The assassination of President Kennedy–Conclusion

I have two reasons to doubt that President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas as the result of a conspiracy. The first reason is the nature of conspiracies in general, and the second reason is the nature of Lee Harvey Oswald.

A conspiracy can succeed if it involves a small number of people with a limited objective on which they all agree. As more people become involved and more steps need to be accomplished, the chance for the conspiracy to succeed dwindles rapidly. To see how conspiracies within American government actually work, study the Watergate scandal. From that one can observe how the twin powers of self-interest and incompetence doom any major conspiracy.

To murder President Kennedy through a conspiracy, the conspirators would have needed to arrange for Lee Harvey Oswald to be hired at the Book Depository, and then to arrange for the President’s motorcade to take a route that passed by the Depository. The conspirators would have needed to obtain in advance a bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle, and then to have that bullet planted on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital. The conspirators would have needed a plan to remove the President’s body from Dallas and have it examined by a chosen team of doctors in Washington DC. The conspirators would have needed to script the arrest of Oswald in a movie theater and then to make him available to be shot by Jack Ruby on Dallas police property that same weekend.

After accomplishing all this, the conspirators would have needed to keep their work hidden from the FBI, the Warren Commission, and any later investigating agency. The failure of investigators to find even one person who can convincingly claim to have been involved in planning any of the many steps of such a conspiracy is resounding evidence that such a conspiracy never existed.

If that were not enough, one must consider the nature of Lee Harvey Oswald. From the time he was in the United States Marines through the time he worked various jobs in Minsk, New Orleans, and Dallas, Oswald exhibited a pattern of unreliable behavior. At no time did he stick to any job with concentration and determination. Any group of conspirators who chose to trust Oswald as a member of their team would have been guilty of poor judgment, to say the least. Even if a group of conspirators were using Oswald as a patsy without his advance knowledge, his pattern of unpredictable behavior would have made Oswald unsuitable for their plans.

How could the planners have arranged to have Oswald to bring his rifle to work on November 22 (or to have him carry a package of curtain rods wrapped in brown paper, causing people to suspect he had a rifle that morning)? How could they have kept Oswald in the second floor lunchroom of the Depository while the motorcade of the President of the United States passed by the building? How could they have been sure that Oswald’s behavior, both before and after the shooting, would draw suspicion of the Dallas police toward him that same afternoon?

Nevertheless, American imaginations generally require a conspiracy to make sense of history. The thought that one man as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald could, with a highly impulsive act, change the course of history does not appeal to most people. Events of great significance require great causes, in the minds of many people. Here follows a description of a conspiracy plan that could have worked, involving a small number of people with the power to carry out their will, and with the scheming of significant people fulfilling a plan to shape the future. Consider, if you will, the following scenario:

In the summer of 1963, during a routine physical examination, doctors at the Bethesda Naval Hospital discover that President Kennedy has an incurable and fatal illness. Perhaps they find an inoperable tumor, or perhaps a complication with Addison’s disease or with some other health problem in Kennedy’s history. The doctors informed the President that he had about a year to live. The President immediately demanded that the doctors keep his condition secret, and they all swore that at no time would they ever divulge the information they had learned about President Kennedy’s health.

This bad news was particularly striking to President Kennedy, who was working to shape the policy of the government of the United States in several important areas. He expected reelection to a second term to complete the progress he had started. Failure to seek reelection would threaten every one of the President’s plans. He had no guarantee that any other prominent Democrat would continue along the same course, let alone that a Republican victory in November 1964 would not derail everything he had accomplished. President Kennedy realized that he could only ensure continuation of his plans by succumbing to a sudden, rapid, and unexpected death. To receive a martyr’s reward, he would have to die the death of a martyr.

The President could not order any member of the American government to kill him in public view. To arrange for his own murder, the President needed to contact a small, highly organized group of people that was not afraid of committing a crime. Although his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was working hard to battle organized crime in the United States, the President had a courier able to bring messages to leaders in organized crime and to carry messages from them to him. Her name was Judith Campbell (later Exner), and she had access to the President as well as to Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli, two men in powerful positions within organized crime in the United States. Kennedy was confident that the Secret Service would not interfere with his meetings with Campbell. Through her he arranged a hit upon himself, guaranteeing Giancana and Roselli that they would not be caught and prosecuted for his assassination and that government investigations of organized crime would diminish after his death. Of course it was up to them to plan and execute the killing and to hide any evidence of their involvement.

