On this November 22nd–the 50th anniversary of the most notorious murder of the 20th century–let’s take a quick look at some of the–how shall I say it?–lighter conspiracy theories. While I firmly believe a conspiracy was at work in Dealey Plaza in 1963 (and for some years afterward), some of these notions strain all credibility and provoke little beyond stares of stupefaction and laughter. And since JFK’s own wit and joy for life were two qualities that his friends remembered about him always, I think he of all people would get (sort of) a kick out of the following theories on his own assassination:
1) The Secret Service shot him.
In this theory, seriously advanced some years ago and still popping up today, it was a Secret Service agent I won’t name, on the side of the follow-up car behind the Presidential limousine, who accidentally fired the fatal head shot at the President after hearing other shots in Dealey Plaza. Got that? He had a rifle in his hands and wanted to fire (I assume) at the source of the gunshots he heard, so of course he fired right at the President, who he probably suspected of trying to commit murder on himself in the motorcade (ok, I made that last part up–but if you follow the rest of it, it’s logical).
While I certainly will not be pinning any medals on the Secret Service for the job they did on November 22nd (except for Mrs. Kennedy’s own protection officer, Clint Hill, who deserves one), I never could buy this. If an SS guy could pick up, aim and fire a rifle in the motorcade while in a moving car in front of hundreds of people–why didn’t ANYONE in Dealey Plaza see him or photograph him doing it? (As far as I know, no one did.) And it would have been impossible for him to have performed such a feat without witnesses. (Of course, if Oswald could run down several flights of stairs after supposedly shooting the President without being seen by two witnesses who were on the stairs at the time, why is this a surprise?)
2) There was no conspiracy–just TWO lone nuts!
This one comes from Norman Mailer, who wrote the novel Oswald’s Tale, and it’s my personal nomination for ‘Funniest Non-Conspiracy Theory Ever’.
Mailer apparently could not get away from the idea that the final shot that killed JFK–the head shot–had to have been fired from the front, but he also was too in love with his postulations about crazy obsessed loser Oswald to let go of him so easily.
So he came up with a truly novel (no pun intended) suggestion: yes, there were two shooters in Dealey Plaza, Oswald up in the Texas School Book Depository, and another unknown shooter on the Grassy Knoll.
But–wait for it–they just happened to be there together on the same day, firing independently, and they didn’t know each other.
Any mathematicians out there want to even attempt to calculate the odds?
Wow. If Kennedy had lived through the ambush in Dealey Plaza, I suspect he’d have died laughing at that.
3) It was Oswald acting alone–but he wasn’t aiming for Kennedy.
This one was absolutely new to me, though I’m told it’s been around for awhile. I first learned of it only last week (see? The more time goes by, the more we learn about the assassination … )
In this one, which is the subject of a new book, the author states emphatically that there’s no such thing as a conspiracy. (Got that, Julius Caesar?) Conspiracy theories are nonsense, and conspiracy believers are nuts.
Oswald did it alone. Clearly. So says the author.
But … Oswald did say repeatedly while in custody that he had nothing against the President, and the author believes we should take him at his word. (Wow. You think?)
So … what happened was, he wasn’t actually aiming at Kennedy. You see, Oswald’s Marine Corps discharge had been downgraded to dishonorable while he was in the Soviet Union, and when he returned to the U.S. sporting a dishonorable discharge, he found it difficult to find work. So among other measures, he got in touch with John Connally (Governor of Texas on November 22, 1963 and sitting in front of JFK in the Presidential limousine). At the time Oswald reached out in 1962, Connally was Secretary of the Navy and would have been the person best positioned to help Oswald upgrade his discharge from dishonorable to honorable.
Apparently, Secretary Connally had no idea who he was dealing with–because he apparently never answered him or did anything to help him. Shame on you, John.
