Who killed JFK? The case that can never be closed

Everyone ‘knows’ who shot JFK, but is the story really that simple? Writing for BBC History Revealed, Nige Tassell examines the classified files released by the US in late 2017 for clues that might identify whether anyone was pulling the strings in the shadows…

Photo of JFK in the motorcade

It is history’s ultimate murder mystery, one that – nearly 55 years on – has never been satisfactorily solved. At 11.38am local time, on 22 November 1963, Air Force One landed at Love Field in Dallas. On board was US President John F Kennedy, visiting the Texan city in an attempt to boost his popularity in the state ahead of the presidential election the following year. Less than an hour later, a bullet had shattered both skull and brain. But the identity of who actually fired the fatal shot – and their motivation for doing so – has been the subject of deep conjecture and study ever since.

During 2017, more than 30,000 government documents concerning the assassination were released into the public realm, either in full or redacted form. While they added more detail to the debate and filled in a few blanks, they didn’t join the dots to present an indisputable explanation. The case is still not closed, the fog surrounding the tragedy still thick. But while the perpetrator and their cause continue to be speculated upon, the raw events of that fateful November day are burned onto the collective retinas of a nation.

The case is still not closed, the fog surrounding the tragedy still thick

It is history’s ultimate murder mystery, one that – nearly 55 years on – has never been satisfactorily solved. At 11.38am local time, on 22 November 1963, Air Force One landed at Love Field in Dallas. On board was US President John F Kennedy, visiting the Texan city in an attempt to boost his popularity in the state ahead of the presidential election the following year. Less than an hour later, a bullet had shattered both skull and brain. But the identity of who actually fired the fatal shot – and their motivation for doing so – has been the subject of deep conjecture and study ever since.

Advertisement

During 2017, more than 30,000 government documents concerning the assassination were released into the public realm, either in full or redacted form. While they added more detail to the debate and filled in a few blanks, they didn’t join the dots to present an indisputable explanation. The case is still not closed, the fog surrounding the tragedy still thick. But while the perpetrator and their cause continue to be speculated upon, the raw events of that fateful November day are burned onto the collective retinas of a nation.

The case is still not closed, the fog surrounding the tragedy still thick

The president was in Texas for political reasons. In-fighting within the state Democrat Party found Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson adopting a united front to stymie this bleeding wound, caused by a conflict between two key Texan Democrats – Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The Democrats’ hold on Texas was flimsy and fragile. Kennedy, despite having the Texan Johnson as his running mate, had taken the state by fewer than 50,000 votes in the 1960 presidential election. “If the governor and the senator didn’t agree to a truce soon,” observed William Manchester, author of the seminal The Death Of A President, “the national ticket wouldn’t stand a chance there next fall. No party writes off 25 electoral votes, so both Kennedy and Johnson were going down to patch things up. They had to make a major production of the trip.” In the end, it became a major production of an assassination.

Kennedy knew the risk. Dallas had a reputation for political violence, and the previous month, Arkansas senator J William Fulbright had directly advised Kennedy to remove it from his five-city Texas visit. “Dallas is a very dangerous place,” he warned. “I wouldn’t go there. Don’t you go.”

Fulbright wasn’t the only one to feel this way. When the Secret Service had driven the motorcade route four days earlier, local operative Forrest V Sorrels realised the high-rise architecture of downtown Dallas rendered those in the motorcade “sitting ducks”. Some 20,000 windows overlooked the route, 20,000 potential sniper perches that even the best efforts of the intelligence community couldn’t completely defend against.

Kennedy's popularity in the city was exceedingly low

Kennedy’s popularity in the city was exceedingly low. The local paper, the Dallas Morning News, was particularly vicious when it came to stirring political discontent and extremism. Its proprietor, Ted Dealey, had already addressed Kennedy at the White House a couple of years before in words of the barest candour. Dealey told the president what was required at that time was “a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think you are riding Caroline’s tricycle”. The implication was far from disguised. Texas saw JFK as a soft-touch East Coaster, the family man, the liberal, keen to thaw the ice of the Cold War.

Even if, when waking up in a Fort Worth hotel room on the last morning of his life, Kennedy didn’t believe he was entering a cauldron of distrust and hate, page 14 of that day’s Dallas Morning News told him otherwise. It was a full-page advertisement, its headline ironically welcoming the president to Dallas before asking a dozen questions of him, including one that suggested he was in collusion with the Vietnamese Communist Party. “We DEMAND answers to these questions,” it read.

Did you know?

