Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald–spawning conspiracy theories that have lived on to this day.
According to an AP-GfK poll conducted in April of this year, of the 1,004 respondents, 59% believed that JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy, while only 24% believed that Oswald acted alone. Other polls have found similar numbers.
Various individuals and groups believed to have been involved in JFK’s assassination include Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Earl Warren, J. Edgar Hoover, Fidel Castro, Nikita Krushchev, the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, the John Birch Society, the KGB, the mob, the military-industrial complex, and the Kardashian family.
One of the most popular theories says that there was a second gunman, positioned on a grassy knoll to the right of the president’s motorcade. Proponents of this theory point to a recording made by a motorcycle cop’s microphone at the time of the shooting, claiming that four shots can be heard on the tape–three from Oswald and a fourth from a second shooter. However, this acoustical evidence was debunked by the National Academy of Sciences in 1982.
Believers in the “second gunman” theory also claim that it would have been impossible for the same bullet to have struck both Kennedy and Governor Connally (who was seated in front of and slightly to the left of the president). Dubbed the “magic bullet”, this theory was described in the film JFK (and memorably parodied in an episode of Seinfeld). It is often illustrated using diagrams like this one:
Clearly, it would have been impossible for a single bullet to have traveled the above path. However, what these conspiracy theorists neglect to mention is that Connally’s seat was in fact set lower than Kennedy’s. Here’s the route that the bullet actually took, adjusting for the correct seat heights:
Having established that there was no second shooter, is it possible that Oswald nevertheless had help in some other form? Many JFK conspiracy theorists claim that one or more U.S. government agencies were involved in the assassination. If that were really the case, though, wouldn’t someone have come forward by now?
After all, Nixon couldn’t even cover up his involvement in a break-in–how the hell would the CIA or the Secret Service have gotten away with murdering the president? I don’t place much faith in the federal government or its agents, but I have to believe that even the most jaded CIA agent would consider “assassinating the president of the United States” to be crossing a line (or at least something worth telling the wife about).
I think it’s clear that people continue to embrace JFK conspiracy theories because they don’t want to believe that one lunatic with a gun can change history. As Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote a book about the assassination, puts it: “They feel that a great plot has to be responsible for bringing down a great man.”
However, history is replete with examples of “great” individuals killed by a lone gunman: U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, U.S. Senators Huey Long and Robert F. Kennedy, and political activists Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.–just to name a few.
Despite what the conspiracy theorists want to believe, all available evidence supports the “official” story–that Kennedy was fatally shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone. Lacking any credible evidence to the contrary, a rational person is left to conclude that any alternative theories are completely without merit (in other words, they’re bullshit).
Speaking of “bullshit”, for a more thorough–and entertaining–debunking of JFK assassination theories, I recommend watching Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! episode on conspiracy theories: