Aliens. Masons. The Mob.
Body doubles. “Umbrella man.” An inside job.
Well before there was “fake news,” there was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the dozens of conspiracy theories it captivated. One author calculated that conspiracy theorists have accused “42 groups, 82 assassins, and 214 folks by name of being engaged in the assassination.” Consistent with a 2013 poll, no less than 62 percent of Americans think there was a much wider plot beyond just Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor overlooking Dealey plaza in Dallas.
With President Donald Trump tweeting Saturday that he intends to disclose the final batch of secret files on the assassination later this week, historians and conspiracy theorists equally will be excitedly combing through the records.
Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 21, 2017
Will the files bring any fuel to the conspiracy theories that have been burning for more than half a century, or deny them of oxygen once and for all?
Barring a last-minute reversal by the White House, we will shortly find out. For the time being, here are a few of the most widespread conspiracy theories on the assassination.
Maybe the most long lasting conspiracy theory owes its origins not to some crank in a tinfoil hat but instead to the House of Representatives.
7 days after Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson distributed an executive order making the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy – the Warren Commission, given its name after its chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Ten months afterwards, the commission introduced its conclusions: Oswald acted alone as did Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot Oswald 2 days after Kennedy’s assassination.
In 1976 – after Watergate shook Americans’ faith in government, and after the appearance of the Zapruder film permitted the public to view the assassination for themselves – the House voted overwhelmingly to set up a Select Committee on Assassinations to reinvestigate the killing, as well as that of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968.
Like the Warren Commission, the House investigation discovered no proof of Soviet, Cuban or CIA involvement in Kennedy’s assassination. But the committee did determine that there was “probably” a conspiracy relating to a second gunman on the now infamous “grassy knoll”.
That answer has since been discredited, including by high-tech recreations, but the harm was done.
This “great contradiction,” as one JFK scholar put it, established room for conspiracy theories to grow.
The most famous explanation involving multiple gunmen centres on “Umbrella Man”: a shape observed strangely holding a black umbrella on the sunny day of Kennedy’s assassination. Some speculated that Umbrella Man had shot a poison dart into Kennedy’s neck, immobilising him to make it easy for for Oswald or others to deliver a kill-shot.
Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-fueling 1991 film JFK demonstrated Umbrella Man sending signals to his partner assassins.
The truth, nevertheless, was banal. In 1978, 15 years after the assassination, Louie Steven Witt explained to the House committee that he brought the umbrella to heckle – not murder – the president.
“Has exhibit 405 ever contained a gun or weapon of any sort?” Robert Genzman, staff counsel to the committee, questioned him as the committee likened Witt’s umbrella to conspiracy theorists’ diagrams of secret dart- or bullet-firing mechanisms.
“This umbrella?” replied a befuddled Witt.
Witt stated he wasn’t even aware of the conspiracy theories over his umbrella until years after, and that it was “bad joke” directed at Kennedy’s father that had monumentally backfired. (A black umbrella had been the trademark of Nazi-appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Joseph Kennedy had supported.)
Umbrella Man, a 2011 short documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris, investigated how, under a microscope, the simple could appear sinister.
“If the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for people doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place, I would be No. 1 in that position,” Witt explained to the committee, “with not even a close runner-up”.
An inside job
Another unremitting belief is that American officials were somehow included. One concept is that the fatal bullet really came from the driver of Kennedy’s own car as he tried to fire upon Oswald.
“If you look at a really bad copy of the Zapruder film, it will look like William Greer, the driver, reached over his shoulder with a gun and shot Kennedy in the head,” John McAdams, author of JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy, said to The Daily Beast. “But his hands were on the steering wheel the whole time, it only looks differently in a very bad copy of the Zapruder film.”
A more popular conspiracy theory is that the CIA – and even Lyndon B. Johnson – were nefariously included.
Although professionals have rejected it as “ridiculous” and “contrived,” the conspiracy theory was nonetheless central to Oliver Stone’s film. It has also been pushed by another Stone: Roger Stone, the political consultant and Trump confidant who lobbied the president to release the final documents.
“I realise that delving into the world of assassination research and a belief in a conspiracy will lead some to brand me as an extremist or a nut, but the facts I have uncovered are so compelling that I must make the case that Lyndon Baines Johnson had John Fitzgerald Kennedy murdered in Dallas to become president himself and to avert the precipitous political and legal fall that was about to beset him,” Stone published in his 2013 book, written with Mike Colapietro, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ.
(The book, which accuses Johnson of complicity in at least six other murders, also quotes Richard Nixon – Stone’s former boss – as saying “Lyndon and I both wanted to be President, the difference was I wouldn’t kill for it.”)
Sean Cunningham, a history professor at Texas Tech, stated no proof supported the theory.
“Johnson makes for a good story and is an easy way to explain things,” he explained to the Daily Beast.
