Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Why the Kennedy Assassinations Still Matter 58 Years Later

November 22 marked the 58th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, inviting the public to further consider a watershed moment in American history. Amidst the national remembrance came regrettably unsurprising news: key documents related to the assassination would stay classified. President Biden followed the example set by his predecessors and delayed release of the files due to “identifiable harm” they might cause to the military, national intelligence, and other aspects of the security and diplomatic sectors. To some this is another predictable and acceptable wrinkle in the quest for government transparency. Yet to others, this continued concealment further indicts aspects of the politically and socially powerful in the murder of an American president. This conspiratorial conclusion is just one of many that have taken hold in the U.S. in recent years, a trend that worries academics and political commentators. But analysis of the now-confirmed conspiracies committed by and for the United States government reveals that such conclusions about JFK’s death aren’t so far-fetched. The doubts and debates surrounding the Kennedy assassination aren’t just a way of understanding a pivotal event in recent history, but also the broader power dynamics of modern American life and how the public responds to them.

Acceptance of the “lone gunman theory” waxed and waned in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s death. In the days and weeks following the Kennedy assassination, the American public was confronted with twist after horrifying twist. Not only had the president been murdered in broad daylight, but his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, unwaveringly proclaimed his innocence before he himself was shot. Such chaos had many smelling something fishy, as 52 percent of Americans thought Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy shortly after the assassination. The Warren Commission, established a week after Kennedy’s death, attempted to remove this doubt and convince the public that Oswald acted alone. This questionable motive isn’t speculation: it is confirmed in the Katzenbach memo sent by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach on November 28, 1963, which called for the creation of what became the Warren Commission.

What were the inconsistencies and flaws in the lone gunman theory? For starters, the Warren Commission seemed to be compromised from the beginning. Although it was chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Republican turned liberal lion, its membership’s reputation fell off drastically from there. Future president Gerald Ford was one of the Republicans appointed, along with Sen. Richard Russell, a Georgia Dixiecrat. Most notable was the appointment of Allen Dulles, the former head of the CIA who Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs invasion. To say that Dulles didn’t have had ulterior motives in concealing unsavory aspects of the assassination would be naive. Pushback on this questionable composition was only exacerbated by the various oversights and confusing logic espoused in the final report. The commission failed to interview key witnesses, including those alleging they saw or heard gunshots coming from the grassy knoll. There have also been accusations of witness tampering with evidence that may have also been mishandled or fabricated, as well as a laundry list of people connected to the assassination who have died under mysterious circumstances

Although the commission was fairly controversial and dubious in its methods, its conclusion seemed to fulfill Katzenbach’s desire to satisfy the public’s curiosity. As NBC News and Gallup report, support for the lone gunman theory had grown from 29 percent in 1963 to 36 percent by 1966, two years after the publication of the Warren Commission Report. Similarly, support for a conspiracy surrounding Kennedy’s killing dropped slightly from 52 percent to 50 percent. As Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the War on Poverty grabbed the public’s attention, many were content to accept the official explanation and carry on with their lives.

Detailing all of these aspects is the work of a book, not of an article. What ought to be emphasized, though, is the fact that so much of the official Warren Commission story doesn’t seem to hold up. Chief among these red flags is Oswald himself, who was never actually tried due to his murder by Jack Ruby. Ruby was a mafia-connected club owner in Dallas who was reported to be in Parkland Hospital on the day of the assassination by journalist Seth Kantor. That detail becomes even more glaring in light of testimony that Ruby invited a friend to watch Kennedy’s motorcade through Dallas that day by asking if he “would like to see the fireworks,” before picking a spot facing the Texas Book Depository. This evidence suggests Ruby was driven by forces much larger than the simple sense of honor for the president he reported to investigators. While there are a number of question marks surrounding the timeline and people in and around Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, the lack of clarity about two of the most important figures of that day—Oswald and Ruby—practically demands public skepticism. 

Such widespread doubt intensified in the late 1970s, likely due to the effects of confirmed national conspiracies. As the Kennedy assassination became more of a historical event rather than a recent tragedy, faith in the official government conclusion significantly declined. JFK’s brother Bobby was murdered in June 1968, mere months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. These killings seemed to indicate a more violent turn in American political culture, while raising their own questions about the involvement of forces greater than alleged assassins Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray. That trio of suspicious ends helped renew public interest in the initial Kennedy assassination, which targeted a president who increasingly moved towards civil rights action and whose brother campaigned on re-opening the investigation into his death. This alone would be sufficient fuel for speculation, even in spite of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate Scandal, which further revealed the scope and depths of federal covert action. Such a climate compelled a government response. 

In 1976, as public support for the conspiracy narrative grew to a high of 81 percent, the House of Representatives created the Church Committee to investigate the operations of the CIA and the House Select Committee on Assassinations to re-examine the deaths of Kennedy and King. These examinations came in the wake of the previously mentioned scandals, as well as the public backlash after the Zapruder film—the clearest visual evidence of the assassination—was released in 1975. Both committees were crucial in shedding light on the nasty underbelly of the American security and intelligence states. The Church Committee revealed a number of truly chilling CIA programs, including the psychedelic mind control of Operation MKULTRA, domestic infiltration through COINTELPRO, systematic propaganda in Operation Mockingbird, and the notorious “Family Jewels”—a concerted effort by the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders and cause global chaos. The Family Jewels are most striking in light of the numerous assassinations that had marked the 15-plus years prior to 1976. That legacy made the eventual conclusion of the Committee on Assassinations somewhat less striking. The committee concluded that it is likely that President Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy, although just who was involved remains a mystery. It made a similar conclusion about King’s assassination, although still maintaining that James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald were involved to some extent in the events. 

