Assassin Nation: JFK and the Modern Conspiracy Theory

With the 50th anniversary of the most famous presidential assassination in American history drawing near, for weeks newspapers, magazines, and websites have featured more than the usual amount of material discussing conspiracy theories involving John F. Kennedy’s death. Few would argue that the shooting that took place in Dealy Plaza half a century ago led to what is, arguably, the most controversial death ever to occur on American soil. With the controversy, there have been a countless number of critics who have emerged to challenge the official determinations as to how Kennedy died, and more importantly, who killed him. 

The official conclusion determined by The Warren Commission holds that a societal outcast, of sorts, named Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the death. However, despite scientific opinions to the contrary, there have been a number of official challenges to this idea since the publication of The Warren Commission’s findings, based on an official investigation carried out by then Chief Justice Earl Warren and a panel of others tasked with determining whether there was indeed a second gunman firing from a nearby, and now famous, “grassy knoll.” All such challenges have failed to truly counter the “official” opinions, which have done no better in convincing a curious and distrustful public, even fifty years later, that the entire story is really being told.


So is there more to the Kennedy assassination? There is, without question… but much of these externalities involve, rather than secrets kept from the public, the hardened, opinionated approaches that researchers bring with them to the table when delving into the complexities involving the Kennedy assassination. And as we will soon see, the diseases of distrust and bias have spread outward since the years of that famous assassination in Dallas, branching further into dogfights over wholly separate conspiracy theories, and amidst a number of circumstances where explanations continue to elude us.

“A large majority of Americans–no less than Secretary of State John Kerry…rejects the official history and embraces counter-theories involving dark, extremely dark, allegations about American society.” These were the words of David von Drehle, writing in a new commemorative anniversary issue of TIME magazine which focuses heavily on Kennedy’s death. “Like a tornado, the Kennedy conspiracy theories have spun off whirlwinds of doubt about other national traumas and controversies, from 9/11 and FEMA camps to TWA Flight 800 and genetically modified foods. The legacy of (Kennedy’s assassination) is a troubling habit of the modern American mind: suspicion is a reflex now, trust a figment.”

Interestingly, von Drehle cites for us here, amidst a number of non-JFK “conspiracy theories,” at least a few ideas that may have gained some credible ground among the more popular modern American conspiracist ideas. For instance, theories that TWA Flight 800 may not have really been casualty to an explosion emanating from the plane’s center wing fuel tank saw something of a renaissance, though of a subdued variety, over the summer with the appearance of a new documentary, titled simply TWA Flight 800. The film presented compelling new data, along with interviews from members of the original NTSB crash investigation team, which strongly suggested that the FBI had been withholding, or otherwise obfuscating, certain evidence pertaining to the case. Additionally, while less often cited in relation to the TWA Flight 800 investigation, a number of separate incidents involving potential missiles or flares were reported in the months before and after the crash, within the same vicinity of Long Island Sound where TWA Flight 800 went down (for a complete analysis of these incidents, see the chapter titled “Fear and Flares Over Long Island” in my new book, The Ghost Rockets).


Similar positions that gravitate far more toward scientific validity than many would acknowledge also appear regarding the concern over genetically modified foods. To be fair, this is indeed a subject that is often paired with a number of fear-driven conspiracies that are generally aimed at promoting the sale of various brands of foods, supplements, or even survival gear, as has become increasingly popular amidst popular circles in the patriot movement. However, there does appear to be some credible evidence suggesting that GMOs could be harmful, despite a scientific consensus that remains adamant about the safety of such produce.

Numerous reports exist today concerning the propensity for allergic reactions and a rise in the appearance of conditions such as Celiac Disease among certain individuals. In truth, the latter of these is not linked to GMOs, but instead to the hybridization of different wheat varieties over the years, which may have lead to an increased intolerance for gluten in some individuals; in fact, as of 2013, there are still no varieties of wheat on the U.S. market that have been produced as a result of genetic modification.

Nonetheless, one incident dating back to 1989 involved the deaths of 37 people, along with sickness that 1,500 others incurred, as a result of consumption of a nutritional supplement called L-tryptophan, which had been produced using bacteria that had been genetically modified. It is not clear today whether the illnesses were directly a result of the genetic modifications in question, however. A separate study found stomach damage had resulted when rats consumed genetically-modified potatoes containing a lectin gene designed to be pest-resistant (for more on this, see here).