The President was not told where and when his will would be accomplished, beyond that it would happen in the autumn of 1963 in a southern state. With that information, the President authorized a political swing through Florida and Texas, and he persuaded his wife Jacqueline to accompany him, telling her that her presence was needed for political purposes. At the same time, President Kennedy firmly instructed Jacqueline that, if anything fatal should happen to him, at any time and in any place, she should demand that his autopsy take place in Bethesda Naval Hospital, and that no other medical professionals be allowed to examine his body. This way, the President could be sure that his fatal disease remained unknown and that his legacy as a martyred President would be preserved.

Researchers have noted that Giancana and Roselli seemed to have advance knowledge of the President’s death, including the details that he would be shot with a high-powered rifle from an office building and that a communist sympathizer would be arrested and charged with the crime. The Secret Service reportedly received word of a plot against the President in Miami and arranged last-minute changes in his travel plans. In Dallas they were less successful. Given a very small plot, largely conceived by experienced criminal minds, the President’s desire for an elaborate suicide was accomplished on November 22, 1963.

Elements of the crime have been detected by various investigators, but until this time no one has identified the mastermind who began direction of the assassination. Many individuals and groups have been accused, including figures in organized crime, departments of the American government, rogue elements within some of those departments, anti-Castro Cubans, and forces from the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, or Vietnam. The sheer number of suspects, combined with the burden of far too much evidence to study, has kept the secret hidden until now.

And it was no mistake that my home computer broke down on Sunday, just as I was about to reveal this conspiracy to the world. J.

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The case for Oswald’s defense

No one saw Lee Harvey Oswald aim a gun at President Kennedy and pull the trigger. A man strongly resembling Oswald was seen with a gun shortly before the shooting, standing at the window from which shots were fired; the first description of a suspect, broadcast on the Dallas police radio, was based on that sighting. The man who gave that description to the police was unable to identify Oswald in a police lineup that weekend.

Other people resembling Oswald were in Dallas that year. Several people reported seeing Oswald or interacting with him at times when he was known to be elsewhere. Even Bill Lovelady, another Book Depository employee, was sometimes mistaken for Oswald. (He was photographed in front of the Book Depository near the time of the shooting.)

The first person to see Oswald after the murder was a police officer who entered the Book Depository immediately after the shooting. He encountered Oswald in the lunchroom on the second floor of the building. After his arrest, Oswald told the Dallas police that he had been in that lunchroom at the time of the shooting. Other employees of the Book Depository said that they had seen Oswald in the lunchroom minutes before the shooting.

The gun used to kill the President was found on the sixth floor of the Book Depository near the top of the stairs. It was linked to Oswald through a purchase order signed by Alek Hidell and was delivered to a post office box rented by Oswald; it was also linked to him through photographs showing Oswald with the rifle. Oswald’s rifle was an Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano, although a police officer first identified the gun as a German-made Mauser. No ammunition for any rifle was found among Oswald’s possessions. A paraffin test conducted by the Dallas police to determine whether or not Oswald had fired a gun on November 22 was inconclusive.

The Dallas police accomplished as poor a job handling evidence from the murder as they did protecting Oswald. Bullets, guns, and other important items of evidence were mishandled, misidentified, and moved from place to place without a clear chain of possession. The rifle itself was inspected by the Dallas police, handed over to the FBI who found no prints on the weapon, and returned to the Dallas police, who then announced that they had lifted a palm print from the gun which matched Oswald’s hand. Had Oswald lived to stand trial, his defense lawyers might well have succeeded in barring much of the significant evidence from the trial. Some investigators have suggested that the Dallas police acted almost as if they knew in advance that there would be no trial.

Perhaps the federal authorities could have been expected to perform a more professional job. Yet the Commission established by President Johnson relied upon the FBI to provide them with information for their investigation. The FBI, starting at the top with Director J. Edgar Hoover, firmly believed that Oswald was guilty and that he acted alone. As a result, FBI agents gathered information that supported the guilt of Oswald while ignoring or marginalizing information that might have proved his innocence. Given the bias of the FBI, it is not surprising that the Commission, relying on the FBI for information, concluded decisively that Oswald killed the President and that he did so acting alone.

Between the time of his arrest on the 22nd and the time of his death on the 24th, Oswald consistently denied shooting President Kennedy. If his goal was to achieve notoriety by killing the President, it is odd that he refused to claim responsibility for the murder. Oswald never had a greater opportunity to state his political beliefs than during his arrest that weekend, but all he managed to say about himself was, “I’m just a patsy,” meaning an innocent person framed for a crime.

