Never-before-seen personal documents and correspondence preserved for fifty years from my journal and collection of original Warren Commission documents. I have used these documents and my journal as a primary source in my book about the Warren Commission.

MY EXPERIENCE IN PROMOTING “HISTORY WILL PROVE US RIGHT”

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Spending the summer on our farm in Western New York has provided the opportunity – between chores – to reflect on my book tour during the past year to discuss my book about President Kennedy’s assassination, “History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Lee Harvey Oswald with the Dallas Police

Lee Harvey Oswald with the Dallas Police

The most unanswerable question from the audiences at my 26 events in 11 states?  What was Lee Harvey Oswald’s motive in killing President Kennedy?  In all the time the Warren Commission and its staff spent investigating the assassination, and even with the assistance of three expert psychiatrists, we never could get to a conclusion about motive that we could support with evidence.  Some of us speculated one way or another; but no one could be sure.  Oswald never explained himself, even to his wife, and his meandering comments in his “Historic Diary” provided clues that simply prompted more debate.

The second most unanswerable question?  Why couldn’t the Secret Service agents in the motorcade see the shooter at the window of the Texas Book Depository when bystanders on the parade route saw him clearly enough while he was aiming (and shooting) his rifle to describe him for the police?  Based on this description Officer Tippit stopped Oswald on the street shortly after the shooting, and Oswald pulled his revolver and shot Tippit before fleeing to the movie theater where he was arrested.  One of the most difficult investigative tasks our Warren Commission staff faced was prying information from the Treasury Department where the Secret Service was located in those days.  They were determined to protect their agents from blame for the President’s death and never shared the detailed internal report (about what went wrong and what remedies were required) with the Commission. Without this information, the Commission’s recommendations about Presidential protection lacked the hard-hitting specifics that might have led to meaningful recommendations to reform the organization. People would ask me about one or more of the better-known conspiracy theories, and these are readily resolved by reference to scientific and investigative facts.  I would tell them what I thought. Only a few conspiracy advocates took the occasion to challenge me in person. For the most part, I think, this was due to the fact that those who came to hear me tended to be older than 50; and most of these had some personal recollections of the day on which President Kennedy was assassinated. As for those younger people who heard me speak, I had the sense that they were surprised by the attention being given to this historical event

Howard Willens Signing copies of "History Will Prove Us Right"

Howard Willens signing copies of “History Will Prove Us Right”

after 50 years and appeared to have no preconceptions about the assassination. The audiences seemed eager to hear from someone who had personally participated in the work of the Commission. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity to question me about aspects of my experience on the Commission staff and I, in turn, enjoyed the opportunity to respond. The fact that I am still alive – and prepared to defend the Commission’s work – appeared to win me at least the initial support of many listeners. My reference to the subsequent and impressive careers of my colleagues on the Commission staff also seemed to support my assertion that we were all committed to a thorough and independent examination of the assassination. I found that my audiences were generally unaware of the extent to which the Commission’s principal conclusions had been revisited over the last several decades and, without exception, have been reaffirmed. I described the last chapter of my book, where I summarized the many investigations since 1964 examining one or more aspects of our investigation – in particular the work of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978-79 – and the confirmation of the Commission’s conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin and there was no credible evidence of any conspiracy. I pointed out that the critics of the Warren Commission’s conclusions typically ignore these subsequent investigations, which I believe does more to impeach their credibility than anything I might say.

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JFK, The Cold War, and Vladimir Putin

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Despite a crowded news docket, Russian aggression in the Ukraine region continues to draw the attention of the world. Under the Presidency of Soviet-throwback and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, Russia has undertaken an expansionist mode not seen since the end of the Cold War.

Indeed, given Putin’s Soviet background, the comparisons are inevitable—and prompt the question of how President Kennedy might have handled the current situation.

Age of Soviet Expansion

Back in the early 1960s, the USSR was assertively in expansion mode. Across Asia, China, Eastern Europe, South America and the Caribbean, the Communist system of government was gaining footholds. These developments were met with concern and attempted counter-measures by the Eisenhower administration, but the global situation was becoming increasingly unfavorable.

Trip to Western States: White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico  Please credit "Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"

JFK Trip to Western States: White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico
“Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

President Kennedy took it on himself to reverse this trend. According to the JFK Presidential Library, he “ordered substantial increases in American intercontinental ballistic missile forces… added five new army divisions and increased the nation’s air power and military reserves”.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The single greatest test Kennedy faced as President came when the USSR began to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, a move that would have fundamentally altered cold war strategic calculations. President Kennedy simply could not allow nuclear missles 90 miles off of the coast of Florida.

President John F. Kennedy  addresses a worried nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy addresses a worried nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba, and after a tense showdown with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, the Russians removed the missiles in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba. (and the removal of NATO warheads from Turkey, a move which was not announced at the time.

Foreign Engagement

When it came to fighting  outside of the American sphere of influence, JFK was more cautious about committing force. He sent a small military contingent to Vietnam, but said “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Vietnam against the Communists.”

navy

Moving Forward

President Kennedy walked a line; defending our homeland, while not getting American forces entangled in extended war campaigns. Presidents Johnson and Nixon after him escalated the War in Vietnam to the extent that it became a national quagmire. This in turn helped influence Nixon and Kissenger to seek détente and arms reduction as their chief strategy to contain the Soviet threat.

In what ways is today’s global strategic balance like the Post-Vietnam era? Do you think President Obama is constrained in his options in confronting Putin’s Russia because of the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What do you think JFK would do differently?

 

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One Giant Leap….. Reflections on the 45th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

One Giant Leap….. Reflections on the 45th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

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Introduction

This week marks the 45th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing. It is hard to overstate the impact of this event to the world at the time; the moon landing was a major victory for America in the space race between the US and USSR, and was a moment shared with the entire nation through the expanding medium of television.

The moon landing holds even additional significance for my generation as it represented the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s bold promise that America would land on the moon before the 1970s. So much of our space program owes its existence and success to President Kennedy.

Space Race:

The USSR fired the opening salvo in the space race in 1957 with the dramatic and successful launch of the world’s first artificial satellite- Sputnik. 

Sputnik ignited the space race

Given the incredible cold war tension between the two superpowers at the time, the idea of the Soviet Union gaining a significant military advantage through space was deeply troubling.

In response, President Eisenhower initiated Project Mercury, and selected the first American Astronauts. Yet the US continued to be outpaced- the USSR was first to put a man in space in 1961.

JFK Makes a Difference

Dr. Wernher von Braun, the NASA Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 16, 1963.

Dr. Wernher von Braun, the NASA Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 16, 1963.

President Kennedy refused to allow the United States to fall permanently behind in the space race. He asked Congress for nearly $10 billion in additional funding for NASA. The successes began to roll in on the American side. John Glenn, Jr. because the first American in space in 1962.

But President Kennedy was not satisfied with matching Soviet accomplishments. In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 – less than a year after we first placed a man in orbit- President Kennedy pledged that the USA would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Impact

Under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, the United States continued to gain the advantage in the space race. The 8th mission of the new Apollo program – Apollo 8—was the first manned mission to orbit the moon. The entire space race culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing. Fulfilling JFK’s vision, Neil Armstrong, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. became the first men to walk on the moon, while Michael Collins piloted the craft in orbit.

Though JFK did not live to see his vision realized, I believe he would be extremely proud of the United States victories over the USSR in the space race and the entire Cold War.

 

 

Where do you think the space race falls on the list of JFK’s accomplishments? Comment on my FB page HERE!

 

Launch of the Mercury MR-3 Freedom 7 Space Capsule pilioted by Alan Shepard, from a Redstone rocket on May 5, 1961

Launch of the Mercury MR-3 Freedom 7 Space Capsule pilioted by Alan Shepard, from a Redstone rocket on May 5, 1961

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The Sixties: The JFK Assassination – CNN.com

The Sixties: The JFK Assassination – CNN.com

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Last Thursday I participated in a lively online Q& A on CNN’s Facebook page with Alexandra Zapruder answering questions from the audience about last week’s episode of the CNN series, The Sixties. On the whole, the episode was well produced and excellent  and includes several people I know as well as many clips of their interview with yours truly.

The website for the series includes an interesting little teaser entitled 5 things you might not know about JFK’s assassination which may surprise you.

You can see my efforts to provide factually based responses to several conspiracy minded questions on the Facebook conversation here.

A segment from the CNN Series "The Sixties: The JFK Assassination"

A segment from the CNN Series “The Sixties: The JFK Assassination”

 

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Book Excerpt: the Hearing With Oliver Stone: A Heroic Moment for Our Protagonist

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The Assassination Records Review Board (1992–98)

Congress created the Assassination Records Review Board in 1992. The law aimed at ensuring that virtually all records generated by previous investigations or held by government institutions related to President Kennedy’s assassination would be turned over to the National Archives. Its enactment resulted from the continuing debate about the conclusions of the Warren Commission and other investigative bodies that gained in intensity and public acceptance with the release in 1991 of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Congressional Hearings on the Need for Legislation

The Review Board acknowledged the significance of Oliver Stone’s film in providing the impetus for the law creating the board. It reported that the film “popularized a version of President Kennedy’s assassination that featured U.S. government agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the military as conspirators.” Although the Review Board described the film as “largely fictional,” it endorsed Stone’s message in the film’s closing trailer “that Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret.” Therefore Congress passed legislation—the JFK Act—“that released the secret records that prior investigations gathered and created.”

The Review Board’s characterization of the film as “largely fictional” was certainly correct, if understated.

The Review Board’s characterization of the film as “largely fictional” was certainly correct, if understated.

The Review Board’s characterization of the film as “largely fictional” was certainly correct, if understated. Members of the commission staff were offended (but not really surprised) by the liberties taken by Stone in inventing facts surrounding the assassination. Although including in his film some of the more familiar conspiracy contentions dealing with the number of shots and the “magic bullet,” Stone portrayed Oswald as a “patsy” who did not fire any shots at the president. Instead, the whole scene in Dealey Plaza was staged to make it seem like he did, in order to conceal the fact that several gunmen were shooting at Kennedy from different directions—a crossfire.

David Belin spoke before the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on March 26, 1992, about the movie in a speech entitled “The Assassination of Earl Warren and the Truth.” Belin began his attack on Stone’s film by quoting Warren to the effect that “one person and the truth is a majority.” He characterized Stone’s film as an effort to impeach “the integrity of a great Chief Justice.” “Earl Warren is not the only victim,” he went on to say, “Stone calls the assassination a ‘public execution’ by elements of the CIA and the Department of Defense, while President Lyndon B. Johnson is called an accessory after the fact.” Because Stone had cited the Select Committee’s report as support for the “facts” dramatized in the film, Belin itemized the respects in which that report corroborated the conclusions of the Warren Commission.