The Lincoln Continental remained the car of choice for Presidents Johnson and Nixon – after it had been beefed up with bulletproof glass

After the 13-minute flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, Kennedy and his wife Jackie assumed their seats in the Lincoln Continental convertible that would take them on a circuitous route through the city before a lunch engagement at the Dallas Trade Mart. Sat in front of them were Governor Connally and his wife Nellie. The rain of that morning had disappeared and the sky was now a perfect blue. Had the inclement conditions continued, the Lincoln’s roof would have been in position, quite possibly averting the tragedy to come.

As the motorcade made its way into the city, the response of the citizens of Dallas seemed warmer than expected to an under-fire president. Not that Kennedy, the decorated war veteran, was allowing himself to get rattled by any danger. At the junction of Lemmon Avenue and Lomo Alto Drive, he ordered the car be stopped, then got out and casually greeted some schoolchildren. By the time the motorcade reached Main Street, the downtown crowds started to seriously thicken.

Main Street took the procession on an arrow-straight course through the heart of the downtown area, before the cars at the front of the 17-vehicle procession turned right onto Houston Street and then negotiated a sharp, 120o corner onto Elm Street. At this point, as it made the tight turn in front of the Texas School Book Depository, the motorcade reduced its speed to little more than walking pace.

What were the movements of Lee Harvey Oswald?

Lee Harvey Oswald had reported for work at the Texas School Book Depository as normal on the morning of 22 November 1963. The rest of the day was anything but normal. At 12.30pm, as the presidential motorcade passed the building, three shots were fired from its sixth floor. Ninety seconds later, Oswald was challenged by a police officer who was following reports of a gunman being spotted at one of the windows, but Oswald’s superior reassured the officer that he was an employee. Oswald then left the building just before police sealed it off.

Oswald then took a taxi to his lodgings in the Oak Cliff district where, according to his landlady, he changed into a jacket and swiftly left. A quarter of an hour later, and almost a mile away, a Dallas policeman named JD Tippit pulled up alongside Oswald, who matched the description of the armed man seen at the Book Depository window. As Tippit stepped out of his car, Oswald – as later verified by nine eyewitnesses – fired four shots into the officer.

A local shoe-shop manager then watched as Oswald disappeared into a nearby cinema, the Texas Theatre, and alerted a member of staff, who in turn summoned the police. After a brief struggle, Oswald was arrested inside the auditorium. At Dallas police headquarters, another officer recognised Oswald’s name; he was the only Book Depository employee unaccounted for and who thus had become a suspect in Kennedy’s assassination.

“I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir,” Oswald told reporters as he was led through the corridors of the police building. That evening, though, he was charged with killing Officer Tippit. In the early hours of the following day, he was charged with assassinating President Kennedy. The day after that, he himself was gunned down, live on television.

Conspiracy theorists later pounced on this slight detour as being deliberately manufactured so as to bring the motorcade within shooting distance, but it was actually out of necessity. Had they continued on Main Street, a traffic island would have blocked their passage up onto the highway and towards the Trade Mart for that lunch reception.

Now out of the canyon of skyscrapers and into the sunshine, the motorcade was greeted by much sparser crowds, onlookers dotting the open, grassy areas of Dealey Plaza. Then, on the stroke of 12.30pm, came the first bang, thought by most bystanders to be one of the motorcade’s vehicles backfiring. But it was a rifle shot. It missed, ricocheting away from the president after hitting a tree. The second bullet found its mark, passing through Kennedy’s neck and windpipe, then exiting his throat, after which it wounded Governor Connally. It caused Kennedy to lurch forward, his hand on his throat. Then came the third bullet, a devastating shot that caused immense head trauma.

Panic stations

The reaction was instant. The crowd hit the ground as if levelled by a sudden wind, while Secret Service agents rallied to the president’s car. One – Clint Hill – leapt onto the Lincoln’s boot as it accelerated away. Jackie Kennedy climbed out of her seat and towards the back of the car, either to assist Hill or to retrieve a portion of her husband’s skull. Two cars back, Vice-President Johnson’s own security detail instantly covered the second-in-command. Meanwhile, the president’s Lincoln was speeding off towards the highway. Six minutes later, it arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Had he been a mere civilian, Kennedy would have been declared dead on arrival.

A closer look at how the final moments of President John F Kennedy’s life unfolded

President John F Kennedy landed at Love Field Airport at 11.38pm; less than one and a half hours later he was pronounced dead in hospital. The minutes in-between have been examined again and again by those trying to discover the definite truth of who shot the president. These are his final moments, as his motorcade makes the awkward turn onto Elm Street and the fatal bullets are fired.