So on November 22, 1963, knowing that Connally would be in an open car passing right under the high windows at his workplace (by sheer coincidence, of course), Lee Oswald took his cheap surplus Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with its badly misaligned scope up to the 6th-floor window, waited for that snake Connally to pass by (instead of firing as the car came toward the building as it drove straight on Houston, a much easier shot) and knocked off three shots in 5.6 seconds (which is virtually impossible), managing to wound that rotten Connally badly, but–oops–unfortunately killing the President at the same time. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Sorry, Mr. President. You’ve heard of collateral damage, right?
And the last word on funny JFK theories comes from great playwright David Mamet, and his wonderful movie WAG THE DOG: “Truth? What’s truth? I read the first version of the Warren Report. It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver.”
In keeping with the theme of laughter, let’s also remember today that Kennedy’s death should not be his defining characteristic: his life and his words should be. Here are a few of those to remember this still-vivid and fascinating man:
When asked by a young boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”
When asked a long, rambling and technical question while he was lecturing in the Navy as a young lieutenant: “I’m very glad you asked that question. There’s a man coming in a few weeks who may be able to answer it.”
On a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Reading what he said was a telegram from his father at a 1960 press dinner, during the presidential campaign: “Jack–Don’t buy one vote more than you have to. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”
While Kevin Finn and I were writing Forward to Camelot, I experienced a great sense of loss when the final manuscript was sent to our publisher. It happened both in 2003, with the delivery of the original novel, and this past summer, on delivering the 50th Anniversary Edition to our new publisher, Drake Valley Press. Like many authors, I grew very close to my characters as we wrote, though in this case the characters I felt closest to were President Kennedy and Lee Oswald, each of them major players in the novel. For a day or so after delivering the manuscripts each time, I felt a sense of real loss, that those men who had perched on my shoulder for years during the writing were now receding from me. As this 50th anniversary of the actual event arrives, I feel that same sense of loss–for who they were, for who they could have become, for what we could have become as well.
Rest in peace, Mr. President, and Lee. We didn’t have you for long enough, but our world is better for your having been here.
Here is another post dealing with the Kennedy assassination, the subject of my latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (with Kevin Finn). As this is the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I will write one blog post about it every week through November, as I did in October. (See the Archives for more.) Here’s today’s:
Last week I mentioned five troubling facts about the JFK assassination, some of which few people actually know.
Here are five more, which certainly indicate that there was more going on than one lone-nut assassin with an agenda, who got off 3 quick shots and somehow luckily managed to fatally wound the President while also badly wounding Governor John Connally and nicking a bystander named James Tague:
1) Immediately after the assassination, on the direct order of new President Lyndon Johnson, the special Lincoln limousine in which Kennedy rode–the crime scene itself–was washed down, fixed up and refitted, including the windshield (which supposedly had been cracked by a bullet). To say this is bizarre, in the normal course of crime-scene investigations, is an understatement. That limousine probably contained more clues to how many shots had been fired and where they had come from, than any single piece of evidence we had. Yet it was completely sterilized and all clues were destroyed, on the orders of the new president. (Try that with a crime scene yourself some time–and see if you don’t land a jail sentence.)
2) Governor John Connally, who was nearly killed himself on that day, and who was experienced with gunfire, insisted to the very end of his life that he had not been hit by the same bullet that hit Kennedy. This is critically important, because in order for the Warren Commission’s thesis of three shots fired by Oswald–all that could be fired by one man in six seconds–to hold up, one bullet had to account for seven wounds in two men. According to the WC, the first bullet hit the president in the back; the second caused multiple wounds to Kennedy and Connally (then emerged on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital looking almost pristine, something no one who understands gunfire would believe for a second); the third was the head shot that blew Kennedy’s head off. So the second bullet had to account for all the other wounds. There was no other way for the Warren Commission thesis to work.
Except Governor Connally insisted that it didn’t happen–and he was in a position to know. He heard the shot that hit Kennedy–and he knew that the one that broke his wrist a second later was a different shot. BTW, Connally died with some of the original bullet fragments still in his knee. Researchers have wanted those fragments extracted and weighed to compare it with ‘the magic bullet’, because if the weight of the material in Connally’s knee plus the weight of C-399 (the magic bullet) add up to MORE than the weight of the original bullet, it would be another sure proof of conspiracy.
