John F Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States in 1961 – the youngest person ever elected to that office.


Originally a senator for his home state of Massachusetts, Kennedy’s brief time in the White House coincided with some of the Cold War’s tensest moments – including the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With a presidential election looming in 1964, it was widely expected that Kennedy – popularly known by his initials, JFK – would soon announce his intention to seek a second term. He regarded Texas as a crucial battleground in the upcoming campaign and an official tour of its major cities was announced for late November 1963.

His assassination in that state was captured on camera by a bystander in what has become one of the most infamous filmed sequences in modern history.

Around 12.30pm on 22 November, as the presidential motorcade moved slowly through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, the boom of gunshots reverberated across the plaza.

One bullet tore through the president’s neck, followed seconds later by a catastrophic shot to his head. As he slumped towards his terrified wife, Jackie, the car accelerated from the scene. JFK was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital at 1pm.

The conspiracy theory: Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone

Within hours of the shooting, Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old employee at the Texas School Book Depository – whose building overlooked Dealey Plaza – was arrested in a nearby cinema after several people had witnessed him shoot a police officer dead.

Yet some came to believe that Oswald was a patsy (something he personally declared while in custody) for Kennedy’s enemies, or that he was not the only assassin involved.

Many conspiracy theorists held that the plot was hatched either by the mafia – supposedly enraged by the Kennedy administration’s crackdown on organised crime and JFK’s failure to overthrow Fidel Castro – or by the United States’ own intelligence and security agencies, particularly the CIA and the FBI, in a bid to thwart the president’s alleged plan to pull America out of the Vietnam War.

Two days after JFK’s assassination, Oswald was himself murdered.

Oswald was being transferred out of Dallas Police Headquarters towards an armoured car that would take him to the county jail, and such was the interest in Oswald that even this was televised. And so audiences across America witnessed the moment when local nightclub owner Jack Ruby tore from the crowd and shot Oswald at close range.

Oswald died shortly after at Parkland Memorial Hospital. For those who would come to believe that he hadn’t acted alone, this was clear evidence of Oswald’s handlers silencing the main suspect in JFK’s assassination.

What is the source of the theory?

According to investigative journalist and writer Gerald Posner, Ruby’s murder of Oswald “is what really robs us of knowing what happened in detail” and is “why the case will never be closed”.

Up until that moment, many Americans had assumed Oswald bore sole responsibility for JFK’s assassination. But Ruby’s act of vigilante justice deprived posterity of hearing Oswald’s testimony and began to sow suspicion in people’s minds.

“Within 48 hours, people are wondering, ‘what happened?’,” says Posner, who was speaking to us for an episode of our Conspiracy podcast series. "Then the Warren Commission [established by JFK’s successor, Lyndon B Johnson, to investigate the events of 22 November 1963] comes out a year later with its massive report, and most people don’t like the idea of a government commission to decide what happened on a big controversial historical area,” says Posner.

Moreover, the Kennedy family insisted that X-rays and photographs pertaining to the autopsy conducted on JFK should not be put on the public record.

The Commission also determined that other documents remain classified until 2039 – factors which only served to fuel conspiracy theorists.

The reasons why the theory took hold

In the wake of JFK’s assassination, public mistrust of government grew alongside a youth-led counterculture. America’s ongoing Vietnam war became increasingly unpopular, while the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, both in spring 1968, struck at the heart of the nation’s sense of assurance.

Then in the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal unmasked a duplicitous side to US politics and emboldened those who believed that government agents might have been behind JFK’s death.

Posner stresses that many also doubted Oswald’s ability as a marksman despite his military training in the US Marines Corps.

“A lot of people say there was a world-class assassin somewhere on the grassy knoll [in Dealey Plaza]. There are plenty of people … who came forward 10 and 15 years after the assassination to say ‘Oh, I saw a puff of smoke over there. I saw somebody running’ … those accounts don’t hold up, but still, they stick with a lot of people.”