What angered Belin even more than Stone’s lies, omissions, misrepresentations, and manufactured facts was the massive amount of money spent by Warner Brothers and Stone to rewrite history. He said: “One of the most dangerous aspects of the disinformation of JFK is how the television networks in their quest for ratings have helped promote the lies about Earl Warren and the Warren Commission.” Belin urged the press to “expose the corporate incest between huge Hollywood empires and the television networks and the danger that this poses to our democratic society as they rewrite the truth to fit their own mold.” Referring to his Rockefeller Commission experience, he said: “No one knows better than I the dangers to a free society that are posed by a CIA out of control. But from my perspective, I see an equally great, or perhaps even greater, long-range danger to our democratic institutions of government with the increasing control by the entertainment industry over our national media, particularly television.”[i]

Stone’s movie, Belin’s speech, and the likelihood of congressional action prompted several commission lawyers to discuss how we might best respond to the movie and support legislation making assassination records public. Burt Griffin recalled that he, Liebeler, and a few others met with me in Washington, and we also communicated with Mosk in Los Angeles and Redlich in New York. In early 1992, more than a dozen staff members signed a letter to the National Archives urging release of all Warren Commission materials, emphasizing the commission’s (and our) desire back in 1964 to make all of our records available for public inspection, except those with a national security classification. In an accompanying press statement, we reaffirmed our confidence in the commission’s conclusions about Oswald and the lack of any credible evidence of a conspiracy.[ii]

 Early in January 1992, Congressman Stokes, the chairman of the former House Select Committee on Assassinations, introduced H.J. Res. 454 with forty sponsors that would mandate the release of assassination records. I appeared [at the hearing with Oliver Stone] on April 28 representing the commission staff at the first hearing on this legislation. Building on the staff’s earlier public statement, my prepared testimony expressed strong support for making public all of our commission’s materials as well as those of the House Select Committee, which were being withheld from publication for fifty years. I emphasized that only two percent of our commission’s records (about three thousand pages) remained undisclosed and would be subject to review by any agency created by Congress for this purpose.[iii]

The hearing was conducted by the Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations chaired by Congressman John Conyers (D. Mich.), a friend of Congressman Stokes and a powerful advocate of the conclusions reached by the former House Select Committee. It was held in a large hearing room featuring a full battery of TV cameras and spectators competing for the available seats. It was clearly the congressional event of the day in Washington for one reason only—the most prominent supporter of the bill was Oliver Stone. Hoping to avoid the penetrating glare of the TV cameras, I sat down on the far end of the table for scheduled witnesses and studiously examined my prepared statement. My desire for anonymity failed with the entrance of Oliver Stone, who sat at a small table about twelve feet directly in front of me, so that the cameras immediately focused on him and I was part of the background.

The hearing began with a brief statement of its purpose by Chairman Conyers and testimony in support of the legislation by Stokes. When he welcomed Oliver Stone as the next witness, Conyers said: “Welcome, Mr. Stone. We have your prepared statement. You are probably the reason that we are all here today.”[iv]   

[At the hearing with Oliver Stone] In his prepared comments Stone described the two conspiracies that led to the assassination of President Kennedy and the cover-up that had prevented the members and the American public from knowing the truth. According to Stone, the second and broader conspiracy involved President Johnson, whose “appointment of the Warren Commission was a means by which to derail a serious homicide investigation which was never accomplished.” As one Washington Post reporter described Stone’s film: “Stone mixes fact and fiction at dizzying speed, stomping on presumptions of innocence, cooking up fake admissions, ignoring contrary evidence, and giving a conspiratorial tone to inconsequential facets of the tragedy that were explained long ago.” His testimony did likewise.[v]

After Stone’s prepared remarks, the committee members eagerly sought the opportunity to express their fascination with his presentation and their admiration for his courage in bringing these conspiracies to the committee’s attention. They solicited further details regarding Stone’s conspiracy theories and, needless to say, Stone was not reticent in responding to their questions. Not one committee member felt obligated to ask whether Stone had any factual support for his views or his rejection of the conclusions reached by the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee.

By the time I was called to the podium, I had decided that my staid presentation in support of the legislation had to be amended to deal with Stone’s presentation and the committee’s apparent lack of interest in the facts. Early in my comments, I suggested that Stone was a far better film producer than a historian. I went on to defend the conclusions of the Warren Commission. But I never had the courage to ask the committee members whether any of them had read the Warren Commission report.

When Chairman Conyers asked for my “theory of the JFK assassination,” I stressed once again my view “that there are no facts, as distinct from allegations and suspicions, that undercut any of the major conclusions of the Warren Commission.” He responded: “You don’t have any nagging doubts?” I mentioned the commission’s emphasis on the lack of credible evidence of any conspiracy, and he repeated, “So you do have some nagging doubts.” After my further defense of the commission’s conclusions despite the failures of the FBI and the CIA, we had this exchange:

Mr. Conyers: But you still have nagging doubts.

Mr. Willens: If you are suggesting I have nagging doubts about the conclusions—

Mr. Conyers: No, I am asking you. I am not trying to put words into a trial counsel’s mouth. You either have nagging doubts or you don’t have nagging doubts. It is a free country.

Mr. Willens: That is why Mr. Stone could make his movie.

Mr. Conyers: Right. And that is why you may have your nagging doubts.

Mr. Willens: And I have my reservations about what the future will display. But I want to reiterate there have been no facts that have come to light in the last 28 years that have undercut any of those conclusions.[vi]

After Chairman Conyers and I continued this exchange to our mutual dissatisfaction, Representative Shays intervened: “Mr. Willens, I love your spirit, and I think I love your spirit more because it is not as popular to take your view. So I thank you for being true to your beliefs and expressing them so strongly.” He then proceeded, very cautiously, to probe whether I might be comforted if and when more information about the assassination was released to the public. I agreed that would be useful and then said: “And to the extent that I have spoken with passion and vigor, I apologize. It is a characteristic flaw. I think that I wanted to draw a distinction between facts on the one hand and allegations, rumors, and suspicions on the other.”[vii]

My critical comments of Stone’s movie and spirited defense of the commission led, somewhat surprisingly, to comments from the audience. When I reminded the committee that the Select Committee’s reliance on acoustics evidence had been rejected by the prestigious committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, a voice from the audience shouted “It has been refuted!”—or something to that effect. While I was being challenged by one committee member, my young nephew from rural Western New York, attending his first congressional hearing, urged me on by shouting from the rear seats in the room, “Eat his lunch, Howard!” When I finally ended my testimony with one more declaration that not one fact had come to light since 1964 that undercut the commission’s conclusions about Oswald and the lack of any conspiracy, committee members responded with quiet smiles of sympathy for my deluded state of mind.[viii]




[i] Ibid.

[ii] Griffin, interview by author, November 28, 2012. The letter and statement are attached to my written statement before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations on April 28, 1992.

[iii] 138 Cong. Rec. H1984 (March 26, 1992); ARRB Report, 2.

[iv] Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations, Hearings before the Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1993), 89 (hereafter “Assassination Materials Disclosure Hearings”).

[v] Ibid., 100; George Lardner, “The Way It Wasn’t; In ‘JFK’ Stone Assassinates the Truth,” Washington Post (December 20, 1991), D2.

[vi] Assassination Materials Disclosure Hearings, 159.

[vii] Ibid., 164.

[viii] When Belin testified before the Conyers subcommittee on July 22, he repeated the major points of his National Press Club speech about Stone’s film. In a characteristic show of bravado, he challenged the members of the subcommittee to ask him any question whatsoever about the Warren Commission’s findings and expressed his confidence that he could answer any such query. Belin took a position on the proposed legislation far beyond what I had advocated on behalf of the commission staff; he recommended that Congress mandate release of all—repeat all—assassination records regardless of any national security classification that they might have. Statement of David W. Belin, Former Counsel, Warren Commission, and Former Executive Director, Rockefeller Commission, before the Legislation and National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations (July 22, 1992). 

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Book Excerpt: The Cuba Conspiracy – A Favorite of Conspiracy Theorists

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The following is an excerpt from my book, History Will Prove Us: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of  John F. Kennedy.

Will Prove Us Right Book Cover - Warren Commission Book

The commission’s investigation of Oswald’s possible entanglement in a conspiracy involving Cuba was not limited to whatever he had done in Mexico. We had good documentation of his activities in support of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the United States and we explored these political activities to determine whether they may have involved more serious and threatening objectives beyond the distribution of handbills on the streets of New Orleans or elsewhere. Of course, we were well aware that the United States and Cuba were engaged in a political confrontation that had already led to one military encounter at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and a near catastrophe during the thirteen-day Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, after the Soviet Union began building a missile base on the island. The willingness of Castro’s Cuba to be a proxy for the Soviets in this hemisphere increased US resolution and candor about a regime change in Cuba. 

Join the Fair Play for Cuba Committee Leaflet distributed by Lee Harvey Oswald

Join the Fair Play for Cuba Committee Leaflet distributed by Lee Harvey Oswald

At the commission, in addition to focusing on pro-Cuba groups in the United States, we also resolved to learn more about anti-Castro Cuban groups because of the widespread sentiment among these groups that President Kennedy had failed to honor his commitment to support them. We knew that Oswald had been involved in a conflict with anti-Castro Cuban refugees.[i] In early August 1963, while living in New Orleans, Oswald volunteered his services to Carlos Bringuier, a lawyer from Cuba then active in anti-Castro projects. Oswald claimed that he had received guerrilla-type training in the Marine Corps and offered to use his expertise in training Bringuier’s group. Bringuier was intrigued by Oswald’s offer and was initially friendly to the young man. However, very soon after, a member of Bringuier’s group observed Oswald distributing Fair Play for Cuba Committee literature. Bringuier promptly challenged Oswald on the streets of New Orleans. The altercation led to the arrest of both men. Oswald was convicted of creating a public disturbance and fined $10.

