The Kennedy assassination still haunts us in a way 9/11 does not. We feel we know what happened on 9/11; we feel there is a lot we do not know about what happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
American history seemed to turn nasty with Kennedys death the Vietnam War tore us apart, the Civil Rights Movement reached a peak of anger and frustration, cities seemed to disintegrate and American politics seemed to grow polarized.
Lee Harvey Oswald was presented to us within hours of Kennedys murder as the lone assassin, a misfit with some kind of grudge. He was murdered within 48 hours and silenced. President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a blue-ribbon panel, the Warren Commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to get to the bottom of it. They collected a lot of evidence that is still being mined today for clues. But the Warren Commissions report contained only evidence that supported the lone- gunman theory. Evidence that did not was left on the cutting-room floor.
Johnson pronounced the report definitive and it became the official explanation of what happened. To prove the lone gunman theory, the committee had to postulate that a single bullet pierced Kennedys neck and Texas Governor John Connallys chest and wrist, then lodged in Connallys thigh and emerged with barely a scratch on it that being the so-called pristine bullet that was found on a gurney outside the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was taken.
We know now that Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, probably the most conservative member of the Warren Commission, objected vigorously to the reports accuracy and signed only when LBJ brought to bear his enormous persuasive power.
This was the height of the Cold War and strange, little Lee Harvey Oswald had defected briefly to the Soviet Union, raising the possibility the Soviets were somehow involved. If so, given the American publics penchant for frontier justice, this could start World War III, which would be a war of nuclear annihilation.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchevinstantly realized this could mean war. Johnson and many others understood it was important to put the fire out right away even if the truth had to be bent. But later Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, also a Commission member, raised serious second thoughts and was shortly killed in a mysterious plane crash in Alaska.
There were so many omissions, errors and lapses in the Warren Report that some of those close to the case undertook subsequent investigations of their own. Over the years, they did meticulous research and interviewed witnesses. They wrote books, each of them zeroing in a particular aspect of the investigation. It was a formidable body of detective work. They became known as the conspiracy theorists. The American public came to regard them as buffs and a bit possessed. But when polled, Americans consistently believed there had been more than one gunman that a conspiracy had been involved.
Then in 1991, director Oliver Stone released the film JFK, which purported to show a vast but faceless conspiracy hatched by Americans connected to the military-industrial-intelligence complex along with some anti-Castro Cubans (who were angry because Kennedy had failed to overthrow the Castro regime). The Stone film was compelling theater, but was it remotely the truth? Stone released a fully annotated screenplay showing the source for every statement of fact and every allegation, which did not prove it was all true but did prove it was based on research. Even minute details that seemed to the casual viewer like Hollywood stuff turned out to have been real incidents that can be documented.
The whole thesis of the film was that the United States had a regime change, what other countries call a coup detat, which installed Johnson in the presidency. At a moment when Kennedy seemed to waffle on whether to continue the Vietnam War, Johnson assured the military-industrial complex it would get a prolonged war in Vietnam, which even then Johnson knew was unwinnable. Stones film was so convincing that after its release, all those with a vested interest in keeping the lid on the original lone gunman theory closed ranks, including the U.S. government (Republican or Democrat didnt matter) and the mainstream media, which had reported all the stuff about Oswald they were fed at the time of the assassination.
Now the official line is that JFK was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald with a 25-year-old rusty Italian-made bolt-action rifle which he fired with a speed that defies even the best marksmen in the world and with a mismounted telescopic sight, acting entirely on his own, and that anyone who holds otherwise is a nutcase.
In a new documentary of old clips Nov. 16, CBS claimed modern digital technology had enhanced the original amateur film of the shooting (the Zapruder film) and proved beyond all shadow of a doubt it was a single gunman firing from the Texas School Book Depository, just the way we were told in 1963.
The core of the problem with the lone gunman theory is twofold forensic evidence and Oswald. The forensic evidence for a lone gunman theory simply is not there. The controversies center on bullet trajectories and on the timing of the shots, given that this was a bolt-action rifle and we have a movie film of the entire event. Film goes through the camera at a precise 18 frames per second, so that establishes a rigid timetable.
Another forensic problem is the autopsy, which does not square with the photographic evidence or with eyewitness accounts. And the presidents brain, which would contain vital information about bullet trajectories, is missing. It is just gone, period.
As for Oswald, we know enough about him to say he was anything but a simpleton who got a gun and shot the president over some grudge. In the Marines, he did technical classified duty tracking Soviet aircraft in the North Pacific and American U-2 spy over flights of Soviet Siberia while at Atsugi Air Base in Japan. He learned to speak fluent Russian. He abruptly defected to the Soviet Union, bought a ticket with funds he did not have in his bank account, renounced his U.S. citizenship, lived in Russia, married a Russian woman, then decided to return to the U.S., which accepted him back, no questions asked, paid for his return ticket, took him to Dallas and got him a job making classified maps for the Air Force.
In Dallas, he was welcomed into the White (Tsarist) Russian community, by then mostly the children of prominent people who emigrated from Russia after the revolution educated, competent people who presumably would have nothing in common with him. He spent the summer before the assassination in New Orleans conspicuously passing out pro-Castro literature. Oswald was arrested in an amazingly short time for the murder of a Dallas policeman, a murder that itself is clouded in contradictory evidence. Only later was he charged with the murder of the president.
So if it wasnt the lone gunman, who was it? The answer is we dont know and probably never will which does not mean we therefore have to fall back on the lone gunman theory.
It is doubtful any files yet unopened are going to have a document that says, kill the president. Some things are not put in writing.
Richard Saunders is a history professor at Clemson University.