If Oswald Didn’t Kill JFK, Then Who Did?

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Two weeks after the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, a Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of Americans blamed a force larger than Lee Harvey Oswald for his death. And since then, polls continually indicate that a clear majority of Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone.

After spiking to 80 percent in 1983, by the 1990s, after the Oliver Stone film JFK was released, the share of the population that did not believe the generally accepted “lone assassin” theory dropped to 70 percent. Now, 50 years after the shotting, a new Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the president’s death was a conspiracy.

The official version of Kennedy’s death was detailed in the findings of the Warren Commission’s investigation. Known officially as the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, the body was formed by President Lyndon B. Johnson a week after the assassination and put under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Several participants partook with great reluctance, fearing that the investigation would create more controversy than consensus.

An 889-page report was presented to Johnson on September 24, 1964, concluding that Oswald had acted alone and fired two shots at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, which overlooked the presidential motorcade’s route through Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who spend time in Soviet Russia, was never actually arrested for the murder. Initially, he was taken into custody for the murder of policeman, and just two days after the president’s death, he was shot to death by Jack Ruby on live television. Ruby himself later died in prison.

The findings of the commission never quite satisfied the American public. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) reexamined the the evidence with the help of a forensics panel. The resulting report stated that the Warren Commission’s investigation was “seriously flawed” and that its determination that no there had been no conspiracy was “not reliable.”

While the Warren Commission failed to uncover a connection between Oswald and Ruby, the House committee found “credible associations relating both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby to figures having a relationship, albeit tenuous, with [Carlos] Marcello’s crime family or organization.” The House committee ultimately concluded that Oswald assassinated Kennedy, probably as the result of a conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK have Oswald completely out of the picture — that Oswald’s the patsy, as he so claimed. Still, at the center of the conspiracy theories is the enigmatic Oswald, whose left-leaning inclinations where well documented. The hard question is whether he was the lone gunman, a conspirator, or indeed a patsy.

As evidence of conspiracy, scholars and theorists who believe the Warren Commission’s findings were flawed cite the fact that witness testimony regarding the direction and number of shots fired was ignored; key pieces of evidence, including the autopsy notes, disappeared; evidence relevant to Oswald’s rifle capability and practice was misrepresented; the famous picture of Oswald holding a rifle is clearly faked; and that Ruby and Oswald knew each other prior to the assassination. In particular, a home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder on the day of the assassination is seen as evidence that one gunman could not have hit both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally with the same bullet.

So if Oswald was not a lone assassin, then who killed Kennedy? Numerous conspiracies exist, but here is a look at some of the most popular.

1. The Central Intelligence Agency

JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was not a believer in the lone gun theory. “Apparently Bobby Kennedy’s first suspicion was that it was some rogue element in the CIA,” Philip Shenon, author of a new book on the assassination, told NBC News. Though a meeting with CIA Director John McCone later changed Robert’s opinion, of those Americans who believe the president’s death was a conspiracy, the CIA remains a prime suspect.

The theory is that Kennedy’s relationship with top officials in the CIA, many of whom were appointed under his predecessor, was fraught with fraught with tension. During his administration, Allen Dulles headed the agency, with Richard Helms as the director of central intelligence and James Angleton as the chief of counterintelligence. Before Kennedy’s election, the CIA had spent years orchestrating coups against foreign heads of states in places like Iran and Guatemala and acting largely without restriction.

But when Kennedy became president, that changed: He preferred to pursue a more diplomatic approach. Even more to the point, CIA officials were displeased by his lack of support for 1961′s Bay of Pigs, a failed invasion of Cuba meant to topple Fidel Castro’s regime. Dulles was forced to take the blame for the failure, and he lost his job in 1961. What worried the CIA more than the resignation of Dulles was the fact that The New York Times quoted Kennedy through an anonymous source — thought to be an aide — as saying he wanted “to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds” following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

“It would be odd in a way if [the CIA] didn’t go after Kennedy,” author and researcher Lisa Pease told NBC News. “He was one of the few leftist leaders still standing.” Still it seems unlikely that Kennedy’s relationship with the CIA was so fraught that the agency would resort to assassination. As John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University, told NBC News, “Dulles has to be a scapegoat (for the Bay of Pigs) and Dulles probably understood that.”

Nevertheless, it is likely that even if the agency was free of blame, “CIA officers were paying much closer attention to Lee Harvey Oswald than the CIA ever admitted,” according to former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley.

From film and physical and medical evidence, forensic historian Patrick Nolan concluded that three shooters around the plaza — one at the Book Depository building, one on a grassy knoll, and the last at the Dal-Tex building, across the street from the book depository building — carried out the assassination. In his opinion, far-right CIA rogues including Helms, Angleton, David Phillips, and E. Howard Hunt orchestrated the attack, hiring hit men from the mafia or from other foreign intelligence agencies.

2. Carlos Marcello and the mob

Kennedy’s administration saw the toughest crackdown on organized crime by the federal government in history.  The Department of Justice recorded a record number of mob prosecutions, and Carlos Marcello was deported to Guatemala in 1961. Two years later, he was tried in a New Orleans mob case and acquitted on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. The 1979 House report noted that organized crime “had the motive, the opportunity and means to kill the president.” Marcello, whose territory included Louisiana, most of Texas, and part of Mississippi, was singled out in particular.