Soon thereafter, in the middle of August, Bringuier sent one of his followers to Oswald’s home posing as a pro-Castro Cuban interested in working for Oswald. Oswald received Bringuier’s plant courteously and the two discussed Cuban politics into the evening on Oswald’s porch. Marina Oswald testified that Oswald told her after the conversation that he strongly suspected his visitor was an anti-Castro agent pretending to be pro-Castro. The end result: both Bringuier and Oswald failed in their attempts to infiltrate the other’s organization.[ii]

Aware of their ideological differences, a local radio broadcaster arranged for a debate between Oswald and Bringuier on a daily public affairs program on August 21, 1963. According to the broadcaster, Oswald defended the Castro regime and discussed Marxism, handled himself very well, and appeared to be “a very logical, intelligent fellow.” However, his advocacy was seriously weakened when his defection to the Soviet Union was revealed at the beginning of the debate, forcing him to assert that the Fair Play for Cuba Committee was “not at all Communist controlled regardless of the fact that I had the experience of living in Russia.” As a result of this publicity and disclosure of his defection, Oswald believed that he was “open to almost unanswerable attack by those who opposed his views.”[iii]

Oswald distributing Pro-Cuba leaflets

Oswald distributing Pro-Cuba leaflets

Jim Liebeler and David Slawson pursued these leads to explore Oswald’s activities in New Orleans. Liebeler worked (along with Bert Jenner) on exploring every aspect of Oswald’s life in the US to determine if he was involved in a domestic conspiracy. Cuba was the intersection between these assignments. Slawson thought that the anti-Castro groups deserved particular attention. They were his “prized suspects” because they hated Castro and were very angry at Kennedy over the Bay of Pigs failure. The assassination of the president by a known communist connected in some way with Cuba would serve their purposes of getting revenge on Kennedy and possibly triggering an invasion of Cuba by the United States. In Slawson’s view, “this was the only conspiracy theory that I ever heard that made sense.” I agreed that we should pursue this particular conspiracy theory—no matter how implausible or complicated it might appear—because of the zealousness of the anti-Castro exiles in the United States.[iv]

Because of his strong anti-Castro views and contacts with Oswald, Carlos Bringuier was an important witness. Liebeler took his deposition in New Orleans on April 8, 1964. Afterward, he prepared a four-page investigative request for the FBI, citing various leads provided by Bringuier, such as the reported appearance of Oswald at the Havana Bar in the summer of 1963 in the company of a person believed to be either Mexican or Cuban, and his apparent knowledge of the existence of an anti-Castro military training camp in New Orleans. Liebeler was also concerned about earlier FBI reports of interviews of Dean Andrews, the lawyer who represented Oswald in connection with the street disturbance involving Bringuier. In these reports Andrews stated that Oswald came to his office on several occasions accompanied by several different people, including a person of Mexican extraction, but was hesitant about identifying the Mexican. Liebeler wanted the FBI to interview Andrews again to see if his memory could be refreshed as to the identity of this man and, if possible, determine whether that man was the same person believed to have accompanied Oswald at the Havana Bar.[v]


[i] Coleman and Slawson to Rankin, memorandum, undated, “Oswald’s Foreign Activities,” 107.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Warren Report, 410–12, 729.

[iv] Slawson, interview by the author, December 15, 2011.

[v] Rankin to Hoover, April 23, 1964.

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Book Excerpt: Introduction – Why History Has Proved the Warren Commission Right

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The following is an excerpt from my book, History Will Prove Us: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of  John F. Kennedy.

Will Prove Us Right Book Cover - Warren Commission Book

After the Warren Commission report was published, one of the commission lawyers complained to Chief Justice Warren about the widespread unfair criticism of our work. Warren urged the lawyer not to worry, because “history will prove us right.” I am writing this book because Chief Justice Warren turned out to be prescient. In the nearly fifty years since the report was published in 1964, not one fact has emerged that undercuts the main conclusions of the commission that Oswald was the assassin and that there is no credible evidence that either he or Ruby was part of a larger conspiracy.

I kept detailed notes about my work on the Warren Commission staff, a journal born by chance. A Defense Department historian was assigned to the commission to provide some historical perspective for our work. At his first meeting with the commission staff, he suggested that keeping some form of diary might be useful for future historians. I decided to follow his advice and, from then on, at irregular intervals, summarized what I had done, the problems we had faced, how we were conducting the investigation, and our progress in preparing the report. I have quoted extensively from my journal in this book.

Members of the Warren Commission

Members of the Warren Commission – LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton

This book explains what I saw and did as a member of the Warren Commission staff and why I firmly believe the criticism of our work is seriously misguided. My journal and boxes of documents resided undisturbed in my attic after I put them away in 1965; at one point a visiting mouse apparently nibbled around the edges of some pages. In recent years, my wife and children have urged me to explain my journal, put its entries in context, and evaluate this unique assignment after the passage of nearly fifty years. I still regard my work on the Warren Commission as the most intense—and important—professional assignment I ever had. I know that all of my colleagues on the commission staff feel the same way.

The fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination provides an opportunity to revisit the report in light of all that has happened since then. This includes the several congressional investigations that exposed the failures of federal agencies to honor President Johnson’s mandate to assist the commission fully in the performance of its solemn task. I was witness to the thoroughness, seriousness, and integrity with which the Warren Commission approached its task. I saw every day the intellectual effort and devotion to finding the truth exhibited by every member of the commission staff. This book explains how the commission members and staff fulfilled their responsibilities to investigate the assassination and to prepare a fair and complete report of what they found.

I dedicate this work to my colleagues, who brought their great talents, varied political orientations, and contrasting personalities to an historic assignment. I hope this book will contribute to a renewed and more reasoned discussion of the Warren Commission’s findings.

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Warren Commission and Journal Documents Online

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Early in January 1964, Warren Commission General Council J. Lee Rankin instructed his three secretaries that I should get a a copy of every letter or memorandum. I have maintained these documents since. In February of 1964, Chief Justice Warren insisted in February 1964 that historian Dr. Alfred Goldberg of the Department of Defense be added to the Warren Commission staff. Dr. Goldberg suggested that the lawyers on the staff might consider keeping a journal of their activities on the commission. I was the only member of the staff (or of the commission) that kept such a journal. 

To coincide with publication of my book “History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” I am putting these documents and my journal online for all of the world to access.

Warren Commission Documents and Journal

Even now, 50 years after President Kennedy was assassinated, it is clear that theories asserting Oswald did not act alone remain popular. However, as a member of the Commission staff, I assure you that if you’ll consider the evidence, you will find that the Commission conclusion is the correct one.

The Warren Commission conducted perhaps the most extensive criminal investigation in history. We interviewed over 550 witnesses and produced 26 volumes full of evidence. We were on the ground soon after the tragedy in Dallas, before the case went cold. I am confident that if Oswald had lived, he would have been quickly convicted based on the overwhelming evidence against him.

No member of the staff who heard Chief Justice Warren at his first meeting with the staff came away with any reservation about his determination to explore all the relevant facts regardless of their national or international consequences. Our general counsel, Lee Rankin, who had served in the Eisenhower Administration as the Solicitor General, reminded the staff of its obligations in this regard on many other occasions during the nine months of the commission’s existence. In fact, most of the staff lawyers were eager to prove that the FBI’s initial report was incorrect in some important respects and to find a conspiracy if it existed

It is my sincere hope that my book and these documents will help to dispel these theories and help to shed light about the truth of the investigation and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

 
 
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JFK CONSPIRACY THEORIES AT 50:  How the Skeptics Got It Wrong and Why It Matters

JFK CONSPIRACY THEORIES AT 50: How the Skeptics Got It Wrong and Why It Matters

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The article below is reprinted from Skeptic Magazine. I found this analysis by David Reitzes to be very useful and persuasive. Coming from someone who previously embraced one or more conspiracy theories, it focuses on the point that being a “skeptic” of the Warren Commission is not enough; it is necessary to examine the facts and base your judgment on those facts. You will note from the comments on this piece how vigorously the conspiracy theorists attack this challenge to their position.

-Howard Willens

JFK CONSPIRACY THEORIES AT 50: How the Skeptics Got It Wrong and Why It Matters

  • By David Reitzes

Since late 1964, when The Warren Commission announced its conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy, skepticism of its findings has become a persistent obsession that has lasted 50 years.

In this article from Skeptic Magazine issue 18.3 (2013), David Reitzes recounts some of the most durable myths and conspiracy theories, and reminds us that the job of a skeptic is to use critical thinking to properly assess the evidence, and to use our critical faculties to distinguish verifiable evidence from idle speculation, not to merely doubt for the sake of doubting.

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer did a number of media interviews surrounding the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and wrote this opinion editorial for the Los Angeles Times. When Shermer was on Michael Medved’s popular national radio talk show, the host commented on the air that of the thousands of published works he has read about the JFK assassination, the new Skeptic magazine article (below) was by far the best short piece he had ever seen. Please enjoy this article from Skeptic.

It has been called the mother of all conspiracy theories: the belief that the vibrant, widely admired 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was brutally cut down not by a lone gunman with inscrutable motives, but by a shadowy cabal of—take your pick—mobsters, Communists, radical right-wingers, traitorous CIA operatives, or mutinous members of the military-industrial complex. The JFK assassination has been cited by countless commentators as the moment the U.S. lost its innocence, an event that seemed to open a veritable Pandora’s Box of evils that have been raging riot ever since. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy observed, “You know that fellow Harvey Lee Oswald, whatever his name is, set something loose in this country.”1 Two months later, RFK himself was dead from an assassin’s bullets. The presidency of JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, engendered the “credibility gap,” as polls showed more and more Americans no longer trusted their government. The tragic and divisive Vietnam War was still unfolding when the Watergate scandal emerged, followed by years of malaise. For many, at least in retrospect, the JFK assassination marked the beginning of the end.

To dispel the shock and confusion that ensued after accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down during an abortive police transfer by stripclub operator Jack Ruby, President Johnson convened a blue-ribbon panel composed of distinguished leaders from both the public and private sectors and consisting of both Democrats and Republicans. The Warren Commission, as it came to be known after its chairman—Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren— has become one of the most vilified investigative panels in U.S. history, its name virtually synonymous with conspiracy or cover-up. Since the commission announced its conclusions in late 1964—principally that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed Kennedy and there was no evidence of a conspiracy— skepticism of its findings has become as persistent as taxes and, in the words of one writer, “an American obsession as deep as baseball.”2

Careful and sober analysis of the evidence affirms the commission’s conclusions and vanquishes the arguments of the skeptics. So, 50 years on, what does it even mean to be a skeptic in this hotly contested debate? Surely it cannot be as simple as declaring, “I don’t trust the government, therefore I am a skeptic”; such an equation would abdicate independent thought in favor of pure cynicism. As Michael Shermer seeks to remind us, “skepticism is not a position; skepticism is an approach to claims, in the same way that science is not a subject but a method.”3Skepticism of any government’s aims and efficacy is surely healthy—if not crucial—for a democracy; but the point is to use critical thinking to properly assess the evidence, not to merely doubt for the sake of doubting.

