While I was living in New York, for several months I became obsessed with the circumstances surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination, reading quite a few books about it, and examining a lot of the published info in the Warren Commission report. Kennedy was president when I was born and I was about seven months old when he was killed. My father said that at the time it happened, we were in the back room of an apartment where we were living on Virginia Avenue in College Park, Georgia, watching the coverage on television, but, of course, I was way too young to remember any of this. I was five when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and when I was little, I sometimes mixed up the two assassinations. While I was once interested in the various conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination, I no longer believe there was a conspiracy before the fact to kill Kennedy, but do suspect information may have been covered up afterward to conceal the fact that the government had been keeping an eye on assassin Lee Harvey Oswald since he returned from the Soviet Union a year or so earlier.
For one thing, it makes no sense for entities within the government to kill the president, regardless of how disappointed they were in the direction he was taking the country, assuming, of course, that such a situation even existed with JFK, and there’s no evidence to support that conclusion. Kennedy was, for his time, a typical Cold War politician, using the specter of Soviet Communism or the threat of nuclear annihilation to frighten the public enough to keep them voting the right way. Suggestions that he would have made a different call on Vietnam fail to take into account that the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which motivated his successor to escalate the conflict, was still several months in the future, and I’ve seen no credible report suggesting JFK treated the regime we supported in Vietnam any differently than politicians on both sides of the aisle felt we should. Lyndon Johnson was one of the most seasoned and tenacious politicians ever to occupy the White House, who ushered the Civil Rights Act through Congress a year after Kennedy’s death. LBJ’s decisions on how to handle the situation in Vietnam were guided entirely by Cold War political expediency. It seems unlikely that a younger and less-experienced politician would have exhibited superior knowledge or judgement when confronted with the same set of circumstances.
Many of the conspiracy theories are said to have started in Europe, because people there did not believe a person like Lee Harvey Oswald could bring down a head of state such as Kennedy, though history shows this is fairly common in the US and abroad. A nutty, disgruntled office seeker shot James Garfield while the president was catching a train, and an anarchist shot William McKinley while he was unprotected on a receiving line shaking hands. An otherwise insignificant Serb shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand, which set off World War I, and this was largely due to the Archduke’s car taking a wrong turn. As far as I know, there were no grand conspiracies behind any of these assassinations. Most of the people involved in furthering the notion of a conspiracy over the past fifty-five years had something to gain by it. Mark Lane, the most prominent of the JFK conspiracy theorists, was the attorney hired by Margueritte Oswald to defend her son before the Warren Commission and turned this into a cottage industry surrounding the assassination. Lane, Geraldo Rivera, and comedian and activist Dick Gregory, were instrumental in getting the footage of the assassination taken by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder, dubbed the “Zapruder reel”, shown on national television for the first time in the 1970s, which set off a wave of conspiracies among people who probably did not understand the science of ballistics.
Oswald’s assassination of Kennedy caused quite a few problems for quite a few governments. His outspoken support of Cuba the summer of ‘63, and his attempt to defect to the USSR a second time shortly before the assassination raised many red flags. The Soviet Union even sent a high-profile defector to the U.S. who claimed to have seen Oswald’s KGB file, and stated Oswald was not a mole for the Soviets. Oswald’s movements before the assassination were very suspicious, but most people had written him off as a nuissance, who was generally believed to be harmless. In fact, he was an unstable individual who craved attention and had an inflated sense of his own importance. He constantly misrepresented his level of education, his ties to local communist organizations, and his expertise in organizing and recruitment. He had the means, motive, and opportunity, and was seen carrying a suspicious package into the Texas School Book Depository, which overlooked the motorcade route, the morning of the assassination, then was the only employee to leave the scene in the immediate aftermath. He went back to his rooming house, changed clothes and got a pistol, and was later acting suspicious enough to warrant the attention of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippett, who stopped and questioned Oswald. Oswald shot Tippett and ran, taking refuge in a movie theater, where police apprehended him. During his arrest, he tried to shot another policeman who managed to block the hammer of the gun with his finger.
Once in custody, Oswald constantly claimed he was being targeted because of his communist ties and the fact he had lived in the Soviet Union. Edward Jay Epstein was interviewed in a documentary made about the assassination that accompanied publication of Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, and pointed out that whenever Oswald was asked about the rifle found on the scene at the Book Depository, he became evasive, which Epstein interpreted as a consciousness of guilt. Epstein, author of Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, was one of the earliest critics of the Warren Commission Report, believing it to be misleading and politically motivated, but I’ve never heard him support the notion that anyone other than Oswald pulled the trigger. He believed that Oswald’s possible ties to the Soviet Union, and the government’s observation of Oswald prior to the assassination were glossed over by the report. Epstein was also also an outspoken critic of Jim Garrison’s prosecution of Clay Shaw, who Garrison claimed was implicated in the JFK “conspiracy”. Garrison was the district attorney of New Orleans, where Oswald lived the summer before the assassination. Following his term in office, quite a few charges were brought against him by his successor. Shaw, who many feel was persecuted by Garrison for being a homosexual, was acquitted of the charges, but was physically and financially ruined by the trial.
Oswald’s mother and brother wrote books about him after his death. Marguerite Oswald dictated a self-serving manuscript called A Mother in History, to a journalist, Ruth Payne, with whom Oswald’s Russian-born wife, Marina, was living at the time of the assassination. Among other things, Marguerite claimed John F. Kennedy was about to die anyway, so even if Oswald shot the president, he was actually doing JFK a favor. Robert Oswald wrote a book called Lee, which is, by far, the most credible account from a person connected to Lee Harvey Oswald of any I’ve read. In the fifty-five years since the weekend he spent in Dallas being interviewed by authorities and trying to see his brother, Robert’s account of what he recalls from that time has never changed. Robert Oswald has said that while he’d like to believe his brother was innocent, the evidence simply doesn’t support that conclusion. He’s stated in interviews that he taught Lee how to shoot as a child and that Lee would have had no trouble making the shot from the School Book Depository.
The person who left behind the most unanswered questions is Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald two days after the assassination. Ruby had already tried to get at Oswald the night he was arrested, and was in attendance when the press was briefly allowed to interview Oswald that evening. During the interview, in response to a question by a journalist, someone can be heard in the back shouting out the name of the organization The Fair Play for Cuba Committee to which Oswald claimed to belong, and sources at the press conference have identified this person as Jack Ruby, who probably shouldn’t have known this information. It can be easily explained, however, if Ruby overheard someone else say it and just shouted it out for everyone else to hear.
The morning he shot Oswald, Ruby appears to have meandered around town for several hours, then wired some money to one of his dancers just a few minutes before he walked to police headquarters, conveniently arriving just as they were bringing Oswald out, and police have stated their transfer of Oswald was delayed because he wanted to change clothes. Seeing his chance, Ruby pushed through the crowd of reporters to shoot Oswald, captured in the iconic photo of Oswald reacting to the shot. Questioned about it in custody, Ruby claimed that he did it to spare Mrs. Kennedy the pain of having to go through a trial. Later, he regretted the shooting, when he realized it caused more problems for investigators and the country. He appears to have spent the rest of his life behind bars slowly losing his mind, since, in later interviews, he claimed people were being murdered in the cell next to him and claiming to have secret knowledge of the truth behind the assassination that would die with him. What I find most interesting is Ruby’s claim that he killed Oswald to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the pain of a trial. In Robert Oswald’s book, he reports that while he was in Dallas, in FBI custody, someone who identified himself as a Secret Service agent came in and started asking him questions about his family. The agent told Robert that he was doing this on behalf of Mrs. Kennedy, who wanted to know more about the man accused of shooting her husband.
Jacqueline Kennedy is almost single-handedly responsible for most of the mythology and iconography surrounding JFK. She told reporters just after the assassination that she and her husband had attended a performance of Camelot earlier in the year, and that JFK was struck by the line, “It shall not be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” which started the association of JFK’s administration with the legendary kingdom of King Arthur. One of the most iconic images from Kennedy’s funeral is that of John Jr. saluting his father’s casket as it passes by, and Jacqueline can clearly be seen in the video prompting him to go forward and salute. It was not the only tragedy to befall the First Couple that year. They lost a son, Patrick, in August who was only two days old. Tragedy seems to have followed the family and today, only daughter Caroline survives, leading a relatively low-key life in New York with her husband and children.