BTW, another irony of history is that the man who invented the single-bullet theory was a junior counsel on the Warren Commission. His name was Arlen Specter, and yes, that’s the same Arlen Specter who was the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania for so many years. Amazing where these people end up, isn’t it?
3) There were no fingerprints on the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that the Warren Commission claim was used by Oswald to shoot the president. Okay, that’s understandable; the dumbest assassin would wipe the weapon clean, right? The rifle was sent to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. on the evening of November 22nd, and it was subjected to rigorous tests. Nothing. Afterward, the rifle was returned to the Dallas police. Only after that did Dallas PD show off a palm print!
Consider that at the time, the FBI lab was the state-of-the-art facility for fingerprint testing. And this was the crime of the century–the murder of a sitting president. If there was something to be found, they were going to find it at the FBI lab.
But they didn’t. Yet a couple of days later, the Dallas Police Department (who had not covered themselves with glory in the way they handled the assassination, including the murder of Oswald), discovers a palm print that matches Oswald’s? Could it have been taken in the morgue? The funeral director at the funeral home that handled Oswald’s body said they had noticed black dirt under his fingernails after they had prepared his body. How did it get there? And could it have been from the fingerprinting process?
4) A female witness who gave a deposition to the Warren Commission was disturbed about the alteration of her statement as printed in the Warren Commission Exhibits, and she discussed it with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison when he began to investigate the case in 1966. She had seen a man in a pickup truck parked with its wheels up on the curb on Elm Street, in Dealey Plaza, a couple of hours before the shooting. The day after, she went to police headquarters and positively identified him from photos they showed her. The man she’d picked out was Jack Ruby, a full day before he killed Oswald on national television. But though she signed a statement to that effect, when her statement was re-printed in the WC Exhibits, it was altered to say that she had not been able to identify the man she’d seen in the pickup truck, and the signature on that statement was not hers. In addition, there was a notary signature and stamp on the statement, though she told Garrison there had not been a notary present during her questioning at all.
How could Oswald, who by that time had been dead for three years, possibly be responsible for this? And if he wasn’t, where does the lone-assassin theory fit now?
5) The autopsy of the president was done badly, sloppily and in a crowded room where the doctors (none of them experienced in dealing with wounds made by gunfire) were not the ones in charge. They were told what to do and how far to probe, in some cases not even checking for how far a bullet had penetrated into the body. After the autopsy was complete and the report written a couple of days later, one of the autopsy doctors burned his notes of the procedure. This is not done ordinarily, or innocently. Notes of autopsy cases are typically saved, to be consulted if necessary for court testimony or in case of any questions raised afterward.
Even more interesting, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital who attended the dying president all saw the same thing: a huge, gaping wound at the back of the president’s head, which would indicate a bullet entering from the right front and traveling to the back of the head–ie, the gaping wound was an exit wound. Yet at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where the autopsy was done late in the evening of the 22nd, the doctors there saw something completely different; the wound at the back of the head was small, indicating it was an entrance wound; the wound at the front of the head was much bigger.
There has been much thoughtful discussion over the years whether or not this indicated that some sort of surgery had been done to the president’s head before the autopsy officially began, and orderlies at Bethesda have described seeing two different types of coffins altogether being rolled in from two different hospital entrances, and the president’s body being wrapped two different ways.
Are you uneasy yet?
These are just a sprinkling of facts that indicate something much greater was going on than just a disaffected young man seizing a moment of glory. At the least, it indicates a serious effort by some very powerful entity to change our perception of what happened in Dallas. And where you have a change of perception, you have cover-up. And where ou have cover-up … you have conspiracy.
OK. Let’s get down to meat and potatoes. We’ve talked about the events of November 22, 1963 and the rest of that tragic weekend, and we’ve talked about conspiracy and how many Americans simply refuse to believe in it.
