Fifty years ago today a shooting in Dallas left US president John F. Kennedy dead and Texas Governor John Connally injured. 3 in 4 Americans believe that this was the result of a conspiracy. They are wrong.
In this article for Slate, Fred Kaplan – himself a former conspiracy theorist – argues that the evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is overwhelming. Even the most apparently convincing evidence otherwise dissolves under proper investigation:
At first, it was assumed that Kennedy and Connally had been hit by separate bullets. But the Zapruder film threw a wrench in that notion. The Warren Commission’s analysts concluded that JFK was shot sometime between Frames 210 and 225 (a street billboard blocked Zapruder’s view at the crucial moment), while Connally was hit no later than Frame 240. In other words, the two men were hit no more than 30 frames apart. However, FBI tests revealed that Oswald’s rifle could be fired no faster than once every 2.25 seconds—which, on Zapruder’s camera, translated, to 40 or 41 frames. In short, there wasn’t enough time for Oswald to fire one bullet at Kennedy, then another at Connally.
The inference was inescapable. Either there were at least two gunmen—or Kennedy and Connally were hit by the same bullet. The Warren Report argued the latter. The “single-bullet theory,” as it was called, set off a controversy even among the commissioners. Three of them didn’t buy it. Under political pressure to issue a unanimous report (preferably one reassuring the American public that there was only one gunman and he was dead), the skeptics stifled their dissent, at least publicly; in exchange, the report’s authors toned down their assessment of the single-bullet theory from “compelling” (the first draft’s term) to merely “persuasive.”
That section of the Warren Report drew the most biting attacks. Critics drew diagrams tracing the absurd path that a bullet would have had to travel—a midair turn to the right, followed by a squiggly one to the left—in order to rip through Kennedy’s neck, then into Connally’s ribs and wrist.
For many years, long after I’d rejected most of the conspiracy buffs’ claims, the “magic bullet”—as critics called it—remained the one piece of the Dealey Plaza puzzle that I couldn’t fit into the picture; it was the one dissonant chord that, in certain moods, made me think there might have been two gunmen after all.
Then, in November 2003, on the murder’s 40th anniversary, I watched an ABC News documentary called The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy. In one segment, the producers showed the actual car in which the president and the others had been riding that day. One feature of the car, which I’d never heard or read about before, made my jaw literally drop. The back seat, where JFK rode, was three inches higher than the front seat, where Connally rode. Once that adjustment was made, the line from Oswald’s rifle to Kennedy’s upper back to Connally’s ribcage and wrist appeared absolutely straight. There was no need for a magic bullet.
But the idea of a conspiracy has an appeal. For all its practical unlikelihood, at an emotional level it still seems more plausiable than the alternative:
As the old adage has it, “Big doors sometimes swing on little hinges.” John F. Kennedy’s murder was a big door—had he lived, the subsequent decades might have looked very different—and Lee Harvey Oswald was a preposterously small hinge. The dissonance is wildly disorienting. It makes for a neater fit, a more intelligible universe, to believe that a consequential figure like John Kennedy was taken down by an equally consequential entity, like the CIA, the Mafia, the Soviets, Castro … take your pick.
Now it could be argued that who was responsible for a shooting half a century ago is now just a historical curiosity like who killed the princes in the tower. Yet it still matters. David Aaronovitch argues in his book Voodoo Histories, belief in a particular conspiracy theory is often a gateway into a worldview riddled with implausible plots. He cites the example of 9/11 truthers who trace their involvement with the movement to their conviction that their was a plot to kill Kennedy. And as Aaronovitch warns this has nasty consequences:
Aaronovitch says conspiracy theories are fashionable across the globe. And while the one your neighbor insists upon — that the fluoride in the drinking water is actually a mind-control experiment by the government — might be a harmless variation, some have serious consequences.
“If you are to travel in Pakistan, for instance, you will find that a significant proportion of the educated Pakistanis believe that George Bush brought down the twin towers,” says Aaronovitch. “And that makes dealing with the [Pakistani] Taliban difficult because they actually don’t believe the fundamental premise on which the war against terror was waged.”
Update: this post initially stated that Governor Connolly had been killed in the shooting. This was drafting error and I had meant to say he was injured. I’ve now corrected the text. Thanks to Paul Walter for spotting this.