Who Really Killed JFK? After 60 Years and New Clues, the Truth Looks Different

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Who Killed JFK? You Won’t Believe Us AnywayPopular Mechanics; Getty Images
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Who killed President John F. Kennedy? You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.

A new Gallup poll shows that 65 percent of Americans now believe JFK was killed on November 22, 1963, as the result of an assassination conspiracy, rejecting the official “Lone Gunman” theory that the 1964 Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a.k.a. the Warren Commission Report, proposed.

As Biography previously observed:

“Few historical events have given rise to the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of conspiracy theories as the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. From an inside job to an unidentified umbrella man, extraterrestrials, multiple gunmen, and a joint effort between the Cubans and Soviets have been all cast as the perpetrator of, or directly involved with, Kennedy’s demise.”

It’s been 60 years since that fateful day in downtown Dallas, when Lee Harvey Oswald, perched behind an upstairs window of the Texas School Book Depository building, allegedly fired upon Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental convertible as the president rode through cheering crowds, hitting him twice. Today, many are still searching for a satisfying answer to who really killed JFK, grasping for anything that looks askance in the hopes that, if they tug at it enough, the whole mystery will unravel.

In the new Paramount+ documentary JFK: What the Doctors Saw, we’re treated to a reexamination of the discrepancy between the conclusions drawn by the doctors who first saw President Kennedy at Parkland Memorial Hospital (who believe the hole in Kennedy’s neck was an entry wound) and the later autopsy (which claimed the neck hole was an exit wound), with allegations that undue influence was exerted on the latter medical team.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Rob Reiner has launched a new iHeartPodcasts series with journalist Soledad O’Brien that claims to have “groundbreaking new evidence” regarding who killed JFK.

front page of the daily news dated november 23, 1963
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In both cases, these programs primarily serve people for whom the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the circumstances that surround it, was not a redefining of his presidency but arguably its defining moment.

The talk of government conspiracies and mafia-orchestrated hits has so pervaded popular culture (particularly after the release of Oliver Stone’s 1991 hit film JFK), that it would not be unfair to suggest most post-Baby Boomer Americans know about JFK’s death far more than his life.

Sixty-five percent of Americans have heard, and believe, that a conspiracy was behind the killing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963. What would the polls have shown if Gallup had asked if respondents had heard of any other events in the life of the 35th president of the United States?

Four U.S. presidents have been assassinated. But why is the JFK assassination the only one to spawn thousands of conspiracy theories challenging the official story?

What Makes JFK’s Assassination Different?

portraits of james garfield, abraham lincoln, and william mckinley
In the 36-year span from 1865 to 1901, three U.S. presidents died by an assassin’s bullet: Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), and William McKinley (1901). Sixty-three years later, John F. Kennedy became the fourth president to be killed while in office.Getty Images

First, consider this:

On April 14, 1865, the audience at Ford’s Theatre witnessed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by a shot to the back of the head, after which the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, leapt to the stage and shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (though the exact wording has been debated).

On July 2, 1881, those gathered at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, including Secretary of State James G. Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (the eldest son of Abraham), witnessed the assassination of President James A. Garfield, when he was shot from behind at point-blank range by political aspirant Charles Guiteau.

On September 6, 1901, all the curious well-wishers assembled in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, witnessed the assassination of President William McKinley, when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him twice in the abdomen during a handshake, using an Ivor Johnson revolver concealed in a handkerchief.

The assassination of JFK, meanwhile, wasn’t just the first presidential assassination of the 20th century—it was also the first killing of a U.S. president that wasn’t committed at close range. This means that while there were plenty of “earwitnesses” to the assassination, there were very few eyewitnesses. (Although, despite what some conspiracy theorists will tell you, there were indeed a few who attested to seeing Lee Harvey Oswald and his rifle in the window of the Texas Book Depository.)