However, and paradoxically, consider these additional facts (and yes, they’re all documented; you can look them up):
1) When Oliver Stone’s superb film JFK came out in late 1991, it made a great impact on audiences. Polls taken at the time showed that SEVENTY PERCENT of the American public believed there had been a conspiracy in his death. The movie made such an impression that it led to Stone’s testifying in front of the US Congress, and the subsequent creation of the Assassination Records and Review Board, an act Bill Clinton signed into law. The purpose of the AARB was to review still-classified files and determine whether it was possible to de-classify them at this point in time. Hundreds of files were released as a result, some of which had explosive information in them. (But you had to know enough about the case to understand their significance.)
2) Among the declassified files reviewed by documentary filmmakers Ray and Mary LaFontaine were some that became the basis for their book OSWALD TALKED, a much under-rated (at least according to Amazon) book that presents evidence that’s crucial to the discussion of the assassination. They focused much attention on the gun-running operation in and around Dallas that Kevin Finn and I talk so much about in FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Why is this so important? BECAUSE THE GUNRUNNING WAS KEY TO UNDERSTANDING WHAT ELSE WAS GOING ON IN DALLAS AT THE TIME OF KENNEDY’S DEATH. The LaFontaines contend that while Oswald was locked in a Dallas Police jail cell, he knew a gunrunner who was also there, and had been arrested days before (an event we used as a plot point in CAMELOT). Why would lone-nut crazy Oswald know a gunrunner, when he was a $1.25/hour stock boy at the Texas School Book Depository? Doesn’t anyone find that strange?
3) On Thursday morning, November 21st, Dallas PD Officer J.D. Tippit (remember him? Shot in Oak Cliff, a Dallas suburb, 45 minutes after the president was shot–the second shooting Oswald was accused of?) was having breakfast in a Dallas coffee shop when a young patron at the counter made a commotion. He insisted his eggs hadn’t been cooked right, and he was so loud and obnoxious that everyone in the shop noticed him (including, presumably, the alert Dallas PD officer). That patron was Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? The man accused of killing Tippit (whom supposedly he had never met) was in the same coffee shop only 24 hours before the shooting? Can you spell ‘coincidence’? (The explanation I’ve heard–which makes a lot of sense–is that Oswald made the scene deliberately as a way to identify himself to Tippit, as is often done between intelligence agents. Consider that the next day–the 22nd–Oswald went home to his rooming house in Oak Cliff after the assassination, picked up his revolver and a jacket and headed out, but his landlady, Mrs. Earline Roberts, saw a police car pull up outside her rooming house and heard the sound of car horn.) There has been speculation that this was a prearranged signal. If so, was Tippit involved?
4) There are a troubling number of unusual or untimely deaths of people who had some connection or were witnesses to the assassination. They are too numerous to discuss here individually. The best source on this is Richard Belzer and David Wayne’s new book HIT LIST, an in-depth investigation of many of the ‘unexplained’ deaths from 1963 onward, including a very good chapter on J.D. Tippit, who has received relatively little attention in the research community. Because Belzer and Wayne go thoroughly into the details of each case, it’s possible to get a troubling overview that leaves little doubt that these people’s connection to the assassination or the relationship between Oswald and Jack Ruby is what caused their deaths to be ‘untimely’. (The mathematical odds against this number of people dying in such a relatively short time are astronomical.)
5) The Warren Commission Report and Exhibits, which total 27 volumes (the one-volume Report and 26 volumes of exhibits), show a strange schizophrenia: though the Report categorically declares Oswald the lone-nut assassin, there are numerous instances in the exhibits where witness testimony indicates clearly that there had to be more than one shooter. Consider the WC testimony of Bobby Hargis, Dallas motorcycle cop, who was riding alongside the presidential limo at the moment of the head shot, directly to the left of Mrs. Kennedy. He was struck on the right side of his helmet with the president’s blood and brains so hard that for a minute he thought he had been shot. Think about this–Hargis was hit on the right side of his helmet. And he was facing forward (check the film footage) at the time. So the blood and debris were flying at him from his right. There’s only one way this could happen–if the shot itself came from the grassy knoll.