And conspiracies do happen, sometimes even at the highest levels of our government; Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal were conspiracies that reached into the highest office in the land. People in positions of influence conspire to commit unethical and illegal acts every day; it is more commonly called corruption. Obviously, it is imperative that we remain alert to the possibility of very real conspiracies in our midst (eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, after all), but it is equally important that we use our critical faculties to distinguish verifiable evidence from idle speculation.

The Grassy Knoll Witnesses

The Warren Commission affirmed the earlier conclusions reached by the Dallas Police Department and the FBI: Texas School Book Depository employee Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed John F. Kennedy from the building’s south-eastern most sixth-floor window. Conspiracy theories positing Oswald as a lone gunman in league with other plotters have never gained much of a foothold in the popular imagination; the critical point has always been whether there was a second gunman.

Journalist Jefferson Morley has called the case “a kind of national Rorschach test of the American political psyche,” writing, “The choices we make—to accept the credibility of the Warren Commission…or to believe eyewitnesses who heard gunshots coming from the grassy knoll, and so decide more people were involved—are shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by our premises about the U.S. government and the waypower is exercised in America.”4 Philadelphia attorney Vincent Salandria was one of numerous skeptics who combed through the 26 volumes of evidence published by the Warren Commission and took heed of such witnesses. “My initial feeling,” he later explained, “was that if this were a simple assassination, as the Commission claimed, the facts would come together very neatly. If there were more than one assassin the details would not fit.”5

But is reality so neat and tidy? The confusion, shock, and pandemonium at the scene of the crime can hardly be overstated. Amidst the sensory assault of roaring motorcycles, wailing sirens, and the highly animated throng cheering the arrival of President John F. Kennedy and his elegant wife, Jacqueline, one of the most momentous events of the 20th century occurred in mere seconds. Eyewitness perceptions varied wildly. Some thought shots had come from behind the limousine (the vicinity of the Book Depository), while others thought they came from in front or from the right side (the grassy knoll);6 three witnesses thought the shots sounded as if they came from right inside the President’s car.7One witness erroneously thought a bystander was shot in the foot and fell down.8 One of the closest witnesses “thought [she] saw some men in plain clothes shooting back,” which certainly didn’t happen, “but everything was such a blur.”9 Early press bulletins reported that a Secret Service agent had been killed at the scene.10

Dallas Morning News reporter Hugh Aynesworth, himself an eyewitness, would later recall the difficulty of sorting out what people at the scene were telling him: “I remember interviewing people that said they saw certain things; some did, some didn’t. Even then there were people making up things. Even then! I remember interviewing a young couple where the guy was telling me that he had seen this and he had seen that, and his wife said, ‘You didn’t see that! We were back in the parking lot when it happened!’ Even then!”11

How many shots did witnesses hear?

Skeptics were quick to emphasize the reports of eyewitnesses who seemed to contradict the official conclusion. Several witnesses said they had heard at least four shots fired, while the Warren Commission concluded there had only been three shots, all fired by Oswald. There was a clear consensus, however: 81 percent of the witnesses who expressed an opinion believed there had been precisely three shots. (The next most common opinion—at 12 percent— was two shots.)12 Few believed they had heard more than three shots, but these exceptions would receive an inordinate amount of attention from the doubters.

As to the direction the shots came from, the witnesses were undeniably divided.13 To explain this, it is important to understand not only the fragile nature of eyewitness testimony—particularly during moments of highly elevated stress14—but also problems with eyewitness descriptions of gunfire in particular, as well as difficulties raised by specific conditions at the scene of the crime. The authoritative textbook, Firearms Investigation Identification and Evidence, states, “It is extremely difficult to tell the direction [from which a shot was fired] by the sound of discharge of a firearm.” The authors go on to note that “little credence” should be placed in such testimony.15 Not only that, but as Charles Manson-prosecutor and later JFK-assassination author Vincent Bugliosi puts it, “Dealey Plaza resounds with echoes, the multistory buildings on the north, south, and east sides making it a virtual echo chamber.”16 Some eyewitnesses referred to the echoes in their testimony, and “strong reverberations and echoes” were later noted by a bioacoustics expert conducting experiments in Dealey Plaza for the House Select Committee reinvestigating the crime in 1978.17

There is one fact that is hard to dispute, however: of the dozens of witnesses who described the sound of the shots, very few (you could count them on one hand) said that they came from more than one direction.18 The rare exceptions, however, would soon be elevated to “star witness” status in pro-conspiracy books and documentaries; they are the ones the critics used to “prove” a conspiracy.

The Parkland Hospital Professionals

Mary Ann Moorman photo showing hidden figures?

Click the image to enlarge it. Mary Ann Moorman’s blurry Polaroid photograph of the grassy knoll inspired many attempts to discover hidden figures. Here are a few of the potential assassination conspirators “discovered” in it.

There are other eyewitnesses in this case, however, that the critics seized upon as being even more damaging to the official story: the doctors and nurses who struggled in vain to save the President’s life in Trauma Room One of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. In statements to the press that weekend and in their Warren Commission testimony, many of these medical professionals made observations indicative—some strongly so—of shots from the President’s front rather than the rear. For example, some described a massive blowout to the rear of the head, rather than the right front— forward of the ear—where the autopsy report placed it. The wound in the President’s throat was also referred to by some as an entrance wound, not the exit wound the autopsy pathologists determined it to be. Surely, the reasoning goes, these highly trained and experienced professionals could not all be wrong.

But they were wrong, and research shows this is not at all unusual. A study published in 1993 in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 46 cases involving fatal gunshot wounds over a five year period. By comparing the post-mortem findings of a board-certified forensic pathologist to the previous assessments made by trauma specialists, the study found that the trauma specialists made errors about the nature of bullet wounds (such as the number of bullets involved and in distinguishing between entrance and exit wounds) in 52 percent of the cases. The study concluded “the odds that a trauma specialist will correctly interpret certain fatal gunshot wounds are no better than the flip of a coin.”19

In truth, as with the Dealey Plaza witnesses, the testimony of the Parkland doctors and nurses is highly contradictory and confused.20 They were trying to save the President’s life, not examine his wounds to determine the direction of the shots.21

Blow-Ups

If the eyewitness testimony was less than conclusive, perhaps the technology of photography offered an alternative. A Polaroid photograph taken by bystander Mary Ann Moorman captured the grassy knoll at almost precisely the instant of the fatal shot to the President. Researcher David Lifton found a reproduction of the photograph in a book in 1965 and quickly spotted what appeared to be a puff of smoke in the background, “and, just behind it, a human form—someone apparently crouched behind the wall. Were my eyes deceiving me?”22

Lifton obtained a copy of the negative used by the book’s publisher and eagerly set about getting the film developed, even talking his way into the darkroom. “It was exciting and frightening,” he wrote. “Watching the images come up to full contrast, I felt I was joining the ranks of the eyewitnesses—a year and a half after the event. And perhaps my view was better.”23 These images weren’t “figments of my imagination,” he said, “but realities recorded by Mrs. Moorman’s camera.”

Utilizing a higher quality source, Lifton would later conclude that this perceived gunman was, in fact, a photographic artifact, not a real person.24 In the meantime he had found another gunman in the photograph. And then another. And another. And yet another.25 His findings were disputed by researcher Josiah Thompson, who had found his own gunman (or, well, something) in a different spot in the same photograph.26

A 1988 British documentary series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy, placed great importance on another image discovered in the Moorman photo by researcher Gary Mack, of what was alleged to be a man in a police officer’s uniform firing a gun from behind the stockade fence, dubbed “Badge Man.” Independent studies by photographic expert Geoffrey Crawley and assassination researcher Dale Myers determined that if Badge Man were a human being of average height and build, he would have been standing well behind the fence and elevated several feet above ground level (32 feet behind the fence and 4.5 feet above the ground, according to Myers’ study), which he described as “an unreasonable and untenable firing position.”27

David Lifton eventually decided that there was a subjective component to all of these perceptions. “It became evident that those who were already in disagreement with the Warren Commission conclusions found it far easier to ‘see’ people on the knoll than those who believed in the Report,” he observed. “Eventually, I concluded that photographic enlargements had very limited use as evidence.”28

Tramps Like Us

Some of the crime scene photographs had more to offer than blurs and shadows. There were the “three tramps” whose pictures were snapped by newsmen shortly after police officers pulled them from a railroad boxcar behind the grassy knoll. The Warren Commission had never mentioned these characters; surely they could have been up to no good. Once Watergate made national headlines, it was even pointed out that if you looked really hard, two of the three resembled Watergate conspirators Frank Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt—although comparisons of morphological and metric features between the tramps and Sturgis and Hunt would ultimately rule them out as candidates.29

The story was revived in 1980, when contract killer Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody), was in the midst of a six-hour standoff with Texas police. High on cocaine and threatening suicide, Harrelson claimed involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Researchers were quick to point out that Harrelson bore a resemblance to the tallest (“Sturgis”) tramp.30 Harrelson later recanted the tale,31 calling the alleged confession simply “an effort to elongate my life.”32Later, a book was published alleging that the third tramp was Charles Frederick Rogers of Houston, who had disappeared following the gruesome 1965 mutilation murder of his parents. Before long, one Chauncey Marvin Holt came forward, claiming to have been the short (“Hunt”) tramp and a participant in a CIA assassination plot, along with Harrelson and Rogers.33

The true names of the three men finally surfaced in Dallas police files released to the public in 1989, and journalists were able to confirm their identities, tracking down two who were still alive and a family member of the third, who was deceased. The three tramps were John Forrester Gedney, Gus W. Abrams, and Harold Doyle; they were, in the end, tramps after all.34

Umbrella Man

Then there was the case of the “Umbrella Man,” a mysterious figure glimpsed in several photos, standing at the side of the road with an open umbrella over his head on a perfectly sunny day. Was he a conspirator signaling to gunmen in the surrounding areas, perhaps? Or could the umbrella itself have been a sophisticated weapon, as one researcher postulated at length?35 After years of anonymity and considerable speculation, the Umbrella Man was outed by a friend to the Dallas press; his name was Louie Steven Witt. Dimly aware that the image of former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella was associated with then-Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy’s support for Chamberlain’s policy of Nazi appeasement in the late 1930s, Witt had come to Dealey Plaza to heckle the President— albeit at the worst possible moment. “I think if the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing,” Witt told the House committee in 1978, “I would be No. 1 in that position, without even a close runner-up.”36

