During the 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, more than 300 distinctly different conspiracy theories have been proposed to explain what “really” happened.
The finger of blame has been pointed at 42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people.
No one, it seems, can agree on anything regarding the events of that dark day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Except for this: Most Americans believe that gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person telling the truth. Which is to say that four out of five Americans, an overwhelming 80 percent, believe that Oswald was, as he claimed after his arrest, a “patsy” and not the mastermind behind planning the crime.
This revelation comes from a national survey conducted by History channel, the results from which went into making JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide, premiering at 7 p.m. Nov. 22.
It’s one of a multitude of Kennedy/Oswald/assassination/conspiracy-themed documentary specials airing this month.
History polled thousands of Americans — the first expansive survey on the assassination in nearly a decade, representing citizens of every state and covering a wide range of ages and ethnic, economic and educational backgrounds — to learn exactly what the country does and doesn’t believe.
The survey shows that public skepticism of the “Lone Gunman Theory,” supported by the Warren Commission in 1964, has never been higher. A total of 71 percent of Americans polled reject the “official” explanation.
Thus, we have a long list of other suspects, including the Mafia, Communists (those connected either to Castro or the Kremlin), factions within the CIA, the Pentagon and members of the American military industrial complex, the so-called “Umbrella Man” who was seen that day on the Grassy Knoll and even, astonishingly, the limo driver who was at the wheel of the Kennedy car.
Why have so many conspiracy theories thrived and multiplied through the years?
Steven Gillon, scholar-in-residence for the History channel and author of Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (which inspired another History documentary airing Nov. 22), says there are several components to this question.
“Kennedy was the first president to use television to forge a personal bond with the public,” Gillon says. “The assassination affected America unlike any other single event in modern history — with the possible exception of 9-11.
“No American born prior to 1960 can forget where he or she was the moment they heard the news of the president’s death. Seventy-five hours of television coverage helped create a shared sense of national grief. Four of five Americans felt ‘the loss of someone very close and dear’ and more than half cried.
“Inevitably, in the years that followed, Americans have searched to give his death some meaning.”
Blossoming of doubt
We have trouble accepting that “a loser” like Oswald, “a man who could not drive a car or hold a job,” could kill someone as great as Kennedy and do it in broad daylight using a mail-order rifle.
“At some level, we have to convince ourselves that larger forces were involved,” Gillon continues. “We cannot accept that JFK’s death was the result of a random, inexplicable act of violence.
“The thread that runs through most conspiracy theories is that JFK was killed because he offered a new direction for the country. His death had to be purposeful, carried out by a willful band of people determined to hijack America’s future.
“The times of trouble that followed his death — the escalation of Vietnam, racial rioting, student protests, government corruption — all suggest that his death marked a critical turning point in our nation’s history.”
Consider also that we have learned from new investigations — the Church Committee in 1975 and the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976-78, along with the release of nearly 5 million previously classified documents since 1992 — that American intelligence agencies withheld information from the Warren Commission, raising doubts about the credibility of the commission’s findings.
Alas, there’s one other telling statistic that can be culled from History’s national survey: That 89 percent of the Americans polled, nearly nine out of 10, are steadfastly convinced we will never know the true story behind the killing of JFK.
Thus, the proliferation of crackpot theories still trying to explain it.
“Americans love a mystery,” Gillon says. “Turn on your television on any given night and half the shows on the air involve crime and investigations.
“With the Kennedy assassination, every American armed with a keyboard and Internet access can get online, selectively pull from the hundreds of shreds of often contradictory evidence, discover the facts that suit their theory and then ‘solve’ the greatest murder mystery of the 20th century.
“It’s a murder mystery where we each get to write our own ending.”