The laws of physics don’t change, not even for the president of the United States. Hargis’s testimony alone proves there was a gunman firing from the grassy knoll, which means at least two gunmen, which equals conspiracy. (Norman Mailer tried hard to get around this–I kid you not–by saying that it was perfectly possible there were two lone nuts, each intent on killing the president in Dealey Plaza, but they didn’t know each other or know that the other would be there. I’d love to know what the mathematicians would say about the odds against that.)
Mull over those facts, and we’ll meet back here next week.
In my first post on the JFK assassination last week (honoring the release of Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, which I co-authored with Kevin Finn), I discussed the events of the assassination itself–that tragic Friday in November 1963 that changed our world.
Today, let’s continue with those events–in which you may begin to see a disturbing pattern:
After the president was pronounced dead, Lyndon Johnson, now the new President, was hustled out of Parkland Hospital under heavy guard and taken back to Air Force One, still on the tarmac at Love Field. He immediately took steps to take the oath of office on the plane, calling an old friend, Judge Sarah Hughes, who lived in Dallas, and asking her to come to Love Field to administer the oath, calling a shell-shocked Bobby Kennedy in Washington to ask for the wording.
Meanwhile, Earl Rose, the County Coroner, was at Parkland Hospital insisting on doing an autopsy on JFK’s body, which was Texas law (it was not yet a federal crime to kill a president, so this was a standard homicide). But JFK’s Secret Service detail and some of his aides were so shocked and angry that they were in no mood to bend to Texas law. Their Commander-in-Chief had just been murdered, and they’d be damned if anyone would touch his body in Texas! Rose was (literally) shoved aside as they called for a local mortuary to deliver a casket. The president’s body was wrapped in a sheet (his blood-soaked clothes had been cut off in the operating room) and placed inside a heavy mahogany coffin. And over Rose’s continued protests (and he was legally in the right), the president’s men took the coffin back to Air Force One, where Jackie Kennedy insisted she would sit with it all the way to Washington. She was disturbed only once; when Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath, Lyndon Johnson requested Jackie’s presence at his swearing in. He also requested that photos be taken, and that the ceremony be recorded on tape (which it was). The famous photo of that ceremony (which we mention in Forward to Camelot) showed a solemn Johnson with a pious hand raised, another hand on a book (JFK’s own Catholic missal–prayer book–which was all they could find to use for the oath. We deal with this at length in the novel–it’s the lynch pin of our plot–though in the context of history, it’s a minor point.) Next to him stood Jackie, her eyes staring at nothing, blood still visible on her pink jacket (though Cecil Stoughton, the Army captain who took the photo, did all he could to minimize the bloodstains). It is one of the most haunting images of the day–the new president so eager to be sworn in that he can’t even wait to get back to Washington, insisting that the widow of the dead president witness the moment. Once the ceremony was over and the camera stopped clicking (and one disturbing photo shows LBJ with a big smile), Sarah Hughes left the plane and Air Force One lifted off for Washington. The Kennedy contingent sat with the coffin in the back of the plane, away from the Johnson people, who were hustling along busily at the front.
Back at Dealey Plaza, the site of the shooting, there was chaos. Horrified spectators, some of whom had hit the grass at the sounds of gunfire, were being questioned by police, after many had initially run up the hill now called the Grassy Knoll, hoping to nab a shooter behind the picket fence, where they had heard shots. A motorcycle cop named Marion Baker had run into the seven-story brick building at the corner of Houston and Elm Street, the Texas School Book Depository, looking for a shooter there, and after locating Roy Truly, the superintendent, ran into a young man in the second-floor employee lunchroom, very calm and drinking a coke. The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald, a new employee, and after Baker drew his gun and asked Truly if Oswald worked there and Truly said yes, they left Oswald alone.