Mysterious Deaths

One of the most durable myths surrounding the JFK assassination concerns the “mysterious deaths” of assassination witnesses, a story publicized nationally in 1967 by Ramparts magazine. The idea had originated with Penn Jones, the cantankerous writer/editor/ publisher of a six-page, weekly newspaper in rural Midlothian, Texas, who was compiling a list of witnesses who had passed away under allegedly suspicious circumstances. The story appealed to Ramparts editor Warren Hinckle, who had been put off by what he perceived as the overly academic style of the material the Warren Commission’s critics were submitting to him. “I wanted something that would get people talking about the Warren Report with the cynicism they did about the weather report,” Hinckle later recalled. “In my book, the only reliable indicator of what is weighing on the national consciousness is what people are talking about in neighborhood bars. The books that had come out criticizing the Warren Report had stirred the nation’s intellectuals but left the masses becalmed. I wanted to churn the bars.”37

Neither Jones nor Hinckle saw a problem in the fact that of the dozen-plus witnesses on the “mysterious deaths” list, only one of them could, in fact, be considered a witness to the assassination. Others included Oswald’s landlady, two newsmen who wrote about the case, one of Jack Ruby’s lawyers, the cab driver who gave Oswald a ride following the assassination, one of Jack Ruby’s strippers, the husband of another stripper, the brother of an eyewitness to Oswald’s slaying of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit approximately 45 minutes after the assassination, and TV game show fixture Dorothy Kilgallen. Even the Rampartsstaff felt the need to qualify their inclusion of Kilgallen’s name on the list, stating, “We know of no serious person who really believes that the death of Dorothy Kilgallen, the gossip columnist, was related to the Kennedy assassination. Still, she was passionately interested in the case, told friends she firmly believed there was a conspiracy and that she would find out the truth if it took her all her life.”38

Few of these deaths were even all that mysterious, contrary to the way they are presented in the Ramparts article.39 But factual accuracy was never really the point. Sitting in a Brooklyn bar one day, Hinckle was gratified to hear “a toothless old lady tell the fellow next to her about ‘all these people who got murdered down in Texas because they knew who killed Kennedy’—I knew then that the national consciousness barrier had been cracked.”40

“Back and to the Left”: The Zapruder Film

If there is a single piece of evidence that Warren Commission skeptics have held up as irrefutable proof of a conspiracy, it is what has come to be known as the “head snap”: the moment in the motion picture film captured by bystander Abraham Zapruder when the President is shot in the head and it snaps strongly to his left. This shocking and iconic image provides the climactic moment in Oliver Stone’s controversial conspiracy movie, JFK, shown repeatedly as actor Kevin Costner narrates: “This is the key shot. Watch it again. The President going back to his left. Shot from the front and right. Totally inconsistent with the shot from the Depository. Again—back and to the left… back and to the left…back and to the left.”41

But does this really prove a shot from the front? Medical experts convened by the Rockefeller Commission in 197542 evaluated the “head snap” and were “unanimous in finding that the violent backward and leftward motion of the President’s upper body following the head shot was not caused by the impact of a bullet coming from the front or right front.”43

Drs. [Werner] Spitz, [Richard] Lindenberg and [Fred] Hodges reported that such a motion would be caused by a violent straightening and stiffening of the entire body as a result of a seizure-like neuromuscular reaction to major damage inflicted to nerve centers in the brain.

Dr. [Alfred] Olivier reported that the violent motions of the President’s body following the head shot could not possibly have been caused by the impact of the bullet. He attributed the popular misconception on this subject to the dramatic effects employed in television and motion picture productions. The impact of such a bullet, he explained, can cause some immediate movement of the head in the direction of the bullet, but it would not produce any significant movement of the body.44

An immediate movement of the head in the direction of the bullet, in fact, is what can be seen at the instant of impact, between Zapruder frames 312 and 313, as the President’s head moves forward (2.3 inches forward, according to one study), prior to the more obvious lurch to the left beginning in frame 314.45

Other experts agree, including the members of the 1978 House committee’s forensic pathology panel (see below),46 as well as Vincent Di Maio, a longtime forensic pathologist and author of the widely used textbook, Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques. In response to a suggestion that a “transfer of momentum” from a bullet could be responsible for the head snap, Di Maio, without hesitation, said, “No. That’s make-believe. That’s [something out of] Arnold Schwarzenegger pictures.”47

Even forensic expert Cyril Wecht, long one of the most vociferous critics of the Warren Commission, when asked whether it is a “matter of physics” that a body will move in the same direction as a bullet that strikes it, testified (in the murder trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez) that “some of the [Newtonian] concepts, indeed are applicable and relevant, but you have to then factor in the biological element, the entire neuromuscular system and so on, all of the voluntary and involuntary reflexive aspects of it.” “Sir [Isaac] Newton and others just never dealt with those things. … That’s just a very different situation.”48

Shots in the Dark

In the face of ballooning doubts about the Warren Commission’s conclusions, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was established to reinvestigate JFK’s killing and pass judgment on the commission’s findings. By the time the committee wrapped up its investigation, it had used state of the art forensic techniques to resolve numerous questions about the assassination and the evidence, and validate the Warren Commission’s core conclusions. However, in a move strongly contested by several committee members, the HSCA also endorsed the findings of a computer science professor and his assistant, indicating that a shot had indeed been fired from the grassy knoll.

The evidence was an audio recording of police radio transmissions made at the approximate time of the assassination from an unknown police motorcycle with its microphone stuck in the “on” position. While the recording contained no audible sounds of gunfire, the HSCA endorsed the theory that the motorcycle in question was part of the presidential motorcade; and that waveforms of sounds on the tape, as plotted by a computer on a lengthy strip of graph paper, were identical to waveforms of actual test shots fired in Dealey Plaza, three from the Texas School Book Depository and one from the grassy knoll. There was a high probability, the committee concluded, that a conspiracy had killed John F. Kennedy.49

When the findings were subjected to peer review by a National Academy of Sciences committee, however, the failings of the HSCA’s conspiracy theory were revealed. The Committee on Ballistic Acoustics, better known as the Ramsey Panel—after its chairman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Norman F. Ramsey— found that not only was there no evidence of gun shots on the Dallas recording, but the waveforms identified as shots were actually recorded approximately one minuteafter the assassination, as voices in the recording indicated that the limousine had already been instructed to head for Parkland Hospital.50 The House committee’s conspiracy evidence was a bust.

Cui Bono?

Even as the HSCA was confirming the case against Oswald as the lone assassin, doubters were shifting into overdrive, pointing fingers at an ever-increasing cast of conspiracy suspects. While conspiracy theorists insist that their accusations are drawn from evidence, the motley assortment of suspects they have come up with suggests that bias plays a more prominent role.

The Radical Right

When news of the assassination was broadcast, many initially assumed that the blame lay with members of Dallas’ highly vocal, radical right wing, who despised Kennedy for his support of the civil rights movement and for his perceived weakness in the face of Communism. In fact, a number of associates had warned the President not to travel to Dallas, where U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been spat at and struck with a demonstrator’s picket sign just a month earlier at a United Nations Day event. “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas,” read the facetious headline of a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News of November 22, over a series of questions accusing the President of selling the country out to Communists. On the morning of the assassination, thousands of handbills were distributed on Dallas streets with photos of front and side views of the President’s face arranged like a mug shot; the headline read, “WANTED FOR TREASON.”51

Suspicions of a right wing plot took a seemingly lethal blow when the suspect—Oswald—turned out to be a self-professed Marxist and ardent supporter of Fidel Castro. Even the President’s grieving widow Jacqueline was taken aback. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” she said. “It had to be some silly little Communist.”52 It seemed to rob his death of any meaning.53

In fact, the Soviets could have been none too pleased to learn that the accused assassin was the unstable young man they had reluctantly allowed to defect to Russia in 1959 after he attempted suicide in Moscow. (Thoroughly disillusioned with the state of Marxism in the U.S.S.R., he had returned to the United States two years later.) Within hours of JFK’s death, Soviet propaganda organs were declaring the assassination to be the work of a radical right wing cabal.54 The theme was picked up by left-leaning journalists in Europe and the U.S.55 Over a decade later the KGB would fabricate and disseminate evidence intended to link Oswald to Soviet intelligence’s arch enemy, the CIA.56

To those who were predisposed to certain suspicions, however, little evidence, authentic or otherwise, was really necessary. Describing her “instantaneous skepticism about the official version of what happened in Dallas,”57 conspiracy author Sylvia Meagher recalled the moment she heard JFK’s death announced on the radio. “Someone in the room screamed with shock and grief,” Meagher wrote. “Someone cursed the John Birch Society and its kind. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said derisively, ‘you’ll see, it was a Communist who did it.’ ”58

The Red Menace

Indeed, Oswald’s leftist background was quickly seized upon by red baiters everywhere. Dallas assistant district attorney Bill Alexander, incensed by the immediate nationwide condemnations of notoriously conservative Dallas, even spoke of charging Oswald with participation in a Communist conspiracy.59 “I wanted to expose Oswald for what he was, a Communist,” Alexander said later. “I thought someone should emphasize it. I knew that [the conspiracy charge] wouldn’t hold up, but it needed to be said.”60

Theories of Oswald as a Communist agent, in fact, would not fare well. While he was an avowed leftist, the simple fact is that other leftists he came into contact with wanted nothing to do with him. His bogus chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans was a one-man operation, complete with documents he created himself.61 He sent a (later world-famous) photograph of himself dressed in black and brandishing a rifle to the editors of The Militant, a Trotskyist newspaper (to show them he was “ready for anything”); the recipients quickly threw it out, fearing Oswald to be either a nut or a provocateur.62 When he caused a scene at the Cuban consulate in Mexico City in October 1963, insisting upon a travel visa to Cuba so he could join Castro’s revolution, a consulate staffer refused and told him point blank that someone like him could bring the revolution nothing but harm.63

CIA: The Enemy Within?

Conspiracy theories involving secret societies have been with us for centuries, frequently oriented along religious lines. Religious themes are largely passé among modern conspiracists, but there is one secret society of sorts that may inspire suspicion among Americans from every walk of life and of all political persuasions.

The moment Jack Ruby stepped from the shadows to gun down Oswald, prominent researcher Vincent Salandria says he knew that the CIA had killed Kennedy: “The use of a Mafia-related killer [sic] to dispatch the patsy while in custody, and that patsy’s patently false left-wing and liberal guises, convinced me that the assassination was the work of U.S. intelligence.”64 “The nature of the conspiracy that took President Kennedy’s life was from the outset quite obvious to anyone who knew how to look and was willing to do so,” declares researcher Martin Schotz. “I and other ordinary citizens know, know for a fact, that there was a conspiracy and that it was organized at the highest levels of the CIA.”65 “Is there any doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald, quickly and deliberately portrayed by the Government as a simple, superficial personality—a lone nut—was clearly a well-trained and groomed tool of the intelligence establishment?” former HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi asked a gathering of assassination researchers.66“This, I suggest, should be our challenging cry for the future: We know who killed President Kennedy. Why don’t you?67

Granted, as secret societies go, the Central Intelligence Agency has two clear strikes against it: first, in contrast to some organizations that have been singled out for suspicion over the years, the CIA undoubtedly exists; and, second, it was not so long after the Warren Commission closed up shop that public revelations of CIA involvement in plans to assassinate foreign leaders began raising questions about precisely who authorized such plots and whether such ruthless methods could conceivably be employed against, say, a highly placed domestic target.