And the discrepancy between these “earwitness” testimonies (for which a 2021 article in Frontiers in Psychology explains both the acoustical and psychoacoustical reasons) kicked up dust for a frantic public trying to make sense of the tragedy.

Who Was In Charge of Investigating the JFK Assassination?

The JFK assassination is also clouded in ambiguity because of how much information seemingly slipped through the cracks of the first official investigation, often referred to as the Warren Commission. How could the United States of the 1960s be less capable of collecting information on the death of a president than the United States of 1901?

For that, consider how much of American life had changed since 1901. It was only after the death of President McKinley that year that the Secret Service, an organization first created to combat counterfeit currency, was charged with protecting the life of the president.

The death of McKinley also led President Theodore Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte to create the Bureau of Investigations, which by the time Kennedy took office would be known as the Federal Bureau of Investigations, under the controversial leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.

And most significantly, the America of 1901 was hardly on the global stage like it was after the first two World Wars. Our vast entanglements in the world at large, as well as the brewing Cold War with the Soviet Union, led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency via the National Security Act of 1947.

This early version of the CIA, under Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, was deemed uncoordinated and lacking in leadership by “three New York lawyers with experience in intelligence,” which included a man named Allen Dulles. By the time John F. Kennedy took office as president in 1961, the CIA was under the leadership of Dulles, now with far more power and far less oversight.

john f kennedy with allen dules and john mccone
In an open-top vehicle, President John F. Kennedy sits alongside Allen Dulles and John McCone. They are seen here leaving the Naval War College after Kennedy announced that Dulles would be relieved of his duties as CIA director, to be replaced by McCone.Getty Images

The aftermath of previous presidential assassinations weren’t entirely without issue. For example, John Wilkes Booth, meant to be brought in alive, was shot by Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett, who Biography previously notes “intended to shoot Booth in the arm, but his bullet struck Booth’s neck instead,” killing the assassin. But in that situation, there was a clear chain of command that was being defied.

In the case of the JFK assassination, three massive intelligence organizations that operated largely independent of one another (and in the case of the FBI and CIA, at times pointedly in conflict with one another) all tried to “take charge” of the situation.

This was exacerbated by the heavy involvement of local Texas law enforcement, who technically had jurisdiction over murders committed in their state. What became apparent, particularly as the Warren Commission tried to gather information from these four organizations, is that all groups had conducted their own independent collections, and in some cases, disposals of evidence. And they had very little interest in sharing the full extent of what they knew, for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Distrust? Vanity? Conspiracy?

spectators gathering around building
A large gathering of reporters and spectators gather outside of Parkland Memorial Hospital in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.Getty Images

The trouble is, no matter their intentions behind their omissions, the result was an information vacuum that turned what was meant to be the definitive answer to the JFK assassination query—the Warren Commission, a seven-person panel established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren—into the fodder for conspiratorial thinking and flights of fancy, both of which were reinforced by other nefarious actions on the part of these intelligence organizations that could, in fact, be confirmed.

What did all that obfuscation leave us with? Conspiracy theories that elevated two gunmen to a level of importance they felt they deserved, and a public obsession with solving a mystery that overshadowed the public service of a president and turned his legacy into the makings of a spy novel.

What Happened on the Day of the JFK Assassination?

reporters questioning lee harvey oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald is presented to reporters at Dallas police station in November 1963.Getty Images

It’s impossible to sum up something as complex as the JFK assassination in anything less than a book’s worth of space. Indeed, Paul Brandus’ Countdown to Dallas, published in 2023, estimates that roughly 40,000 books have been published on JFK and his untimely death.

But these two paragraphs in Biography’s full profile of John F. Kennedy get the job done:

“On November 21, 1963, President Kennedy flew to Fort Worth, Texas, for a campaign appearance. The next day, November 22, Kennedy, along with his wife and Texas Governor John Connally, rode through cheering crowds in downtown Dallas in a Lincoln Continental convertible. From an upstairs window of the Texas School Book Depository building, a 24-year-old warehouse worker named Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine with Soviet sympathies, fired upon the car, hitting the president twice. Kennedy died at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital shortly thereafter at age 46.

A Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby assassinated Oswald days later while he was being transferred between jails. The death of President Kennedy was an unspeakable national tragedy, and to this date, many people remember with unsettling vividness the exact moment they learned of his death. While conspiracy theories have swirled ever since Kennedy’s assassination, the official version of events remains the most plausible: Oswald acted alone.”

For 65 percent of Americans, that’s not a satisfying answer. But knowing that intelligence organizations obfuscated and omitted information from the official investigation doesn’t fully explain just why that is. To really understand, you need to dip into some of the prevalent “alternative theories” as to who killed JFK.

Every single conspiracy theory out there has been the subject of exhaustive books, documentaries, feature films, and far too many podcasts. No single article could break down and debunk each theory. Nevertheless, here’s a cursory look at the most prominent conspiracy theories that have consumed the American public consciousness since JFK’s assassination.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 1: The Mafia Did It

ralph salerno speaking at microphone on kennedy assassinations
Ralph Salerno, a retired New York Police Department and expert on the Mafia, testifies before the House Assassination Committee in 1978.Getty Images

The Mafia, particularly the Chicago Outfit, tends to factor into many conspiracy theories around the JFK assassination, either as the sole culprit or part of a larger conspiracy. Why would the Mafia have wanted to target John F. Kennedy? Maybe they were distraught about their casinos in Cuba being closed, or maybe JFK’s dad, Joseph Kennedy, had mob connections because he made his fortunes as a bootlegger. (He didn’t.)

The most convincing argument for why the Mafia might want to kill a Kennedy is that then-Attorney General (and John’s brother) Robert F. Kennedy had prioritized dismantling organized crime, even publicly challenging Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa for his ties to multiple mob figures, as criminal enterprises had successfully infiltrated a number of labor unions around this time. Conspiracy theorists also emphasize that Jack Ruby—the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, while Oswald was in police custody—had some interactions with figures in organized crime.

But to find logic in killing JFK instead of Bobby (who would be gunned down in 1968 by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, relating to the Middle East conflicts of the time) can prove challenging for those who don’t simply want it to be true. And as Biography previously reported, mafia expert Ralph Salerno “...said he reviewed ‘thousands of pages of electronic surveillances of organized crime leaders all over the United States’ at the time the killing took place and heard nothing suspicious.”

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 2: The Soviets Did It

soviet premier nikita khrushchev and president john f kennedy look at each other while talking in a crowd of men
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy chat in Vienna in 1961.Getty Images

Yes, Lee Harvey Oswald lived in the USSR for a while. But the USSR did not have John F. Kennedy killed.

This particular line of thinking has died down considerably in recent decades. That’s largely because, by now, if there was any evidence of Soviet involvement in the JFK assassination, we probably would have found it. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 (the same year Oliver Stone’s JFK was released), and amid all that we learned from the KGB files that later emerged, from Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s bioweapons facility Biopreparat to the secret D-6 underground network below Moscow, there hasn’t been a shred of evidence suggesting the USSR was behind the JFK assassination.

In fact, Kennedy was actively working to find peace and understanding between the two super powers. He kept up correspondence with Premier Khrushchev (much of which can be read on the State Department’s website), even setting up a direct telephone line to Moscow. The two leaders seemed to also like each other personally. Once, Krushchev even gifted the Kennedys a dog, who was appropriately named Pushinka.

However, we now know that there was actually a Soviet plot involving the Kennedy assassination. And if you’ve ever shared a JFK assassination conspiracy theory, you’re part of it.