Oswald left the building shortly afterward, still alone, and made his way by bus and cab to the rooming house where he was staying temporarily in Oak Cliff, a rundown residential section of Dallas. There he went into his tiny room, changed his shirt and picked up his revolver. His landlady heard a horn honking outside and saw a Dallas police car pulled up at the corner by her house. Oswald left the house and walked several blocks.
Some minutes later, a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit was patrolling in his police car near Tenth and Patton, where he stopped a man walking by, who leaned in and conversed with him for a minute through the window. As Tippit got out of the car, the man fired three shots at him, in front of several witnesses. Tippit was dead before he hit the ground. The man ran off. (Here’s where it gets confusing, because while some witnesses saw one man, others saw two, who split up and ran in different directions after the shooting.)
In any case, Oswald was spotted by a shoe salesman some minutes later on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the site of the Tippit shooting. He was at the Texas Theater, where he did not stop to buy a ticket but just walked in. The shoe salesman called the police, and when the house lights went on in the theater, the salesman pointed out Oswald sitting alone in the audience. After a short scuffle (in which Oswald called frantically to the other people in the theater, “I am not resisting arrest! I am not resisting arrest!”), he was handcuffed, his face bruised, and led outside. He was taken to Dallas police headquarters, where word began to spread that he was the man who had murdered J.D. Tippit and likely, assassinated the president.
But disturbing contradictions were turning up. The Dallas police, all familiar with firearms, had found a weapon at the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle stamped “Mauser”, which all of them knew was a superior German rifle. However, within less than 24 hours, the police were reporting that the weapon found was a cheap, inaccurate Italian rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano (which the FBI quickly found Oswald had bought by mail order earlier in the year). All trace of the “Mauser”–all mention of it–was suddenly hushed. And when the FBI ran the rifle through their world-class fingerprint lab, they could not find a print.
The witnesses at the Tippit shooting were also problematical. Their description of the gunman (or gunmen) did not come close to fitting Lee Harvey Oswald–though supposedly it was in response to that description that he had been picked up by police. Witnesses said the man firing the gun was short, heavy-set and in his 30’s. Oswald was 24 and very slender. To make matters worse, the cartridges the police found at the Tippit murder scene were made for a pistol. But Oswald owned a revolver, not a pistol. And even more peculiarly, the cartridges didn’t even match each other. Dallas PD Officer Poe, who marked them with his initials for the chain of evidence, could not find his initials on the cartridges he was shown later, which indicates they were not the cartridges recovered at the scene.
Oswald was interrogated at police headquarters for over 12 hours, but not one word was recorded (which meant none of it could be admissible in court later). When he was paraded in front of reporters his demeanor was calm, and instead of proclaiming his great deed in front of the world, he stubbornly maintained that he had not shot anyone and further, that he had nothing against Kennedy. When he was shown some of the evidence seized in a search of the garage where he had stored some of his belongings, he told the police that the photo of him holding a rifle and a pistol and dressed in black was a fake; it was his head pasted on someone else’s body.
Constantly present when Oswald was in public was a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who was well known to the Dallas police and liked to host them at his club, the Carousel. Footage available on YouTube shows Oswald being moved in and out of various rooms at police headquarters, with a man who looks a lot like Jack Ruby never far away.
Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an official autopsy, but there too, strange things were happening. Orderlies saw different caskets brought in at different hospital entrances–one the expensive ceremonial coffin bought in Dallas, the other a cheap gray casket. The wrapping of the body was different, and most oddly, the doctors at the autopsy (and all those present in the room) saw an entirely different kind of head wound than the one described by a dozen doctors and nurses who attended Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. (Check out David Lifton’s Best Evidence for more information on these strange anomalies, including the alarming possibility that JFK’s body was altered to make the wounds look different and more consistent with a single shooter than multiple shooters.)
The surreal weekend continued, with Oswald paraded in a bizarre police lineup where he was placed with teenage boys, which angered him. Who couldn’t pick him out of that group? (Among those who did was an hysterical woman named Helen Markham, who claimed to have talked to Officer Tippit for 20 minutes after he was shot. Since he was dead on impact, that must have been some conversation.)
