Robert Alan Goldberg
Numb and grief-stricken, Jacqueline Kennedy sensed a conspiracy. Referring to her bloodstained dress, she brought John Connally's cry during the assassination to mind: 'Let them see what they've done. I want them to see it.' Bobby Kennedy also thought that the enemies were within. Just hours after the assassination, he asked CIA Director John McCone, 'Did you kill my brother?' As a precaution against further consequences of conspiracy, the pilot of Air Force One followed instructions to fly back to the nation's capital at an unusually high altitude and on a zigzag course. U.S. Air Force fighter planes flew escort, providing added security against attack. The Department of Defense issued a flash alert to every American military base in the world and ordered additional strategic bombers into the air. Meanwhile, Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents failed to secure the presidential limousine for evidence, and it was refurbished before undergoing thorough inspection. They similarly neglected to seize Governor Connally's bloody shirt, which his wife subsequently had laundered.
Exacerbating the confusion was the grief and shock of members of the press corps. The impetus of deadlines and career considerations turned hearsay and rumor into news fit to air and print. Consider the press conference at Parkland Hospital, which Dr. Malcolm Perry described as 'bedlam': 'A question would be asked and you would incompletely answer it and another question would be asked and they had gotten what they wanted without really understanding, and they would go on and it would go out of context.' As a result, television and newspapers bombarded the public with conflicting and inadequate information not only about the nature of presidential wounds but about the number of shots and locations of the shooters. An hour after the shooting, the evening edition of the Dallas Times Herald, was on the streets, reporting that a 'volley' of shots had downed the president. Governor Connally, and six or seven bystanders. The next day, the New York Times headlined the arrest of Oswald as the lone sniper, but other information suggested additional assassins. The paper's report summarized statements by Parkland Hospital's chief of neurosurgery. Dr. Kemp Clark, and attending surgeon Perry that President Kennedy's throat wound 'had the appearance of a bullet's entry.' A typographical error marred a subsequent statement that the president had suffered a 'massive, gaping wound in the back and one the right side of the head' [sic]. Eyewitnesses told reporters that Kennedy had been shot in the forehead as well. Later, the Times observed that the assassination 'involved excellent marksmanship' but noted that Oswald 'for a Marine, was not a crack shot' and that the discovered weapon was a 'poor choice for a sporting firearm.' The media raised the question of conspiracy. At a press conference with Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, a reporter asked about Oswald: 'Do you know that he had been recognized as a patron of Ruby's night-club?'
Clearly, the rush of events and contradictions in news reporting invited conspiracy thinking. Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Oswald added layers of complexity. Social scientists also found that Americans accepted conspiracy as an explanation not to balance the proportionality of cause and effect but because they believe collusion integral to a successful assassination. Plot imaging was, similarly, a coping mechanism. Visions of conspiracy enabled men and women to understand the tragedy as more than a simple twist of fate. When these factors are combined, the results of opinion polls taken during the week following the assassination are not surprising. Fewer than a third of those surveyed believed that Oswald acted alone, while as many as 62 percent were convinced that others were involved in the president's death. Cubans, Russians, segregationists, John Birchers, and African Americans were among the suspects identified. In light of the public disquiet, on November 29, 1963, president Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the assassination. He also named to the body Senators Richard Russell and John Sherman Cooper, Representatives Hale Boggs and Gerald Ford, former cia Director Alien Dulles, and former president of the International Bank John McCloy.
Even before the Warren Commission began its work, administration officials, the FBI, and mainline journalists pressed what scholar Bonnie Zelizer calls the 'master narrative' of the lone gunman 'to lend closure.' Key to this effort was a Life magazine article entitled 'End to the Nagging Rumors,' which appeared on December 6. Life was an authoritative source because it had purchased Abraham Zapruder's amateur film of the assassination, which it would release only to authorized personnel. Printing selected and disconnected frames, it made the case that 'a trained sharpshooter' had sufficient time to shoot Kennedy in the throat and head and Governor Connally in the back. The magazine contorted the photographic evidence to explain Kennedy's throat wound: 'His throat is exposed—toward the sniper's nest—just before he clutches it.' A five-volume fbi report also indicted Oswald but played a different three-bullet scenario: the first struck Kennedy 'deep in the shoulder,' approximately six inches below the collar, and did not exit; the second hit Connally; and the third caused Kennedy's head wound, with a fragment penetrating his throat.
Some opinion makers did not follow the government's lead. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Richard Dudman, who was on the press bus in Dealey Plaza, remained troubled by Kennedy's throat wound. Citing Parkland Hospital doctors who described it as a bullet entry, he asked, 'How could the president have been shot in the front from the back?' Jack Minnis and Staughton Lynd raised other questions in a piece in the New Republic on December 21, 1963. If only three shots were fired, how had investigators found four bullets? How did one of the bullets materialize on a Parkland Hospital stretcher? How could Oswald fire so fast and accurately at a moving target with a clumsy, bolt-action weapon? Liberal journals Commentary and The Nation also went on record with their skepticism of the official line. Clouding issues further, Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr forwarded a report that Oswald was a paid informant for the FBI.'
Early conspiracy theories came from both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. In 1964 German leftist Joachim Joesten published Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? which revealed a purported plot of the CIA, the FBI, and Texas oil millionaires to kill Kennedy. Oswald, who was both a cia agent and 'an FBI informant and agent provocateur,' pulled the trigger to prevent Kennedy from repealing the oil depletion allowance, dismantling the CIA, and seeking reconciliation with Fidel Castro.18 The John Birch Society's Revilo Oliver probed deeper and unearthed the more intricate work of the global conspirators who ordered the assassination 'as part of a systematic preparation for a domestic take over.' The conspirators had become impatient with Kennedy when his efforts to foment domestic chaos through the civil rights movement and 'economic collapse' had fallen behind schedule. Blaming 'right-wing extremists' for the assassination would eliminate opposition and accelerate their plans. The Warren Commission was merely an instrument of cover-up, blinding Americans to the real menace.