Oswald had contempt for the governments of the United States and of the Soviet Union, but he never expressed any hatred toward President Kennedy. In fact, he was said to admire Kennedy. Oswald made it clear that he knew that the death of the President would not change the course of the American government, since Vice President Lyndon Johnson was in line to replace the President.

Oswald’s life before the weekend of the assassination is filled with contradictions. He joined the United States Marine Corps but declared himself to be a Communist and studied the Russian language. Receiving a hardship release from the Marine Corps because of a minor injury to his mother, Oswald quickly traveled to Europe and entered the Soviet Union where he renounced his American citizenship. Oswald was given a job and an apartment in Minsk, where he married a Russian woman before completing paperwork to return to the United States. In Texas, Lee and Marina associated with a community of Russians who were hostile to the Soviet government. In Louisiana, Lee claimed to represent Fair Play for Cuba, an association which supported Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba. Oswald also made contact with anti-Castro Cubans in Louisiana. Weeks before the assassination, Oswald traveled to Mexico City where he attempted to obtain documents from the Cuban and Soviet embassies so he could travel to Cuba.

Oswald’s relationship with U.S. government agencies is unknown. Many CIA and FBI files about Oswald are either missing or still restricted. While he was with the Marine Corps, Oswald was involved with highly sensitive missions, including operating radar in the Asian Pacific theater. His ability to travel to the Soviet Union and then return to the United States has fascinated researchers ever since Oswald’s death. Oswald most likely was not a highly-trained spy, but his time spent in the Soviet Union may still have served the purposes of the American government.

When American intelligence agencies spend a great deal of time and money training five or six Americans to act as spies in the Soviet Union, these agencies do not want to make detection of these spies easy for the Soviet government by sending only those spies across the border. Sending five or six other Americans into the Soviet Union at the same time would force the Soviet government to divide its resources among all ten to twelve Americans. With his interest in communism and his efforts to learn Russian, Oswald was an ideal candidate for the role of spy decoy. Allowing him to leave the Marine Corps early and perhaps funding his travel to Europe, the American government was able to distract the Soviet government with a decoy at little cost to the United States.

Since the United States used Oswald as a decoy to distract the Soviets from real American spies, the Soviet government most likely did the same thing. This procedure may explain why Oswald was allowed to marry Marina, a Russian girl, and to bring her back to America with him. FBI agent James Hosty, who was responsible for keeping track of the Oswalds in Dallas, has written that he was far more concerned with Marina than with Lee as a threat to the safety of the United States.

If both governments treated the Oswalds as pawns during the confrontations of the Cold War, another question should be asked: might Lee Harvey Oswald have been used in November 1963 by some conspiracy that intended to assassinate the President? Could Oswald have been the “patsy” he claimed to be, set up to take the blame for the murder so the real conspirators could go free? I will attempt to answer these questions in tomorrow’s post.

The case against Lee Harvey Oswald

No one saw Lee Harvey Oswald aim a gun at President Kennedy and pull the trigger. However, more than one person saw Oswald (or a person who looked like him) standing at a sixth floor window of the Book Depository before the shots were fired. Some of them observed that he was holding a rifle. Others saw the rifle (but not the shooter) briefly after the shots were fired. Workers on the fifth floor of the Book Depository reported that shots were fired from above their heads. Photographs and film of the event show that, when the first shot was fired, Secret Service agents and people watching the parade turned to look in the direction of the Book Depository.

After the shooting, police officers found a grouping of boxes on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. Some of the boxes shielded the corner window from the view of the rest of the floor; two others were arranged as a seat and a rifle-rest for a gunman. Three cartridges rested on the floor near these boxes.

The President was shot from behind and from above, to his right. This fact is indicated by bullet damage to the clothing he was wearing at the time. A bullet entered his back between his right shoulder blade and spine. Fibers from his shirt and suitcoat demonstrate that the back wound was an entry wound. A bullet exited the President’s neck just above the knot of his tie. Careful study of his shirt collar and neck tie demonstrates that a bullet exited the President’s throat. The President’s other wound was in the head. The fact that he dropped backward after being shot in the head has caused many researchers to conclude that the fatal shot came from in front of the president. Autopsy photographs show a smaller entry wound at the top of the head, to the right of center, and a large exit wound on the side of the President’s head. Still photographs from the film taken at the time the president was shot show the exit of debris flying in front of the President. This indicates that the President was shot from behind and that he was thrown backward, not from the impact of the bullet, but from the force of the debris exiting his head.