According to Lamar Waldon, who made a case for the mob theory in a recent book, Marcello was incredibly powerful at the time. “He was probably America’s most powerful godfather then,” the author told NBC News. “Marcello controlled an empire at least as large as General Motors.” Waldon’s book describes a Federal Bureau of Investigation account of a confession he made from federal prison to his cellmate and FBI informant in December 1985: “Yeah, I had the son of a bitch killed. I’m glad I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself.” Foreign hit men were reportedly hired.

In that scenario, Oswald took the fall, with Marcello and his subordinates manipulating him into becoming involved in a plot developed by the Kennedy brothers to stage a coup against Castro on December 1, 1963. The mafia learned of that plan through the CIA’s unauthorized use of the mob in other plots. Therefore, Waldon argued, the CIA and Robert Kennedy had to cover up the true reason JFK was assassinated — the Castro plot would have been exposed otherwise.

Ruby had a connection to the mob, as well.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson

In his book The Man Who Killed Kennedy, Roger Stone explains his theory as to why  Kennedy’s vice president could have pulled the strings of the assassination. He based his argument on the fact that JFK told his secretary that Johnson would be left off the 1964 ticket because he had been implicated in two financial corruption scandals. At the outset, this theory seems overdramatic.

Yet as the Dallas Morning News noted in a recent article, “Who, after all, had more to gain from JFK’s death than the man who would succeed him as the world’s most powerful leader?” According to Stone, the motivation aligns with Johnson’s goal. It was said he had a “burning desire to be president” and would “kill for survival.”

As evidence of Johnson’s involvement, Stone pointed to the fact that it was the vice president who insisted that JFK visit Dallas, and it was also Johnson who suggested the motorcade through Dealey Plaza. The author does not believe Oswald was the shooter. Instead, he thinks Johnson employed notorious hit man Malcolm “Mac” Wallace, whose fingerprints were found on the sixth floor in the same location from where Oswald was believed to have shot the president.

The conclusive evidence for Stone is the fact that on the eve of the assassination, Johnson’s mistress of 20 years, Madeleine Duncan Brown, said that the vice president told her, “After tomorrow those Kennedy S.O.B.’s will never embarrass me again,” according to her memoir.
4. Cubans

Oswald once took a trip to Mexico City in order to a secure a visa for Cuba, claiming that he had plans to visit the Soviet Union. When he was denied access, he spent his time at the Hotel Del Comercio, which had the reputation of being a safe house for spies working with Cuba’s DGI intelligence agency. There, it is believed Osweld made some friends, and he may have even been working for Cubans during the trip. The motivations for the Cubans to have aided, goaded, or trained Oswald on how to kill Kennedy was possibly retaliation for the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A piece of evidence in support of the theory can be found in Castro’s Secrets, written by Brian Latell, who spent four years as a high-ranking CIA intelligence officer overseeing Cuba and the United States. While interviewing one of the highest-ranking intelligence officers to defect from Cuba to America, a man named Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the author found a direct connection between Cuba and the assassination. Lombard told Latell that on November 22, 1963, while listening to intercepted radio signals from the U.S., he was ordered to direct his antennae away from CIA headquarters in Florida and toward Texas. Three hours later, the shooting took place.

“Castro knew. They knew Kennedy would be killed,” Lombard told Latell. After suffering numerous assassination attempts of his own, Castro had publicly threatened both Kennedy brothers.

Other Cuban intelligence agents told Latell that even though Oswald’s visa was declined, he was known to be a Castro supporter. “Oswald would have to be satisfied doing the revolution’s work in Texas … to do more than merely hand out ‘Viva Fidel’ leaflets. A common practice for Cuban intelligence in such deceptions, or false flag operations, is known as ‘dandole cuerda,’ or ‘winding him up,’” Latell wrote.

5. Military-industrial complex

In a story recounted in Joseph McBride’s Into the Nightmare, Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough, who was riding in Vice President Johnson’s car in the Kennedy motorcade, believed “too many people wanted Kennedy dead.” The list included right-wing extremists in Texas, wealthy oil men, and others opposed to the president’s economic and civil rights policies, as well as hawks eager for a widening of the war in Vietnam. Those individuals would benefit from what Kennedy’s predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, called the military-industrial complex.

A few of these conspiracy theories appear stretched and difficult to swallow. After all, as Vincent Bugliousi, the famed prosecutor who put Charles Manson behind bars, said, one must follow the evidence, not construct a motive narrative. Yet “People cannot believe someone as inconsequential as Oswald could kill someone as consequential as an American president,” historian Robert Dallek, the author of An Unfinished Life, a 2003 JFK biography, told the Dallas Morning News.

The fact that Kennedy’s assassination remains an important event in the nation’s collective consciousness 50 years later is evidence of the scar his death left on the country. The event keeps Americans looking at the evidence and wanting to know whether any further truth lies beyond the official record. JFK’s death coincided with a great change in America. He was the man that told Americans to ask what they could do for their country, but after the assassination, great social upheaval followed, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam war.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to remove a quote incorrectly attributed to Democratic Sen. Ralph Yarborough in Joseph McBride’s book Into the Nightmare.  

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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