These findings confirm the suspicions of most Americans who doubt the lone gunman theory and mistrust American national intelligence. After the Church Committee’s revelations, there was significant public pressure to severely reduce the CIA’s power, if not abolish the agency entirely. In response to this backlash, President (and former Warren Commission member) Gerald Ford appointed George H.W. Bush director of the agency. Bush was seen as a respectable force who could shepherd the agency through this crisis, just as he’d done as chairman of the Republican National Committee at the height of Watergate. Bush also allegedly had no prior connection to the agency, making him seem like more of an honest mediator for the CIA as it faced off against attacks by the Church Committee and the implications of the HSCA. Yet, Bush was in Dallas on the morning of the assassination before traveling to nearby Tyler, Texas for a Kiwanis Club speech. Further, a memo from J. Edgar Hoover sent on November 29, 1963 (the same day as the Katzenbach memo) discussed a debriefing given by the FBI to “Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency,” as well as a captain in the Defense Intelligence Agency. Bush claimed he’d received no such briefing and said there “must be another George Bush.” This turned out to be true: George William Bush was working for the CIA in 1963. However, this George Bush described himself as a “gofer” who would never have access to an interagency meeting like the one described by Hoover. Needless to say, these details raise significant doubts about George H.W. Bush’s alleged lack of experience with the CIA. Historical disparities like this are common when dealing with national intelligence, to the frustration of those seeking the truth. 

Such frustration seemed to be answered in 1992 with the passage of the JFK Records Act. Although the scrutiny sparked by the Church Committee and HSCA had somewhat subsided by the early 90s, interest in the Kennedy assassination was again piqued by Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK. In it, Stone depicts New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his investigation into the Kennedy assassination. Garrison targeted Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman with alleged ties to the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Although Shaw was quickly acquitted, due in part to Garrison’s fixation on Shaw’s sexuality, his investigation brought new light to the inaccuracies of the Warren Report. Stone’s movie goes to great lengths to portray these flaws, culminating in a gripping scene between Costner and “X,” a former military intelligence officer played by Donald Sutherland. X lays out a clear rationale for military and intelligence involvement in Kennedy’s murder, emphasizing the dispute between JFK and the CIA, as well as his hesitancy to escalate operations in Vietnam. JFK was pivotal in introducing Kennedy assassination conspiracism to a new generation of Americans. It was so successful that it compelled former CIA director and then President George H.W. Bush to sign the JFK Records Act a year later, committing the government to releasing documents related to the assassination in the next 25 years, with a deadline of October 26, 2017. 

This law is what has forced president after president to delay the release of the bulk of government materials related to the assassination, starting with Poppy Bush and continuing through his son’s administration, all the way to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Trump initially signaled that he might release the bulk of the relevant documents, before backtracking and only granting a partial release due to national security concerns. This is the same rationale Biden has offered, but it is another government argument which doesn’t seem to hold water. Perhaps in the immediate years after 1963 the rationale of protecting sensitive information could be believed. However, many of the key figures surrounding the assassination and political climate of the time have long since passed on. Not only was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—seen by many to be a potential force behind the assassination—dead years before the JFK Records Act was passed, but Fidel Castro—another potential foreign threat connected to JFK’s death—died in 2016, almost a year before the scheduled release. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush Sr. were all in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and are all now dead. President Ford, who was on the Warren Commission, also died years before the 2017 deadline. The same goes for the rest of the commission’s members, as well as much of its staff and counsel. Relevant agencies like the CIA, FBI, and Dallas Police Department still exist, but have gone through several generations of directors and agents by now. There is no metric by which the Kennedy assassination documents can threaten anyone alive in 2022, whether connected to the mafia, intelligence community, or general population.

So why then has President Biden again kicked the can down the road? Perhaps it’s out of respect for the dead and their families. President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline is still alive and active in politics, as are the children of many of the figures connected to that day. Perhaps contained in the documents are details about American involvement in covert operations, which could stoke an international response. Both of these reasons are somewhat believable, although they also imply that information about President Kennedy’s death would be more harmful to people than the death itself. They also imply that there are more gruesome details of American intelligence and security operations than even the Church Committee could find. But there is a still larger rationale that may drive Biden’s decisions. Perhaps the truth about Kennedy’s death would spark renewed skepticism and anger from the American people about the role of unelected elements of the federal government in shaping the world today. Perhaps revelations about the deep web of economic, political, and social elites that contributed to Kennedy’s murder would invite people to ask if such a thing still happens today. 

It is both a strange coincidence and completely unsurprising that this latest Kennedy secrecy comes as the Ghislaine Maxwell trial recently transpired in New York. There is a growing sense in both the media and public opinion that vast conspiracies of powerful people shape the world we live in. Whether those conspiracies involve a ring of alleged pedophilia among elites, or an apparent coup d’etat orchestrated by the “deep state,” Americans are questioning authority in greater numbers than ever before. No president, not even the most progressive, would give fuel to this sentiment. So in spite of the countless voices denouncing conspiracy thinking, especially in ridiculous cases like QAnon supporters, Americans must not allow their skeptic brains to die completely. We may not yet know who killed President Kennedy or why, but so long as we keep asking and refuse to take “don’t worry about it” for an answer, we can truly approach a proper understanding of the power of the government and its various bureaucracies in our history and present situation. Perhaps then we can even move towards another vision of the role of American intelligence agencies and once again return power to the people.

A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.

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