In both the cases above, we see that certain alternative hypotheses (some would call them  “conspiratorial”) might actually hold water if all the available data (and some yet to surface) were taken into consideration. If such theories were proven to be fact, rather than conspiracist thinking, it would only show one thing really: that while current “official” determinations on these subjects may be backed by science, they are based on a set of scientific determinations which are incomplete. And this is an important observation that is very seldom espoused among the more conventional commentators on such subjects, who often may look at incomplete data sets as indicative of the complete truth, based primarily on an ideological attitude that rejects so-called “conspiracy theories,” or anything that sounds close to being one.

What it also seems to show us is that, among mainstream commentators, questioning things like the safety of certain consumables, despite watching the science behind their production as it evolves, is considered “wacky.” The obvious rise in diseases which seem to indicate that something in our environment is indeed changing does little to curb this attitude, and hence von Drehle’s apparent reasoning in pairing such things as the dangers of GMO and TWA Flight 800 alongside theories of a second gunman who might have helped Oswald take out Kennedy. To ask such questions, it seems, is tantamount to assuming that an entire troupe of Mafia hit men and KGB spies were peeking around corners and alcoves that November day in Dallas: and if you have those kinds of questions, you’re just another one of those damned conspiracists.


This was not so much the case, however, with a recent article featured in Slate by Fred Kaplan, a writer and Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (the latter of those being a position likely to grab the attention of the conspiracy minded among us). In Kaplan’s piece “Killing Conspiracy: Why the best conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination don’t stand up to scrutiny,” Kaplan largely poses a critical argument against theories involving a second gunman who acted in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He also gives a fairly obligatory statement regarding “why people feel the need to believe in conspiracies” that all such articles tend to resolve with, though in Kaplan’s case, it is admittedly a good one:

“If horrible events can be traced to a cabal of evildoers who control the world from behind a vast curtain, that’s, in one sense, less scary than the idea that some horrible things happen at random or as a result of a lone nebbish, a nobody. The existence of a secret cabal means that there’s some sort of order in the world; a catastrophic fluke suggests there’s a vast crevice of chaos, the essence of dread.”

However, Kaplan also does what most popular commentators today won’t do, in acknowledging actual conspiracies, and why they can tend to feed into the paranoia that surrounds alternative theories regarding devastating accidents and catastrophes the likes of JFK’s assassination:

“Finally (and this is a point that some defenders of the Warren Report ignore), there are conspiracies. There’s a reason so many serious people started to reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination in the mid-1970s: that was when Sen. Frank Church’s committee unveiled a long dark history of CIA conspiracies—coups, killings, and other black-bag jobs—that only extremists had ever before imagined possible. What other extreme theories might turn out to be true?”

There are other quote-worthy segments that could be addressed from Kaplan’s piece, but for now I’ll merely refer folks to the article, which can be found here. Most of what Kaplan has to say will anger conspiracy theorists, but it also provokes some unique conversation (without having to say here that there was, or was not, a conspiracy beyond Oswald, which in truth, a majority of Americans still maintain belief in). One of the most interesting arguments Kaplan notes, for example, has to do with the notion that a bullet entering the body of an individual would lack the physical potential for the infamous “back and to the left” shudder that we see Kennedy perform just after bits of his cranium are seen exploding in the well-known Zapruder film.

The truth is that, while many people involved in investigations (such as that performed by The Warren Commission) are experts on medical forensics and other similar fields related to the various causes of human death, few people of even such qualification are ballistics experts who truly understand the principles of motion and physics underlying how a body reacts when struck by a bullet. The following passage is drawn from an interview with one man who would, however, qualify in this regard: a scientist and ballistics expert named Duncan MacPherson, as interviewed by Joel Grant. Here, MacPherson explains the actual physics behind what we see Kennedy doing in the Zapruder film, with direct relevance to the famous argument about Kennedy’s “back and to the left” movement:

