Cliches can be true. JFK was young and rich and handsome. He articulated inspiring dreams—“ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—and he embodied those dreams as well. He had a beautiful, sophisticated wife and lovely children and an immense number of siblings who all seemed golden then too. Now we know his rakish side, but it fades in importance compared with the image of his distraught wife, dressed in pink, crawling on the limousine to gather the fragments of his shattered skull or his tiny son saluting his casket. The country saw the void he left in his wife’s life and in his children’s lives, and that became the void he left in the country’s life as well. His was the death of a president, the death of a husband, and the death of a father. Today, 35 years later, we still wonder who could have been powerful enough to create such a lasting emptiness. If we could understand what happened to him, couldn’t we understand what happened to us?
In a literal, factual way we do know what happened to him. It is certain that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy, but it is impossible to prove that he acted alone and was not part of any conspiracy. We cannot account for every second of Oswald’s time during the months before the assassination. During those unknown hours, was he staring at the moon or meeting with conspirators? If there was a conspiracy, the evidence for it must exist somewhere, and the long list of books and articles, many of them discussed in this issue, attest to how diligent the search for that evidence has been and continues to be. It’s a futile search, I believe, because there was no conspiracy and thus no evidence of one. But, since that statement cannot be proved, there is room for all manner of tantalizing suspicion, conjecture, and belief. This uncertainty is aroused and encouraged by conspiracy theory books and television shows and movies that are in error at best and willfully deceitful at worst. They sustain the illusion that the question of who killed Kennedy has not been answered at all, that there must be some terrible hidden truth. And the belief in that hidden truth, the longing for it even, has become part of the national psychology.
As an antidote to this persistent uncertainty, let’s look at what is certain about November 22, 1963. Oswald was separated from his wife and living alone in Dallas. On Fridays after work he usually got a ride to Irving, near Dallas, with a fellow employee of the Texas School Book Depository. There Oswald would spend the weekend with his wife and two infant daughters, then ride back to work on Monday mornings with his fellow employee. But on Thursday, November 21, Oswald broke his usual pattern and asked his co-worker for a ride to Irving after work that afternoon. He said he needed to get some curtain rods. That night he tried to persuade his wife, Marina, to reconcile with him, but she refused. The next morning, she stayed in bed, but he got up and put $170 and his wedding ring on the dresser. He left with only $13.87 in his pocket. Oswald took with him a long, thin package wrapped in brown paper and put it in the back seat of his co-worker’s car. Oswald said the package held the curtain rods. That afternoon Marina was watching television with a friend when she learned the president had been shot. She knew that seven months before, Lee had shot at the outspoken, far right-wing Major General Edwin A. Walker with a rifle he kept wrapped in a blanket in the garage. She went to check and was relieved to see the blanket lying apparently undisturbed. When the police arrived later, they asked if her husband had any weapons and where he kept them. She took them out to the garage. A policeman lifted the blanket, and it sagged limply in his hands. The rifle was gone.
This rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano, was not a toy gun. It was more powerful than any rifle ever used by the United States Army, with a muzzle velocity of two thousand feet per second. Oswald bought it under an alias from a mail-order sporting goods store in Chicago. The order is in his handwriting, and the gun was delivered to a post office box Oswald had rented. There are famous photographs of Oswald, dressed entirely in black, holding this rifle in one hand, some radical newspapers in the other, and wearing a pistol in a holster around his waist. Some critics of the Warren Commission, and Oswald himself after his capture, said that the photographs were fake. But Marina testified that she took the pictures. Oswald wrote on the back of one of the prints and gave it to a friend, a strange thing to do if the picture was a fake. The camera and one negative are in the National Archives. In 1978 the House Select Committee on Assassinations ( HSCA), using technology unavailable to the Warren Commission, determined beyond a doubt that Oswald’s camera and only that camera could have taken that negative and that neither the negative nor the print from it had been tampered with.
The brown wrapping paper was later found in the sniper’s nest of boxes piled up around the corner window on the sixth-floor of the school book depository. Oswald’s handprint was on the paper. Three spent cartridges lay on the floor nearby. They came from Oswald’s rifle to the exclusion of all others. The rifle was later found hidden among boxes in another part of the depository. Oswald’s palm print was on the barrel. Two employees of the depository were watching the presidential motorcade from the fifth-floor window directly under the sniper’s nest. They heard the three casings as they hit the floor, and one employee felt tiny debris fall on his head.