The murder of President John F. Kennedy has shaped the American view of our own history like few other events. For many people, even some who had not yet been born, the events of November 22, 1963, are indelibly impressed on the mind as a day that changed the world.
Over the years, I have built a library of three dozen books about that murder. I read them one by one as I acquired them. Late last year, I decided to read through the entire collection from earliest publication date to the most recent volume. With that new reading, I not only renewed my memory of the various ideas of what happened that day; I also witnessed the history of the history. I saw how one writer’s speculation could become an authoritative footnote in a later book. I saw how the same puzzle pieces could be assembled in various ways to create distinctly different pictures.
When I meet with history students on the first day of a new semester, I ask them whether they agree that, the more information we have about a particular event, the better we can understand that event. Usually they agree. Then I use the events of that day to show that too much information can muddle the picture. Consider the amount of evidence—hundreds of witnesses, photographs, moving pictures, and a great many artifacts from bullet fragments to the victims’ clothing. In fact, few crimes have provided as much material for investigation as this very public assassination. In spite of that wealth of information, various understandings and interpretations of the evidence have led to widely varying conclusions about what happened.
President Kennedy was visiting Texas largely for political purposes. He had narrowly carried the state in the 1960 election, and his reelection was doubtful without the electoral votes of Texas in 1964. His wife Jackie, probably even more popular than the President, accompanied him on this trip, as did assorted Texas politicians including Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Governor John Connally. After a morning appearance in Fort Worth, the President and his associates made the extremely short plane ride to Dallas to ride in a motorcade through downtown in order to give a speech at the World Trade Mart that afternoon.
The President was greeted in a largely cordial manner, although some pamphlets and newspaper ads carried negative statements about his policies. Cheering crowds lined the streets between the airport and the World Trade Mart. As the President’s car neared the end of downtown Dallas, after it turned from Houston Street onto Elm Street, shots rang out. Both the President and the Governor were injured. Secret Service rushed the car to Parkland Hospital. Doctors were able to save Governor Connally, but President Kennedy was declared dead at the hospital.
Over the objection of local authorities, federal agents rushed Kennedy’s body to the airport to take it back to Washington DC. Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated as the nation’s thirty-sixth President, and then the airplanes took off. When the airplanes arrived in Washington, the President’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an autopsy. After a weekend of mourning, the President was buried at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, police officers had found a rifle and three cartridges on the sixth floor of the Book Depository at the corner of Houston and Elm streets. Asking for the names of employees who had left the building since the shooting, they were given the name of Lee Harvey Oswald. Already a description of an unnamed man, given by one of the parade observers, had been broadcast on the police radio, describing him as a suspect in the crime. Oswald had left his workplace, taking a bus and a taxi to his apartment. He left the apartment around one o’clock. A few minutes later, a police officer was shot and killed within a mile of his apartment. Some time after that, as police cars were still rushing to the scene of the second shooting, a shoe salesman spotted a man hiding in doorways and acting in a suspicious manner. When this man ducked into a movie theater without buying a ticket, the shoe salesman consulted the theater clerk and decided to call the police. They answered quickly and arrested Oswald in the theater. He was brought to the police station for questioning, a suspect in the murder of the police officer. Another officer, preparing to search for Oswald as a suspect in the President’s murder, was told that Oswald was already in custody. The Dallas police proceeded to question Oswald, while also searching his apartment and the house where his wife was staying.
Oswald was questioned through the day on Saturday as well as Sunday morning. He was displayed to reporters late Friday night and frequently had to pass through groups of reporters while being moved from place to place in the police station. He was placed in line-ups to be identified by witnesses of the shooting of the President and of the police officer. He was formally charged with both murders.
Then, late Sunday morning, Oswald was being transferred to the county jail for greater security. While in a police department garage, and while surrounded by police officers, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, owner of a Dallas nightclub. His death prevented Oswald from being brought to trial and given the benefit of legal defense. Instead, President Johnson appointed a Commission to investigate the assassination and associated events. The published report of the Commission in 1964 indicated that Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot and kill President Kennedy and that he acted alone, not as part of a conspiracy.
Since that report was issued, many people have questioned its conclusions. Some have suggested that Oswald was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President, while others say that he was framed for the crime. Over the next three posts, I will consider the evidence of Oswald’s guilt, the evidence that he was framed or was part of a conspiracy, and two possible solutions to the mystery.