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. It had been dislodged from above by the percussion of the shots. Several witnesses saw a man and a gun at the window. One in particular, Howard Brennan, saw a man fire the fatal shot. His description of the killer was the one that went out on the police radio just fifteen minutes after the killing.
Two extensive investigations of the assassination have been conducted by the United States government—the Warren Commission in 1964 and the HSCA in 1978. Both concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots from the sixth floor of the depository, one of which wounded both the president and then–Texas governor John Connally, one of which hit the president in the head, and one of which missed entirely. However, the Warren Commissiom was unable to establish the order of the shots. Setting the record straight about the order of the shots is by far the most important contribution of independent research to the history of the assassination. Jim Moore of Hillsboro was the first to assert that the first shot missed, the second wounded the president and the governor, and the third and final shot struck the president’s head. Governor Connally always insisted that he had heard a shot before the one that wounded him, and it turns out he was right. The Warren Commission proved that the so-called magic bullet found in good condition on Governor Connally’s stretcher in Parkland Memorial Hospital after the shooting came from Oswald’s rifle to the exclusion of all other rifles. The HSCA, using neutron-activation analysis, another technological advance not available to the Warren Commission, proved that bullet fragments from the governor’s body came from the magic bullet and no other. Thus there is an unbroken string of physical evidence, evidence that does not rely on the sometimes mistaken, contradictory, or changing testimony from eyewitnesses, that goes from (1) bullet fragments in a victim’s body to (2) the bullet itself to (3) the rifle that fired the bullet to (4) Oswald’s palm print on the rifle to (5) Oswald’s handprint on the brown paper that wrapped the “curtain rods” he carried to work that day to (6) the photograph of Oswald holding the rifle to (7) Oswald’s post office box where the gun had been delivered to (8) Oswald’s original written order form for the gun. Whatever else did or did not happen that November day, Oswald shot the president.
It’s true that the HSCA also found there was a 95 percent chance that a fourth shot had come from behind the grassy knoll and missed. If there was a second sniper, there must have been a conspiracy. But the committee based this conclusion on an acoustic analysis of a tape from a police motorcycle that it believed contained sounds of Dealey Plaza during the assassination. Subsequently, no investigative body, including a committee of experts convened by the National Research Council, has been able to duplicate this result from the same data. Instead they proved that the tape did not record evidence of any shots and, in any event, did not begin until after the third shot had hit the president and his limousine was speeding away. This complicated science is consistent with simple logic. If a sniper had shot from behind the grassy knoll and missed, the bullet must have gone into the crowd of people watching the motorcade on the other side of Elm Street. Yet no one there was wounded, nor did anyone feel, see, or hear a bullet. And, despite careful searches, no bullet has ever been found.
The Warren Commission made other mistakes besides the order of the shots. It allowed the CIA and the FBI to investigate themselves, and both agencies withheld information. The commission never discovered that the CIA had repeatedly plotted to murder Castro, including plots with gangsters, which could have given both Castro and the mob a motive to murder the president. The FBI kept secret the extent of the agency’s contact with Oswald. Jack Ruby had more extensive mob contacts than the commission believed. But its errors were minor compared with all it got right. In particular, realizing that the same bullet had wounded both Kennedy and Connally, which seems implausible at first glance, was a great intellectual achievement that has since been borne out by scientific techniques unavailable to the commission in 1964. The worst libel about the commission is that it was a rubber stamp to prop up the theory that Oswald alone had murdered the president so that the real killers could escape. Think what you want about commission members such as Gerald Ford or Allen Dulles or even Earl Warren himself, the staff of the commission who did the actual investigations were energetic, determined, and talented young men who had distinguished careers afterward. Several had been fervent supporters of Kennedy and worked on his campaign. David Slawson, who was an assistant counsel for the commission and who is now a professor of law at the University of Southern California, told me, “We were all hoping like hell to find a plot, to find something that would lead us to the real killers. It would have made us heroes. We would have been the ones to solve the crime of the century.” But they found nothing to prove that anyone but Oswald was involved.
Which does not mean there was nothing to find, that somewhere in the bowels of the FBI or the CIA or the KGB, which all spawned secret plots in those days, was evidence of the most evil secret plot of all. And it’s easy to believe there must have been such a plot, that it would take a trained army of evil, not just one little evil squirt, to obliterate the golden president, husband, and father. And here is where the assassination still divides the country. Those who believe in a conspiracy are refusing to accept the word of what to them is a corrupt government and a corrupt society where a shadowy “they” are in control. To search for the conspiracy is to root out the truth and expose the guilty, whose ruthless power and greed, threatened by Kennedy, is the reason for all the country’s problems.
To believe Oswald was the lone assassin is to believe the clear evidence, however mundane it might be. It is to believe that those who insist on conspiracy are adding to the general confusion, leading innocent people astray, unjustly undermining confidence in the structure of the country, and that unwarrented confusion is the reason for all our problems. For me, until ghosts are proved to be real, it is far better to accept the clear and certain evidence and move on.