The Death of JFK and the Birth of Conspiracy Nation

As most of us know, this November will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and if you weren’t already aware, I’m sure you soon would have been, with the countless numbers of TV specials, newspaper and magazine articles, and new and reprinted books that will shortly be coming our way. A half century later, JFK’s murder not only the most significant event of my lifetime, but also a bonding mechanism that links everyone past their mid-50’s together for what can described as a national shared experience. But President Kennedy’s assassination did more than provide a moment where almost all Baby Boomers can remember where they were the very moment they heard about it…it also kicked off a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, available through several books and television documentaries. Share some time with ten 60 year old Boomers, and you’ll probably come away with five or six explanations of what happened in Dallas on the afternoon of November 22, 1983.

As soon as we heard the news that Kennedy had been shot, the world seemed to come to a complete stop. Coming back from recess, my fifth grade teacher breathlessly informed of what had happened, or at least what was known at that moment. Our principal came over the intercom and confirmed what we had just been told, and minutes later, relayed the news that the President had died. Over the next few hours, our collective energy switched back and forth between grieving and wanting to know the details of the murder. Before the sun set

 on November 22, 1963, we learned the name Lee Harvey Oswald, and were given a rough sketch of that day’s event at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.

If we weren’t already in a daze, watching Jack Ruby cut down Oswald, live on national television really pushed a lot of us over the edge. Here we were, tuned in to President Kennedy’s funeral procession when the networks cut away to live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald being transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail, just in time to witness our nation’s first televised murder. Although Oswald’s death deprived us of what might have been the trial of the century, we were already being assured of Oswald’s guilt, and that his conviction was a mere formality. As a means to settle all doubt, on November 29, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the “Warren Commission,” to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy, which resulted in an 889 page report that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in shooting the President. Anyone thinking the Warren Commission’s findings would be the final word would be proven wrong soon and often.

The first notable descent from the “Oswald lone shooter” theory came from Mark Lane, whose “Defense Brief for Oswald” appeared in the December 19, 1963 edition of the National Guardian. The first Kennedy conspiracy book, Thomas Buchanan’s “Who Killed Kennedy?” was published in May of 1964. Before long, hundreds of books and even more magazine articles were written, usually taking issue with the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Terms like “second shooter,” “magic bullet,” and “grassy knoll” became familiar terms, as conspiracy theorists pointed fingers at a wide variety of suspects. The mafia, CIA, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, Castro himself, LBJ, the KGB and the FBI were just some of the individuals or groups who have been tied to the murder of JFK. In 1966, a New Orleans D.A., Jim Garrison conducted an investigation that led him to conclude that a right-wing extremist named Clay Shaw headed a successful effort to kill Kennedy, using Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy. Although Garrison succeeded in bringing Shaw to trial, the latter was found not guilty in 1969. Garrison’s efforts were later the basis for the 1991 film, “JFK.”

Described as “the best photographic evidence” of President Kennedy’s assassination, the Zapruder film has long been the centerpiece for anyone studying the actual moment of JFK’s death. Although the footage, shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder, provides a clear picture of the actual moment of the fatal bullet’s impact, it too, has its critics, going as far as saying the home movie has been altered in order to conform to the Warren Commission’s findings. Of course, the tampering of evidence and harassment of witnesses has always been constant theme. Jim Marrs, who wrote the book, “Crossfire” (1989) presented a list of 103 people having some connection to the assassination, either as a witness or possible suspect, who died “convenient deaths” within a few years of the crime.

Every aspect of the Kennedy assassination has been a source of controversy and disagreement among experts. The number of shots fired, Oswald’s marksmanship, the murder of policeman J.D. Tippit, and the legitimacy of Kennedy’s autopsy have all been called into question. To this date, it has been estimated that as many as two thousand books about the Kennedy assassination have been published, with 95% of them having a pro-conspiracy, anti-Warren Commission point of view. It’s no wonder that a 2003 Gallup poll reported that 75% of Americans do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And new theories continue to find their way into the national discussion, including the most recent one that suggests that one of the bullets hitting Kennedy was fired in error by a Secret Service agent…at least it’s described as an accident.

The popularity of Kennedy assassination conspiracy books sparked the beginning of what some have called “conspiracy nation.” Whether it was FDR having advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or Hitler escaping to South America, it seemed that any published work offering an alternative look at any historical event would find an eager audience. Conspiracy theories eventually would attach themselves to practically everything, even the Moon landing, which some people believe was faked.

Being skeptical can be a good thing, and not buying into everything that we are told by our government is not only healthy, but sometimes necessary. On the other hand, to reject everything we see or read about as lies can only lead to a paranoid existence. If you provide a “9-11 truther” or an Obama “Birther” with overwhelming evidence that disproves their beliefs, they will simply expand their conspiracy theory to include the fabrication of whatever information you offered. But don’t get me wrong…conspiracy theories have provided me and others thousands of hours of fascinating reading, possibly the only silver lining the Kennedy assassination has provided.

Note: Although network television programming was immediately suspended upon the assassination, there was a lack of consistency around the country in terms of what events were canceled and which ones were not. On Saturday, November 23, 1963, the NCAA canceled college football games, while the NHL and NBA went ahead with their contests. The next day, the National Football League played all seven scheduled games, while the American Football League called their games off. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle later admitted that going ahead with his league’s games was a mistake. Out in California, Capuchino High School

went ahead with its Friday afternoon home game against Hillsdale, which was played about three hours after the President’s death. In Marysville, the Beach Boys performed a Friday night concert, as city leaders felt the show would allow kids to get their minds off tragedy for awhile. Brian Wilson later said it was one of their better shows.

Trivia: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald had a direct influence on TV sports broadcasting. Watching Oswald’s killing on television, CBS Sports producer and director Tony Verna was very impressed with rival NBC’s use of replays during their Ruby-Oswald coverage. Verna decided to use the same cutting edge video technology two weeks later during the CBS telecast of the Army-Navy game. On December 7, 1963, after an Army touchdown, announcer Lindsay Nelson advised his viewing audience, “This is not live, ladies and gentleman…Army did not score again.” What viewers were seeing was the first use of instant replay.