“The movement of a body due to bullet momentum cannot be greater than the movement of the same body if it was holding the gun that fired the bullet… The major frustrating feature of the Kennedy assassination phenomenon is the willingness of people to pretend to talk authoritatively on subjects they know absolutely nothing about, especially things related to firearms. This body recoil is one favorite. Another is the “puff of smoke from the grassy knoll”; the theory here seems to be that someone shot Kennedy with a flintlock (modern firearms don’t make a puff of smoke on firing as black powder rounds do)… In general, body movement in response to nervous system trauma is a result of contractions in body muscles… The slightly peculiar location of Kennedy’s arms after the 399 bullet impact is known as Thorburn’s position, after a description by Dr. William Thorburn in an 1889 paper on injuries to the area of the spinal chord damaged by bullet 399. In addition to this effect, simulations have shown that bullet strikes to the skull that result in blowing out a significant hole upon exit result in skull recoil towards the bullet entry direction. The dynamics of this are a little complicated, but are more related to the pressure inside the skull cavity created by the bullet passage than to effects directly related to the bullet movement.”

Worthy of additional note here are MacPherson’s views regarding allegations of problems and inconsistencies with medical observations included in Kennedy’s autopsy report, which fall in line with previous famous criticisms of The Warren Commission and its findings:

The problems with the Kennedy autopsy do not require a conspiracy to explain, they are more or less business as usual exposed to the glare of careful examination. Likewise, the work of Lattimer and Fackler is simply a very sound, complete, and careful examination and reconstruction of that facts that should be the standard in all cases, but isn’t. Some argument can be made in the typical investigation that the talent and resources just are not available to meet a first class standard, but one can hardly argue that this situation is applicable to the Warren report. The Warren commission should have used all of the best talent available to make the most complete analysis possible, but they didn’t. In fairness, it is always easier to criticize than to perform.

What we find, when pairing our inherent sense for questioning the facts, with a bit of actual rocket science (that is, after all, MacPhereson’s specialty as a ballistics expert) is a phenomenon quite common to researchers who seek to train themselves in removing ideological hubris from between themselves and the subjects they study: there is room both for criticism of the “official narrative,” just as well as generous adherence to the official positions that result from scientific studies that employ something that many conspiracy theories, as well as champions of the conventional viewpoints, simply do not: actual science.

TV-Letters to Jackie

Of all the most curious questions that do remain, perhaps one glares more brightly from the dismal twilight of distrust that remains: why did Oswald do it, and if he had acted alone as the sole gunman, does it rule out the possibility that there were other elements involved that still continue to be withheld from public knowledge? For instance, how much information were intelligence agencies maintaining with regard to Oswald (as it is now common knowledge that the FBI, among others, been surveilling him in the months leading up to the assassination)? If they possessed credible information that appended some level of threat to Kennedy’s life–or anyone else, for that matter–why wasn’t more done to stop Oswald from carrying out such a lethal act? Could anything more have been done at all? Also, how does the FBI’s inability to determine a viable threat, and act accordingly, in this instance differ from what we saw transpire with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, who had been monitored, and even interviewed more than once by FBI agents before the deadly events that took place earlier in 2013? Furthermore, how had they managed to overlook, until after Tsarnaev’s death, his connection to a triple-homicide that had taken place two years earlier… on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks? One hardly needs the assertion of a conspiracy or false flag attack to become amazed by the coincidences that begin to pile up, which still hardly compare with the shock that mounts upon realization of the apparent inefficiency of our intelligence agencies… which, of course, still manage to fail us, despite the incredible amount of surveillance occurring today that we are now all plainly aware of. With time, it becomes very easy to understand why conspiracy allegations are continually surfacing… whether or not real conspiracies of any kind actually back them.

As we see in this week’s TIME article on the Kennedy “conspiracies,” as well as Kaplan’s article for Slate, popular writers in American media go to great pains in asserting the ludicrousness of belief in conspiracies, which center largely on the “lone gunman” controversy. However, while it’s easy to sensationalize the fact that the majority of assertions have been made about this element of the entire JFK assassination drama over the years, doing so conveniently nullifies acknowledgement regarding other elements to the mystery that could be more pertinent. Most of these, in truth, have to do with Lee Harvey Oswald himself, rather than any conspiracy involving a second shooter on the Grassy Knoll.

