How JFK’s Death Inaugurated an Age of Conspiracy

By L. Murphy

On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas while riding in a convertible limousine with Texas governor John Connally and both of their wives. Within the next hour, Oswald killed a policeman who was questioning him and was arrested. Police eventually charged him for both the policeman and Kennedy’s murder. On November 24, a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby killed Oswald while he was transferring jails. Ruby cited wanting to spare the First Lady a trial as his motive.

Vice President Johnson was sworn into office a little over two hours after Kennedy was shot. He established the Warren Commission on November 29, with the purpose of investigating the assassination. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, it finished its work in September 1964. It concluded that Oswald was a lone gunman, firing three bullets from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository and that no conspiracy was involved with either his or Kennedy’s death.

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) revisited the case and found that while Oswald did assassinate Kennedy, it was likely that there was a conspiracy, and that “acoustical evidence” indicated that there were probably two gunmen. They could not find what the conspiracy was but did conclude that the original investigations were “deficient” and did not extensively explore the possibility of a conspiracy.

However, many Americans did not need this report to tell them that a conspiracy had occurred. The theory that Oswald didn’t act alone in assassinating Kennedy is one of the most popular conspiracy theories in American culture. The majority of Americans have believed in it at a fairly consistent rate since that day. A Gallup poll conducted the day of and the four days following the assassination found that 52 percent of Americans believed that others besides Oswald were involved. In 2013, that number had grown to 61 percent. Belief peaked in 1976 at 81 percent and bottomed out in 1966 at 50 percent. That’s a number that even very popular conspiracy theories don’t come close to: around 6 percent of Americans believe the moon landing was faked, and around 21 percent believe that a UFO crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.

However, after getting to the point that Oswald was part of a conspiracy, the theories split off in different directions. Various conspiracies blame JFK’s assassination on many individuals and organizations. The most popular culprits are the Mafia, the CIA, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Fidel Castro, and the KGB. The Mafia connection comes through Ruby, who had links to the mob. In documents that were recently released, there was an implication that he had prior knowledge of the assassination, though it is unclear. Another conspiracy holds that Oswald was a CIA agent, sent in to kill Kennedy. Neither the Warren Commission or the HSCA report supported this theory but individuals have since come forward claiming that the CIA tampered with evidence and covered it up. People suspected Johnson after a since disproven claim by Madeleine Brown that he had attended a party the night before and told her, “After tomorrow, those Kennedys will never embarrass me again. That’s no threat. That’s a promise.” Both Fidel Castro and the KGB were potential leads because of Cold War foreign relations at the time, but again, the HSCA report concluded that the assassination was not their work.

A key factor of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy is the doubt surrounding a lot of the evidence. Witnesses contradicted each other. Some may have been intimidated. As a result, many are skeptical of the evidence. A picture of the bullet that went through Kennedy and hit Connally led many to doubt that it would still be so intact. Additionally, some people present at the assassination claim to have heard shots from the other direction, from a “grassy knoll,” not just the Book Depository.

It’s important to consider that even though three presidents were assassinated before Kennedy (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), his was the first in the new age of film and television. The Zapruder film, a full video of the assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder, who was there when Kennedy was shot, expanded the accessibility of the shooting. Now anyone could theorize about the assassination by watching the news or the film itself.

Kennedy’s death was devastating to the country. He was a celebrity in a way that his predecessors were not. People felt like they knew him and his family personally. He used television, “the new media of [his] era,” very effectively to connect with his constituents. The heartbreak that so many felt when he died is part of the reason this conspiracy has remained popular over the years.

In the decade that followed the assassination, the government’s relationship to the American people changed. Both Vietnam and Watergate instilled a sense of distrust toward institutions among the American people. Under other circumstances, this theory might have died out, or at least become less popular. In the 1970s, though, it was not hard for many Americans to imagine the government lying to the public. Additionally, the assassination contributed to Americans’ declining faith in institutions, even before the 1970s. The conspiracy theories perpetuated a sense of distrust of the government, which opened the door up to even more conspiracies. Its consistent popularity has had a lasting impact on Americans’ willingness to believe the government. 

Moreover, in the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War led Americans to fear foreign espionage and attacks. It did not seem to be outside the realm of possibility for Kennedy’s death to be the work of a foreign government. Because he was the American president during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, two crucial points of America’s involvement in the Cold War, it seemed plausible that Cuba or their Soviet allies would want to retaliate against Kennedy.

Conspiracy theorists have kept these theories alive over decades through pop culture, books, and movies— which largely challenge the Warren Commission’s conclusions. The popular 1991 movie JFK incorporated many of the popular theories, including Johnson’s involvement, with connections to the CIA, foreign governments, and the Mafia. The movie actually caused Congress to pass the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which set a 25-year deadline to release all of the files surrounding the assassination. In October 2017, when the deadline arrived, President Trump decided to withhold some documents for further review, to be released in 2021. 

Despite the fact that it occurred decades ago, and that most of the government documents have been released, many people just can’t shake the feeling that something was “off” about the killing.

President John F. Kennedy was close to many people’s hearts and has been memorialized by history as something of a martyr. Perhaps people don’t want his death to be meaningless, the work of a single, “crazy” gunman, whose full motive never became clear because of his death. The initial narrative that Oswald was a “troubled” young man, has been replaced as the new documents paint a different picture: he was driven by ideology. He was pro-Soviet and pro-Castro, and the FBI had kept tabs on him in the months before the shooting because of it. This has only encouraged conspiracy theorists to believe that a larger plot might have taken place. This new story makes the big picture seem more complete, even if it doesn’t explain everything. Conspiracy theorists have talked about Kennedy for decades because they want to bring meaning to his death and understand it.

The Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories will likely never end. Even as new evidence comes to light showing that the U.S. government, or any foreign one, were not involved in a conspiracy, people are still adamant that something happened beyond the work of a lone gunman, and that there was a cover-up. Kennedy’s death was a tragedy, and it is natural to seek meaning in tragedy. This conspiracy gives it meaning, even if it will never be proven true.