It was mid-morning on Friday, November 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy, along with his wife, the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Mr. John Connally, Governor of Texas, and his wife, Nellie, were in a motorcade procession to the Trade Mart in Dallas, Texas. This was the last stop in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area of a two-day fund-raising tour of Texas. As the motorcade preceded along the ten mile route from Dallas Love Field Airport to the Trade Mart, and had just passed the Texas School Book Depository Building, the unthinkable happened. Our 35th President was shot from behind. At approximately 12:30 p.m. a bullet hit the base of his neck and exited through his throat. A second bullet struck Kennedy in the back of his head. Governor Connally was also seriously injured. Our President was shot in front a crowd of 200,000 lining the streets, and the assassination was witnessed by Americans across the country, since the event was broadcasted live on national television. President Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where he was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m., after receiving last rites. President Kennedy’s body was put into a casket and driven from the hospital to Air Force One. Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn into office as the 36th President of the United States at 2:38 p.m., just before Air Force One took off from the Love Field airport. Who was behind the assassination? What would the response be?1
During our history, there have been four U.S. Presidents who have been assassinated: Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. Of these four, most of us are more familiar with the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. The American people have had a fascination with various conspiracy theories surrounding these presidential assassinations. More than 114 years after the assassination of President Lincoln, there are still requests to investigate evidence into Lincoln’s assassination. At a speech to the Abraham Lincoln Association, in Springfield, Illinois on February 12, 1979, William Webster, a Director at the FBI, discussed a request that the FBI received from the National Parks Service. The Ford Theatre in Washington D.C., where President Lincoln was shot, falls under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service, which has possession of the artifacts from President Lincoln’s assassination. John Wilkes Booth, the man accused of assassinating President Lincoln, had a diary in which it was believed to have secret writings that might possibly implicate others who were involved in the assassination plan. In 1977, the Laboratory Document Section of the FBI conducted non-destructive tests on the diary and confirmed there were no secret writings. They also confirmed that the writings belonged to Booth. In his speech to the association, Webster outlined how investigations are conducted with the intent at arriving at the truth based on evidence. Webster said, “Even though the assassin might be apprehended on the scene, the most intensive investigation would be instituted to establish, or to lay to rest, the fact or suspicion of conspiracy. The aftermaths of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations have indelibly impressed the necessity of exploring every possible lead to its ultimate end.”2
As the Dallas Police and the FBI were investigating the death of Kennedy, President Johnson became concerned about all the theories that were being discussed in the media. Many rumors circulated as to who might also be involved. Was it Cuba, or the Soviet Union? Was it the mob in retaliation against the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General? Did Lee Harvey Oswald, the identified assassin, act alone? Just one week after Kennedy’s assassination and burial, and after confirming there might be four separate investigations (County of Dallas, the State of Texas, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Department of Justice), President Johnson reluctantly established the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 29, 1963. The commission was necessary to avoid potential conflicting information from the multiple jurisdictions. Johnson knew the public wanted “professional and non-political examinations of the facts and the various conspiracy allegations that were being so widely publicized around the world.”3 The President’s Executive Order No. 11130 directed the commission “… to evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding such assassination, including the subsequent violent death of the man charged with the assassination, and to report to me its findings and conclusions.”4
Johnson was politically astute and knew he must carefully select the members of the commission. Johnson’s selection of Chief Justice Earl Warren to preside over the committee was based on Warren’s position in the Supreme Court and his legal career, having served as a district attorney and state attorney general in California. He was also a Republican, chosen for the necessity to be seen as a bi-partisan committee. Johnson chose four members from Congress: Senator Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia; Senator John Sherman Cooper, a Republican from Kentucky; Congressman Hale Boggs, a Democrat and the majority whip from Louisiana; and Congressman Gerald Ford, a Republican from Michigan (and future 38th President of the United States.) The two members from the private sector were Allen W. Dulles, a former CIA director, and John J. McCloy, the former president of the World Bank. The private sector recommendations came from Robert Kennedy due to their previous government experience.5 The commission became known as the Warren Commission, after the Chief Justice who led it. The Commission had support staff assigned by the Department of Justice or the Department of Defense to assist with the investigation and the preparation of the report. The Commission’s first duty was to assess the FBI report that was delivered on December 5—just two weeks after the assassination. The FBI had concerns of delivering a report that, while extensive, was still a first effort at collecting and evaluating evidence. The Commission had concerns on whether to grant the FBI full investigative authority given perception issues on how information might be controlled. The Commission had to precede cautiously to help dismiss the numerous conspiracy theories that were being discussed throughout the country.6
Our history is full of conspiracy theories. One popular theory during World War II was whether or not President Roosevelt knew that Japan was going to attack Pearl Harbor. The conspiracists believe that actions that President Roosevelt took during 1940-1941, such as the revisions of the 1935 Neutrality Act, which allowed sales of arms only to France and Britain, the first ever peace-time draft, the exchange of American destroyers to Britain in “exchange for 99 year leases on British Naval and air bases in the Western Hemisphere,” and the introduction of embargos on Japan, were all measures designed to push America into war.7 The conspiracists all point to Roosevelt’s rhetoric in reelection speeches and his fireside chats as signals of his intention to pull America into war. However, historians believe that Roosevelt knew the American people wanted to stay neutral in the war. He was cautious in protecting America’s interest, while balancing the public favor of neutrality. Roosevelt was determined to prevent a German victory. His actions for the peacetime draft, the arms sale to Britain and France, and the lease of ships were all designed to protect America’s interests. Historians also believe that Roosevelt did everything in his power to maintain relations with Japan. It is well documented that Roosevelt and his advisers knew that some Japanese attack was being planned around December 6 or 7; but the intelligence was not clear whether the target was British, Dutch, or French possession in the Southeast Asia.8 Historians also site the implausibility of Roosevelt knowing of an attack on the Navy and not acting on it. Their argument was that Roosevelt, who was a former assistant secretary of the Navy, would never have exposed the Navy that he loved to the massive destruction to the fleet by Japan at Pearl Harbor.9 Most historians conclude that “American involvement in World War II, was the consequence of the country’s rise to global power and the resulting need to combat aggressive, undemocratic regimes that were hostile to other American institutions and to the survival of the Unites States as a free country.”10 Yet, the conspiracy theories continue to resurface.
