We have lived with it for half a century, and still what happened that day in Dallas is shocking beyond almost anything else in American history--by shocking, I mean it hits like a blast of electrical current and stupefies. One minute the President of the United States is smiling and waving. "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you!" Nellie Connally, wife of the Texas governor, calls from the limousine jump seat. A moment later, he stiffens and clutches at his wounded throat. Then his head explodes; blood and gore bathe the First Lady, who crawls onto the trunk lid of the moving car in a wild and hopeless attempt to collect the pieces.
It is one of the most brutally violent scenes ever captured on film. I won't describe it more closely, because even in print it's too wrenching. I will do as many writers have done and tell one particular detail as a way of suggesting things even worse: that Jacqueline Kennedy opened her white-gloved hand to show Secret Service agent Clint Hill the bit of skull clutched in her palm.
The victim was one of the most powerful, glamorous, wealthy, charismatic individuals on the planet. Snuffed out in an instant. This whiplash convergence of extremes--so sudden, so horrific, such enormity--makes the assassination of John F. Kennedy an almost uniquely deranging event. In a matter of seconds, the mighty are rendered helpless; the beautiful is made hideous; tranquillity turns turbulent; the familiar becomes alien.
Amid the shards of all those shattered assumptions, 50 years of doubt was born, a half-century of searching, investigating, theorizing, blame. Most Americans do not believe that what happened in Dallas has ever been properly resolved. Clear majorities--as high as 81% in 2001 and about 60% in a recent Associated Press poll--believe that a conspiracy was swept under a tattered rug. The conclusion of the Warren Commission, that one man alone delivered this devastating blow, got little traction compared with the desperate, at times unhinged, efforts to assemble a more satisfying account.
The amount of work that has gone into building, tearing down, rebuilding and ornamenting various Kennedy conspiracy theories is staggering. The number of explanations offered for that moment in Dallas is dizzying. Kennedy was murdered by a lone gunman; the Mafia; the CIA; the military-industrial complex; his own Secret Service; right-wing millionaires; Fidel Castro; Castro's enemies; Kennedy's Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. Or it was a tragic accident, and the intended target was Governor John Connally in the seat ahead of the President.
I recently waded into the thicket of theories, trying to understand the roots and fruits of this vast enterprise, which is part scholarship, part fever dream. I got just far enough to see how quickly the forest can swallow a person up. How easy it is to go from a split-second in Dealey Plaza to a fathomless argument over the windshield damage in the presidential limousine. And from there to the idea of forged autopsy documents. And from there to the notion of multiple Lee Harvey Oswalds. Or a Jesuit conspiracy. The path forks endlessly, leading everywhere and nowhere.
At some point, it occurred to me that the truly resonant image from that grisly scene was the traumatized First Lady on the trunk of the limousine. That is the most human and understandable moment of the whole shocking sequence. For 50 years, Americans have been reliving that impulse to struggle away from the blunt terror of the assassin's bullet and instead grope for pieces that might restore a kind of order.
It was inevitable, I have come to believe, that the Kennedy murder would fester rather than heal. The shock was too great to be neatly resolved. The stakes were too high. But this fact has had consequences. A large majority of Americans--no less than Secretary of State John Kerry, according to a recent remark he made--rejects the official history and embraces countertheories involving dark, extremely dark, allegations about American society. 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 that shocking instant is a troubling habit of the modern American mind: suspicion is a reflex now, trust a figment.
DEATH IN DALLAS
Doubt was not born that day. Doubt was already deeply settled in Dallas long before Kennedy arrived. Nostalgia has painted the 1950s and early 1960s in pastel colors, an age of innocence and prosperity--but in truth, they were bitter times. The sense of common purpose Americans shared during World War II was fractured by the Cold War, and the civil rights revolution hammered at the fault lines. Right-wing conspiracy theorists perceived a shadowy network of communists and their friends intent on weakening American culture and shifting power to a corrupt United Nations.
