Though it happened over half a century ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains a hotbed for conspiracy theories. While overwhelming evidence and eyewitness testimony have named former Marine and communist sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone planner and perpetrator, this hasn’t stopped either fringe theorists or popular culture from speculating on what really happened on November 22nd, 1963.
But perhaps there is some merit to hazarding all these guesses. After all, Kennedy was an important, influential man who could have changed the tide of war. There’s also the fact that some have dubbed the manner in which he was shot physically impossible. There was even that Oliver Stone movie purported to be based on all the facts, and those declassified documents. Surely at least one of the theories has to be true.
Turns out no.
4. Oswald Wasn’t A Lousy Shot
One of the most pervasive—and supposedly damning—myths about the “official” explanation for the assassination is that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have realistically pulled off the shots that fatally wounded the president, as his United States Marine Corps records stated he was a lousy shot. In Oliver Stone’s popular 1991 film JFK, Senator Russell Long (played by Walter Matthau) says as much in the first half hour to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), setting the DA on his quest to find out what really happened on 11/22/63.
Long’s words in the film echo those of Nelson Delgado, one of Oswald’s fellow Marines who testified in the Warren Commission, which was established in the aftermath of the assassination. Delgado stated that Oswald “didn’t show no particular aspects of being a sharpshooter at all.” While the notion of a mediocre shot pulling off the long-range assassination might seem suspect, Oswald’s USMC records state otherwise, having qualified as a “sharpshooter” in 1956, according to the Saturday Evening Post, and slightly lower as a “marksman” in 1959, according to the Warren Commission. Furthermore, Oswald needn’t have been an expert shot for the scenario that occurred: President Kennedy’s motorcade was not that far from his sniper’s nest, and one of the three shots missed entirely, as stated in the Commission.
3. There Was No “Magic Bullet”
The “magic bullet” is a pejorative name used by assassination conspiracy theorists to deride the single 6.5mm cartridge that the Warren Commission argued inflicted a number of serious wounds on President Kennedy and his fellow passenger, Texas Governor John Connally. As visually demonstrated in Stone’s JFK, the bullet would had to have changed directions and elevations in the span of a second while passing through two bodies and emerging immaculate from the exit wound.
As the first shot missed the motorcade entirely and the third inflicted Kennedy’s fatal head wound, it’s true that this means the second shot would have to be responsible for wounds to Kennedy’s back and neck, as well as Connally’s shoulder, chest and wrist. The supposed impossibility of this bullet’s flight and damage path was a key part of DA Garrison’s case against the lone gunman theory, and seeing his proposed diagram might lead you to agree with him, but the explanation is simultaneously much more technical and mundane: angles. Garrison and others conspiracy theorists’ diagrams have failed to account for the slightly higher elevation of Kennedy’s seat, his bodily position while being shot, and Connally’s position relative to the president. Computer simulations conducted by consulting firm Failure Analysis Associates and animator Dale Myers show a relatively straight flight path for the projectile given these factors.
Furthermore, the immaculate “magic bullet” wasn’t so immaculate; while the most commonly-seen picture shown above shows the bullet undented despite coming into contact with flesh, fat, muscle and bone, a head-on angle shows it to be partially flattened.
2. The Grassy Knoll Wasn’t A Factor
“Magic bullet” wasn’t the only term coined by conspiracy theorists to work its way into popular culture. By now everyone’s familiar with the “grassy knoll,” a small rise not far from the motorcade’s path in Dealey Plaza were shots were reportedly heard at the time of Kennedy’s fatal shooting. DA Jim Garrison alleged in his case against Clay Shaw that smoke—perhaps from a rifle—could be seen rising from behind a fence on the knoll, and some conspiracy theorists have claimed to see a blurry figure wielding a rifle-like object in a picture of that location. The grassy knoll theory also factors heavily into the claim that the president’s head could only have been thrust “back and to the left” (as popularized in the JFK film) had the shot come from the direction of the hill. Eyewitness testimony, photographic evidence and physics itself make a good case, do they not?
According to the House Select Committee that further investigated the assassination during the 1970s, 20 people reportedly heard shots fired from the grassy knoll. Compare that to the 46 who claimed to hear shots from Oswald’s sniper’s nest in the book depository, and 76 who couldn’t be sure, the number somewhat pales. Furthermore, Dealey Plaza has been described as a “giant echo chamber,” with acoustics liable to scatter sound in multiple directions. The supposed image of a man with a rifle and a badge (a police officer, perhaps?) is incredibly blurry at best, utterly nonexistent at worst, with researcher Greg Jaynes suggesting the “badge” is perhaps a reflection. As for the incriminating smoke, the only two witnesses who testified to seeing it thought they had spotted exhaust, and not anything from a firearm. Conspiracy theorists simply isolated part of their testimony and ignored the rest.
As for the physics, Kennedy’s “back and to the left” head movement wouldn’t have matched up with the hypothetical shooter’s alleged position on the knoll, according to numerous writers such as Gus Russo and Harrison E. Livingstone. What’s more, physicist Duncan MacPherson pointed out that a single bullet could not have propelled Kennedy back and to the left as much as the Abraham Zapruder’s infamous film shows. He theorized it was more likely a reflex action akin to being hit on the knee by a doctor’s mallet.
1. Oswald Wasn’t A Patsy
It should be noted that JFK assassination theorists don’t all subscribe to the same conspiracy. Some think it was masterminded by the Soviets, others claim it was the brainchild of the CIA and a few more have blamed it on the Mafia. They also disagree how culpable Lee Harvey Oswald was; some versions peg him as an accomplice, one of several triggermen, but others like DA Jim Garrison paint him as largely uninvolved, just a patsy “lone nut” to act as a scapegoat for the authorities and media. After all, he was just some ineffectual weirdo, right?
In truth, Oswald wasn’t just some naïve boob. Besides his underestimated skill with a rifle, Oswald had deep communist sympathies, having briefly immigrated to the U.S.S.R., where he met his wife Marina, and volunteered for pro-Castro organization, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, while living in New Orleans. He also had a penchant for violence, with Marina testifying to the Warren Commission that he had abused her during their marriage. Most importantly, Kennedy’s death wasn’t his first attempt at assassination; Oswald had used his notorious Carcano rifle to try to kill retired Army General Edwin Walker just months before, a fact Marina confirmed. Oswald had no love for Walker, a staunch segregationist and a member of the far right John Birch Society, and he might have been the assassin’s first victim had the rifle’s bullet not struck a window frame instead of the general.
While it might not be as historically romantic to know that John F. Kennedy was taken down by a lone gunman rather than a shadowy, conspiracy, Oswald wasn’t harmless but a skilled, violent extremist.