Governor Connally was also shot from behind. A bullet entered his back, shattered a rib, exited his chest, pierced his wrist, and became embedded in his thigh. The scar from the Governor’s first injury is as long as the bullet, indicating that the bullet struck him after beginning to tumble, meaning that it had hit some other object first—likely the President, but possibly a tree branch. A bullet was found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital. Although its nose is not deformed, the rear of the bullet is flattened with some lead missing. This appears to indicate that the tumbling bullet struck the governor’s rib and wrist, causing significant damage to the governor and some damage to the rear of the bullet.

A rifle was found hidden among boxes on the sixth floor of the Book Depository. Bullet fragments found in the President’s car were fired from that rifle, as was the nearly intact bullet found at the hospital. The rifle matched a gun mailed to “Alek Hidell” at a post office box Hidell shared with Oswald. When arrested, Oswald was carrying an identification card with his picture and the name of Alek Hidell. When his possessions were searched at the house where his wife was staying, photographs were found of Oswald holding the same rifle, as well as the pistol used to kill the police officer.

Oswald had received a ride to work that morning from a co-worker. Both the co-worker and his sister testified that Oswald had carried a large paper package with him to work that morning. Oswald told the co-worker that the package contained curtain rods for his apartment. He later told the police that he had carried nothing to work except his lunch. Paper resembling that of the package witnessed by the co-worker and his sister was found near the sixth-floor window where the three cartridges were discovered.

Researchers have questioned whether or not Oswald could have fired three shots in the amount of time that the shooting took place. If the first shot missed, then the three shots happened in about eight seconds, well within the limitations of the rifle, especially since Oswald had familiarized himself with the workings of the gun. Researchers have questioned whether Oswald was capable of hitting a moving target at that range. His shooting scores while in the Marines were quite low. Yet in all his other jobs, Oswald frequently did less than his best at assigned tasks. His scores at the Marine shooting range probably did not reflect his actual ability. Researchers have questioned whether the gun Oswald used was equal to the task. While it was an inexpensive, mass-produced gun, it was certainly capable of the damage that happened in Dallas when in the hands of an experienced shooter.

Researchers also have asked why Oswald did not fire at the car while it was approaching him on Houston Street. First, the President had people in front of him in the car, but no one behind him in the car. Second, Oswald would have been in the line of vision of Secret Service personnel and police if he fired from in front of the car, but he was more protected from their vision after the car turned the corner. Third, given the downward incline of Elm Street and Oswald’s location at the sixth floor window, his moving target was much easier to locate on Elm Street than on Houston Street.

Most of the witnesses to the shooting reported hearing two or three shots; very few remembered hearing more than three shots. Governor Connally heard only two shots, but he knew that he was not struck by the first shot, and he knew that the other shot hit only the President. Thus it appears that three shots were fired, one of them (the first) missing the car entirely. This matches the three cartridges found by the sixth floor window. No evidence of additional shots has been uncovered; if one or more shots were fired from the grassy knoll, they missed the car and its occupants entirely without causing any damage behind the car.

Moreover, Abraham Zapruder would have done more than flinch if a rifle was fired from the grassy knoll behind him. His location, with his movie camera, was too close to the knoll to be unaffected by a shot from that site.

Some researchers suggest that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald to silence him before he revealed details of a larger conspiracy; others think that Ruby shot Oswald to prevent Oswald from proving his innocence. Ruby had connections to organized crime, but so did virtually every other person in his business. His flurry of phone calls to known criminals before the assassination was likely connected to a work dispute at his nightclub and not to the killing of Kennedy or Oswald. Ruby arrived at the parking garage where he shot Oswald long after Oswald was scheduled to be moved; Oswald’s move was delayed by an interview and by Oswald’s own decision to change clothing. When Ruby entered the garage, he left behind his favorite dog in a locked car, unlikely behavior for a man who expected to be detained more than a few minutes.

The Commission appointed by President Johnson and a Congressional investigation in the 1970s both concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy. They did so after considerable study of the evidence, questioning of witnesses, and consideration of other points of view. The case against Oswald appears to be convincing to all but a few conspiracy-minded investigators. But tomorrow I will post several items in Oswald’s defense.

The Kennedy Assassination–Part One

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.