The three shots that slew Kennedy

❶ The first bullet misses completely; it strikes a tree and ricochets away, then hits a curb near the railway bridge. It throws up a concrete fragment that superficially wounds a bystander.

❷ The second bullet slams into Kennedy’s back, exits through his neck, and lodges in Governor John Connally, sitting in front of him. Kennedy is seen putting his hand to his neck in the Zapruder footage.

❸ The third bullet is definitively fatal, hitting the president in the head and cleaving away part of his skull. One onlooker, just six years old, thinks that confetti is being thrown from the motorcade.

The single/magic bullet theory

The single bullet theory is that the first of the two bullets that hit Kennedy passed through him, and caused all of Connally’s injuries – a total of seven entry and exit wounds. Critics derisively call it the ‘magic’ bullet theory

❶ Oswald’s second shot enters Kennedy’s back, but doesn’t stop – it emerges from his throat just below his Adam’s Apple.

❷ The same bullet hits Connally, entering his abdomen under his right arm; it destroys most of his fifth rib and a punctures a lung.

❸ Connally suffers further injury, as the same bullet shatters his wrist and then lodges itself in his thigh.

The manhunt was on and it wasn’t long before an employee of the Texas School Book Depository was the chief suspect. The building’s sixth floor had been undergoing refurbishment, meaning its piles of boxes had been shifted to one end, offering the perfect hiding place for a rifle-toting, would-be assassin. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald.

The search for Oswald didn’t last long. Forty-five minutes after the assassination, a Dallas police officer was shot dead three miles south of Dealey Plaza. His supposed killer, a man fitting Oswald’s description, had then disappeared into a local cinema, where he was quickly apprehended. With the country and the world plunged into deep shock, the speedy arrest of the supposed assassin brought some kind of lukewarm comfort.

Photo of Lyndon B Johnson
Lyndon B Johnson is sworn in aboard Air Force One, just two hours after Kennedy’s death, with Jackie Kennedy looking on. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Back at Parkland, a struggle ensued concerning the president’s body. The Secret Service wanted it swiftly returned to Washington, while the local authorities were insisting the post-mortem be carried out in Dallas. Washington won that particular battle and Kennedy’s body was transported back to Love Field, where it was loaded onto Air Force One. Also on board were Jackie Kennedy, her pink suit heavily stained by the blood of her husband, and Vice-President Johnson who, before take-off, was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States.

Too convenient?

In Oswald, the authorities firmly believed they had their man, a loose cannon with Marxist sympathies and a sharpshooting record from his time in the military. It was a convenient outcome – the lone gunman with erratic tendencies. “He hadn’t the ideals of a cat,” one commentator later noted.

Abraham Zapruder’s famous home movie

When he awoke on 22 November 1963, Abraham Zapruder could never have guessed the contribution he would make to US history that day. A garment-maker originally from Ukraine, Zapruder filmed 26 seconds of John F Kennedy’s motorcade moving along Elm Street in Dallas. Contained in the 486 frames he recorded were the moments of impact of the two bullets that ended the president’s life.

The rights to Zapruder’s footage were bought by Life magazine for 50,000, and stills were used as part of the Warren Commission’s investigation. However, it was only when frame 313 was broadcast on US television in 1975, showing the devastating headshot (and suggesting a second assassin located elsewhere in the vicinity) that the lone gunman theory fell out of favour with the American public.

At the start of Zapruder’s footage, office workers are seen lining the sidewalk as Dealey Plaza basks in the midday Dallas sun. The presidential motorcade appears and successfully negotiates the 120° left turn onto Elm Street, close to the end of the processional route. President Kennedy is all smiles in the back seat of his limousine.

Seconds later, Kennedy is seen clutching his throat. The bullet passes through his throat before continuing its passage into Governor John Connally, who is sat directly in front of the president. Feeling the bullet’s impact in his back, Connally exclaimed: “My God, they’re going to kill us all.”

The most significant frame of all 26 seconds of footage is still to come. As the motorcade passes almost directly in front of Zapruder, a bullet destroys part of Kennedy’s head. When he sold the rights to Life magazine, Zapruder insisted that this most graphic of images not be published.

Three seconds after Kennedy received that devastating headshot, his wife Jackie rises from her seat, quite possibly to help Secret Service agent Clint Hill into the vehicle. Other theories suggest the First Lady was trying to retrieve part of her husband’s skull.

