Lasting Questions about the Murder of President Kennedy

Rex Bradford
November 2001


Nearly 40 years later, the historical truth of the assassination of President Kennedy remains unresolved. It remains unresolved both in actual fact, and in terms of the gulf between elite opinion and that of the general population. And while the passage of time has certainly muted the urgency of the debate, there are still few historical questions which engender as much interest and passion as the proverbial question: Who killed JFK?

President Kennedy at the White House in 1961
JFK Library

It is a question that has never gone away, despite the clear wish in high places that it would. And it rears its ugly head with a vengeance on occasion, most recently in 1991 with the furor over Oliver Stone's film JFK. While media pundits lashed out at the movie, the public issued its own counter-backlash of phone-calling and letter-writing, and in its wake Congress passed the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. This law mandated the creation of an Assassination Records Review Board, to oversee the declassification and public release of millions of pages of formerly-secret records surrounding the "Crime of the Century."

For those who have not fallen "down the rabbit hole" and made a study of this topic part of their life's vocation, a few simple questions naturally arise, beyond the perennial "Who killed JFK?" Was there really a government coverup of a conspiracy? If so, why? Are there any "smoking guns" in the mountains of papers declassified since 1992? With all the theories and the suspects ranging from the CIA to the KGB to the Mafia and many others, will we ever know what happened? Does it really matter anymore?

The U.S. Government has gotten out of the business of answering these questions, having done so twice (in 1964 and 1979, with different answers). But it doesn't take much hunting in the national media, or any encyclopedia or school textbook, to discover the official societal answers to these questions:

  • Who killed JFK? Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone (and Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald in the basement of a police station two days later).
  • Was there really a government coverup? No, although there was perhaps excessive secrecy and a desire to avoid inflaming the situation given Oswald's Communist background.
  • Are there any smoking guns in the new records? No (not that it is necessary to actually read them to discover this).
  • Will we ever know what happened? The Warren Commission figured it out in 1964, but irresponsible "conspiracy theorists" have misled a public all too willing to believe that such a larger-than-life figure as Kennedy could not be brought down by a single disturbed loner.
  • Does it matter anymore? Hey, it was almost 40 years ago. Get a life!
Despite these authoritative proclamations, the gunfire that echoed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on that day in 1963 has continued to reverberate across the ensuing decades. It wasn't long before the "pair-of-lone-nuts" thesis fell into a disrepair from which it has not recovered. Early critics pointed out the implausibility of Oswald, who was deemed "a rather poor shot" when his marksmanship was last tested by the Marines, having the necessary skill to accomplish the deed.

CE 399, the "magic bullet"
National Archives

And the Zapruder "home movie" had put a tight clock on the assassination shooting sequence. This clock is what forced the Commission to invent the "single bullet theory," to account for both Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally reacting to wounds inflicted in rapid succession, too rapid to be different shots fired from the same gun. In April of 1964, a solution to this dilemma was finally devised—both men were deemed to have been wounded by the same bullet, with Connally suffering a "delayed reaction" to a bullet which broke a rib and shattered a wrist.

The bullet that is said to have inflicted seven wounds in two men, breaking a rib and shattering a wrist, was found in near-pristine condition on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital after the wounded men had been rushed there for treatment. It came complete with the rifling marks of Oswald's weapon. The Commission was so worried about the implication of a "planted" bullet that it refused to believe that Jack Ruby was at the hospital at a time when he could have placed the bullet on the stretcher, even though a respected journalist who knew Ruby swore to the Commission that he spoke with Ruby at the hospital, a story corroborated by a second witness who saw Ruby there.

