Assassination of JFK: historians explore the conspiracy theories

More than 50 years after the assassination of US president John F Kennedy, speculation about his death shows no sign of abating. While some say Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and for himself, others maintain Kennedy was killed as part of a wider cover-up. Here, leading historians explore the various theories surrounding the assassination. This article was first published in 2013

Jack Ruby moving towards Oswald. (© Everett Collection Historical/Alamy)

“The US government engaged in a systematic cover-up of the truth”

This event remains a memorable one, and five decades later, the question of whether Kennedy’s assassination resulted from the act of a lone gunman or from a conspiracy continues to be hotly debated.


When the new president, Lyndon Johnson, appointed a commission chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the assassination, many believed that the distinguished panel would resolve lingering doubts about Kennedy’s murder.

In reality, the publication of the Warren Report in September 1964 only served to raise numerous concerns about the existence of an assassination conspiracy, and in a broader sense, about the credibility of the government.

For example, the Warren Commission maintained that the autopsy on Kennedy proved that the shots came from above and behind. But the post-mortem dissection of the president’s body was actually one in a series of cover-ups and concealment of evidence that has characterised this case.

In many other aspects of the assassination, the United States government engaged in a systematic cover-up of the truth by either destroying or “classifying” vital evidence.

The Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA, President Johnson, and even the Kennedy family, participated in this refusal to allow the whole truth to be revealed.

For more than 40 years I have studied, researched and taught about the Kennedy assassination. Because so much of the evidence about this case has never been released, I still do not know the answer to the most fundamental question of all – who killed President Kennedy?

We deserve to know the answer.

Michael Kurtz is a professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University, and the author of The JFK Assassination Debates. The third edition of his book, Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination From a Historian’s Perspective, was published earlier this month.

“Three KGB officers used Oswald to assassinate Kennedy”

Like it or not – though some still refuse to recognise it – Oswald was involved in some capacity in the shooting of President Kennedy.

How else would his rifle have been found at the scene of the crime? Why would he have shot and killed a policeman immediately after the president’s assassination if he, Oswald, were going about his lawful business?

Accordingly, the most robust theories accept Oswald’s participation.

Kennedy had any number of enemies within the US, as witnessed by the volume and variety of the conspiracy theories, but none of them had a direct link with Oswald.

No, Oswald’s actions must be associated with either the Soviet Union (he was a self-confessed communist and spent nearly three years in Minsk under KGB control), or Cuba (the KGB offered Oswald to the Cuban intelligence organisation, G-2).

The third alternative – that he acted alone – is highly unlikely.

But neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba would have sanctioned an attack on the president at that time. Khrushchev had been fostering better relations with Kennedy in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, and they were moving towards meaningful disarmament negotiations.

The president’s blood on Soviet hands would have brought this to a standstill. Worse, it could have led to nuclear conflict.

Had Cuba been found to be responsible there can be no doubt that America would have launched an immediate invasion. The White House, fearing such possibilities, asked the media not to speculate on the possibility of either the Soviet Union or Cuba being involved, and the media dutifully complied.

There is, however, a straightforward answer to this conundrum: militant Stalinist elements within the KGB took it upon themselves to take the ultimate revenge for what they saw as the humiliation of Khrushchev’s climb-down over nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Ivan Serov, Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov were high-ranking KGB officers who had indisputable credentials for taking high-risk militant action in support of Stalinism.

At the time of Kennedy’s death, Andropov and Kryuchkov held senior positions in the Secretariat of the Communist Party Central Committee, with powers to control the work of the KGB.  Kryuchkov had responsibility for Oswald.

Robert Holmes is a retired British diplomat and the author of A Spy Like No Other, a book about Cold War espionage between the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and Kennedy in 1963. In it, Holmes concludes that Serov, Andropov and Kryuchkov acted without central authority to use Oswald to assassinate Kennedy.

Warren Commission exhibit. Lee Harvey Oswald distributing Fair Play for Cuba handbills on which he had stamped his name and the name AJ Hidell. (Photo by CSU Archives/Everett Collection)
Warren Commission exhibit. Lee Harvey Oswald distributing Fair Play for Cuba handbills on which he had stamped his name and the name AJ Hidell. (Photo by CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

“There’s no evidence Oswald did it for anyone but himself”

I was very uneasy about the conclusion of the Warren Commission, which said not that there was no conspiracy, but that there was no evidence of a conspiracy.

Every time you look into an allegation that Oswald was put up to it, or was acting on behalf of someone else, you find things don’t add up.

In 2007 I became particularly interested in the Abraham Zapruder films and everything that they could possibly show. The Warren Commission had access to the films, but they did not, shall we say, make the most of them.

There are things we know with much more clarity now. I led a team that processed the films to make them available digitally.

The bottom line is the Zapruder films are regarded as capturing the assassination in full, but my conclusion is that the assassination had already taken place.

Zapruder was not ‘late’ as such, but the first shot had already been fired. He only captured two of three.

I think people still engage with conspiracy theories because the enormity of the crime is such that people can’t believe this lone ne’er-do-well pulled it off. There’s a big imbalance there – a huge crime, but it came down to one person.

There is no evidence he did it for anyone but himself. If Oswald were alive today he would be rotting away in prison, and he would be upset not to get the credit for his ‘enormous accomplishment’.

I am not surprised to see these conspiracy theories being discussed. A lot of them were being raised 25 years ago. Some are just outrageous and completely discredited, yet they come up again.

There’s money to be made, and amateur detectives want the notoriety of ‘solving’ the case. It’s a feeding frenzy that has been going on for 50 years.

I have a certain callousness to it all, but of course I worry about people believing conspiracies. But what people think of the assassination says more about them than the assassination itself.

People who lived through [the assassination] think they are entitled to their opinion, no matter how much they know. It offers a very interesting insight into human behaviour.

Max Holland is a US historian who applied digital technology to a number of home movies taken on 22 November 1963, and concluded Oswald acted alone.

“Nobody knows what really happened”

People across the globe are understandably confused by the flood of contradictory information and disinformation related to the assassination of President John F Kennedy.

Many have thrown up their hands in despair, and decided we will never know the truth about the events in Dallas.

Even some honest experts who have devoted many years of their life to studying the Kennedy assassination are puzzled. They keep putting the pieces together, but always find some that don’t fit.

Dallas’s own Jerry Dealey, a lifelong assassination researcher, can rattle off every detail of that day. At the end of a long tour of key Dallas sites and an intense discussion, Dealey sighed, and then admitted: “I know everything about the assassination, except what really happened.”

Sadly, none of us do, and that’s chiefly because two separate government committees – the Warren Commission (1964) and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976-79) – botched what was arguably the most important murder investigation of the 20th century.

The Warren Commission overlooked key witnesses, ignored inconvenient facts, and released its final report before all of the pertinent evidence could be gathered and analysed.

The House Committee’s controversial conclusion that Kennedy had “probably” been killed in conspiracy was based largely on a single piece of evidence – a crude police recording from 22 November that supposedly captured the sound of gunfire. (It did not, as we have conclusively proven in The Kennedy Half Century with a major new scientific study.)

The shortcomings of both committees, coupled with the US government’s refusal to release all of its assassination-related files a half century after Kennedy died, means that Dealey’s lament will be shared by other JFK researchers for many years to come.


Larry J Sabato is author of The Kennedy Half Century and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.