However, it proved to be a false denouement. Another would occur two days after the assassination when, while being transferred to the county jail, Oswald was fatally shot by a local nightclub owner called Jack Ruby in the underground car park of Dallas police headquarters. Having already declared to the media that he was the fall guy for something bigger – “I’m just a patsy,” he claimed – Oswald would take the truth of the assassination to the grave.

The report was crystal-clear: Oswald had operated alone

A week after Kennedy’s death, the newly installed Johnson ordered the establishment of the President’s Commission of the Assassination of President Kennedy to investigate the full circumstances of the killing. Led by chief justice Earl Warren (and subsequently known as the Warren Commission), it produced its findings ten months later in an 888-page report. Its conclusion was crystal-clear: Oswald was the only gunman and had operated alone. Similarly, his murder by Ruby was another individual act.

Photo of Lee Harvey Oswald
JFK’s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald during a press conference after his arrest in Dallas. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

For some, the Warren Report was deeply unsatisfactory, a mere rubberstamping of the authorities’ initial analysis. Over the 55 years since, each and every second of the assassination has been studied in the deepest forensic detail; the writer Mark Lawson once quipped that it was “a torrent of commentary equalled only by biblical scholarship”. Accordingly, a range of theories has subsequently been presented, debated, debunked and reaffirmed. In 1975, a major piece of evidence was broadcast on network television, one that remains the cornerstone of many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. On that day in November 1963, a local man named Abraham Zapruder used his cine-camera to film the motorcade as it made its progress through Dealey Plaza. His footage, and specifically frame 313, showed the headshot that had killed the president. The impact knocked Kennedy backwards, suggesting the shot had come from the front, not from behind – that is, there was a strong possibility that it wasn’t fired from the Book Depository, which was already in the rear-view mirror of the presidential car.

Did you know?

Seven months earlier, Oswald tried to assassinate US Major General Edwin Walker – the man behind the JFK ‘Wanted for Treason’ leaflets

Theories about the location of a possible second gunman abounded. On the day itself, many bystanders had rushed up the grassy knoll to where Zapruder had been standing, believing the shots to have come from that area. Another theory was that a sniper had taken position on the railroad bridge the motorcade was about to pass under. Some even believed that a second shooter could have been staked out inside one of Elm Street’s storm drains.

No one could credit the tragedy to a single assassin
William Manchester, 1967

The public disquiet about the Zapruder footage led to the commissioning, in 1976, of the House Select Committee on Assassinations to look into the killings of both Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Its findings, presented three years later, concluded that although Oswald was the man whose shots ended the president’s life, there was a high probability of a second gunman and thus of a conspiracy.

Was there a second shooter?

The most cogent and convincing conspiracy theory put forward is arguably the one advanced by Jim Garrison in On the Trail of the Assassins. First published in 1988, the book reignited the smouldering debate around the assassination, calmly dismissing the findings of the Warren Commission. These flames were further fanned by the book being the basis of the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK, in which Garrison, the dogged New Orleans district attorney seeking the clarity of truth, was played by Hollywood star du jour Kevin Costner.

Conspiracy theories

The CIA

A theory posited by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (and subsequently picked up by Oliver Stone for his film JFK) saw Kennedy’s killing as an inside job. Anti-communist elements within the agency thought the president was toning down the Cold War rhetoric, favouring toleration over polarisation.

The mafia

Not only was the failure to remove Fidel Castro from power in the Bay of Pigs invasion affecting mafia interests in Cuba, but the close attentions being paid to organised crime back home by the attorney general (who just happened to be JFK’s brother, Robert) caused alarm in the underworld. “We shouldn’t have killed John,” mobster Santo Trafficante Jr reportedly later said. “We should have killed Bobby.”

Lyndon B Johnson

It’s not such a preposterous idea that Kennedy’s vice-president, whom JFK was apparently intending to replace, was the architect of the assassination. Flying back to Washington later that day aboard Air Force One, Kennedy’s long-time secretary Evelyn Lincoln drew up a list of suspects. Johnson was right at the top.

South Vietnam

Kennedy’s killing may have been an act of revenge following the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, in a CIA-enhanced coup just three weeks before JFK’s own demise. The US had been concerned that Diem was about to hand control of the country to the communists.

The USSR

The Cuban Missile Crisis – the superpower stand-off that had taken the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 – was solved when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev withdrew his missiles from Cuba. It was possible that the USSR wanted revenge for this, and the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald used to live in Minsk and had a Russian wife added extra layers of credibility.