Dallas was a hotbed of this kind of thinking. Oilmen H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison bankrolled far-right propaganda, while newspaper publisher Ted Dealey trumpeted an extreme line in the pages of the Dallas Morning News. When Kennedy cashiered Army General Edwin Walker for spreading the ideas of the ultraconservative John Birch Society to U.S. troops, Dallas welcomed the general with open arms. Walker soon made himself a thorn in Kennedy's side, as writers Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis document in their new book Dallas 1963. He helped incite a mob of segregationists at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and later egged on a group of his disciples as they orchestrated a surly protest against U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's visit to Dallas in October 1963.
Stevenson's ugly experience persuaded the influential Dallas retailer Stanley Marcus to warn the White House that his city wasn't safe for a presidential visit. Kennedy shrugged off the message. But the possibility of violence was on his mind as he prepared to visit Dallas. His widow would recall that he reflected on the ease with which a sniper could open fire from a high-rise window.
Late in the morning of Nov. 22, John and Jacqueline Kennedy landed in this toxic milieu. They had started the day in nearby Fort Worth under a gray and rainy sky, but as the presidential jet dropped into Dallas, the sun broke through. This happened so often that White House aides and the traveling press called it "Kennedy weather." And when the sun smiled like this, the President liked to ride with the top off his limousine and the rear seat raised so that people could see him easily.
Plans called for a motorcade along Main Street through downtown Dallas. Hardly a trace of right-wing protest was seen: scattered leaflets accused the President of treason, and the Morning News published an advertisement hostile to Kennedy, but this paled beside the cheering crowds that packed the motorcade route. The First Lady beamed in her smart pink suit and matching pillbox hat. Connally, seated in front of the President, slightly lower and to the left, no doubt calculated that having Kennedy on the same ballot was less dangerous to his re-election prospects than he had feared.
At the edge of downtown, where the motorcade might have picked up speed, Kennedy's limousine instead slowed to a crawl, making a right turn followed by a hard left around a plaza named for the father of the Morning News publisher. The clock on top of the Texas School Book Depository said 12:30. Standing on a concrete post beside the plaza, steadying his 8-mm movie camera, was a Russian immigrant named Abraham Zapruder, whose clothing business had its headquarters in a nearby building. He activated the camera at about the same time that he heard the first of what he later said were two or three gunshots. What happened during the 26.6 seconds that his camera ran gave him nightmares, in which he envisioned his film playing at a Times Square smut house under the marquee see the President's head explode!
In the final frames of Zapruder's 486-frame film, he captured the last steps of Secret Service agent Hill's desperate sprint from the running board of a trailing limo to the back of the presidential car. Not seen was Hill's scramble across the trunk lid to press the First Lady back into her seat. As he shielded her with his body, he saw that Nellie Connally was cradling her bleeding husband, who was wounded in the torso and wrist, while in the back seat the President slouched in a pool of gore. Signaling to the car behind, Hill turned his thumb down in a hopeless gesture. The motorcade sped onto a freeway and headed for the nearest hospital.
Already, I've passed the point in this story where the facts are widely accepted. From here on, very little can be said that will not be disputed by someone with another version of events. For the shock that registers in frame 313 of the Zapruder film jarred loose a welter of conflicting testimony and a jumble of poorly considered actions.
Eyewitnesses in the plaza could not agree on the number of gunshots or where they came from. Employees inside the book depository, which loomed over the Elm Street crime scene, could not agree when--or whether--they had seen their co-worker Lee Harvey Oswald hustling down the stairs.
At Parkland Memorial Hospital, doctors found the President still breathing reflexively and rushed to open a passage in his windpipe that obscured the bullet wound in his throat. When a spent bullet was found on a gurney, a Secret Service man dropped it into his pocket without marking it as evidence. Other agents began cleaning the limousine outside before realizing that they were tampering with a crime scene. At 1 p.m., the President was pronounced dead, and the Secret Service was so determined to get the body and the survivors back to Washington that they ran roughshod over Texas officials who said state law required an autopsy in Dallas.