On Sunday morning, as the world mourned and the president’s body was lying in state (where a quarter of a million people would file by to pay their respects), newsmen were notified that Oswald was finally going to be moved to the Dallas County Jail. Surrounded by police (and handcuffed to one), Oswald moved forward in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, where a car was waiting. TV cameras were rolling; the whole world was watching.
There was a sound of a car horn blaring, and suddenly a man leaped forward and fired. It was Jack Ruby, and that one shot smashed into Oswald’s stomach and dropped him at the scene. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize him, but the effort was hopeless. He was pronounced dead.
The president was dead. A Dallas police officer was dead. The accused assassin was dead, shot on live television in front of millions.
What the hell was going on?
As this is my very first blog post about the JFK assassination–in honor of the publication of my new novel with Kevin Finn, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition–I’d like to start at the very beginning in talking about November 22, 1963, the event that lies at the heart of our story.
It’s been 50 years since that sunny November Friday just before Thanksgiving, and many people now walking the earth were not alive then. Many probably don’t want to admit they don’t actually know what happened. The Kennedy assassination is supposed to be a seminal event in American history (and it was). But as with events that had huge impact at the time, those who came after were not as affected (though what began then is going on even more so today). I honestly believe most people of a certain age don’t actually know much of the story beyond the bare fact that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. So today let me set the scene, bring you into that vanished world and recap the actual crime. And from there, we can talk about the who’s, the why’s, the what’s and the how’s.
After World War II, the period known as the Cold War began (cold because there was no overt fighting by soldiers). The standoff between democracy (represented by the US) and Communism (represented by Russia), was the defining struggle from the late 1940’s to the 1990’s. Russia was our greatest foreign-policy concern, and almost greater than that was the worry that our differences would lead to nuclear war, an option that wasn’t even possible until the US used the atom bomb to end the war with Japan in 1945. There was tremendous covert activity in the intelligence services of the US, Russia and their allies. It was the era of James Bond, the Cold-War spy.
The thorn in our side was Cuba, a tiny island 90 miles from Florida whose dictator, Fidel Castro, swept into power in 1959, sweeping out Batista, a dictator of another kind. Castro promised economic equality to his people, and aligned himself with Russia as a Communist leader. It was important to Russia to have this toehold in the Western Hemisphere, especially one so close to the US. So they were going to support Fidel in any way they could.
All this was very much on the mind of John F. Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts who was elected President in November 1960. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president (43); his wealthy and ambitious father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had long intended that his son be president. JFK had been a war hero in the Navy during World War II, even though his health was so bad he should have been 4-F. But Kennedy went to Officer’s Candidate School, got an intelligence assignment, then persuaded powerful friends of his father to lie on his behalf to get him INTO active service on the PT boats in the Pacific, where he saved 10 of his men after his boat, PT-109, was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer on a dark August night.
Kennedy’s fame as the hero of PT-109 and his father’s money propelled him to a seat in the US Congress as Representative from Massachusetts (in the same freshman class with Richard Nixon); six years later he became a US Senator. He married a debutante named Jacqueline Bouvier, and while his health issues were carefully concealed and his family’s PR machine worked overtime to make him look hearty and vigorous, Kennedy suffered debilitating pain every day from a bad back and from Addison’s disease, which almost killed him until he began taking daily cortisone injections.
Jack and Jackie became media darlings (Jackie was the most photographed woman in the world, preceding Princess Diana in that role), and their two young children, Caroline and John Jr., became national favorites.
Still, the Kennedy Administration faced a battery of problems: trying to get rid of Castro secretly (a CIA program called Operation Mongoose); civil-rights unrest; Russia’s insistence on placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, so close to US shores that one strike could wipe out 80 million Americans; and the beginning flutters of what would become the war in Vietnam.