Others insist that there were multiple assassins in the vicinity and dismiss as implausible the evidence that the second bullet fired by Oswald ripped both through JFK’s neck before passing through Texas Governor John Connally’s (who was sat in front of the president) chest and wrist before embedding itself in his left thigh.

Conspiracists deride this account as the ‘magic bullet theory’ because they perceive its trajectory as impossible when the location of the two men’s wounds is considered with their respective positions in the limousine. Connally survived, and the largely intact bullet was later found on the same stretcher he had occupied in Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Moreover, the conclusion of the US House of Representatives’ 1976 Select Committee on Assassinations endorsed the notion that JFK had almost certainly been the victim of a conspiracy. Posner notes that “even though that gets debunked, most people just remember the headline.”

Similarly, the 1991 Oliver Stone movie, JFK, which, Posner concedes, is “good in terms of the power of the film, but not in terms of its storytelling”, strengthened the notion that the public wasn’t being told the full story. That is because it revitalised the widely discredited investigation into the assassination conducted by New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison.

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The evidence that debunks the theory

Perhaps no other piece of documentary evidence conveys the tragedy of the assassination more than the Zapruder film.

Recorded on a silent 8mm film by Abraham Zapruder, a spectator in Dealey Plaza on that fateful November day, the silent 26.6-second-long footage was bought by LIFE magazine and not shown publicly until 1975.

“It’s disgraceful that the public had not seen that film years earlier. They had a right to see it,” says Posner.

Ballistics experts agree that the film demonstrates that the bullets came from behind the limousine (where Oswald was aiming his rifle from a sixth-floor window inside the Texas School Book Depository). Despite this, some theorists maintain that JFK’s sudden jerk backwards in his seat shows there was an assassin firing head-on, or even that the film was subsequently tampered with.

Nevertheless, the footage does corroborate the angle taken by the single bullet which passed through JFK and then into Texas Governor, John Connally, and is consistent with the wounds both men sustained.

Indeed, “the rifle that’s found the next day at the Depository [is] tied ballistically to the bullets that hit Kennedy and the governor to the exclusion of any other gun in the world” says Posner.

For Posner it all comes down to Oswald himself: “It’s only once you come to understand Oswald … that you get a feeling for how he could possibly end up in a window in Dallas shooting at the President of the United States.”

Oswald grew disillusioned with America during his miserable experience with the Marines, where he endured bullying from the other recruits. His defection to the USSR in 1959 aroused the KGB’s suspicions and – despite acquiring a Russian wife – his experience there instilled in him a contempt for Soviet Communism coupled with the disdain he felt towards his capitalist homeland.

The FBI interviewed Oswald upon his return to the United States in 1961; the result was that it opened an investigative file on him. In April 1963, he attempted to murder an ex-army general – though Oswald was only identified as the suspect in the report of the Warren Commission. He spent the summer of 1963 distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans and headed to Mexico City seven weeks before JFK’s assassination.

From Mexico City, Oswald’s efforts to visit Cuba were dashed by the Cuban and Soviet consulates (both of which were under CIA surveillance). Taking a job at the Texas School Book Depository that autumn was something of a fluke, as Posner explains: “It’s an assassination that becomes available to him.”

Ultimately, government secrecy has helped fan the conspiracy theory for decades.

“What I think is still keeping a large segment of people from settling on a decision is the fact that the government still has secret files,” says Posner. “These documents should have been out decades ago.”

Nevertheless, he concedes that there will be no epiphany even after the final document is released.

“People won’t say ‘Oh, it’s now the lone assassin.’ They’ll say ‘They must have destroyed the smoking gun’.”


Gerald Posner is an investigative journalist, whose landmark 1993 book Case Closed famously concluded that Oswald had indeed acted alone. He was speaking to Rob Attar for this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, part of our Conspiracy podcast series


Danny BirdStaff Writer, BBC History Magazine

Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)