The agents hustled the casket and the widow back to Love Field and the relative safety of Air Force One, where they found Johnson, the new President-in-waiting, already inside the sweltering cabin with the shades drawn in case of another attack. No one knew whether the assassination was just one step in a larger plan. The agents desperately wanted to get the plane safely into the air. But Johnson--who had been riding a couple of cars behind Kennedy in the motorcade--was adamant that he must take the oath of office before leaving, so they waited until Johnson's friend U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes could reach the plane and administer the ceremony. Johnson carefully positioned Jacqueline Kennedy, in her bloodstained suit, directly beside him for the photograph.
And while this was happening, Dallas police were closing in on Oswald, a strange young man of 24 who had been drummed out of the Marines and defected to the Soviet Union in a little burst of fame, only to return to the U.S. some 30 months later in 1962. Arrested after a struggle inside a movie theater, accused of having killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit while fleeing from Dealey Plaza, he insisted he had not killed the President. "I didn't shoot anybody," he told police. "You are trying to railroad me." He was "a patsy," he declared. Exactly what he meant by this was never revealed, because instead of facing trial, Oswald was shot to death on Nov. 24 while being transported from one jail cell to another. The killer was a strip-club owner named Jack Ruby.
As for the late President, when Air Force One arrived in the capital, his body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. "Jack was a Navy man," his widow said simply, not realizing, perhaps, that nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center was one of the foremost institutions of forensic science in the world. The resulting autopsy and documentation were woefully inadequate.
STUCK IN THE MOMENT
The point of recounting this sadly familiar chronology is to show that the seeds of doubt that would grow into the forest of conspiracy were planted even before President Kennedy's young son drew himself up three days later to deliver that indelible, heartbreaking salute to his father's coffin. Why, given the fears about Dallas, was the President riding in an uncovered car? Why choose a route that slowed the motorcade directly beneath the book-depository windows, where investigators found boxes stacked to form a sniper's nest and three empty rifle shells on the floor? Why claim that the shots were fired from behind when some witnesses were certain that they heard, or even saw, gunmen on the grassy knoll in front of Kennedy? Why wasn't Hill on the back of the President's limo to begin with? Why didn't the bullet found at the hospital show more damage, given the official theory that it passed through Kennedy's back and throat before wounding Connally as well? Why did the agents start scrubbing the limousine? Why wasn't the autopsy done in Dallas? Why wasn't the Zapruder film more definitive? Why was Johnson so determined to take the oath from Sarah Hughes? Why did Oswald call himself "a patsy"? Why did Ruby kill him before he could stand trial?
And the mystery that arguably framed all the others: What happened to those Dallas right-wingers? For many liberals, this was the most difficult mystery to swallow. How had the fateful Friday dawned amid fears that Kennedy's visit would be spoiled by the minions of the bigoted oilmen and mad General Walker--only to close with an apparent left-winger, Oswald (an avowed Marxist, admirer of the Soviet Union and self-described friend of Castro's Cuba), behind bars?
For America's cultural and intellectual elite, the true threat facing the nation in the autumn of 1963 was the militant right, with its McCarthyist witch hunts and massive resistance to integration. By contrast, the supposed red menace of global communism was dismissed as a paranoid fantasy of the conservative mind. Oswald, for them, was precisely the wrong person to be Kennedy's killer. As the author William Manchester reported in his authorized account, The Death of a President, Jacqueline Kennedy mused shortly after Oswald's arrest that the assassin didn't fit the crime. Her husband "didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights," she said. "It had to be some silly little Communist."