Oswald, after leaving the U.S. Marines, defected to Russia and lived there for a period of two years, during which time there is credible evidence that he had been surveilled by the KGB, and possibly even interviewed by them for a possible intelligence agent position. Some of the more controversial testimony in this regard was related by Lt. Col. Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko, a KGB agent who defected to the U.S. and subsequently underwent harsh treatment at the hands of the CIA, who interrogated him regarding Oswald’s possible involvement with the KGB and its operations. Nosenko, while maintaining that Oswald was interviewed by the KGB and made a target of surveillance, still adamantly claimed that Oswald had not been a KGB agent himself. However, he subsequently failed a polygraph test when asked about this; additionally, a second defected KGB agent who made similar claims would later be exposed as a double agent, thus casting Nosenko’s claims into further doubt.

Oswald had also kept a diary while he stayed in Russia, which has been examined extensively by, among others, Thea Stein Lewinson, an expert handwriting analyst with the National Archives. Noting that the entries in Oswald’s diary had been written “very slowly and deliberately,” her opinion had been that Oswald was copying entries from another diary, and adding information along the way. “I think that Oswald was supervised by Soviet intelligence,” Lewinson stated, “in order to mislead the Americans on his return to the United States.” Similar assertions would be made by analyst Edward Epstein, who called the diary a fake, which had been designed to be “written after the fact to give LHO a legend so he could explain to the FBI and other people in America what he was doing in Russia for two years. What he was supposed to be doing in Russia, not what he was doing.”

The most compelling aspects of the Lee Harvey Oswald conspiracy may involve his actual autopsy, in which medical examiners failed to note a number of physical traits that should have been obvious on the body of Oswald, having been previous recorded (according to some accounts, as many as eleven different times) in medical records from Oswald’s marine physicals and other examinations. Among the discrepancies, Oswald, known to have been 5’11”, was recorded by examiners as being only 5’9”. Scars covering the length of LHO’s left arm were also found to differ in the autopsy records from those noted previously.


However, the most telling discrepancy had been the one inch scar behind LHO’s left ear, resulting from a mastoidectomy performed when he was six years old. In addition to the scar, a small hole was also apparent in the bone itself, as this surgery is performed in response to a condition (appropriately called mastoiditis) in which the mastoid bone behind the ear becomes infected. During the autopsy, the process by which skin is removed in order to access the upper portions of the skull for brain examination would have brought the medical examiners directly along this area on either side of the head, at which time both the one inch scar, as well as the other evidence of a mastoidectomy operation, would have been apparent; strangely, no such information was noted in the autopsy report. Returning to the statement by our ballistics expert, Mr. MacPherson, on autopsy discrepancies, it becomes difficult to imagine how such a thing as a hole in Oswald’s skull behind his left ear had been overlooked.

Controversy resulting from this set of discrepancies have literally fueled debate over whether the man on whom an autopsy was performed was really Lee Harvey Oswald at all; admittedly, a rather strange theory (even wacky, as proposed by some. The article linked here examines these discrepancies from a more skeptical angle). A book which dealt with some of this, Khrushchev Killed Kennedy, was also written by Michael H. B. Eddowes, who went on to say that Oswald had been replaced altogether, and was impersonated by a lookalike and KGB spy named “Alec.”

To leave things on an admittedly grim, though irresistibly ironic final note, despite the FBI’s ability to stop Oswald (or whomever else, depending on you beliefs) from committing the final act on that November day in Dallas, one person might have predicted Kennedy’s demise… or at least, she had come very close to it. In a letter to Pierre Salinger, a Dallas resident named Nelle Doyle expressed grave concern with Kennedy’s scheduled appearance there at Dealy Plaza that day, warning Salinger that Kennedy might be in danger if he were indeed to appear.

“Although I do not consider myself an ‘alarmist’, Mrs. Doyle wrote, “I do fervently hope that President Kennedy can be dissuaded from appearing in public in the city of Dallas, Texas, as much as I would appreciate hearing and seeing him.” The letter went on to conclude that, “It is a dreadful thought, but all remember the fate of President McKinley. These people are crazy, or crazed, and I am sure that we must all realize that their actions in the future are unpredictable.”

Unpredictable, perhaps, to all but Mrs. Doyle herself, who all but foretold of Kennedy’s ultimate fate, to which Salinger only responded that, “it would be a most unhappy thing if there were a city in the United States that the President could not visit.” The rest, as they say, is history, and even half a century after Kennedy’s final visit to that Texas town, people’s questions, and grim fascination with the incident that struck a death blow to the vestiges of American innocence, will remain.


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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