In 1992, a KGB archivist named Vasili Mitrokhin defected to the United Kingdom, bringing with him a trove of official documents he’d absconded with across his 30-year career. Those documents revealed that the KGB had actually worked to spread misinformation that the CIA was behind the JFK assassination, going so far as to forge a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald to CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (best known today for his involvement in the Watergate burglary) to implicate him and the CIA in the assassination.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 3: The Cubans Did It

fidel castro surrounded by many men in uniform reaches out to shake someones hand
Fidel Castro surrounded by a band of revolutionariesGetty Images

Many people over the years have posited that the Cubans were behind the JFK assassination. The problem is, they can’t seem to agree which Cubans. Pro-Castro Cubans? Anti-Castro Cubans?

In terms of motive, both are there. For the anti-Castro Cubans, there was the matter of the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, a CIA-backed coup attempt Kennedy had largely inherited from the Eisenhower administration wherein the United States reneged on its commitment to the very insurgents it had helped train after their “covert” activities were made apparent to the world. Plus, newly uncovered documents have shown that the Chicago Mafia was involved in training some of these Cuban exiles.

Likewise, Fidel Castro certainly would have had reason to want to kill the head of the U.S. government. Why? Because the U.S. government literally would not stop trying to kill him.

The Church Committee, set up in 1975 to investigate the activities of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS, “found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965.” In 2006, former head of Cuban intelligence Fabian Escalante claimed that across 40 years, Castro had dodged 638 assassination attempts, 42 of which occurred during the JFK administration.

And of course, Lee Harvey Oswald founded a chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in New Orleans, which put him on the FBI’s radar.

But beyond potential motive, we have no evidence to suggest that anyone on either side of the Cuban conflict (other than the Castro-obsessed Oswald) played any part in the JFK assassination. And, in fact, right up until his death, JFK was actively working to rebuild the America’s relationship with Cuba that had been “ruptured” by the previous administration.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 4: A Secret Society Did It

one dollar banknote eye of providence close up
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Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of an Illuminati-style secret society that conspired to kill the president? The conspiracy theory isn’t quite as absurd as you think.

In the late 1950s, two counterculture hipsters named Kerry Thornley and Greg Hill decided to create a satirical religion called Discordianism. And as every religion needs its central text, Thornley and Hill wrote the Principia Discordia then printed their first edition in 1963 on the Xerox machine of Jim Garrison, the district attorney of Orleans Parish in Louisiana.

In 1962, before writing the Principia Discordia, Thornley completed the manuscript for his novel The Idle Warriors, which was a comedic, fictionalized retelling of his time in the Marines. His main character, Johnny Shellburn, was based on a fellow Marine who swore he was a communist and later defected to the Soviet Union: Lee Harvey Oswald.

Usually, writing a funny novel about an old communist Marine connection, plus a fake religious text for a satirical cult, won’t get you in trouble. But when that communist Marine you once knew kills the president of the United States, and you photocopied your cult manifesto on the machine belonging to the conspiracy-obsessed New Orleans district attorney who is desperate to implicate people in the killing plot, that’s a different story. As Adam Gorightly’s 2014 Caught in the Crossfire conveys, Thornley spent so much time being falsely accused of being part of the JFK assassination conspiracy that he began believing he actually was an unwitting pawn in somebody else’s game.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 5: The U.S. Government Did It

lyndon b johnson raises one hand to take an oath while standing next to jacqueline kennedy, wife lady bird johnson, and several other men

Over the last 60 years, practically every facet of the United States government has been implicated in the JFK assassination by some book, blog, or TV special.

This is a particularly grisly allegation to toss around. The suggestion that a federal government, particularly one that so frequently touts freedom as its core ideal, would kill its own leader would have largely been considered beyond the pale before the 1960s. And to be clear, there is not—and has never been—any evidence clearly linking any part of the U.S. government to the specific act of the JFK assassination.