The conspiracy seedlings fell on fertile ground. In one way or another, all the alternative theories of the assassination, spread across 50 years, would seek either to remove Oswald as the killer or to remake him in a new, more suitable image. The idea of a single gunman firing from a window overlooking Elm Street--the "lone-nut theory," as critics contemptuously call it--might be the simplest explanation, but it was not enough to convince the public. Instead, Oswald has been cast as witting or unwitting pawn of the oilmen (angry that Kennedy wanted to eliminate their tax breaks), the military (worried that Kennedy would de-escalate the Cold War and make peace in Vietnam), the Mafia (determined to derail Kennedy's Department of Justice), the CIA (fearful that Kennedy would end the covert plot to kill Castro) or Johnson (in danger of being swamped by scandal and dumped from the 1964 ticket).
Other theories erased Oswald's role altogether. The murder, in these scenarios, was plotted and carried out by right-wing forces, who then framed the Marxist Oswald as a final fillip to their evil plans. He was, after all, such an easy man to make a patsy of, blundering into view of the FBI and CIA as he tried pathetically to make a home in Russia or befriend the Cubans. When it came time to kill the President in Dallas, they simply pinned the crime on the sad sack.
Against these seductive theories, what did the authorities offer? Only the hasty work of a blue-ribbon commission of leading figures from the government, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The membership of the Warren Commission virtually screamed whitewash to those who believed that the murder was a coup. They noted the presence of the powerful segregationist and Johnson mentor Senator Richard Russell of Georgia on the panel. And longtime CIA chief Allen Dulles--whom Kennedy had held partly responsible for the disastrous attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. And Ford Foundation chairman John McCloy, the epitome of the American establishment.
Lawyer Mark Lane led a vigorous criticism of the panel that inspired international skepticism about the official investigation even before its work was done. Bertrand Russell, the aged and esteemed philosopher, recruited other prominent figures on the British left to form a Who Killed Kennedy? Committee. When the official report of the Warren Commission was published in September 1964, it contained enough errors and inconsistencies to fuel the conspiracy bandwagon. Lane quickly answered the commission with a sprawling book titled Rush to Judgment, which spent more than half a year on the New York Times best-seller list. Within a short time, polls found that as many as 2 out of 3 Americans did not believe the Warren Commission.
THE SCIENCE OF SKEPTICISM
"Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote. But that has not been true in the case of the Kennedy assassination. The release of more and more information has only fed the growth of the conspiracy theories. For every fact, it seems, there is another question, or sheaf of questions. The history of the Zapruder film is a good illustration.
After the murder, the dressmaker sold the rights to his movie to LIFE magazine with one condition: the gruesome sequence at frame 313 must not be made public. But later in the 1960s, the mercurial district attorney in New Orleans, Jim Garrison, attempted to prove that the assassination was hatched in his city by a group of men who may (or may not) have known each other through activities connected (or not) to the CIA. Garrison's ultimate prosecution of Clay Shaw--the only time anyone has been tried for crimes related to the killing of Kennedy--was a fiasco in conventional terms. Jurors acquitted the businessman in less than an hour. But as part of his flimsy case, Garrison subpoenaed the complete film, and from his hands it did not take long to reach the public. Today, anyone with a computer can see, through Zapruder's lens, exactly what happened in Dealey Plaza.
Access to this extraordinary record has resolved nothing, however. People see in it what they choose to see. Some clearly see Kennedy being shot from behind, while Garrison and others have seen the fatal bullet arriving from in front. Some see Kennedy and Connally reacting simultaneously to the "magic bullet" that the Warren Commission concluded must have hit them both. Others see them struck by multiple shots. One theorist has seen the driver of the limousine shoot the President with a chrome pistol. Another claims to see Connally himself shooting Kennedy--never mind that the governor was already grievously wounded.
The documentary and eyewitness record has been equally open to interpretation. Though the amount of material available to scholars of the assassination has grown tremendously over the years, this glut of information has done little to resolve the mysteries. The Warren Commission's report filled 26 volumes, but that was not enough. A decade later, many more revelations came to light during the Senate's Church Committee investigation into the CIA and FBI. These were, in many cases, deeply disturbing disclosures and proved that government agents were neck-deep in potential coups and assassination plots around the world during the years leading up to Kennedy's murder. Suggestive, yes, but still not enough.
