-page report, which found, in no uncertain terms, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to kill the President. Historians, legal experts like Bugliosi, and all serious investigations have all reached findings that unilaterally agree with the Warren Report; however, its nature as a government-produced "version of events" have caused conspiracy theorists to cast grave doubts on virtually all of its findings.
Phrases like "the official story" and "the government's version of events" are frequently peppered throughout nearly all conspiracy theories. These terms are used as weasel words to give the impression that more than one plausible version of events took place, and the "official" one is just one; and that tainted by its authoritarian, powerful ability to include falsehoods imposed upon a powerless public. The phrase "official story" is smeared like axle grease over every major conspiracy theory, including 9/11, the moon landings, and the Boston Marathon bombings.
You wouldn't say "the official story" is that Allied troops landed on the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944; it's simply our standard history of what happened on that day. You wouldn't say "the official story" is that boron has an atomic weight of 10.81; it's our standard model of that element. Conspiracy theorists would probably not use the term in these cases either; they reserve it only for when they are trying to cast doubt on an event with a weasel word.
It would be much more appropriate if we could use a term like "standard model" to describe the understood and accepted version of what happened. Our standard model is that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald with three rifle shots from the Texas School Book Depository, because Oswald suffered from many of the same psychological and ideological ideas that have always characterized most high-visibility killers. The case of the angst-ridden loner turning killer is all too familiar to today's broadcast news audience, and Oswald checked all of the boxes. If he had lived more than 48 hours after the assassination, the same old story is more than likely what would have come out. Oswald's action was not just commonplace and expected from a psychological perspective, it also happens to fit our standard model of the events of that day. Any government's "official story" has very little impact upon that analysis.
And yet, conspiracy theorists love to abandon that standard model, and all of the evidence that supports it, and instead focus on the one small fact that some official government investigation came to the same conclusion as everyone else. Then, suddenly, what happened is no longer the standard model supported by all available evidence, it's merely "the official story". And, as a government story, it's therefore automatically suspect. But logic does not permit us to reason in reverse like this. To develop a well-founded understanding of what happened, we can't merely ask which version of events is believed by a given party; instead we have to look at the evidence to see where it leads. Similarly, if we want to know whether acupuncture treats illness, we can't merely ask whether the ancient Chinese believed that it did; we have to actually analyze the test results.
Characterizing a standard model of history as "the official story", or checking to see what the government says, is never a useful way to argue or to present the facts of a disputed historical event. Any criticism of the Warren Report is a red herring that does not shed any useful light on the events of November 22, 1963.
Two conspiracy theorists who hold absolutely incompatible, mutually exclusive beliefs still consider themselves allies in the same community, because they are unified by the only thing that truly matters to them: their shared conviction that the "official story" is a lie. Bugliosi even pointed out a case where an individual JFK conspiracy theorist claimed that Kennedy had been killed by the government, and that Kennedy was still alive, in the same argument. To that person, this irreconcilable contradiction was more plausible than the official story.
It was not an isolated case. In 2012, the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science published a paper called "Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories" in which many such examples were reviewed; their focal case being that of conspiracists who doubt the official story of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. They are more likely to believe that bin Laden had actually been killed months or years earlier, and that he is, in fact, still alive. To you and I, it sounds like another impossible contradiction. But to the conspiracy theorist, both outcomes are reconcilable in that they both differ from the official story — as if that's what's important.
Many conspiratorial analyses of the assassination depend upon perceived anomalies based on careful analysis of the Zapruder film — the famous color home movie showing 27 seconds of the motorcade, including the fatal shot. While some point to evidence found in the Zapruder film that the assassination was a conspiracy, others claim the film itself is a carefully assembled forgery created to show a false history of the events. Again, we see two irreconcilable versions of events, impossibly yet harmoniously coexisting as part of the fabric of conspiracy lore. There are at least three other home movies showing the death from different angles, and similar claims surround these as well.
Why? Because conspiracy theories follow these three laws:
Law #1: Authority's version of events is untrue, by default.
Law #2: Everything that differs from the authoritative version is more likely true.
Law #3: All evidence that contradicts #1 or #2 is part of the conspiracy.
Thus the facts of November 22, 1963 will probably never be universally accepted. The cycle of illogic will continue: the independent conspiracy theorists, desperate to find the real killer of the President they loved so well, will continue to vehemently defend Oswald who violently blew Kennedy's brains out. Beyond all well-reasoned doubt, Lee Harvey Oswald was an angst-ridden loner, an ideologue, who acted in concert only with his own thoughts, to murder JFK.
Accepting our standard model of history, as determined by the evidence that we have, is not always going to be right. But in doing so, especially in the lack of any cogent alternative, you will be right far more often than you're wrong.
Correction: An earlier version of this said the second bullet went through Kennedy's arm. As a few commenters have pointed out, "shoulder" is a better description than "arm" based on the photos, so I've updated that here.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The JFK Assassination." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
19 Nov 2013. Web.
28 Mar 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4389>
References & Further Reading
Bonavolanta, J., Duffy, B. The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI Around and Finally Broke the Mob. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Bugliosi, V. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
Callahan, B. Who Shot JFK? A Guide to the Major Conspiracy Theories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Kurtz, M. Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination from a Historian's Perspective. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
NBC. Seventy Hours and Thirty Minutes, as Broadcast on the NBC Television Network. New York: Random House, 1966.
Sauvage, L. The Oswald Affair: An Examination of the Contradictions and Omissions of the Warren Report. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1966.
Sparrow, J. After the Assassination: A Positive Appraisal of the Warren Report. New York: Chilmark Press, 1967.
Wood, M., Douglas, K., Sutton, R. "Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories." Social Psychological and Personality Science. 1 Nov. 2012, Volume 3, Number 6: 767-773.
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