Distrust of the FBI continued to grow. Many did not support the long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, who served as director from 1924 to 1972. Hoover was controversial for spying on the American people during the McCarthy era. Hoover felt he needed to defend the country against communism. He authorized spying on government officials, business leaders, entertainers, and the general public, if there was the slightest cause of suspicion. Hoover targeted groups, such as African Americans. Most notable was the profiling of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.11 The FBI was concerned that it would be public information that they neglected to inform the Dallas Office and the Secret Services that Oswald had moved to Dallas. The FBI knew its access to the Commission may be limited. To keep informed on the Commission activities, the FBI relied on Gerald Ford, one of the Commission members. “Ford went to one of Hoover’s top aides, who wrote that Ford told him ‘he would keep me thoroughly advised as the activities of the Commission.’ He stated this would have to be on a confidential basis.”12 Within five days of the discussion, Ford began passing information to the FBI. On January 14, 1964, the FBI delivered two supplemental reports to their initial December report. Unfortunately, the supplemental report did not revisit its earlier conclusion on the number of bullets and how they struck President Kennedy. The report stated “the bullet that entered the president’s back ‘had penetrated to a distance of less than a finger length.’”13 This was at odds with the conclusion of the autopsy doctors at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. The autopsy doctors and the doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital had indicated that the bullet entered the president’s back and exited through his neck. The FBI failed to correct this critical error.14
The Warren Report was delivered to President Johnson on September 24, 1964. The nine month investigation was detailed in a 469-page report with 410 pages of appendices, supported by twenty-six volumes of exhibits and other materials.15 There are key findings from the Warren Report. The first was that there were three shots that were fired from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository building, killing Kennedy and wounding Connally. The second was that there was only one shooter—it was Lee Harvey Oswald, and he acted alone. The report tried to present the facts and did not address any motives of Oswald’s for why he might have shot the President. The report also addressed the lack of planning by the Secret Service before Kennedy’s trip to Dallas and the lack of their ability to fully protect the President during the open motorcade.16 The Warren Report was met with skepticism when it was released to the American public, three days after it was presented to President Johnson.
Why such skepticism? Jacob Cohen, American Studies Professor at Brandeis University has publicly defended the Warren Commission Report for fifty years. He teaches a course on “The Idea of Conspiracy in American Culture.” His premise is that if you apply the question “what must be true if?” to all conspiracy theories, then you can easily negate the false assumptions from what is true. In his article, “Will We Never Be Free of the Kennedy Assassination?” he dismisses multiple conspiracy theories by using the proposed question. One such example, is an Oswald look-alike, which was sent by the Soviets to kill the president. Applying the premise that a look-alike did the shooting, then you have to consider what happened to the real Oswald, and how could the look-alike assume an identity that Oswald’s wife and family did not detect. One of Cohen’s favorite theories is how a bullet that was confirmed firing from Oswald’s gun was later discovered in the stretcher of the basement of Parkland hospital. Cohen describes other theories and how they are also not valid. Yet, there is still fascination with the multiple theories.17 It is interesting to see the skepticism when the public was so fascinated with the Kennedys and the Camelot years, which was coined by the First Lady, shortly after the assassination. Mrs. Kennedy wanted the legacy of her husband’s 1,000 days to endure. Just four days after her husband’s death, she relayed her story of Camelot to Life Photo Journalists.18 The Camelot reference was referring to a Broadway play that was written by a former classmates of the President. The musical, one of the President’s favorites, was about King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. Mrs. Kennedy said, “There will be great presidents again; but there will never be another Camelot.”19 The popularity of the Kennedy’s continued to grow with the reference to Camelot. As this fascination was growing, the conspiracy theories were gaining traction.
Over time, the American public continued to have discussions on the Warren Report and a debate on whether the findings from the report were accurate. In 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassination (HSCA), investigated President Kennedy’s and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassinations. The findings on President Kennedy’s assassination were largely aligned to the Warren Report. However, based on new information, the HSCA reported on the possibility of two shooters, while agreeing with the Warren Commission that one of the two was definitely Oswald. The findings also referenced the possibility of a conspiracy theory. Later, the findings of the HCSA were heavily criticized on the reliability of the new evidence, particularly the acoustic recordings. The findings of the HSCA were questioned by the public and those who were associated with the Warren Commission.20 Then in 1991, conspiracy theories were revisited after the release of Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK. In 1992, Congress responded to the new requests for information by passing the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 and the creation of a Review Board for the request of information. The 1992 Act required the release of all related documents within twenty-five years. In 2017, President Trump, under pressure from the FBI and CIA, placed more than 300 files under additional classification review.21 It is likely that the questions and conspiracy theories will continue until all documents surrounding the various investigations are release.