To believe that the government was behind the JFK assassination is to rely on both the government’s lack of full transparency during the investigation and the revelations of other illegal and unethical activities that came to light throughout the 1960s. These specific conspiracy theories act as less of a solution to a murder, and more a portrait of the erosion of public trust that can occur in an absence of governmental accountability.

j edgar hoover and lyndon b johnson smile and laugh while looking at each other
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover laughing with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967Getty Images

Take, for example, the suggestion that the FBI was behind Kennedy’s murder. Proponents of this conspiracy theory point to tenuous connections like the FBI being aware of Oswald and possibly harassing him (per Oswald’s own allegations), as well as a memo from J. Edgar Hoover expressing the need to “convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”

Later revelations about documented FBI activity in this period, like the targeted harassment of Martin Luther King Jr, the covert and illegal activities of COINTELPRO, the providing of information that led to the assassination of Fred Hampton, as well as Hoover’s personal involvement in the domestic surveillance of countless American citizens and the crafting of posthumous inaccurate narratives around figures like civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, all damaged the Bureau’s reputation in a manner that took decades to shake (if it ever fully did).

It’s been suggested by some conspiracy theorists that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind JFK’s assassination. This fringe theory was rooted in the idea that Johnson feared Kennedy would drop him from the ticket in 1964 and that Kennedy intended to de-escalate a war in Vietnam (as evidence by NSAM 263 issued on October 11, 1963) from which Johnson was personally profiting. Such a suggestion besmirches the memory and legacy of two presidents, Kennedy and Johnson; the History Channel once even had to publicly apologize for airing a television episode that laid out this particular conspiracy theory.

In a 1968 book, Kennedy’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln suggested that the president had conveniently privately disclosed to her, just three days before his death, that he intended to drop Johnson as his running mate in favor of North Carolina’s Terry Sanford. But there’s no public evidence supporting it. In fact, on October 31, 1963, Kennedy dispelled any rumors of switching running mates. And considering he was in Dallas on November 22 as part of a larger Texas tour to drum up support in the Lone Star state, which Kennedy narrowly won in 1960 because he had a Texas senator on his ticket, replacing him with a North Carolinian seems like an odd calculus.

file folders rest on black shelves in front of a portrait of lyndon b johnson hanging on a wall
An original set of the Pentagon Papers, on display at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential LibraryGetty Images

Then there are the Pentagon Papers. The works of historians, favorable to Johnson or not, largely agree that Lyndon B. Johnson shed his blood, sweat, and tears to achieve not just reaching the highest position of power in the country, but also to push for progressive policies while there, especially the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. To read the pages that Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the American public, however, showed just how much of other people’s blood Johnson was willing to shed.

We know now, thanks to those leaked documents, that the United States withheld some of the truth about the Vietnam War from the American public. We know that the government under LBJ pushed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution under false pretenses, “authorizing President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.

We know that during the Johnson administration, the Defense Department revised its reasoning for prolonging combat in Vietnam to “70 percent to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat.” And we know that in the face of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s 1967 suggestion that the United States begin withdrawing from Vietnam, Johnson instead “approved increasing the U.S. troop commitment to nearly 550,000.”

For the conspiracy-minded, it then became easy to draw parallels between the controversial July 1937 funding approval that then-newly elected Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through on behalf of the firm Brown & Root, which had donated heavily to Johnson’s campaign, with how in August 1965, the consortium RMK-BRJ was formed to construct naval facilities in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.

Before 1965, the consortium had just been RMK (Raymond International, Inc. and Morrison-Knudsen International, Inc.). The “BR” that got added under President Johnson to make it RMK-BRJ? Brown & Root, Inc.

Similar to how the Pentagon Papers put fuel in the “LBJ did it” fire, recent years have seen a revival of the “The Secret Service accidentally shot Kennedy” fringe theory first proposed by ballistics expert Howard Donahue in the pages of the Baltimore Sun in 1977 and given a broader audience in Bonar Menninger’s 1992 Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK.