Garrison was no idle speculator. In 1966, on the grounds that Oswald had been a resident of New Orleans a few months before the assassination, he launched a deep-reaching probe into the events leading up to that fateful day in Dallas. The investigation plotted a convincing case that the US intelligence community had orchestrated the killing in order to bring an end to Kennedy’s thawing of the Cold War. Garrison even (unsuccessfully) prosecuted Clay Shaw – the founder of the International Trade Mart in New Orleans and later revealed to be a CIA operative – on charges of conspiracy to assassinate the president.

Garrison had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the Warren Report’s conclusions. “Saddened and outraged,” he wrote, “Americans wanted an answer. And we got one.” The verdict had been a straightforward, reassuring one – even if others would become sceptical of it. “Most Americans readily accepted the government’s contention that the assassination was a random act of violence. A lonely, young man, his mind steeped in Marxist ideology, apparently frustrated at his inability to do anything well, had crouched at a warehouse window and – in six seconds of world-class shooting – destroyed the president of the United States.”

Contradictions and inconsistencies

Garrison and his sharp-witted team unpicked a tangle of dealings and relationships between the CIA, the FBI, local politicians and underworld elements along the Gulf Coast. It appeared that a covert cabal had been established, one united by the issue of Cuba; anticommunists wanted the US to overthrow Castro, while local gangsters were eager to reassert their pre-revolution business interests on the island. Kennedy’s failed Bay Of Pigs invasion in 1961 had not reassured either group. In Oswald, the erratic Marxist, they had their ideal patsy.

As a notable prosecutor, Garrison applied his calm, methodical legal mind to the case, compellingly pinpointing the contradictions and inconsistencies that underpinned the 26 volumes of the Warren Report. “I had expected to find a thorough and professional investigation. I found nothing of the sort.” The evidence utilised by the Warren Commission appeared to have been very selective; for instance, many credible witnesses ignored. “The number of promising leads that were never followed up offended my prosecutorial sensibility,” sighed Garrison.

The 2017 Disclosures

“Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as president, the long blocked JFK FILES to be opened.” Donald Trump’s announcement in October 2017  (made on Twitter, of course) commanded the US National Archives to disclose all remaining government files pertaining to the assassination. But it wasn’t quite the public-spirited gesture towards open and transparent government that Trump made it appear; a 1992 Congressional law had instructed all existing classified documents to be released within 25 years. The deadline was simply days away.

Such an exercise might have silenced the conspiracy theorists who, for decades, had been claiming a government cover-up over the killing. But, in the immediate wake of the presidential tweet, the White House issued a caveat, explaining that the release of documents would not be full and absolute if “agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification”.

And this was the case when the documents were released six days later. Most were made available, but not all. Of the 3,140 documents that had previously avoided public scrutiny, 249 were withheld or redacted on the request of various government agencies, pending a 180-day review. The previously bullish Trump explained he had no alternative but to agree, “rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation’s security”. Of course, such a move added more fuel to the conspiracy fire.

The files that were released contained some interesting disclosures. For instance, one document asserted that, two months before JFK’s death, Lee Harvey Oswald had been in contact with an “identified KGB officer” at the Russian Embassy in Mexico City, one whose department was “responsible for sabotage and assassination”. Even more intriguing was a memo from FBI director J Edgar Hoover that revealed the agency had received a telephone call warning of a threat to Oswald’s life after he was charged; the caller explained how he was “a member of a committee organised to kill Oswald”. Hoover sought, and received, assurances from the Dallas chief of police that “adequate protection” would be given to Oswald in custody. The lax security would have significant repercussions, with Jack Ruby’s intervention denying any subsequent investigation into Lee Harvey Oswald’s motives.

The book and film were major shapers of public opinion towards a conspiracy that was forged at the highest levels of the US establishment. Certainly, those who still have faith in the lone gunman theory are in a distinct minority.

“No one could credit the tragedy to a single assassin,” William Manchester wrote back in 1967. “The president was always described as a victim of ‘them’, never of ‘him’. The crime seemed too vast to be attributed to a single criminal. Ford’s Theatre was remembered as the building in which one man shot [Abraham] Lincoln, but Dallas became the city where ‘they’ killed Kennedy.”

Advertisement

More than half a century later, the identity of ‘them’ remains unknown, quite possibly forever. This is a case that will almost certainly never be closed.

Read

On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison (Ingram Publisher Services, 2013) or Death of a President by William Manchester (Back Bay Publishing, 2013)

Watch

JFK, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Kevin Costner (1991)

This article was first published in the March 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed