Assassination of John F. Kennedy

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Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Photograph

By: Anonymous

Date: November 22, 1963

Source: Bettman/Corbis

About the Photographer: This photograph, originally from the Bettmann Archive, is currently owned by Corbis, a photo agency headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Corbis licenses images for use in magazines, films, television, and advertisements.

INTRODUCTION

At 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963, while driving through downtown Dallas, Texas, in a motorcade, John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, was shot by a lone gunman firing from the window of a nearby building. He was hit four times and declared dead at Parklands Hospital one hour later. Texas Governor, John Connolly, who was riding in the front of the Kennedy car, was also shot and seriously wounded, but survived.

Kennedy was the fourth American president to be assassinated and the eighth to die in office. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had been driving in the same motorcade but a different car, was sworn in as president at 2:38 p.m. on Air Force One as it flew back to Washington, D.C., with President Kennedy's body.

PRIMARY SOURCE

ASSASSINATION OF JOHN F. KENNEDY

See primary source image.

SIGNIFICANCE

The assassination of John F. Kennedy sent the western world into a period of collective mourning. It was not only the most notorious murder in twentieth century American history, but also the most investigated. The notion of a "JFK moment"—i.e. where an individual was when he or she heard the astonishing news—became engrained in popular culture. When Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself murdered less than forty-eight hours after his arrest, a multitude of conspiracy theories arose, which still abound four decades later.

Oswald, a twenty-four-year-old former Marine who had spent time in the USSR, was arrested hours after Kennedy's assassination after shooting and killing a police officer. The ten-month-long investigation into Kennedy's murder by the Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Oswald—and Oswald alone—carried out the shooting. Evidence given to the Commission painted a portrait of a wife-beating tyrant with delusions of grandeur. He had failed at everything he had attempted in life—a military career, a professional life, a flirtation with Marxism—except, it seemed, the murder of the President of the United States.

Oswald's reasons for carrying out the killing went with him to his grave. Oswald was himself shot dead on November 24, 1964, by Jack Ruby, a minor figure in the Dallas underworld, who had lunged from a crowd of journalists and police at the police department building where Oswald was being held. Unable to elicit Oswald's testimony, the Warren Commission concluded that it could not "ascribe to him any one motive or group of motives." However, it went on to state that "Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment."

A quotation from an October 2, 1964, Time magazine article sums up Oswald in these terms:

He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him. Long before the assassination he expressed his hatred for American society and acted in protest against it. Oswald's search for what he conceived to be the perfect society was doomed from the start. He sought for himself a place in history—a role as the 'great man' who would be recognized as having been in advance of his times. His commitment to Marxism and communism appears to have been another important factor in his motivation. He also had demonstrated [through the attempt to kill General Walker] a capacity to act decisively and without regard to the consequences when such action would further his aims of the moment. Out of these and the many other factors which may have molded the character of Lee Harvey Oswald there emerged a man capable of assassinating President Kennedy.

Yet Oswald's death before he could stand trial and his murder by a shady figure like Ruby gave rise to a multitude of conspiracy theories, many of which were originally dealt with and dismissed by the Warren Commission. Nevertheless, these theories continued to re-emerge over subsequent decades. The idea that Kennedy was murdered on the instructions of some greater force was given credence in 1979 by a House Select Committee on Assassinations, which directly contradicted the Warren Commission. Using acoustic evidence it concluded that Oswald "probably did not act on his own" and that a second gunman was operating from a grassy knoll. It claimed that Kennedy was probably killed as the result of a conspiracy. In addition, it said it did not know who might have conspired with Oswald in the shooting, but it specifically excluded many of the usual scapegoats, including the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Soviet government, the Cuban government, anti-Castro Cuban groups, and the Mafia.

The 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK engendered a renewed interest in the case. The movie, which its critics claimed was replete with historical inaccuracies and half truths, followed the story of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who in the late 1960s prosecuted the only Kennedy case that ever went to trial. Garrison had claimed a vast plot involving homosexual intrigue, the U.S. military-industrial complex, and Fidel Castro, but after thirty-four days of evidence, the jury threw the case out after less than a day of deliberations, finding the defendant, businessman Clay Shaw, not guilty. Following the release of the film, the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of declassifying thousands of documents pertaining to the case. None of these documents pointed to anything other than what the Warren Commission had found thirty years earlier—that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed President Kennedy.

More than 1,000 books have been published about the Kennedy assassination, many of which also question the findings of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. Unlike the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations many draw their own conclusions as to who was behind Kennedy's assassination.

The two principal conspiracy theories center on America's Mafia. The first variation was that Oswald was operating under the instructions of Fidel Castro and killed Kennedy as revenge for an abortive CIA plot—in conjunction with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana—to kill the Cuban leader. The second revolved around the American Mafia's sense of betrayal by the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy, had longstanding connections with the Mob that dated back to his time as a Prohibition-era bootlegger. During his son's run for president in 1960 he had called in numerous favors, not least in Illinois where widespread ballot stuffing and other electoral fraud carried out by local Mafiosi had helped secure a narrow and crucial Democratic victory. Mobsters who had hopes for an easy time under the Kennedy presidency soon were disappointed with the appointment of the president's brother, Robert, as Attorney General. Under his leadership, the U.S. Justice Department waged a war against organized crime, indicting 116 members of the Mob. According to those who perpetuate this theory, the president's assassination was carried out by the Mafia as retribution for promises of immunity—made in return for favors in voting rigging key states—that were betrayed once he became president. Jack Ruby then murdered Oswald to silence him.

Yet, despite the glut of conspiracy theories and accompanying literature, firm evidence linking some wider plot to the murder of President Kennedy has never been forthcoming. Nevertheless, America remains unconvinced. Even forty years after President Kennedy's death, opinion polls still regularly find that only between one in five and one in three Americans believe Oswald acted alone. As long as books continue to be written about this case, such speculation and uncertainty will almost certainly continue.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Dallek, Robert. John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life. London: Penguin, 2004.

Hersh, Seymour. The Dark Side of Camelot. London: Harper Collins, 1998.

Posner, Gerald. Case Closed. New York: Random House, 1993.

Russo, Gus. The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Periodicals

Rosenbaum, Ron. "Taking a Darker View." Time (January 13, 2004).

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