This theory proposes that while Lee Harvey Oswald did fire two shots from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, the third shot—the one that killed the president—was actually fired by a Secret Service agent armed with an AR-15 in the car behind the president’s limo. As the theory goes, the Secret Service’s interference in the investigations was designed to cover up its own mistake. Fittingly, this fringe theory returns to circulation any time provable Secret Service malfeasance makes its way into the news, like the matter of the 6th Summit of the Americas in 2012 or the revelation of deleted texts amidst the January 6, 2021 hearings.

seven men in suits sit around a large table
The seven men of the Warren CommissionGetty Images

And finally, there’s the Central Intelligence Agency. Conspiracy theorists point to the fact that President Kennedy supposedly said he wanted to “splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds” (even though that quote first emerged from an anonymous source three years after his death). They mention the CIA knew a lot more about Lee Harvey Oswald than they initially let on. And they remind us that Allen Dulles, director of the CIA until President Kennedy fired him after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, was later one of the seven men on the Warren Commission created to investigate the assassination.

But the most damning indictment of the CIA when it comes to the Kennedy assassination isn’t what we know—it’s what nobody knew. Nobody knew what the CIA was actually up to in the early 1960s. And that includes the White House.

According to Philip Shenon’s 2013 A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, Bobby Kennedy asked then-CIA Director John McCone point-blank if the CIA had anything to do with JFK’s murder. “I asked him in a way he couldn’t lie to me,” Bobby recalled, “...and [he said] they hadn’t.”

The CIA that the Kennedys inherited from the Eisenhower Administration was one that Eisenhower himself couldn’t—or didn’t want to—control. During Eisenhower’s presidency, the CIA had already covertly staged coups to overthrow the democratically elected leaders of Iran (Operation Ajax) and Guatemala (Operation PBSuccess), as well as supplied the encouragement, and sometimes even weapons, that lead to the death of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

Bobby Kennedy knew first hand what the CIA was capable of, having been directly involved in the assassination plots against Fidel Castro. When Bobby reportedly asked the CIA if they killed his brother, the possibility that the agency had done it—no substantial evidence suggests that’s true—wasn’t the frightening part. Rather, the fact that the CIA had become unwieldy and unaccountable enough to even entertain the idea that it could have done it was more alarming.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory No. 6: Oswald Did It, All Alone

policeman holds a rifle with both hands above his head in a crowded hallway
A Dallas policeman holds up the rifle used to kill President John F. KennedyGetty Images

Of course, the likely reality is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing JFK. And Oswald wasn’t a patsy, nor a secret agent. He was just a man who thought he was destined for importance and lashed out at anyone he felt kept him from that. He clung to communism, to Cuba, to anything that made him feel a sense of purpose.

And on the day of November 22, 1963, Oswald decided his purpose was killing the president of the United States. Just as on April 10, 1963, Oswald decided his purpose was killing conservative politician General Edwin Walker, though the bullet Oswald fired from the same Carcano rifle he later used at the Book Depository narrowly missed its target. And just as another man looking for a sense of purpose, Jack Ruby, took Oswald’s life with the pull of a trigger on November 24, 1963.

jack ruby maneuvering law enforcement to shoot lee harvey oswald
Jack Ruby charges toward Lee Harvey Oswald during Oswald’s transfer. In a moment, Ruby will pull a trigger and place into the history books two men who, just a week prior, were of little to no consequence to the world.Getty Images

The decisions of two men led to 60 years worth of conspiracy theories, often posited by those who are convinced that they can finally solve a mystery whose actual solution simply can’t be accepted.

Because to accept that solution would mean to accept that nobody, not even the president of the United States, is as safe as the systems of government promise us that we are. It means accepting that a symbol of hope, and a new frontier, can be snuffed out by a man with an army surplus rifle that he bought for $20. And that his actions were not tied to any complex conspiracy. It was just a moment of chaos, where coincidences lined up to shatter the country. Many people would rather believe in a conspiracy theory, because in some way, that makes it feel like they’re in control. That there are rules to the game, that there is a system in place, and that we can all be safe if we do as we’re told.