After this, however, evidence of the Agency’s culpability in the President’s slaying begins to get scarce. CIA accusers point to a commonly cited (but anonymously sourced) claim that President Kennedy had threatened to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to winds” after the Bay of Pigs debacle, as well as claims that Agency personnel were bitter about his conduct during the aborted invasion.68 But historians agree that, once fences were mended, Kennedy enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the Agency—a relationship that, according to one CIA-commissioned report, “would only rarely be matched in future administrations.”69 Only weeks before his death, JFK had this to say about allegations of CIA misconduct in Vietnam: “I think that while the CIA may have made mistakes, as we all do, on different occasions, and has had many successes which may go unheralded, in my opinion in this case it is unfair to charge them as they have been charged. I think they have done a good job.”70

Conspiracy theorists also may find it self-evidently suspicious that President Johnson appointed to the Warren Commission former CIA director Allen Dulles, who had resigned in the wake of the Bay of Pigs. Whose idea was this? It turns out that LBJ actually recruited Dulles for the commission at the request of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.71 Contrary to the speculation that runs rampant in pro-conspiracy literature, JFK and Dulles greatly admired one another, and the Kennedy brothers had considerable praise for Dulles well after the Bay of Pigs invasion.72

Suspicions about the CIA often begin with questions about whether Oswald’s highly unusual defection to the Soviet Union in 1959 was authentic. One of the originators of the hypothesis that Oswald was not a genuine defector but an intelligence agent was author Harold Weisberg. But after nearly 40 years of pioneering research, Weisberg acknowledged that the Warren Commission “checked into almost every breath [Oswald] drew,”73 and candidly admitted to Vincent Bugliosi that “much as it looks like Oswald was some kind of agent for somebody, I have not found a shred of evidence to support it, and he never had an extra penny.”74

Not-So-Cold Warriors

The theory that may well be the most far-fetched nevertheless demands close attention, as it picks upon psychological wounds that, for many who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, never fully healed. In the long, bitter aftermath of the Vietnam War, understandable psychological factors like grief, regret, and nostalgia for a Golden Age, however illusory—writers began mythologizing the “Camelot” of JFK’s administration within weeks of his demise75—have inspired tendentious interpretations of how Kennedy might have saved us from the horrors and shame of Vietnam, had he only lived. Once confined to the fringes, such notions went mainstream with the success of Oliver Stone’s JFK, which endorsed the idea that high-ranking members of the military industrial complex executed President Kennedy because he posed a serious threat to the war machine and its attendant profits.

According to Stone, a once-secret document, National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, proves that JFK intended to withdraw from Vietnam by the end of 1965, beginning with the removal of 1,000 advisors by the end of 1963. But, as the document states, this was based on assurances by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor that “the major part of the U.S. military task can be completed by the end of 1965… [B]y the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Vietnam can be withdrawn.” These plans were contingent upon the success of U.S. efforts to stabilize South Vietnam’s security and end the repressive policies of its increasingly tyrannical government. If these conditions were not met, U.S. involvement would continue.76 Historian Stanley Karnow explains:

Early in 1963, South Vietnam’s rigid President Ngo Dinh Diem was cracking down on internal dissidents, throwing the country into chaos. Fearing that the turmoil would benefit the Communist insurgents, Kennedy conceived of bringing home one thousand of the sixteen thousand American military advisers as a way of prodding Diem into behaving more leniently. Kennedy’s decision was codified in National Security Action Memorandum, or NSAM 263. Its aim was to “indicate our displeasure” with Diem and “create significant uncertainty” in him “as to the future intentions of the United States.” Kennedy hoped the scheme, which also scheduled a reduction of the U.S. forces over the next two years, would give the South Vietnamese the chance to strengthen themselves.77

The strategy was unsuccessful, resulting in Kennedy’s acquiescence to the November 1, 1963, military coup that toppled the Diem regime and, as noted in the Pentagon Papers, inadvertently deepened U.S. involvement in Vietnam.78

Had the President really decided to withdraw from Vietnam? In July of 1963, he stated, “In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia, so we are going to stay there.”79On September 2, Kennedy stated, in an interview with Walter Cronkite, “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” One week later, he was asked if he had “any reason to doubt this so-called ‘domino theory,’ that if South Vietnam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?” “No, I believe it. I believe it,” JFK responded. “I think we should stay.”

There is conflicting evidence about JFK’s attitude during the post-coup period (by which time, Oliver Stone and the other theorists insist the conspiracy to kill him was already well underway).80 The day he left for Dallas, Kennedy met with Michael Forrestal, assistant to national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, whom he reportedly told, “I want to start a complete and very profound review of how we got into this country; what we thought we were doing; and what we now think we can do. I even want to think about whether or not we should be there.”81 Longtime aide Kenneth O’Donnell said that Kennedy told him that he was beginning to think about withdrawal.82 JFK even allegedly told anti-war Oregon senator Wayne Morse, “Wayne, I want you to know you’re absolutely right in your criticism of my Vietnam policy. Keep this in mind. I’m in the midst of an intensive study which substantiates your position on Vietnam.”83

A 1991 Newsweek article noted that such reports, “even if not colored by wishful memories, could have been tinged with politics. And the 1,000-man withdrawal—around 6 percent of the total— was just a token that might never have been repeated. McGeorge Bundy…doesn’t believe it signified any shift of policy. ‘I don’t think we know what he would have done if he’d lived,’ Bundy said last week. ‘I don’t know, and I don’t know anyone who does know.’ ”84 Secretary of State Dean Rusk was also skeptical that JFK was planning to withdraw: “I had hundreds of talks with John F. Kennedy about Vietnam, and never once did he say anything of this sort to his own secretary of state.”85

In Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of November 22, Kennedy made his last statement about Vietnam: “Without the United States, South Vietnam would collapse overnight.”86 At the moment JFK was cut down, he was only minutes away from delivering a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart, in which he had planned to reaffirm his commitment not only to Vietnam, but another eight countries located on or near the border of the Communist bloc. “Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky and costly,” the text of the speech reads. “But we dare not weary of the task.”87

The following year, the slain President’s closest advisor and confidant, Robert F. Kennedy, discussed his brother’s views in a Kennedy Library oral history interview with John Bartlow Martin. “The President…had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and [believing] that we should win the war in Vietnam,” RFK stated, “[it would mean] the loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. … [which would] have profound effects as far as our position throughout the world, and our position in a rather vital part of the world.” “There was never any consideration given to pulling out?” he was asked. “No,” Kennedy replied.88

Following a personal investigation into the roots of political uprisings in Asia and Latin America the following year, Robert Kennedy’s views on Vietnam began to change,89 reflecting RFK aide Adam Wolinsky’s concern that not only was the U.S. pursuing a “foreign policy based on force, a reliance on military pressure almost to the complete exclusion of politics,” but also—and crucially—“a simplistic equation of revolution with communist conspiracy.”90 Once he began criticizing the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, RFK would have had much to gain politically by suggesting that his evolving views had been influenced by his late brother. But instead, he candidly admitted to confidant Arthur Schlesinger, “Well, I don’t know what would be best: to say that he [JFK] didn’t spend much time thinking about Vietnam; or to say that he did and messed it up.”91

As journalist Tom Wicker notes, “Kennedy might not have expanded the war as President Johnson did in 1964,” however, “It seems less likely that Kennedy had already decided, at the time of his death, to extricate the nation from the quagmire of Vietnam…I know of no reputable historian who has documented Kennedy’s intentions, much less found them the motive for his murder.”92

Wiseguys

When all else fails, conspiricists can always try to pin the assassination on organized crime. That’s what G. Robert Blakey did. Blakey had worked under Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department and drafted the landmark Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO act)—anti-racketeering legislation that was signed into law in 1970. As Chief Counsel to the HSCA, he took it upon himself to explain who had been responsible for the conspiracy indicated by the committee’s acoustical theory, something the committee declined to do. As the HSCA ended its investigation, Blakey held a press conference to announce, “I am now firmly of the opinion that the Mob did it. It is a historical truth. The Committee report does not say the Mob did it. I said it. I think the Mob did it.”93

But, as with other suspects, the actual evidence is slim. Journalist Richard Billings, Blakey’s co-author on the HSCA Report as well as Blakey’s own conspiracy book,The Plot to Kill the President, summarizes it this way: “The main piece of evidence of Organized Crime complicity in the conspiracy is Jack Ruby. …[I]f you’re going to determine the final answer to this crime, the murder of the president, the character of Ruby is crucial.”94 This is bad news for conspiracy theorists. As Dallas Morning News columnist Tony Zoppi, who knew Ruby quite well, puts it, “It is so ludicrous to believe that Ruby was part of the mob. The conspiracy theorists want to believe everybody but those who really knew him. …He was a real talker, a fellow who would talk your ear off if he had the chance. You have to be crazy to think anybody would have trusted Ruby to be a part of the mob. He couldn’t keep a secret for five minutes.”95

As Vincent Bugliosi points out, Ruby’s personality could hardly be less like that of a cool, calculating, professional hit man: “FBI agents may have interviewed close to one hundred people who knew Ruby well, and in their published reports in the Warren Commission volumes the reader would be hardpressed to find one interviewee who did not mention Ruby’s temper, or at least how ‘very emotional’ he was, if the question of Ruby’s temperament was discussed.”96 He was prone to sudden, sometimes savage bursts of violence. William Serur knew Ruby for over a decade, and said that Ruby “explodes and gets mad quicker than any person I ever saw.”97 As he recalled, “In the last few years I thought he might have been suffering from some form of … mental disturbance, by the way he acted.”98 In fact, evidence brought out at Ruby’s trial showed that Ruby suffered from organic brain damage.99 “I don’t think he is sane,” said one stripper who worked for him.100 American Guild of Variety Artists official Johnnie Hayden called Ruby a “kook” because of his unpredictable and erratic outbursts.101 Edward Pullman, whose wife worked for Ruby, called him “insane. He was a psycho. …He was not right.”102

Ruby was many things: small-time nightclub operator, unsuccessful entrepreneur, barroom brawler, police groupie, would-be FBI informant (it didn’t work out, as the Bureau concluded that he simply had no useful information to offer).103 However, there is one thing he was not: a criminal. So says Bill Alexander, who prosecuted Ruby for Oswald’s murder and sought the death penalty against him. “He didn’t steal. He didn’t pimp. He wasn’t a drunk. Jack wasn’t a lawbreaker.”104

Testifying before the HSCA, Jack Revill of the Dallas police’s criminal intelligence section rejected the idea that Ruby had any involvement with organized crime. “Jack Ruby was the type of person who would have been acquainted with persons involved in gambling activities and other criminal activities, but as far as Jack Ruby being actively engaged or a member of any groups, no …Jack Ruby was a buffoon. He liked the limelight. He was highly volatile. He liked to be recognized with people, and I would say this to this committee: if Jack Ruby was a member of organized crime, then the personnel director of organized crime should be replaced.”105

Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists commonly insist that if Ruby can be shown to have been (to use Revell’s term) acquainted with suspicious characters, then surely that must prove something. The most oft-repeated allegation is that Ruby made a number of phone calls to Mob-connected individuals in the months prior to the assassination, as documented in black and white by his telephone records. Is this evidence that the Mafia ordered Oswald’s murder or the Kennedy assassination?

No. “Correlation does not mean causation.”106 Just because one event follows another does not mean they are connected. In fact, a great deal of testimony indicates that the phone calls in question were related to Ruby’s professional grievances with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), which represented the strippers he employed at his nightclub. The AGVA “was riddled with corruption and compromised by its mob connections,”107 so anyone dealing with the AGVA could have been rubbing shoulders with the Mob, whether they realized it or not. There is no evidence that Ruby had any significant relationship to organized crime or that any of his phone calls or actions were related to a conspiracy. (In fact, genuine Mob connections would have been most helpful in his lengthly and frustrating battles with the AGVA.)108

The Assassin

How do we navigate a path through the complex morass of claims, speculation, rumors, and confusion that seems to hopelessly engulf this subject? We use critical thinking tools to discern the most reliable evidence.

Immediately following the assassination, eyewitnesses directed police to two areas in Dealey Plaza: behind the stockade fence on the grassy knoll, from which many thought they had heard shots (but where no one had actually seen a gunman)109 and the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where a gunman had been sighted.110 A thorough search of the grassy knoll area turned up no evidence of any kind: no suspect, no weapon, no spent shells, and no other evidence of a crime. The Book Depository was another story: police found shipping cartons of books arranged by a southeast corner window into a sniper’s perch—where someone could sit and aim a rifle out the window—surrounded by a wall of cartons that hid the corner from the rest of the sixth floor. Three spent rifle shells were found nearby. A bolt-action, Italian, Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was found stashed between boxes on the opposite side of the floor, on the way to the stairwell. Ballistic markings as distinctive as fingerprints proved that the three shells had been fired from that rifle to the exclusion of all others. One nearly intact bullet and several bullet fragments were recovered from the presidential limousine and at Parkland Hospital; the bullet and the two largest of the recovered fragments were proved by ballistic markings—again, as distinctive as fingerprints—to have been fired from that rifle.111

Single bullet theory diagrams

Single bullet theory diagrams. Click the image to enlarge it and read captions.

Who owned the rifle? Documentary evidence assembled over the next two days established that the weapon had been purchased through the mail under an assumed name by Lee Harvey Oswald, one of the few Book Depository employees who had not gone outside to watch the motorcade. Oswald’s palm print was found on the weapon, and fingerprints lifted from the trigger housing were later determined to be his.112Handwriting experts unanimously agreed that it was Oswald’s handwriting on the order form, as well as on the paperwork for the post office box where he had the rifle delivered.113 It was not necessary for the police to launch a manhunt for Oswald: he was already under arrest for the murder of police officer J. D. Tippit, gunned down approximately 45 minutes after the President’s murder. Oswald had fled the scene of the crime, taken a cab to the room he rented in suburban Oak Cliff, apparently picked up the handgun he had also purchased through the mail, and then killed the first police officer he encountered.114

The autopsy of the President—as well as the medical examination of Texas Governor John Connally, who was critically wounded during the shooting but survived—confirmed that the shots had come from above and behind the limousine, not the grassy knoll.115 Later reviews of the autopsy photographs and X-rays by panels of forensic experts appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark in 1968, the Rockefeller Commission in 1975, and the HSCA in 1978 affirmed the conclusions of the autopsy report.116

Following Oswald’s lead (“I’m just a patsy!” he famously cried; “Don’t believe all that so-called evidence,” he told his brother),117 it has become an article of faith for many conspiracy theorists that any hard evidence implicating Oswald must be forged: the autopsy report, the autopsy photographs and X-rays, the ballistic evidence, the crime scene evidence, the handwriting evidence, the “backyard photos” of Oswald with the murder weapon—all forged. The HSCA’s panel of photographic experts subjected the autopsy materials and the backyard photographs to exhaustive tests to uncover evidence of fakery; no such evidence could be found.118 But the release of the committee’s report in 1979 did nothing to stem the tide of speculation. No evidence was safe from accusations of forgery—not even the legendary Zapruder film or the minutely studied Moorman Polaroid, and not even excluding the slain president’s body itself. Such hypotheses are constructs arising from the a priori assumption that Lee Oswald had been framed by evil forces capable of ruthlessly accomplishing anything they desired—anything, that is, except removing John F. Kennedy from office by any means other than a public execution in broad daylight.

The Single Bullet Theory

Of all the Warren Commission’s findings, none has been so contentious as the single bullet theory, the conclusion that the bullet which inflicted the first wound to the President at the base of the neck exited his throat and went on to inflict several wounds to Governor John B. Connally, seated in front of the President. Critics commonly suggest that the scenario was fabricated out of thin air in order to explain how a lone gunman could have fired the shots in the requisite time, as established by the Zapruder film.

According to then-Warren Commission junior counsel (and later five-term U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania) Arlen Specter, it was James J. Humes, the pathologist who supervised the autopsy of the slain President, who first voiced the possibility that JFK and Governor Connally had been struck by the same bullet.119 During his March 16, 1964, testimony, Humes noted that “as much as we could ascertain from our X-rays and physical examinations, this missile struck no bony structures in traversing the body of the late President.” Referring to a frame in the Zapruder film at approximately the time of the first bullet strike, Humes stated, “I see that Governor Connally is sitting directly in front of the late President, and suggest the possibility that this missile, having traversed the low neck of the late President, in fact traversed the chest of Governor Connally.”120

If Humes was right, it would explain not only the timing of the shooting, but also where the first bullet that struck the President went after exiting his body (as no bullet was found in the car, and there was no damage from such a bullet). It would also explain why the entrance wound on Governor Connally’s back was ovoid rather than the typically round shape of a bullet entrance wound (because its passage through the President’s body caused it to yaw or tumble).121

Arlen Specter and others serving with the Warren Commission were initially skeptical of the hypothesis,122 but a reconstruction of the shooting by agents of the FBI and Secret Service in Dealey Plaza affirmed its plausibility.123 With slight qualification, the commission endorsed the theory.124 To Warren Commission critics, be they assassination buffs or experts as distinguished as Cyril Wecht, the hypothesis is utterly untenable. Wecht is proud to point out that he was the advisor responsible for shaping one of the most memorable scenes in Oliver Stone’s JFK,125 in which the single bullet theory is ridiculed by actor Kevin Costner and denounced as “One of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people.”126

But Wecht’s information, and therefore the widely seen portrayal of the theory, was glaringly inaccurate.127 Wecht had been one of nine highly distinguished members of the HSCA’s forensic pathology panel,128 and was surely aware that the panel had found his understanding of the evidence flawed and his arguments to be without merit. The panel (with Wecht’s dissent noted) concluded that the evidence unequivocally supported the single bullet theory.129 (In response, Wecht could only speculate about possible government affiliations that could taint his colleagues’ integrity.)130

The Single Bullet

THE SINGLE BULLET
Found at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital on a gurney that had borne Governor Connally, it is also known as the “magic” or “pristine” bullet. From the side the bullet appears unaltered except for a small amount of lead that has been squeezed past the bottom edge. But the end-on view reveals the formerly round bullet is far from pristine. The bullet in the diagram above is enlarged; the actual size of the bullet was 1¼”.

The single bullet theory was supported by others consulted by the House committee, including photographic expert Calvin McCamy, who chaired a panel of 20 experts who utilized the Zapruder film and photogrammetric techniques to plot the precise positions of JFK and Governor Connally in the limousine;131 and NASA staff engineer Thomas Canning (that’s right, an actual rocket scientist), who plotted the trajectories of the shots that struck the two men.132

Meticulous reconstructions of the shooting by the British Broadcasting Company,133 the Discovery Channel,134 and Dr. John Lattimer,135 as well as highly accurate 3D computer models of the assassination by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. (now Exponent),136 and Emmy-award winning animator Dale Myers137 have confirmed again and again the plausibility, if not certainty, of the single bullet theory. Vincent Bugliosi concludes, “‘the single-bullet theory’ is an obvious misnomer. Though in its incipient stages it was but a theory, the indisputable evidence is that it is now a proven fact, a wholly supported conclusion.”138

Cui Bono, Redux

Why did Oswald do it? The Warren Commission heard testimony and examined psychological evaluations from his teen years suggesting he was a greatly troubled individual.139 He had documented in his own words the contempt he felt for the capitalist system of government and the United States in particular.140 The commission heard testimony indicating a history of violence, from the time he threatened his sister-in-law with a knife as a teen,141 to the numerous witnesses who testified about the physical abuse he directed at his wife.142Documentary evidence supports his widow’s testimony that Oswald had made a failed assassination attempt against local radical right extremist Major General Edwin Walker, a vehement detractor of Oswald’s idol, Fidel Castro.143 Oswald’s interest in Castro, of course, is well documented, including his pro-Cuba street protests in the summer of 1963, and his failed attempt to secure a visa to Cuba in October of that year.144 The commission heard testimony that Oswald aspired to greatness, though greatness had thus far eluded him;145 that he believed that societal change could only be brought about by violent means;146 that he had access to information published in 1963 indicating that the Kennedy administration was seeking to remove Castro from power using covert, violent methods.147

Oswald never confessed to the assassination, so it is impossible to state definitively what his motives were. But when a mentally unstable, radically leftist, violently inclined Castro idolater like Oswald, with aspirations to greatness and a belief in the power of violence to enact political change, murders the man who is at once the personification of a social structure he despises and the man Fidel Castro has singled out as his greatest enemy, and who already made an assassination attempt on Major General Walker, it makes sense.

