The official account of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is as follows: Lee Harvey Oswald fired at Kennedy’s motorcade as it passed through Dealey Plaza, carrying the president, Texas Governor Connally, and the First Lady. Oswald shot from the sixth floor and southeast corner of the Texas School Book Depository, where he worked, [1] hitting Kennedy twice from behind (as seen in Figure 1).[2] One bullet passed through Kennedy and injured Connally. After fleeing, Oswald killed policeman JD Tippet and was arrested in a theater. A few days later while being transferred between jails, Oswald was shot by club owner Jack Ruby. As a result, Oswald received no trial and Americans received no closure.[3] President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Warren Commission in 1963, which was led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and published the above account in 1964. [4]

plazao
Figure 1. According to the Warren Commission, Kennedy was shot from behind, as Oswald was located in the red building. Many theories discussed in this article believe another shooter was located somewhere on the grass in front of the car, but these have been disproven. Burke, P. (1996, Jan 12). “Dealey Plaza.” Retrieved from mcadams.posc.mu.edu/pazao.jpg.

However, many questions remain. A 2001 Gallup poll found 81% of Americans believe Oswald was part of a larger conspiracy,[5] but what that conspiracy was depends on whom you ask. Soviets, the KKK, and Jackie Kennedy have all been blamed. [6] While the “who” varies, most theories point to three main questions as evidence of a conspiracy: Was there only one shooter? Could one bullet to injure Kennedy and Connally? Was Kennedy’s body processed without forgery? Because most theories believe the answer to at least two is “no,” this article focuses on these three questions so you can better assess any you come in contact with.

Understanding these theories’s origins is an important first step, so we will discuss three specifically. The first alleges that George Bush Sr. and Jr. were involved in killing JFK and JFK, Jr. respectively to join an elite group and gain political power. John Hankey shares this theory on the website Darklegacy.com. While he has produced multiple documentaries on these theories, he does not list any credentials. Hankey was recently on The Richie Allen Show, an alternative news program co-produced by David Icke, founder of the reptilian conspiracy theory. Another theory argues the Mafia killed JFK. One leading website, JFKmurdersolved.com has no “About” page or credentials, but their corresponding Facebook page is run by five administrators without any academic or research background. However, investigative crime reporter Dan Moldea also supports this theory. His book, The Hoffa Wars, was positively reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and alleges the assassination included a labor union president and two Mafia members.[7] Finally, Oliver Stone is one of the most well-known, having directed the movie JFK about Jim Garrison. [8] Garrison was a Louisiana district attorney who accused over 40 groups of being involved, including the CIA, FBI, governors, media outlets, and homosexuals.[9] Stone recently gave an interview to the tabloid Daily Mail detailing a Secret Service member who confessed to the plot on his deathbed.[10]

Even if these leaders are not the most reliable sources, analyzing the main questions these theories have in common also means acknowledging the shreds of truth, namely the problems with the government’s investigations. First, Warren had a conflict of interest as a close friend of the Kennedy family. [11] Additionally, his commission did not follow up on all leads into Oswald, such as a suspicious trip to Mexico.[12] These were also shocking technical errors. Kennedy’s wounds were not examined before doctors tried to save him with a tracheostomy, which widened the bullet hole in his throat that was later used as “proof” of conspiracies. [13] After he died, Jackie chose for his body to be examined by a Navy doctor who was not a forensic pathologist and was unfamiliar with bullet wounds and “medical legal autopsies” procedures. [14] New York Times investigative reporter Philip Shenon also notes that there were multiple cases of destroyed evidence, including the autopsy doctor burning his original notes because they were bloodied, the FBI shredding a note Oswald left, and Oswald’s wife burning photos of him with the rifle.[15] Conspiracy theories often ignore the simple explanations to these errors: Oswald’s wife wanted to protect him. The FBI was worried about their failure to recognize Oswald as a threat. Proper medical investigative procedure was not followed because of panic and haste. [16]

When conspiracy theories rely on these mistakes to make their case, they commit many logical fallacies. “The Texas Sharpshooter” “cherry-picks” data to support a specific argument, [17] and is best seen with witness testimony. As JFK researcher McAdams argues: “Do you want to prove [there was a second shooter]? Just choose one set of witnesses. Want to convict [Oswald]? Just pick different witnesses.” [18] In addition to witnesses’ contradictions, such testimony includes human memory and perception error, especially in such a traumatic setting.[19] Another logical fallacy is the “False Case,” which “presumes that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause.”[20] With Kennedy’s assassination, examples include assuming Cuba (or the mafia) was involved because there were tensions between Castro (or organized crime) and JFK. Similarly, just because Bush Sr. might have known a friend of Oswald’s does not mean he helped orchestrate the murder. Finally, the “Black and White” fallacy assumes that “two alternatives” are “the only possibilities.”[21] In this case, the “government version” and the conspiracy “truth.” The real truth might be in the middle, which allows for admitting human error the government might not include but doesn’t concoct a complicated conspiracy.

However, conspiracy theories also promote “facts” that are simply false. First, Kennedy’s head moving backwards when he was hit is cited as “proof” the shot came from the front, not from Oswald in the back. This argument does not consider that humans react to injury differently and that the nervous system can “kick in” during this kind of severe trauma and cause bodies to move strangely. [22] Additionally, theories might claim the exit wound in the front of Kennedy’s throat was actually an entrance wound. In their haste, doctors did initially report them as entrance wounds but later explained the mistake. Even forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, a critic of the Warren Commission, agreed they were exit wounds. [23] Third, theories often point to incorrect initial reports that Oswald had used a Mauser gun instead of a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. Instead of acknowledging this simple error, theorists claim the mix-up is really proof that two guns (and two shooters) were actually involved, though no Mauser bullets were found[24] Finally, anyone who states that the bullet (shown in Figure 2) could not have hit both men is also ignoring the scientific evidence from a 1987 neutron-activation analysis that matched the lead from Connally’s wrist to the bullet.[25] This theory is also supported by “the most serious scientists” who has examined the case.[26]

photo_naraevid_ce399-1
Figure 2. Bullet CE-399 was the bullet that matched Oswald’s gun and passed through Kennedy and Connally. Though some claim this is not possible, partially because of the bullet’s good condition, many scientists argue the physics are plausible and that the bullet has some damage. “CE 399: Bullet found on stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas, Tex.” Retrieved from http://www.maryferrell.org/photos.html?set=NARA-CE99.

You can ask yourself some questions when presented with these theories or any other conspiracies. Does it logistically make sense? Some theories suggest that the conspiracy had superhuman knowledge, like knowing one bullet would hit both men, preparing a fake that matched Oswald’s gun, and knowing where in the hospital to plant it.[27] In reverse, the theory surrounding James Files focuses on the claim that he bit his gun casing and left it at the crime scene, which was later found in 1987.[28] This “evidence” only proves that the casing could easily have been planted. Another important question to ask is how big the conspiracy is. If it involves hundreds of people, how could it have been logistically orchestrated and stayed secret? If the Mafia both helped elect JFK and then killed him in retaliation for prosecuting organized crime, [29] it would require hundreds of participants, just like Garrison’s accusation of over 40 groups. [30] The Bush theory claims he not only helped organize the assassination with the CIA, but was also photographed, spotted, and arrested in Dealey Plaza (Figure 3).[31] Not only could these conspiracies keep this many witnesses quiet, but so many participants would also be difficult to coordinate.

11
Figure 3. Groups that claim Bush Sr. was involved in the assassination use a series of extremely blurry photos to make the case that Bush was in Dealey Plaza. However, they mostly rely on recognizing him from his hairline and from faceless shots. “George Bush Dealey Plaza Coordinator.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://i2.wp.com/realitieswatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/11.jpg?resize=800%2C439.

The most important question to ask is who benefits from promoting false theories? In all three examples, each leader is selling something. John Hankey sells his Kennedy documentaries along with multiple books, 9/11 truther DVDs, bumper stickers, and a “critical thinking” lesson. JFKMurdersolved.com also sells seven videos and two books. Even Dan Moldea sells books, though not just about Kennedy. Oliver Stone, of course, was selling a film and his shocking deathbed confession came less than a week before a new book about him was published.[32]

Another important point is that conspiracy theories use many traditional propaganda tactics. Though they are not outright propaganda, these theories are still promoting an ideology, not facts. As Hannah Arendt explains, people are drawn to ideology because “they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident,”[33] just like conspiracy theories. By using a paranoid rhetoric that describes an “insidious…international network,” [34] these theories also use fear appeals to play up people’s “dark, irrational fears.” [35] In this case, they highlight and offer to solve fears of political corruption and the universal fear of being unintelligent.

In Kennedy’s case, conspiracy theories can still be especially appealing because, as CBS host Eric Sevareid said, “all that power and majesty [was] wiped out in an instant by one skinny, weak-chinned little character.”[36] While we may prefer the details of a conspiracy to this reality, we must look closely at the implications of what we are agreeing with. Hopefully this article has helped you do just that.

[1] “A landmark of American history.” (2016). The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Retrieved from http://www.jfk.org/the-assassination/history-of-the-texas-school-book-depository/.

[2] “Summary of Findings.” (2016). JFK Assassination Records. Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the US House of Representatives. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1979. 1 volume, 686 pages. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/select-committee-report/summary.html.

[3] Brown, S. (Producer) & Kief, C. (Director). (2014, June 12). Assassination of President Kennedy (Television series episode). The Sixties. USA: CNN.

[4] Brown and Kief, 2014.

[5] Carlson, D. (2001, April 11). “Most Americans believe Oswald conspired with others to kill JFK..” Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1813/most-americans-believe-oswald-conspired-others-kill-jfk.aspx.

[6] Cohen, 2013, p. 36.

[7] “Biographical Sketch of Dan E. Moldea.” (n.d.) Moldea.com. Retrieved from http://www.moldea.com/bisketch.html.

[8] Alberge, D. (2016, August 30). “EXCLUSIVE-‘JFK assassination was an inside job:’ Ex-government agent claimed ‘someone from his team’ killed the president in remarkable deathbed confession to director Oliver Stone.” Daily Mail. Retrieved http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3762617/JFK-assassination-inside-job-Ex-government-agent-claimed-team-killed-president-remarkable-deathbed-confession-director-Oliver-Stone.html.

[9] McAdams, John (2016). “All those assassination suspects.” The Kennedy Assassination. Retrieved from http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/suspects.htm.

[10] Alberge 2016.

[11] Botched Investigation Fuels Kennedy Conspiracy Theories. (2013). National Public Radio.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cohen, 2016, p.33.

[14] Botched.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Texas Sharpshooter.” (2016). Yourlogicalfallacyis.com.

[18] McAdams, 2011, p. 1

[19] McAdams, 2011, p. 2

[20] “False Cause.” (2016). Yourlogicalfallacyis.com.

[21] “Black and white.” (2016). Yourlogicalfallacyis.com.

[22] Botched.

[23] Cohen, 2013, p. 33

[24] Cohen, 2013, p. 33

[25] Cohen, 2013, p. 34

[26] Botched.

[27] Cohen, 2013, p. 35

[28] “Is James Files telling the truth?” (2003). JFKMurderSolved.com. Retrieved from http://www.jfkmurdersolved.com/filestruth.htm.

[29] “The murder of JFK: 10 reasons why: A responsible conclusion.” JFKMurderSolved.com. Retrieved from http://www.jfkmurdersolved.com/jfkwhy.htm.

[30] McAdams 2016

[31] Hooke, R. M. and Fetzer, J. (2015, April 5). “Proof George HW Bush was a CIA agent involved in the assassination of JFK.” Realities Watch. Retrieved from https://realitieswatch.com/proof-george-hw-bush-was-a-cia-agent-involved-in-the-assassination-of-jfk/.

[32] Alberge 2016.

[33] Arendt, H. (1951). “The totalitarian movement.” The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 50.

[34] Berlet, C. 2009. Toxic to democracy: Conspiracy theories, demonization, and scapegoating. Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates. 14.

[35] Aronson, E. and Pratkanis, A. (1991). Age of propaganda: the everyday use and abuse of persuasion. New York: WH Freeman and Company. 161-162.

[36] Brown and Kief, 2014

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