The single bullet theory has many more problems than just the suspicious bullet. Early medical reports, including the long-suppressed death certificate, placed Kennedy's back wound several inches down from the neck, matching the locations of holes in his jacket and shirt. But in order that the bullet might plausibly have exited from front of his the neck in a downward direction (and thus gone on to strike Connally), this location simply would not work. The Warren Commission's response to this was not to abandon the single bullet theory. Instead, the location of Kennedy's back wound was raised to the back of the neck, and the lead autopsy doctor supplied a drawing of Kennedy's wounds to bless this new location. Recent documents showed that Gerald Ford in fact suggested changing the Report's wording from "back" to "back of the neck."

Even the second official federal investigation, which in 1979 tried to uphold the single bullet theory—required if Oswald is to have been the sole assassin—noted that the autopsy photographs proved that the back wound was lower than previously stated, lower indeed than the wound in the front of Kennedy's neck. So how could a bullet have been shot from the sixth floor of a building, entered Kennedy's back, and then exited higher than it entered (and then continued on a downward trajectory even)? On other words, as author Stewart Galanor has put it, how could Kennedy have been shot from below, from above? Simple—JFK had to have been leaning forward. One serious problem with this theory, it might be noted, is that the Zapruder film shows Kennedy erect throughout.

Because it is so implausible in so many ways, the single bullet theory has received wide attention over the years. But it is hardly unique in its implausibility, being instead symptomatic of the Warren Commission's entire approach to its investigation, as further examples will show. At every turn, the Commission marshalled its evidence against Oswald and discarded alternatives. In other words, it engaged in a coverup. The hows and whys of this coverup are discussed later in the present essay.

The Warren Report was blessed in 1964 by all the engines of media and officialdom. But the subsequent critical books, including Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment, Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact, Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas, and Harold Weisberg's Whitewash, raised a number of troubling questions which the Report did not answer. Journalists began getting into the act, and even Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post began writing critical articles about the many problems inherent in the lone-gunman account. Then the still-controversial Garrison investigation, on which the film JFK is based, poisoned the atmosphere for mainstream journalists in the late 1960s. Meanwhile books continued to be written; disturbing facts continued to emerge. Then there was Watergate, a Presidential resignation, public recognition of CIA assassination plotting against Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, revelations about CIA and FBI mail-opening operations, surveillance and harassment of domestic dissidents, and so on. In this climate, the Zapruder film of the assassination was shown on television for the first time. At the moment of the fatal shot, the film shows Kennedy blown backward, by what is supposed to have been a shot from the rear!

Aerial view of Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Texas School Book Depository (TBSD) is orange brick building at top-center. Dal-Tex is red building to right of TSBD. Grassy knoll area is marked by trees to left of white pergola (left of TSBD). A picket fence separates trees from brownish parking lot above them. The shooting occurred while the limousine was on Elm Street, the curved street which runs by the TSBD.
Stewart Galanor

A Congressional body was constituted to re-investigate both the JFK and the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations in the mid-70s. Named the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), this committee started out with much promise, only to have its original leadership sacked after it began digging too deeply into the Mexico City affair highlighted later in this essay. The new leadership of Robert Blakey steered the investigation back in the direction of the lone gunman, only to be derailed at the last moment. Hoisted by its own reliance on the scientific approach, the HSCA found that an audio tape recorded in Dealey Plaza during the shooting held sounds of gunfire from multiple sources. In 1979 the HSCA, though not unanimously, issued a finding of "probable conspiracy," somewhat improbably concluding that there was a second gunman on the "grassy knoll," but he missed! A good source on the internal politics and failures of the HSCA is Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation.

Besides these and other lesser investigations with their lengthy reports and mountains of files, the past decades have seen the steady dribbling of records out of government coffers in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits, the dogged pursuit of truth by a self-appointed bevy of private citizens, and finally the deluge of declassifications over the last nine years in response to the JFK Records Act.

What has been learned after all the government investigations and book-writing and private digging? What are the alternative answers to the questions posed earlier, and why are they more correct? What follows is necessarily a personal answer, but one rooted in the base of evidence in the case, and with particular note taken of the amazing series of revelations which came tumbling out of files and interviews in the late 1990s.

Funeral procession on November 25, 1963
JFK Library