The Campfire of History

As author David Aaronovitch discusses in his book, Voodoo Histories, it has become fashionable in recent years to defend conspiracy theories—even politically incorrect to challenge them—regardless of their truth or falsity. When New York Times reporter Nicholas Kulish criticized film director Spike Lee for making “utterly unfounded charges that the failed levees [in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina] were blown up to flood poor black neighborhoods,” Kulish was attacked for denying the “alternative perspectives” of black Louisiana residents. “In other words,” Aaronovitch observes, “the possible untruth of the allegations was far less important than the bigger truths [supposedly] revealed by them. So, in that sense, arguing about whether there really had been a conspiracy was not just beside the point, but amounted to an attempt to try and deny the larger alternative truth.148

This is an approach that dovetails with an intellectual trend, loosely labeled postmodernist or post-structuralist, which has become increasingly attractive to academics and intellectuals in recent years. One aspect of this inclination is a distrust of normative notions of truth. ‘You show me your reality,’ it suggests, ‘I’ll show you mine,’ and the man in Maine with a lobster in his hand will show you his. All accounts of events are essentially stories, and no single account ought to be privileged above another. It is a seductive and not entirely worthless way of looking at the world.149

Similarly, Oliver Stone once posed the question, “What is history? Some people say it’s a bunch of gossip made up by soldiers who passed it around a campfire. They say such and such happened. They create, they make it bigger, they make it better. …The nature of human beings is that they exaggerate. So, what is history? Who the fuck knows?”150

In their reliance on inherently unreliable eyewitness testimony; in lay interpretations of forensic evidence (such as the “head snap” in the Zapruder film); in invocations of pseudo or junk science (like the acoustical theory endorsed by the HSCA); in confusing rumors or even pure speculation for reality151 (Oswald was a secret agent, Ruby was a mobster, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed by the same men who killed JFK; it’s all connected); in the rationalization of failure after failure152 (evidence implicates Oswald, so it must be forged; experts interpret evidence as disproof of a conspiracy theory, so they must be lying); in the use of after-the-fact reasoning153153 (Ruby killed Oswald, so Ruby must be connected to the assassination; Ruby made phone calls to Mob-related individuals, so the Mob must have killed JFK); in the failure to understand the role of coincidence and the significance of representativeness154 (events such as the deaths of alleged witnesses—no matter whether they really were witnesses or not—cannot possibly be a coincidence; it must be a conspiracy); in their systematic embrace of methods such as these, the Warren Commission critics (and—mea culpa—I used to be one of them) have been and remain wrong. The conspiracy theories stem from logical fallacies, not legitimate arguments.

But that is not the end of the story.

Corrosion

Recent research conducted by Viren Swami at the University of Westminster in England found that believers in conspiracy theories “are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular,” writes science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker. “Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.”155 “If you know the truth and others don’t, that’s one way you can reassert feelings of having agency,” Swami says. “It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed,” notes Koerth-Baker. “It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.”156

And, really, where is the harm? We accuse the government of criminal actions; so what? We know agents of the government frequently engage in unethical and illegal acts; so why not point fingers? Is it really such a bad thing if some of the specific charges happen not to be true?

Of course it is. Facts matter. The truth matters. Reckless accusations can never be justified, regardless of one’s intentions. And new research suggests that conspiracy theories in themselves can actually be quite harmful. “Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa,” writes Maggie Koerth-Baker. “Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media—which only perpetuates the problem.”157Research conducted by psychologist Karen Douglas and Daniel Jolley at the University of Kent in England showed that people exposed to conspiracy theories were more likely than others to withdraw from participation in the democratic process.158

It gets worse. Research conducted by Stephan Lewandowsky and others at the University of Western Australia School of Psychology found that belief in conspiracy theories significantly predicted a subject’s rejection of scientific findings such as climate science, the correlation between HIV and AIDS, and the link between smoking and lung cancer. The authors note, “Our results provide empirical support for previous suggestions that conspiratorial thinking contributes to the rejection of science.”159

Research shows that those who believe AIDS was created by the government are less likely to practice protected sex.160 “And if you believe that governments or corporations are hiding evidence that vaccines harm children,” Koerth-Baker notes, “you’re less likely to have your children vaccinated. The result: pockets of measles and whooping-cough infections and a few deaths in places with low child-vaccination rates.”161

Conspiracy theories can actually kill you.

Cause for Hope

Of course, there is a way out of all this: base your beliefs on facts, not the other way around. Dare to be, like James Randi, “obsessed with reality.” By embracing the reality of the past instead of myths, we can make the most of the present and map out a better future.

For some, the era of Kennedy is remembered as “Camelot,” a Golden Age. To others, it was a time of persistent racial segregation, oppression, and violence; the Cold War and the arms race; and bloody, tragically misunderstood uprisings in Southeast Asia and Latin America. One may find many things to admire about JFK without turning a blind eye to his lack of effectiveness in advancing the civil rights legislation he championed, his secret war against Cuba, or his lapses in judgment with regard to personal behavior that threatened to compromise the integrity and security of his office.

But even if JFK was the white knight some would make him out to be, did his death really reverse the direction of politics in the United States? British scholar Peter Knight asks, “If the Kennedy assassination is the result of a conspiracy by reactionary forces to pervert the course of history, as self-professed liberals such as Oliver Stone claim, then what about civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and the ecology movement? Conspiratorial accounts of the political shootings of the 1960s as the moment when everything went wrong thus require a certain blindness to the progressive landmarks of that decade and after.”162

In the final analysis (as he himself was wont to say), those who seek to honor John F. Kennedy’s memory would be best advised to honor the goals he set for the nation and the freedoms and institutions he pledged to uphold, and to participate in the democracy he pledged to serve.

Though much has changed in the world, we might recall some of the words with which President Kennedy challenged friend and foe alike at his 1961 inauguration:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us….

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to “undo the heavy burdens…and to let the oppressed go free.”

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.163 END

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Book Excerpt: Genesis of the Single-Bullet Theory

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The following is an excerpt from my book, History Will Prove Us: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of  John F. Kennedy.

Will Prove Us Right Book Cover - Warren Commission Book

The Genesis of the Single-Bullet Theory

One of the most significant developments in the commission’s work started to take shape in late February. Although working conscientiously on their analytical memoranda in order to meet the deadline, the commission’s staff—like most lawyers—greatly preferred to confer and debate the issues. One of the important problems we faced was determining which of the bullets hit whom and when. The Zapruder film gave us a key to solving this problem. Both the FBI and the Secret Service had separately (and repeatedly) examined the film. A group of our lawyers –Ball, Belin, Eisenberg, Redlich, and Specter—did the same, often joined by FBI agent Lyndal Shaneyfelt, a photography expert who provided valuable assistance to the commission.

 The first day that he reported to the commission in late January, Liebeler recalls joining “a group of staff members [who] watched the Zapruder film over and over again as well as examining individual frames. It was my first meeting with Norman Redlich, who was generally in charge of the viewing. I asked him once I had caught the drift of the meeting whether he thought more than one person had been shooting at the motorcade. His reply: ‘That’s what we’re trying to find out.’”[i]

Warren Commission Investigators David Belin and Howard Willens

Warren Commission Investigators David Belin and Howard Willens

At this stage of the investigation, the lawyers questioned the conclusion reached by both the FBI and the Secret Service regarding the three shots believed to have been fired from the depository. Although witnesses at the scene recalled hearing between two and six shots, the largest number heard three shots, and three cartridges had been discovered on the sixth floor of the depository, so three shots became our working hypothesis.

Initially most of us thought that the first shot hit the president, the second hit Connally, and the third shot killed the president. Connally firmly believed that he had been hit by the second shot, after he heard the first shot, and that he was not hit by the same shot that first hit Kennedy. However, remnants of only two bullets were found in the presidential vehicle. Close examination of the Zapruder film gave us one way to help determine roughly when Kennedy was first hit and when Connally was hit. If the interval between the first and the second shots covered a span of less than 2.25 seconds, the time estimated to be necessary for the assassin to fire two shots, it might suggest that a second rifle was involved.

Arlen Specter of the Warren Commission reproducing the assumed alignment of the single bullet theory.

Arlen Specter of the Warren Commission reproducing the assumed alignment of the single bullet theory.

Belin worked hard in these early days to prove that a second gunman had participated in the assassination. He requested the Secret Service to ask the three physicians who attended to Connally’s three wounds (back, hand, and leg) to reconstruct the position of the governor “as it must have been to receive the wounds he received.” Belin received a set of drawings portraying the reconstructed position of Connally from five different viewpoints. Belin then gave these drawings to the FBI asking the bureau to compare these drawings with the Zapruder film and advise when, according to the Zapruder film, Connally could not have been hit. The FBI advised that “Governor Connally was not in the position reconstructed by his doctors at any time after frame 240.” The commission’s lawyers working on the problem agreed with this determination.[ii]

As additional information became available, this small group analyzed, evaluated, and rejected theories. But there was one basic question that now seems very simple: where did the bullet go after it exited the president’s neck? There was no evidence on the inside of the presidential car that reflected the damage that a bullet would have caused had it followed the trajectory and had the assumed velocity of the bullet that exited the president’s neck. So at some point in these collegial sessions someone, probably Specter, suggested out loud what all in the group were thinking—that the first bullet that hit the president also created Connally’s wounds.

This possibility of a single bullet hitting both men, which contradicted Connally’s statements (and later testimony before the commission), was also of startling simplicity. It became the much-maligned single-bullet theory. Although we were all intrigued by this new explanation, we immediately recognized its potential and controversial significance. Before this theory could be accepted by the staff and presented to the commission, it needed to be challenged and tested in a variety of ways. That, in turn, led to the reenactment of the assassination that the commission conducted three months later.

March promised to be our most momentous month yet. Not only were we looking to further testing of the single-bullet theory, but with the conclusion of the Ruby trial we anticipated depositions in Dallas at the scene of the crime. And although we didn’t know it, we would soon face a showdown with yet another formidable federal agency—the Central Intelligence Agency.




[i] Wesley Liebeler, Thoughts on the Work of the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations as to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (unpublished manuscript, 1996) (hereafter Liebeler, Thoughts), 110. After the House Select Committee filed its report in 1979, Liebeler wrote this manuscript comparing the findings of that committee to our commission’s report. He died before he could publish the work, but his widow has provided me with a copy of the manuscript, which I have used on several occasions in this book.

[ii] Belin, You Are the Jury, 304, 306.

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