In 1979 a special committee of the House of Representatives released still more material in support of its conclusion that Oswald did not act alone. This finding by an official government body made headlines around the world; I met a group of farmhands in the French Alps in 1984, miles from the nearest village, and when we tried to make conversation in spite of the language barrier, I easily understood the gist of their most urgent question: Did la Mafia kill Kennedy? And still there was more--some 4 million pages of material released in the 1990s after Congress created an Assassination Records Review Board with a mandate to let in the sunlight. The respected Kennedy-assassination investigator Jefferson Morley is among those for whom this is not enough. Morley is suing the government for records relating to an agent with possible ties to Oswald.
Bullet fragments have been tested and retested. Photographs have been digitized and enhanced. Staticky recordings have been electronically analyzed, and two-dimensional images translated into three-dimensional computer models. Witnesses have come forward with new or altered testimony. Year after year, the assassination record grows. Every now and then, an author will step in to say, Enough--as if anyone could put an end to this endless yearning for something more. The case is never closed.
It seems, however, that conspiracy theories rise and fall according to the passions of each new era. Early conspiracy theorists homed in on Cuban exiles and the CIA, for theirs was a period aflame over the fate of Castro's Cuban revolution. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 had been followed by the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In his last December alive, Kennedy met in Miami with prisoners captured at the Bay of Pigs and promised that their brigade flag would fly in a free Cuba, but by then many anti-Castro activists had concluded bitterly that the President would do nothing to make that happen.
As the decade went on and the U.S. bogged down so painfully in Vietnam, emphasis shifted toward theories of a military coup. This is the favored framework of filmmaker Oliver Stone, whose 1991 smash hit JFK told a glamorized version of Garrison's failed prosecution in New Orleans. Stone believes that Kennedy was on the verge of making peace in the Cold War--he had opened back-channel communications with the Soviets and was planning a small initial withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. "All of these steps caused him to be regarded as a virtual traitor by elements of the military-intelligence community," Stone has written. "These were the forces that planned and carried out his assassination."
The theory that Kennedy's death was a Mob hit had a heyday that began in the 1970s, the age of the Godfather movies, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and the Church Committee disclosures of links between the Mafia and the CIA. More recently, the publication of biographer Robert Caro's brilliant account of Lyndon Johnson's first hours and days as President has helped refresh interest in LBJ as the conspiracy mastermind. Although Caro's book, The Passage of Power, does not indict Johnson, it makes clear how quickly he moved into the vacuum left by Kennedy's death and how adroitly he stacked the Warren Commission and set its course.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
I don't mean to belittle the passion of the Kennedy investigators when I say their search has become an industry, churning out books, videos, websites and conferences on topics as unlikely (Kennedy's body was surgically altered before the autopsy) as they are arcane ("Imaging Properties of the Bell & Howell 414PD Camera and Implications for Authenticity of the Zapruder Film"). Or when I note that while reading and listening to some of their productions, it is difficult to miss the notes of excitement and delight, as if perfecting their theories has become a sort of game.
I am also convinced that the search for meaning in the hideous brutality of Dealey Plaza long ago became as much about faith as forensics. Not religious faith, necessarily, but that set of beliefs that frames our approach to data and mystery. Each of us must have some sort of faith because we can never have perfect knowledge, no matter how much information we accumulate. Faith fills in the gaps, and those whose faith tells them that monstrous events imply monstrous causes will never accept that a weak little man, acting alone, murdered John Kennedy.
The endless quest to recover the shattered promise of that man reflects the unique relationship that many Americans have with their 35th President. Though Kennedy's achievements are relatively few compared with those of such men as Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Truman, in the hearts of his countrymen he frequently ranks as highly as they do or even above them. He alone is cherished less for what was than for what might have been. To close the book on his murder feels, in some way, like letting that open-ended promise slip away into the past. And that's something we do not wish to do.
TO SEE HOW THE ZAPRUDER FILM CAME TO LIFE, GO TO time.com/jfk50