The John F. Kennedy assassination: Four unanswered questions

The Kennedy assassination, a pivotal moment in American life, has fascinated historians, conspiracy theorists, and filmmakers, among others. Some questions might never be answered.

World History Archive/Newscom
President John F. Kennedy and his wife in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963.

Forty-seven years ago today President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was an event of only a few seconds, but it was a hinge of history, something of such political and cultural importance that at dusk on Nov. 22, 1963, America was a different country than it had been at sunrise.

Sheer shock was part of it. Almost everyone past preschool age at the time can say where they were when they heard the news, as today a new generation will always remember what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001.

Given its importance, the Kennedy assassination over the generations has been a subject of unending fascination to historians, filmmakers, novelists, conspiracy theorists, and ordinary citizens alike. Notable works range from director Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” a dense, purposely chaotic take that depicts the assassination as the work of a conspiracy, to attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s 2007 book “Reclaiming History,” a massive book of over 2,000 pages that attempts not just to refute conspiracy theorists, but to mock them, so that no one will take them seriously again.

Dissatisfaction with the report of the Warren Commission, the group appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination, has helped keep debate about the killing alive. (The Warren Commission was named after its chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and began its work only days after the event.) The Warren Commission conclusion was that a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed John F. Kennedy, and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally, who was seated directly in front of JFK in an open limousine wending its way through the streets of Dallas.

Many Americans have never accepted the idea that a single man who seemed confused and adrift could carry out an act that wreaked such havoc on the US psyche. A 2003 Gallup poll found that three-quarters of Americans think Mr. Oswald did not act alone. They were split as to who else was guilty, however. A plurality of respondents to the poll, 37 percent, thought the Mafia to blame. In second place was the CIA, the choice of 34 percent of respondents.

That such attitudes have persisted may be due to unanswered questions about the assassination – or, perhaps more properly, questions which may be impossible to answer definitively, given the available evidence. Some of the most well-known of these include:

Were JFK and Connally wounded by a single bullet?

The Warren Commission concluded that JFK, in the back of the limo, and Governor Connally, in the front, were both struck by the same copper-jacketed 6.5mm rifle bullet. This shot hit Kennedy in the back, traveled through his body, and then struck Connally’s chest and wrist, according to the commission. It was found on a gurney at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Many conspiracy theorists say this could not have happened, because the bullet would have had to swerve in mid-air to cause the damage ascribed to it by the Warren report. A second shooter from a different angle had to be involved, according to Warren’s critics.

In addition, JFK and Connally were hit at almost the same instant, according to evidence from the famous Zapruder film of the event. Oswald could not have fired fast enough to hit them with two shots. If the single “magic” bullet did not do the damage, a second shooter must have done it, some experts on the assassination say.

Defenders of the single bullet theory point out that it appears from photographic evidence that Connally was not sitting directly in front of JFK. He was positioned to the inside of the car, and Kennedy was nearer the door, meaning the bullet did not in fact have to swerve in mid-air.

Was JFK’s coat bunched up over his shoulders?

This question is related to the single bullet question, above. JFK’s suit coat had a hole in it about 5 inches below the collar. Many conspiracy theorists argue that this is too low for Oswald to have caused, given the bullet’s subsequent path, as Oswald was shooting from the heights of the Texas Book Depository.

However, other investigators, such as Marquette University political science professor John McAdams, have argued that photographic evidence indicates that JFK’s suit coat was bunched up around his neck, allowing the geometry to work in this case.

Was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll?

The famous grassy knoll of the JFK assassination is a small, sloping hill inside Dealey Plaza, the small park the president’s limo was passing when Oswald fired. Many have theorized it would have been a perfect place to hide a second gunman.

In 1979, the US House Select Committee on Assassinations issued a report concluding that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, although members ruled out the involvement of Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Mafia in the crime. They based their conclusion in part on the evidence of a Dictabelt recording of the event. This recording, judged panel members, indicates that there were four shots, not three, as the Warren Commission concluded – and that one of these shots came from the area of the grassy knoll.

Since then the Dictabelt evidence, which is alleged to be the recording of a police radio positioned along JFK’s route, has been the subject of great debate. Some scientists have concluded that the “fourth shot” is in fact just static. Others have pointed out that the faint crosstalk on the recording appears to indicate that it was made before JFK entered the Dealey Plaza area.

Are the Oswald backyard photographs authentic?

Some of the most famous evidence linking Lee Harvey Oswald to the JFK assassination is a series of photographs of Mr. Oswald taken in his backyard in which he holds up Marxist newspapers and a Carcano rifle – a rifle whose markings match those on the Carcano rifle found in the Texas Book Depository after the killing.

Interrogated before he, in turn, was shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, Oswald insisted the photos were fake. But Oswald’s estranged wife Marina testified that she had taken them. The House Select Committee subjected them to extensive analysis and concluded they were genuine.

That has not stopped some conspiracy theorists from pointing to Oswald’s denial, and saying he was right.

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