Six decades have passed since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a onetime defector to the Soviet Union, self-described Marxist, and admirer of Fidel Castro, but also a “nut” and a “loser,” according to some who knew him. The event stunned the nation and disrupted complacent assumptions about the stability of the American order. The assassin, no matter his purposes, delivered a blow to the American spirit with disorienting effects that linger today.
The evidence pointing to Oswald was close to irrefutable and was summarized in the Warren Commission report on the assassination and in exhaustive studies later conducted by Gerald Posner (Case Closed, 1993) and Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History, 2007). The two bullets that hit President Kennedy were traced to Oswald’s rifle, which was discovered along with three spent shells (a third shot missed its targets) on the sixth floor of the warehouse where he worked and where he was seen moments before the shooting. Oswald left his palm print on the rifle and his fingerprints on various items around the sniper’s nest. Witnesses on the street saw a man firing shots from a sixth-floor window in that building and gave police officers a description that they circulated over their radios.
Oswald escaped from the building before authorities could seal it off, then fled to another section of the city, where he retrieved a pistol from his rooming house before setting out on foot toward an unknown destination. A police officer, J. D. Tippett, hearing the description of the assassin on his radio, approached Oswald to question him about the shooting downtown. Oswald (aware that he had nothing to lose) fired four shots at Tippett as he stepped from his squad car, with several witnesses looking on. The shots killed the officer instantly. Oswald raced away to a nearby movie theater, where police soon captured him with the pistol still in his possession.
Despite this evidence, Americans never accepted the verdict that Oswald was the assassin or that he acted on his own in shooting President Kennedy. Public-opinion polls taken as early as 1964 revealed that a clear majority of Americans believed the assassination was orchestrated by a conspiracy of some kind—a consensus that solidified over decades. Doubts about Oswald’s role and about the accuracy of the Warren report provoked a steady stream of books, newspaper articles, and popular movies on the assassination, many of them arguing for a conspiracy arranged by the CIA, FBI, organized crime, or right-wing businessmen. The evidence to support these claims was always thin and speculative at best. That never seemed to matter; many believed them anyway. Those theories remain in wide circulation today.
Why, after six decades, does the Kennedy assassination still provoke so much controversy and disagreement? Why does every notable anniversary bring forth more books, articles, movies, and television programs recalling the assassination or promoting some new angle on the event?
The answers may be found in two defining public issues of the time, and in efforts by American leaders, along with the Kennedy family, to interpret the assassination within the context of the civil rights movement—but in opposition to the facts of the case.
Two great issues divided the American public in 1963, and President Kennedy tried to address both. First was the issue of civil rights for black citizens in the Southern states where the races were segregated by law and few blacks were allowed to vote. After much hesitation and under considerable pressure, Kennedy threw his support in June of that year behind a new civil rights bill designed to take apart the racial caste system in the South. That bill remained under consideration in late 1963 when Kennedy embarked on his trip to Texas.
The other issue was the Cold War, which Kennedy judged to be his most important challenge. His inaugural address in 1961 was almost entirely devoted to it. Kennedy moved aggressively once in office by sending advisors to South Vietnam, countering the Soviet Union in Berlin, and challenging Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Cuba was a flash point for the Cold War and an exasperating problem for Kennedy. The president’s ill-fated 1961 invasion of the Bay of Pigs proved his greatest foreign policy failure, while the 1962 missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war—but forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba was Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy success.
When Kennedy was killed, a struggle followed in the press and on television to determine which of these two issues would frame the assassination and define the public’s understanding of it. Was the assassination an event in the Cold War, as it seemed to be in view of Oswald’s involvement? Or did it represent another chapter in the ongoing crusade for civil rights, as it appeared to be after the fact because of the far Right’s influence in Dallas?
Immediately after the assassination, leading journalists and political figures insisted that Kennedy was a victim of a “climate of hate” in Dallas and across the nation created by racial bigots, the Ku Klux Klan, and anti-Communist zealots. Such groups had committed acts of violence across the South against blacks and civil rights workers in the months and years leading up to the events in Dallas. Some declared that the same forces must have been behind the murder of Kennedy. They claimed that JFK had been killed because of his support for a civil rights bill. Kennedy family members joined in because they wanted the slain president to be remembered with Abraham Lincoln as a martyr to the cause of racial justice. The repetitive commentary about hatred and bigotry circulated rapidly through the media in the days after the assassination, almost as if coordinated or directed from a high level.
James Reston, then chief political correspondent for the New York Times, published a front-page column the day after the assassination titled, “Why America Weeps: Kennedy a Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation.” He wrote that right-wing groups were behind the assassination. Chief Justice Earl Warren, who would soon head the investigation into the shooting, blamed “bigots” for Kennedy’s death. He never retracted or revised those comments, and he expanded on the theme in an official eulogy to Kennedy that he delivered two days later in the Capitol.