So, who really killed President John F. Kennedy? You wouldn’t believe us if we told you.

Why Do We Still Believe JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories?

Conspiracy theorists continue to venture down the JFK assassination rabbit hole in the hopes of finding something new. This mystery continues to haunt America six decades later—and that’s something we predicted would happen 60 years ago. Here’s how Harrison E. Salisbury, assistant managing editor for The New York Times, described the situation in his introduction to the 1964 release of the Warren Report:

“The legend of President Kennedy’s death began with the crack of the sniper’s rifle that took his life. It was born at about 12:30 P.M. on November 22, 1963, when the lethal bullet whined toward his body. It has steadily grown since that moment.

As an editor of The New York Times remarked when he read the bulletin announcing the President’s death at 1:35 P.M. that day: ‘The year 2000 will see men still arguing and writing about the President’s death.’

Nothing that has happened since seems likely to invalidate that assessment. Not even the Warren Commission can be expected to stifle the Kennedy legend.”

But this “legend” gives Lee Harvey Oswald the final word. And there are other, far more deserving voices that need to be heard.

While a bevy of films and podcasts seek to mark the 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination by “solving the mystery,” this year’s Down in Dallas Town: From JFK to K2 chooses instead to focus on the people, and the place, that were not just transformed by that day, but continue to transform after it.

The filmmakers speak with Mary Ann Moorman, in her first interview in 50 years, about how inadvertently taking photos at the moment of JFK’s death impacted her profoundly. And the film examines how the local community that conspiracy theorists have preserved in metal amber since November 22, 1963, has developed real, solvable problems like drug abuse and homelessness.

If anyone should have had the final word on the Kennedy presidency, it was President Kennedy himself. But JFK is the only president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to not pen a presidential memoir—and the first since McKinley to have his legacy be defined not by his own pen but an assassin’s bullet.

To grapple with the way the assassination has come to define, for many, the entirety of the Kennedy legacy, Popular Mechanics spoke with JFK Presidential Library and Museum Director Alan Price. Does he find it frustrating that so many people obsess over JFK’s assassination rather than his life?

“Perhaps it is not surprising that such a tragic event, which struck down such an inspirational leader, would be in the foreground of public curiosity,” Price says. “Intellectually and emotionally, it’s hard for people to make sense of it.”

He continues:

“Personally, I recognize that a deeper understanding of history often begins with a question. If the gateway questions to more fully understanding and remembering President Kennedy are questions surrounding the assassination, then we welcome the scholarship of those with a passion for history to examine the available primary resources and add to the factual understanding of this pivotal moment in history.”

Popular Mechanics asked Price how the Kennedy Library endeavors to strike a balance between celebrating JFK’s life while still grappling with the complicated matter of his assassination. Is it possible to indulge in the curiosity without indulging in the macabre?

“When our museum first opened in 1979, there was a larger exhibit on the assassination. It was towards the beginning of the visitor experience. It was a good attempt to respond to public interest in that tragic day. However, the public reaction was not entirely favorable. Many found it upsetting. So we redesigned the exhibit to be a somber, minimalist corridor towards the end of the visitor experience. Shortly after watching the Walter Cronkite broadcast of the assassination, visitors emerge into the large pavilion so they can reflect on President Kennedy’s life and legacy. I believe this strikes a good balance.”

And if we’d ever be able to clear away the all-consuming mystique of the JFK assassination, what should the legacy of his presidency be? How should the public remember his life?

“President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy achieved so many things in such a short time,” says Price. “Both of them were truly remarkable. If I had to pick one thing, I hope that the public will remember the inaugural address and consider answering President Kennedy’s call to public service in some way.”

And so, as another anniversary of the end of John F. Kennedy’s presidency passes, perhaps for once, we can turn our eyes instead to how it began. And we can ultimately give the “last word” on the matter to the President himself:

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