Nov. 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of the most momentous and scrutinized moments in American history. Even half a century later, questions persist: Who really shot Kennedy? Was there a conspiracy to kill the president? Why are there still so many loose ends and secrets?
With the benefit of both distance and technology, we know far more about the events that fateful day in Dallas than Americans did at the time. But facts rarely get in the way of a good story, and the JFK assassination is a story tailor-made for a novelist.
Leave it to a novelist, then, to delve into the truth behind the myth. Brad Meltzer, New York Times bestselling author and host of the History Channel series “Decoded,” focuses on the Kennedy assassination as part of his new book “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time.”
“We analyzed everything we could find, from the facts, to the myths that keep getting repeated,” Meltzer says. “We so want to believe there's a conspiracy. Why? Because we don’t want to believe that our government could be jackknifed by a high school dropout.”
But sometimes the facts don’t line up with the myth. Here, Meltzer shares with Yahoo 10 aspects of the JFK assassination most Americans may not know, whether because they’re little-known facts or because the myth is a better story.
10. The window from which Oswald shot Kennedy went missing. On Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald leaned out a window on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in Dallas and fired three shots. Six years after the assassination, Gen. D. Harold Byrd, owner of the building, had the window removed. “This being Texas,” Meltzer says, “he had it framed and hung in his mansion.” The only problem? It was the wrong window, according to Aubrey Mayhew, the building’s later owner. Mayhew pried out what he said was the right window. Both windows eventually ended up on eBay; Meltzer believes Mayhew’s is the “real” one.
9. Plenty of shooters recreated Oswald’s shot. One of the more pervasive myths surrounding the JFK assassination was the idea that no other shooter could replicate Oswald’s feat of shooting three times in 6.75 seconds. So another shooter must have been involved, right? Not necessarily. The Warren Commission reported that one marksman was able to pull off the feat in 4.6 seconds, and a later CBS investigation showed that 11 marksmen averaged 5.6 seconds. Also, Oswald’s shot was, for a trained shooter, relatively easy. Oswald and other military marksmen are trained to shoot anywhere from 200 to 500 yards. Kennedy was 88 yards from Oswald at his farthest point, and 59 yards away at the time of the last shot.
8. Oliver Stone’s "JFK" damaged history. “Oliver Stone is a great filmmaker,” Meltzer says. “But his film 'JFK' did a great disservice to history by mixing fact and fiction. For the 20 million people that saw it in theaters, and the millions who have seen it afterward, that became the official record of the assassination.” Meltzer notes that several characters in the movie were created for the purposes of storytelling and had no relation whatsoever to real events.
7. There was no “Magic Bullet.” The most pervasive myth perpetuated by “JFK” was the idea that a single bullet could have passed through Kennedy’s body, changed direction twice, and then entered the body of Texas Gov. John Connally, riding in the limo’s front seat, before emerging pristine. “You’d think there’s no way one bullet could do that, and you’d be right … if the men were sitting facing forward like they were in an airplane. Governor Connally was turned to the right, and the bullet traveled in a straight line. Also, Meltzer points out, FBI investigators have noted that the bullet is in no way “pristine”; it’s flat on one side.
6. The U.S. government erred in keeping its investigation secret. In 1964, the Warren Commission held the investigation into the assassination behind closed doors. As later review of the proceedings has shown, the absence of publicly released information allowed speculation to spread in many dark (and often incorrect) directions.
5. Kennedy’s family chose to keep secrets as well. JFK’s family made the understandable, but regrettable, decision to keep Kennedy’s hospital and autopsy records under wraps. As with the Warren Commission, Meltzer says, this gave the inaccurate perception that the Kennedy family had something to hide. And it meant the American public didn't get to see the actual evidence.
4. The government is not keeping very many JFK secrets, and won’t keep any for much longer. One benefit of the JFK film, Meltzer notes, is that it led to the declassification of 97 percent of all government documents related to the Kennedy assassination. The other 3 percent will be declassified in 2017, unless the president decides to keep them under wraps.
3. Were there really “mysterious deaths?” One of the pervasive rumors surrounding the investigation into JFK’s death was that many witnesses died of mysterious circumstances. Nonsense, Meltzer says. “The idea that there was a hit squad going around tying off loose ends just doesn’t hold up,” he says. “Many of the people died long after giving testimony. And most died of heart disease. The No. 1 killer of Americans is heart disease. A few were unusual, but not as many as people say.”
2. There was no “fourth shot” from the grassy knoll. The Warren Commission found that there were three shots fired in the assassination. Several years later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations indicated that an audio recording discovered later found that there was a fourth shot, and it must have come from a “grassy knoll” near the depository. Problem is, 12 acoustics experts ruled out the possibility of a fourth shot. Moreover, that fourth shot came a minute after Oswald’s shots, a time when the motorcade was already well on the way to the hospital.
1. The true killer of JFK was … As Meltzer notes, the “true killer” of JFK in the popular imagination changes depending on the mood of the time. “In the 1960s, we believed it was the Soviets. In the 1970s, it was the CIA, as we distrusted our own government. In the 1980s, with the rise of Mob movies, it was the Mafia. Now, we believe our own government was in on it. JFK's killer is whoever we're most afraid of at the time.”
As both 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing have shown, there’s no way that a public event could unfurl like the Kennedy assassination, with a lack of primary-source recordings. “Information travels so quickly now,” Meltzer says. “We have camera angles from every direction. All the evidence is right in front of us, all the puzzle pieces are right there.”
Even after 50 years, Meltzer believes the JFK assassination remains important because of the way it mirrors our own beliefs about ourselves as Americans. “It’s our white whale, and we are Ahabs,” he says. “It’s a reflection of all of our hopes and all of our fears.”
Meltzer's "History Decoded" includes more on the JFK assassination, as well as research into mysteries of World War II, Area 51 and many other legends. Each chapter of the book includes removable evidence, including JFK's actual death certificate. "So you examine the evidence yourself," Meltzer says. For more information on the book, visit Meltzer's website.