Syndicated newspaper columnist Drew Pearson wrote that JFK was the victim of a “hate drive.” The “eradication of hate,” he wrote, would be the most appropriate monument to his life. Senator Mike Mansfield, in a eulogy, blamed the assassination on “bigotry, hatred, and prejudice.” Chet Huntley, chief newscaster for NBC, told millions of viewers that the assassination had been brought about by “the sickening and ominous popularity of hatred” across the United States and by influential “pockets of hatred” within the country. The president’s death, he said, is “thundering testimonial of what hatred comes to and the revolting excesses it perpetrates.” The Reverend Martin Luther King declared that the assassination had to be viewed in the context of violence against civil rights workers across the American South.
For his part, President Lyndon Johnson thought it his job as national leader to supply meaning to the tragedy. “John Kennedy had died,” he said later, “but his cause was not really clear. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” In his speech of November 27, Johnson challenged Congress to pass the stalled civil rights bill as a memorial to his slain predecessor. He also called on Americans to “put an end to the teaching and preaching of hate and evil and violence.”
On the international front, Johnson feared a dangerous escalation of tensions with Moscow if the public decided that Communists were behind the assassination. As Reston wrote for the Times on November 25, just three days after Kennedy’s assassination: “One of the things President Johnson is said to be concerned about is that the pro-Communist background of Lee Oswald . . . may lead in some places to another Communist hunt that will divide the country and complicate the new President’s relations with Moscow.” It was dangerous to tell the whole truth about the assassination: it could lead to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Ironically, U.S. leaders adopted a line similar to the one that the Soviet Union and Communist groups pushed around the world, likewise blaming the “far right” for the assassination. A Soviet spokesman said that “Senator [Barry] Goldwater and other extremists on the right could not escape moral responsibility for the president’s death.” Castro called Oswald’s arrest part of a “Machiavellian plot” to blame the assassination on Cuba. Communists and leftists around the world disowned Oswald out of fear that his act might contaminate their cause. They were all too happy to blame the assassination on “right-wingers.”
These were the myths that grew up around Kennedy’s death and, curiously enough, remain widely believed. Many who doubted Oswald’s guilt traced the assassination to a “climate of hate” created by right-wing businessmen, religious leaders, and a few media figures. This became the prevailing interpretation of the assassination.
The facts pointed in a different direction: President Kennedy was a martyr (to the extent he was a martyr of any kind) in the Cold War struggle against Communism. Kennedy spoke often and clearly about the threat Communism posed to the United States and free nations everywhere. He emphasized foreign policy and the Cold War in his inaugural address in 1961. He was an articulate Cold Warrior before he became an outspoken civil rights advocate.
The assassin was a Communist and hardly a right-winger. He was also one of the biggest “creeps” ever to insert himself into history’s pages, a pathetic figure, even by the standards of assassins. He was haughty, arrogant, and insolent; he beat his wife; he could not keep a job; he was obsessed with politics and revolution. He gave a bad odor to Marxism, if that was possible. Like Richard III, he was “determined to prove a villain/and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” Everyone who knew him agreed afterward that he was entirely capable of carrying out such an attack.
Oswald defected from the U.S. to the Soviet Union in 1959, vowing that he could no longer live under a capitalist system. He pledged to turn over military secrets to Soviet authorities and may have done so. He returned to the United States with his Russian wife in 1962, disappointed with life under Soviet Communism but not disabused of his Marxist beliefs or his contempt for America. By 1963, Oswald had transferred his political allegiance to Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba.
In April 1963, Oswald tried to shoot Edwin Walker, a retired U.S. Army general, as Walker sat at a desk in his dining room. (The bullet struck a window frame, and Walker was unhurt.) Walker was the head of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society and a figure then in the news because of his opposition to school integration, his criticisms of President Kennedy, and his demand that the United States overthrow the Castro regime. The rifle Oswald used in his attack on Walker was the same one he used seven months later to shoot Kennedy. Oswald’s wife was well aware that he had taken a shot at Walker and had reason to think he might try to strike again. Dallas police did not identify Oswald as the assailant in the Walker case until after Kennedy’s assassination.
After the Walker incident, Oswald fled Dallas for New Orleans. In June 1963, he established a local chapter of Fair Play for Cuba, a national organization dedicated to gaining diplomatic recognition for Castro’s regime. The operation consisted of just one person—Oswald himself. Oswald was filmed by a local television station in New Orleans circulating leaflets on behalf of the Castro government and was jailed briefly following a street altercation with anti-Castro Cubans. Soon thereafter, he appeared on a local television program to debate U.S. policy toward Cuba. That ended badly when one of the panelists pointed out that Oswald had earlier defected to the Soviet Union, thereby suggesting that his operation was a Soviet front and Castro’s regime a “puppet” of the Soviet Union. That brought his pro-Castro campaign in New Orleans to an end.
