Debate Club

The Holy Grail of JFK Conspiracy Theories Will Never Be Found


For JFK assassination conspiracists, proof that a plot lay behind the murder of president John Kennedy has been the Holy Grail. They have pursued it with a fervor approaching that of the knights of the mythical kingdom of Camelot. They have not faced dragons, but something they think worse: a massive cover-up including multiple government agencies and the vast majority of the mainstream media. They have not aimed to rescue a fair maiden, but rather something more important: a nation that they believe was hijacked by an evil cabal in a coup d'état.

But the search for the Grail has proved frustrating.

Early conspiracy theorists focused on Dealey Plaza, the park in Dallas through which Kennedy's limousine was passing when he was shot. They pointed to multiple witnesses who thought the shots came from the famous "grassy  knoll" – a gentle slope to the right of the limousine. Had the shots really come from there, it would mean a conspiracy, since multiple eyewitnesses placed a shooter to Kennedy's rear, in the Texas School Book Depository. Two shooters would mean conspiracy, with people other than Lee Harvey Oswald (or in addition to Oswald) involved.

[JFK: 50 Years Later]

But in the echo chamber that is Dealey Plaza, far more witnesses heard shots from the direction of the Depository than from the direction of the  knoll. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that only three witnesses heard shots from both directions.

Conspiracists pointed to the fact that Kennedy, when hit in the head by the fatal bullet, lurched back and to the left, propelled, they said, by a shot from a Grassy Knoll. This inference, unfortunately, is based on Hollywood ballistics. Standard forensic sources insist that bullets cannot throw people around bodily, a point proved by the popular TV series "Mythbusters." Further, Kennedy's autopsy photos and x-rays show he was only hit from behind, and not from the front.

Most likely, Kennedy was thrown backward by a neuromuscular spasm, caused by the bullet that literally exploded his head, destroying his brain in a millisecond.

[Read More: The JFK Myth, 50 Years Later]

Conspiracists have attacked the famous single bullet theory that holds that Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who was riding in front of JFK in the limo, were hit by the same bullet. The bullet would have to zig and zag in midair, they said. But copious photographic evidence shows that Connally was seated to Kennedy's left, lower than the president, and had his torso rotated to the right when he was struck. Every serious attempt to model the bullet trajectory, whether by the House Select Committee, the Itek Corporation (a top photographic analysis firm), Failure Analysis Associates or computer graphics expert Dale Myers has shown that the single bullet trajectory works.

Since the evidence from Dealey Plaza has increasingly frustrated conspiracy theorists, they have moved afield to find evidence of a plot in New Orleans (where Oswald lived in the summer before the assassination), Mexico City (where Oswald tried to get a visa to get into Cuba) and even Miami (a hotbed of anti-Castro activism).

With any historical event of this magnitude, witnesses will come forward with "interesting" stories, and that's certainly true here. Various witnesses have connected Oswald to all kinds of sinister-seeming events and people, including both anti-communists and communists. But these witnesses have lacked credibility, and their various stories point to different and contradictory conspiracy theories.

[Read More: An Accidental Assassination?]

Thus, some sinister (but very tenuous) "connection" associates Oswald with anti-Castro Cubans, another with the Mafia, still another with the CIA, and a stray one here and there to right-wing Texans or Castro's intelligence service. You can pick your favorite conspiracy theory, based largely on whom you dislike politically. Or worse, just throw all of them into the mix.

It's a free country, and conspiracists have every right to continue their quest. But the sober-minded citizen has every right to conclude that the Grail will never be found. If a conspiracy (or at least, any conspiracy consisting of more people than could fit into an old Volkswagen beetle) killed Kennedy, we very likely would know about it by now. The "smoking gun" document would have been found. A credible witness would have come forward. Real scientists (and not the amateur hobbyists who populate the ranks of conspiracists) would have uncovered evidence tampering or fakery.

Thus, the most plausible conclusion is, as it has been for fifty years, "one guy with a grudge and a gun."

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  • John McAdams

    About John McAdams Professor of Political Science at Marquette University

    Kennedy, John

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