Cubans and Soviets
Of all the conspiracy theories associated with Kennedy’s murder, there is one that is almost certainly to be boosted or debunked by the newly disclosed records.
As reported by The Washington Post’s Ian Shapira, professionals think many of the 3100 previously unreleased files connect with Oswald’s six-day trip to Mexico City two months before the assassination. Some think Oswald received his orders from Soviet or Cuban agents while in Mexico City.
Oswald had relocated to the Soviet Union in 1959, spending two and a half years there prior to returning to the United States when his minor celebrity as an American defector faded. In September of 1963, he travelled to the Mexican capital, visiting both the Cuban and Soviet embassies in obvious effort to move to one of the communist countries.
“One Soviet official whom Oswald purportedly contacted, Valeriy Kostikov, was not only a KGB officer but also was believed to have worked for the KGB’s Department 13, which the CIA report described as ‘the department charged with sabotage and assassination,'” The Post noted in 1993, when a previous round of documents were declassified.
That has left historians eager to learn what the last batch of records will expose about Oswald’s movements and meetings in Mexico City.
“I’ve always considered the Mexico City trip the hidden chapter of the assassination. A lot of histories gloss right past this period,” Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter and the author of a book on the Warren Commission, told Shapira. “Oswald was meeting with Soviet spies and Cuban spies, and the CIA and FBI had him under aggressive surveillance. Didn’t the FBI and CIA have plenty of evidence that he was a threat before the assassination? If they had acted on that evidence, maybe it wouldn’t have taken place. These agencies could be afraid that if the documents all get released, their incompetence and bungling could be exposed. They knew about the danger of Oswald, but didn’t alert Washington.”
Based on some conspiracy theories, American intelligence agencies knew of Oswald’s plan and permitted it to happen because they wanted Kennedy out of the way.
The CIA and the FBI investigated supposed Cuban and Soviet involvement but discovered nothing. The Warren commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations also both ruled out Cuban or Soviet involvement. Professionals have also cast doubt on a Cuban or Soviet plot, pointing to the truth that both countries considered Kennedy easier to work with than his vice president.
Based on one conspiracy theory, when Oswald moved to the Soviet Union, the KGB trained a look-alike who assumed his identity and, ultimately, killed Kennedy. The man behind the concept even persuaded Oswald’s widow to permit him to unearth the corpse.
On October 4, 1981, an exhumation team in Fort Worth, grimly found that Oswald’s concrete vault had cracked and that the body was badly decomposed, but enough remained inside the dark brown suit for authorities to examine.
“We, both individually and as a team, have concluded beyond any doubt, and I mean beyond any doubt, that the individual buried under the name Lee Harvey Oswald in Rose Hill Cemetery is, in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald,” reported Assistant Dallas County Medical Examiner Linda E. Norton.
In the days following his brother’s assassination, Robert Kennedy had a dreadful feeling that the killing was his fault.
“Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed,” based on biographer Evan Thomas. “That Robert Kennedy’s attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had blown back, as the intelligence folks say.”
There is no public proof of an organised crime plot in opposition to the president, nevertheless, and professionals again discount the idea.
Ralph Salerno, a ex – New York City Police detective who investigated Mafia involvement in the assassination for the House committee, stated he reviewed “thousands of pages of electronic surveillances of organised crime leaders all over the United States” at the time of the assassination and heard nothing suspicious.
“We even came across a few sympathetic remarks about the president,” he explained to ABC. “‘No, they killed the wrong one.’ ‘They should have shot his brother.’ ‘That little SOB.’ ‘He’s the guy who’s giving us a hard time.'”
Ted Cruz’s dad
Not one to shy away from conspiracy theories, then-candidate Trump himself had a hot take on the assassination he delivered to Fox News last year.
Trump, who was at the time combating Senator Ted Cruz (Texas) for the Republican presidential nomination, claimed that his opponent’s father, Rafael Cruz, had been identified with Oswald before the shooting.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald being, you know, shot,” Trump stated during a telephone interview. “I mean the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this? Right? Prior to his being shot. And nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don’t even talk about that – that was reported. And nobody talks about it.”
Trump seemed to be referencing an April 2016 National Enquirer post headlined “Ted Cruz Father Linked to JFK Assassination!” The tale contained a photograph that, based on the tabloid, revealed Oswald and Rafael Cruz distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans in 1963.
Even after getting the nomination, Trump stuck by the widely discredited story.
“All I did is point out the fact that on the cover of the National Enquirer, there’s a picture of him [Rafael Cruz] and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast,” Trump stated. “I had nothing to do with it. This was a magazine that frankly in many respects, should be very respected. They got OJ. They got [John] Edwards. They got this. I mean, if that was the New York Times, they would have gotten Pulitzer prizes for their reporting.”
– The Washington Post
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