In late September, Oswald left New Orleans to travel to Mexico City seeking a visa that would permit him to travel to Cuba and then to the Soviet Union. As documented in the Warren Commission report, he took along a dossier of news clippings on his pro-Castro activities to establish his revolutionary bona fides with personnel at the Cuban and Soviet embassies in the city. His wife later told authorities that Oswald wanted to travel to Havana to confer with Castro about how he might assist the revolution in Cuba and elsewhere. In his back-and-forth visits to the embassies, he was overheard making a threatening remark about President Kennedy.
Oswald returned to Dallas emptyhanded after being told that his application would take several weeks to process (he would eventually be granted the Cuban piece of the visa). He was still waiting on his applications several weeks later when he read that Kennedy’s forthcoming visit to Texas would include a motorcade through downtown Dallas, past the building where he worked. Meantime, CIA officials, learning of Oswald’s visits to the embassies in Mexico City, alerted FBI agents in Dallas to locate him to ask about those encounters. Agents were still looking for him on the day Kennedy arrived in Dallas. In the days and weeks leading up to the presidential visit, the FBI was focused more on right-wing threats against the president.
Oswald’s motives for shooting Kennedy were undoubtedly linked to his desire to interfere with the president’s campaign to overthrow Castro’s government. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had promised to abandon his campaign to overthrow Castro by force. But the war of words between the two governments continued, and so did clandestine plots by the Kennedy administration to assassinate Castro. President Kennedy, along with Robert Kennedy, pressed the CIA to do something to get rid of the Cuban dictator. As late as November 18, less than a week before the assassination, Kennedy called on the Cuban people to throw out the Castro regime.
These undercover plots were obviously known to CIA officials who orchestrated them, but they were not revealed to the Warren Commission during its investigations in 1964. This was classified information, and in any case far too explosive to reveal to the public. (The plots were disclosed in a separate congressional investigation in the 1970s.) Lacking this information, the commission could not piece together a complete picture of Oswald’s purposes in carrying out the assassination, and thus concluded that he had acted on personal (not ideological) motives.
In early September, Castro (aware of these plots through information provided by a double agent) threatened U.S. leaders in an interview with an American reporter in Havana. Castro strongly denounced Kennedy, calling him “a cretin” and “the most opportunistic president of all time.” Castro went on to say: “We are prepared to fight them and answer them in kind. U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorists plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.” American intelligence officials were alarmed at the escalation in Castro’s rhetoric and the implied threat conveyed by his comments. Was Castro aware of U.S. plots to assassinate him? If so, how did he know? Did he intend to retaliate by organizing reciprocal plots against American leaders? They concluded that among various things Castro might do, he was unlikely to risk an assassination attempt on a U.S. leader. A few months later, after the assassination, Castro would adopt a far different tone toward the now-deceased Kennedy.
A transcript of the interview was published in the local paper in New Orleans where Oswald was then living, and it may have been Castro’s remarks that sent him on his trip to Mexico City a few weeks later in search of a travel visa to Cuba. Oswald was attentive to the smoldering war between the U.S. and Cuban governments and to the personal and ideological war of words between Castro and Kennedy. Investigators later speculated that Oswald may have read Castro’s remarks as a call to kill Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an event of the Cold War. There can be little doubt about this in view of Oswald’s activities in the months leading up to it. Nevertheless, America’s liberal leadership interpreted it as an event in the civil rights crusade—an assassination that occurred because President Kennedy stood up for civil rights in opposition to far-right opinion in Dallas and across the South.
This interpretation sowed endless confusion about the motives of the assassin and the meaning of the event. It made no sense to arrest a Communist for the assassination, then blame conservatives and right-wingers for the crime. The vacuum of meaning was filled, however, by a host of conspiracy theories, claiming that JFK was a victim of right-wing plots. It was no wonder that many Americans, after hearing claims about civil rights, hatred, and bigotry in connection with the assassination, decided that Oswald must not have been the assassin after all. That idea pushed the real assassin, along with his motives and far-left ideology, into the background in accounts of the event, and it came close to airbrushing his deed out of the historical record.
The widespread feeling that dark elements in American culture contributed to John Kennedy’s death—encouraged by media figures and politicians—promoted an anti-American attitude that shaped the radical and countercultural movements of the 1960s and endures into our own time, extending its institutional reach. In this regard, the effects of the assassination are all around us.
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