The 22nd of November 2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most shocking events of the twentieth century, the assassination of President John F Kennedy. I personally expected a deluge of TV documentaries about the assassination but in fact on UK TV there really weren’t that many. A re-showing of the Oliver Stone movie, JFK. A documentary about media response to the assassination which was really the media looking at themselves. But that was really it, there were no probing or investigative programmes, perhaps in 2013 it was far too late for that.
In 1988, twenty five years after John Kennedys death, a veritable wave of documentaries were broadcast on British television, including a rare showing on channel four of the 1966 film of Mark Lane’s ‘Rush to Judgement’. On ITV a documentary by producer Nigel Turner called ‘The Men who Killed Kennedy’ was aired, claiming fantastically that assassins from the French underworld killed the President. That particular film, which had its merits despite its incredible conclusions, was similar to many other films, books, and articles, in that they all challenged the establishment view, framed in the report of the Warren Commission, that the lone killer was a man called Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1995, BBC TV’s ‘Timewatch’ gave us a view of Oswald that brought us full circle. Heavily influenced by the book ‘Case Closed’ by Gerald Posner, the film said look, Oswald really did it after all. So, have you had your fill of conspiracy theories? Have you heard enough of CIA plots and Watergate and Iran-Contra? Enough of the ‘grassy knoll’, the Book Depository, and Dealey Plaza? Has perhaps our interest in the fate of President Kennedy been diminished by revelations of the apparently numerous indiscretions in his private life?
Whatever the truth of John Kennedy’s private life, his graphic death was the cataclysm of our age, imprinted on the minds of a generation by the flickering incarnation of amateur cine film. For many the case is not closed and has never been even remotely resolved despite two official investigations, the last of which -by the House Select Committee on Assassinations- concluded, ambiguously, that the President was killed “probably” by the result of a conspiracy.
So what are the facts of the assassination? Perhaps the only undisputed fact to emerge from the tragedy was that John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was shot in the head and killed. President Kennedy was hit by rifle fire in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, while riding in an open topped limousine, part of a motorcade that had just turned onto Elm Street by the Texas School Book Depository. Almost every other fact, every statement, every report, every document, every exhibit, every disclosure, is open to question. Were there three shots or four? Were there more? Was the President shot from behind or from the front? Was he shot from the sixth floor of the book depository or from the so called ‘grassy knoll’? Did twenty-four year old ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald fire the shots? Was he alone or were there other assassins? Why did Jack Ruby, a local night club owner subsequently shoot Oswald? Was it to silence him, to stop him from telling what he knew? Did Ruby act out of rage or was he part of a conspiracy? Was he in the pay of the Mafia? Was the CIA involved? The questions are endless, the answers are few.
Lee Oswald was a young man with an extraordinary background. He was not the ‘lone nut’ as described by the Warren Commission, the investigative body set up by President Johnson to examine the assassination. An ex radar operator at a top-secret US base in Japan, Oswald had spent years in Soviet Russia as a supposed defector. He was known to the FBI and had connections with military intelligence and the CIA. He appeared to be involved in left wing Cuban politics and supported Fidel Castro. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald shot the President but failed to answer the important question -why? Why should a left wing activist shoot a liberal minded president who in the words of his critics had gone ‘soft’ on communism and Cuba? But as we examine the accepted elements of the murder more and more inconsistencies occur. The President was shot at 12.30 pm, but Oswald, who worked at the book depository, was seen by witnesses in the second floor lunch room as late as 12.15, which left him only fifteen minutes to ascend to the sixth floor, produce his rifle and take up position. Of course fifteen minutes might have been enough time for a cool and organised killer, but the President was actually due to arrive at a reception at the Dallas Trade Mart at 12.30, which meant he would pass through Dealey Plaza at about 12.25, giving Oswald only ten minutes to be in place, and he had no way of knowing the President would be late. Immediately after the shooting patrolman Marrion Baker entered the Book Depository, drew his gun and with building superintendent Roy Truly hot on his heels confronted a young man in the lunchroom calmly drinking a coke. Truly explained that this was Lee Oswald, an employee. Had Oswald rushed down from his ‘snipers lair’ on the sixth floor or had he been in the lunch room all the while?
Perhaps the strongest evidence linking Oswald to the murder was the supposed murder weapon, a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano bolt action rifle, a World War II vintage carbine found on the sixth floor of the book depository at 1.22 pm, almost an hour after the assassination. The rifle had been purchased mail order by an ‘Alek Hidell’ and sent to Dallas post office box number 2915, rented by Oswald. When arrested, Oswald was carrying an identity card in the name of ‘Hidell’. To this day there is dispute over whether Oswald’s palm print was found on the rifle. All pretty damning you might think, but the officer who first found the rifle, Deputy Constable Seymour Weitzman, identified it as a 7.65 mm Mauser, and was confident enough to make a sworn affidavit to that effect. The day after the shooting, November 23rd, District Attorney Henry Wade also described the weapon as a Mauser at a televised press conference. How then does a 7.65mm Mauser become a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano? I personally know nothing about guns at all but I have seen enough war films to know that a Mauser is German, and stamped clearly on the side of the Mannlicher-Carcano are the words ‘MADE ITALY’ and ‘CAL 6.5’. And surely a police officer, particularly an American policeman, would know what he was talking about concerning guns?
