The Kennedy Assassination: 47 Years Later, What Do We Really Know?

5 myths about the history of conspiracy theories around the death our 35th president

Despite the enduring popularity of conspiracy theories about President John F. Kennedy's death on November 22, 1963, it's a mainstream consensus that these theories have always been essentially the work of cranks, popularized by a national appetite for mystery and entertainment. In recent years, this consensus has been reinforced by Vincent Bugliosi's massive, critically acclaimed book, Reclaiming History, along with Tom Hanks's related HBO special.

But for all the crazy ideas out there, there remain sober and careful alternative views of the assassination. These theories may or may not ultimately be right, but they represent the continuation of serious discussion of the subject. As the debate continues past the 47th anniversary of President Kennedy's death, let's take stock of five common myths about the state of the debate itself.

1. The belief that secret plotters killed Kennedy was first made popular by Oliver Stone's 1992 movie, JFK.

Popular belief in a conspiracy was widespread within a week of Kennedy's murder. Between November 25 and 29, 1963, University of Chicago pollsters asked more than 1,000 Americans whom they thought was responsible for the president's death. By then, the chief suspect, Oswald -- a leftist who had lived for a time in Soviet Union -- had been shot dead while in police custody by Jack Ruby, a local hoodlum with organized crime connections.

While the White House, the FBI, and the Dallas Police Department all affirmed that Oswald had acted alone, 62 percent of respondents said they believed that more than one person was involved in the assassination. Only 24 percent thought Oswald had acted alone. Another poll taken in Dallas during the same week found 66 percent of respondents believing that there had been a plot. There were no JFK conspiracy theories in print at that time. Oliver Stone was in high school.

2. All serious historians believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, alone and unaided.

Since 2000, five tenured academic historians have published books on JFK's assassination. Four of the five concluded that a conspiracy was behind the 35th president's murder.

David Kaiser, a diplomatic historian at the Naval War College, and the author of a 2008 book, The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, concluded that Kennedy was killed in plot involving disgruntled CIA operatives and organized crime figures. Michael Kurtz of Southeastern Louisiana University came to the same conclusion in his 2006 book, The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman Versus Conspiracy.

In a 2005 book, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, Gerald McKnight of Hood College suggested that a high-level plot involving senior U.S. intelligence officials was probably responsible for the president's death. In his 2003 book about photographic evidence, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination, David Wrone of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point argued that the famous amateur film footage of the assassination proves that Kennedy was hit by gunfire from two different directions. Wrone did not advocate a theory of who was responsible.

A fifth historian, Robert Dallek of UCLA, wrote a 2003 biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. While not about the assassination as such, An Unfinished Life embraced the Warren Commission's lone-gunman finding, relying squarely on Gerald Posner's 1994 anti-conspiratorial best-seller Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.

3. No one high-up in the U.S. government ever thought there was a conspiracy behind JFK's murder.

In fact, many senior U.S. officials concluded that there had been a plot but rarely talked about it openly.

Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, publicly endorsed the Warren Commissions conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Privately, LBJ told many people, ranging from Atlantic contributor Leo Janos to CIA director Richard Helms, that he did not believe the lone-gunman explanation.

The president's brother Robert and widow Jacqueline also believed that he had been killed by political enemies, according to historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Tim Naftali. In their 1999 book on the Cuban missile crisis, One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, they reported that William Walton -- a friend of the First Lady -- went to Moscow on a previously scheduled trip a week after JFK's murder. Walton carried a message from RFK and Jackie for their friend, Georgi Bolshakov, a Russian diplomat who had served as a back-channel link between the White House and the Kremlin during the October 1962 crisis: RFK and Jackie wanted the Soviet leadership to know that "despite Oswald's connections to the communist world, the Kennedys believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents."

In the Senate, Democrats Richard Russell of Georgia and Russell Long of Louisiana both rejected official accounts of the assassination. In the executive branch, Joseph Califano, the General Counsel of Army in 1963 and later Secretary of Health Education and Welfare, concluded that Kennedy had been killed by a conspiracy.* In the White House, H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff to President Richard Nixon, wanted to reopen the JFK investigation in 1969. Nixon wasn't interested.

Suspicion persisted in the upper echelons of the U.S. national security agencies, as well. Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, chief of Pentagon special operations in 1963 (and later an adviser to Stone), believed that there had been a plot.

Winston Scott, chief of the CIA's station in Mexico City at the time of Kennedy's murder and an ultra-conservative Agency loyalist, rejected the Warren Commission's findings about a trip that Oswald had taken to Mexico six weeks before the assassination. Scott concluded in an unpublished memoir that Oswald had, indeed, been just a patsy.

None of these figures was a paranoid fantasist. To the contrary, they constituted a cross section of the American power elite in 1963. Neither did they talk about a JFK conspiracy for public consumption; they talked about it only reservedly, in confined circles.

4. Former Los Angeles County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi refuted all JFK conspiracy theories in Reclaiming History.

In the course of 1,600 pages Bugliosi effectively refuted many unfounded conspiracy scenarios and reasserted the lone gunman conclusions of the Warren Commission. But he has never engaged the extensive scholarship of Commission skeptics such as journalist David Talbot, historian Kaiser, historian John Newman, or biographer Anthony Summers, or analyzed the innovative research of attorney William Simpich.

Kaiser, author of seven books on U.S. history, notes that Bugliosi's prosecutorial approach limits the scope of his historical analysis: "He falls back on the old argument 'no one could have ever used Ruby and Oswald in a conspiracy' which relieves him of the necessity of addressing any of the conspiracy evidence seriously."

5. All the CIA's records related to the Kennedy assassination have been made public.

The agency acknowledges that it currently holds thousands of pages on Kennedy's murder that the public has never seen. The CIA disclosed the existence of the still-secret JFK files while responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed as it happens by me, seeking the release of other records related to the assassination.

In a sworn affidavit, Delores Nelson, the CIA's chief information officer, stated that the Agency has approximately 1,100 assassination-related documents that it plans to keep under wraps until 2017, if not longer. These files -- containing more than 2,000 pages of material -- cannot be made public for reasons, Nelson says, of national security.

In other words, somewhere in the Washington metropolitan area there is a collection of CIA documents related to JFK's murder that, if collated, would stand about ten inches tall. None of those documents has ever been seen by the U.S. Congress or the National Archives, let alone by journalists, historians, bloggers, Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, or the general public.

That's not a conspiracy theory or a myth. It's a fact.


* This sentence originally stated that Califano was Secretary of the Army. We regret the error.