In late August of 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave birth to their son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, a child they were anticipating with joy. But Patrick was born with lung problems, and died just a few days later, devastating both parents. Jackie remained in seclusion for several months, trying to recover and spending long hours with her other children.
Meanwhile, the Texas branch of the Democratic Party was having their own problems. There was a lot of in-fighting, and the President decided to do a three-day trip to Texas to help the fractured party mend fences before they began serious campaigning for the 1964 election.
Texas was not Kennedy country, but the first 2 days of the trip went well. Jackie Kennedy made the trip with her husband, the first time she’d traveled with him publicly since Patrick’s death. She was as popular as he was, and the turnout was tremendous to see her. In every city where they stopped, they did a motorcade, with the President and First Lady traveling in an open car.
Dallas, however, was a real worry for the Secret Service. It was much more vocal in its opposition to Kennedy than any other Texas city, and the Secret Service had already cancelled two scheduled trips, in Miami and Chicago, because of threats against the President’s life. Still, they had checked out the city and felt satisfied that the plan they had in place would work.
On Friday, November 22nd, the President spoke at a breakfast meeting in Fort Worth. Jackie joined him, in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, and afterward they flew to Dallas (a very short ride, done only for show), where big crowds greeted them at Love Field Airport. But the atmosphere here was different: there was a nasty ad, “Wanted for Treason”, that ran in the Dallas Morning-News that day, accusing Kennedy of crimes against the US, and though there were still friendly crowds, they were dotted with signs like “Traiter” (sic). It was warm and sunny in Dallas after a rain shower earlier that day.
The President and the First Lady got into the back seat of the presidential limousine, the President on the passenger side of the car. In jump seats ahead of them were Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, and ahead of them were Roy Kellerman, head of the security for the President’s detail, and Bill Greer, the 54-year-old driver (oldest man on the President’s Secret Service detail). The bubble top which could be used to protect the passengers was removed because the weather had cleared up.
The car drove through the downtown area, turned right onto Houston Street, then slowed down to take a sharp hairpin turn at the corner of Houston and Elm Street. On the northeast side of that corner was a seven-story red-brick building, the Texas School Book Depository. The crowds had thinned out, but there were still dozens of people lining the streets, many with cameras. A dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder was standing on a stone pedestal near the sidewalk, filming with his new 8mm movie camera.
As the car started down Elm Street, a curving road leading toward the Stemmons Freeway, gunfire rang out.
To this day, there are still arguments about how many shots there were, where they were fired from, and when and how they hit.
The President was struck in the throat. His hands came up toward his tie. More shots were fired, and the President (who was wearing a brace under his clothes to support his back) slumped down. Governor Connally was hit, too, by a bullet that shattered his wrist and eventually imbedded itself in his thigh. (To the end of his life, the Governor insisted that he and the President were hit by separate bullets.) Connally shouted, “My God, they’re going to kill us all!”, but Nellie Connally, thinking quickly, pulled him down into her lap, out of the range of gunfire, and told him to stay down. The car by this time was almost stopped.
Jackie Kennedy leaned toward her husband, and when she was only a couple of inches away, the final shot blew away part of the President’s skull. He fell onto the seat as Jackie (who never remembered doing this for the rest of her life) jumped onto the back of the car, reaching for something (it was part of her husband’s brain). The blood soaked everything in the car: the entire back seat, the Connallys, the red roses Jackie had been given at Love Field. Jackie herself was so drenched in her husband’s blood that the white gloves she wore retained their shape when she took them off later that night. Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, part of Mrs. Kennedy’s detail, was the only Secret Service agent who moved, jumping off the follow-up car where the Secret Service was stationed and jumping onto the back of the Presidential limousine, pushing her down.
The car sped up (finally) and the motorcade led by Police Chief Jesse Curry scrambled onto the Stemmons Freeway to Parkland Hospital, where the President and the Governor were rushed inside. The Governor was in critical condition but would survive. The President was pronounced dead at 1 pm, Central Standard Time. Cause of death was a massive gunshot wound to his head.
And there began the greatest mystery of the 20th century.