Abraham Zapruder, a local businessman took his cine camera to work that day to film the Presidential parade but what he recorded instead was a Presidential murder. In doing so he contributed arguably the most important piece of evidence in the whole case. His film gave investigators a filmed record and a timetable for the shooting. Examination of the film by FBI experts revealed the time between the first shot to hit the President and the shot that struck his head was 4.8 to 5.6 seconds. It was first thought that there were four shots, one shot hitting Kennedy in the throat, a second completely missing and hitting the kerb, a third hitting Governor Connally also seated in the Presidential car, and a fourth shattering Kennedy’s skull. Given that it takes 2.3 seconds to operate the bolt action rifle, four shots will not fit the time frame for one assassin and one rifle so the Warren Commission came up with the so called ‘magic bullet’ theory, that the second of three shots hit both Kennedy and Connally. This view has been blasted from a number of angles, firstly the bullet itself emerged as almost completely pristine, while one which had passed through the flesh and bone of two human bodies would have been severely deformed. Secondly, in the Zapruder film Governor Connally is seen to turn around as Kennedy is hit then appears to be hit himself as he turns to face front again.
Expert riflemen were called in to test the murder weapon. They were unable to duplicate Oswald’s supposed feat of marksmanship and complained of difficulty operating the rifle’s bolt mechanism and even the trigger. The telescopic sight could not be properly aligned and had to be rebuilt with metal shims added to make it accurate, which means of course that the rifle was tested in a configuration not available to Oswald. Also, test firing was done at still rather than moving targets. The assassin would also have had to track the President as he passed behind an oak tree, resight his target and then shoot. So did Lee Oswald really do the shooting? What about the shot to the Presidents head which knocked him back and to the left indicating a shot from the right front -the grassy knoll area? And what about the bystanders who rushed up the grassy knoll including a motorcycle patrolman who tried to ride his bike up there? They felt the final shot came from the knoll as did railroad workers on the triple underpass, as did Abraham Zapruder the amateur cine cameraman, as did Mary Woodward of the Dallas Morning News, as did Lee Bowers positioned behind the grassy knoll atop a 14-foot railroad tower, as did many others. So, if other gunmen were involved, who were they? Who paid them? Who organised them? Who stood silently in the wings and watched while the President was killed?
Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie from 1991, JFK. was a recreation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s investigation into the murder of the president and before filming had even been completed the US media had begun -if you’ll excuse the pun- to throw stones at Stone. In conclusion the movie offers us the theory that the American ‘military-industrial complex’ was responsible for the crime, the theory running like this; Lyndon Johnson took over the reins of the presidency following JFK’s death. He continued with Kennedy’s cabinet and Kennedy’s policies, all except one -Vietnam. Not wishing to become embroiled in a guerrilla war in south east Asia Kennedy had already ordered home from Vietnam one thousand troops. Johnson reversed that decision and thus began the disastrous American adventure that was the Vietnam War. Extreme right wing elements opposed to John Kennedy’s policies of peace ‘removed’ Kennedy in favour of Johnson. Sound fantastic? To be fair to JFK, everything presented as fact was factual, and everything that was conjecture was presented as such, but the real life investigation by Jim Garrison concluded that the CIA were the real culprits. After the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by Cuban exile brigades during which the CIA had attempted to force Kennedy into committing American troops into the assault, Kennedy had vowed to splinter the CIA into “a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds”. The CIA had become almost autonomous from the elected government, pursuing its own policies around the globe. It had developed a capability -revealed during the 1970’s in senate hearings- known as ‘executive action’, a capability of political assassination. The ‘company’ as the CIA calls itself, was involved with mafia hoodlums to murder Fidel Castro. Castro is alive and well today, but did the CIA collude with the mafia to murder its own commander-in-chief, the President of the United States?
Jim Garrison’s investigation came to nothing but in 1991 lawyer, writer, and JFK investigator Mark Lane was involved as defence attorney in a libel case instigated by CIA man and ex Watergate burglar Howard Hunt. The hub of the case was a newspaper article claiming Hunt was in Dallas on the day of the Presidents murder. Hunt denied this, claiming to be in Washington at the time. In court Lane introduced testimony that indeed placed Hunt as part of a CIA team in Dallas on the day in question. Leslie Armstrong, forewoman of the jury said afterwards “Mr Lane was asking us to do something very difficult -he was asking us to believe that John Kennedy had been killed by our own government. Yet, when we examined the evidence we were compelled to conclude that the CIA had indeed killed President Kennedy.” A shocking and significant breakthrough in the JFK murder you might think? Leslie Armstrong went on to call for action to be taken by the proper authorities in the government. Nothing was done. The US Justice Department did not stir, nor has any other organ of the forces of law and order in the United States. The US media continues to ignore the countless revelations that have appeared in the years since John F Kennedy was killed, yet conspiracy theories are abundant in Europe and the UK. Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals have shown us the dark underbelly of the American establishment, could it be that some secret influence is at work, hidden from public perception, preventing serious examination of the crime of the century?
President Obama has recently been elected to another four years in office, and in accordance with US law they will constitute his last term. Obama’s presidency has been largely unremarkable but he still has a chance to offer something significant to his fellow Americans and to the world. He can appoint a special prosecutor and special investigators and direct the CIA and FBI to answer pertinent questions. Not about how many shots, or from what direction, or any of the other thousand and one questions regarding the minutiae of the assassination but who was responsible? Who gave the orders? Who really killed President Kennedy? Still, perhaps even that would be fifty years too late.