The Assassination

Who killed John F. Kennedy? Was it a lone gunman? Was he the victim of a conspiracy? Were the Russians behind this plot? The Cubans? Or was it his Vice President after all? No story has intrigued filmmakers, writers and journalists more over the last 50 years than the assassination of the 35th president of the United States in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

By Peter Hossli

kennedy6The day John F. Kennedy died began as gloomy and wet. At about 9.30 a.m. the weather cleared. For the rest of the day Dallas remained beautifully sunny.

At 12.29 p.m. the president’s open limousine turned onto Dealey Plaza. Thousands of spectators thronged the street cheering. «You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President», Nellie Connally, the Texan Governor’s wife, gushed. Kennedy smiled, waving with his right arm.

Suddenly there was a dull noise. It was the first shot; another was fired and then, a third. A half hour later the president, attended by fourteen doctors, was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital. He was forty-six years old.

The second bullet had penetrated his back and neck; the third shredded the back of his head. «They have killed my husband. I am holding his brains in my hand,» the First Lady is said to have cried while still in the limousine.

On November 22nd it will have been 50 years since the violent death occurred. The event has remained the most intriguing news story of all time.

kennedy3It is the story of a popular US president, leading the most powerful nation in the world into modern times. He was a youthful, handsome man from a fabled family. Marital fidelity was not among his strong suits. Of his many lovers Marilyn Monroe was the most famous.

It’s the story of an assassination with far-reaching political consequences, committed at a time when the Cold War threatend to heat up, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union pitted against each other in a nuclear arms race. Today’s Historians believe the world would be far different had Kennedy lived longer.

Furthermore and foremost, the assassination is the linchpin of a tremendous mystery. On that same day the police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, a confused Marxist having  defected from the Soviet Union. A former marine, he shot the president with an Italian infantry rifle with an attached scope from the sixth floor of a school book depository. Oswald had mail ordered the gun – a Second World War model rifle – and had it shipped to Dallas.

kennedy4The FBI discovered a partial palm print on the gun barrel. Two days after the death of Kennedy, Oswald died as well. Nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot him down with a revolver while police were attempting to escort Oswald from the precinct to jail. The killing was witnessed on live television.

However, at the scene of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza,  there were no live-feed cameras. The TV producers at the time had considered this position insignificant. As soon as the first news hit the airwaves, the cameras began to whir nonstop. Journalists rushed to Dallas, others reported from all over the U.S.A. about a country in shock. When the President was buried on November 24th with his three-year old son saluting the coffin, 93 percent of the TV sets in America tuned in.

The coverage has never ceased. The JFK assassination has become a media genre in its own right. Op-ed writers comment on it incessantly. Novelists weave fictional stories about it, among them Stephen King, who dedicated 849 pages to it in his novel «11/22/1963».

For fifty years journalists have been churning out allegedly new revelations. Their investigations provide scriptwriters with source material for feature films, documentaries and TV movies. Almost thirty actors have played Lee Harvey Oswald in movies and on TV.

Amazon has close to 11,500 books and films on offer that deal with Kennedy and his death. Nevertheless, another thirty new titles are due to be published this fall.

kennedy5Abraham Zapruder, a manufacturer of women’s clothing, filmed 26.6 seconds shortly before, during and following the assassination. He was pointing an 8-mm home movie camera straight at the moving limousine, shooting a silent color motion picture.

LIFE magazine bought the rights to the footage for 150,000 dollars, publishing thirty single black-and-white stills on November 29, 1963. The entire film was first publicly shown in a courtroom in 1969. American TV viewers did not get to see the complete Zapruder film before 1975.

In 1999, Zapruder’s heirs sold the film for 16 million dollars to the U.S. government, garnering 601,504 dollars for every second of film. Today, countless versions of the film can be seen on YouTube.

Three other amateur filmmakers recorded the assassination on celluloid at the time, albeit from a greater distance. Thirty-two people took photographs at the crime scene.

Nearly every newspaper in the world will now publish these images again and post videos online. The Dallas Morning News is covering the 50th anniversary over an entire year, interviewing witnesses of the period, organizing exhibitions, and holding symposiums. TV stations will broadcast new documentary reports and bring in experts who employ the latest forensic methods to address the perennial question:

kennedy7Who really killed JFK?

At one time almost eighty percent of Americans believed that Kennedy fell victim to a conspiracy. Oswald and Ruby were merely disturbed single perpetrators? Never! Today, sixty percent of all people still assume that there was a plot.

This is despite the fact that, as early as 1964, the commission chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren arrived at a plain conclusion: Oswald acted alone. The Warren Commission published twenty-six volumes of evidence, stimulating skeptics and conspiracy theorists.

Ever since, reporters, amateur sleuths, filmmakers and politicians have been hunting for discrepancies and mistakes made by police investigators, pointing out how many of the people involved allegedly died under mysterious circumstances. Several dozens of books are published every year, among them titles like «Rush to Judgment», «Best Evidence», «Reasonable Doubt», «High Treason» or «Coup D’Etat in America».

What’s more, the U.S. government re-opened the case. In 1978 the House of Representatives appointed a new commission, which didn’t exclude a conspiracy. It asserted «…a high probability that two gunmen fired at [the] President.» No other possible perpetrators were named.

kennedy8But then, it was always the usual suspects: Possible accessories may have included Cuban exiles. They hated Kennedy for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. U.S. generals and the arms industry feared Kennedy might hold back in Vietnam and slash the military budget. Or was it the Mafia? After all, they were afraid of Attorney General Robert Kennedy; the President’s brother had declared war on organized crime. CIA spies and FBI agents have also been regarded as co-conspirators of the assassin.

Some claimed that aliens killed Kennedy; some blamed his personal driver – or aliens and his personal driver plotting together.

A man in a black suit also aroused suspicion. On this sunny day he was standing by the roadside with an opened umbrella, exactly at the spot where Kennedy died. Was a gun built into his umbrella? Was he helping other gunmen locate their target?

No such thing. He was protesting the appeasement policy represented by Kennedy’s father Joseph and Neville Chamberlain, the former British Prime Minister, who usually carried an umbrella. The story is told in the short film «The Umbrella Man», one of the most poignant discussions of the Kennedy assassination.

kennedy10Why do the conspiracy theories exist? Because the official version doesn’t seem plausible. Can a single man really instigate such a monumental crime? Would a mediocre marksman like Oswald have been able to fire three well-aimed shots within seven seconds? And, why was Oswald murdered? He claimed he was a «patsy».

Despite all these doubts, Oswald did act alone, wrote author Gerald Posner in 1993, in his acclaimed book «Case Closed». He later described how he’d sold his book to a publisher. He said he knew who really killed Kennedy. «Who?» the publisher asked excitedly. «Oswald», Posner replied. «Who else?» «Oswald.» The man looked at Posner as if «… I lived on Mars.» The book became a bestseller anyway.

In 2007, Vincent Bugliosi established another record with «Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy». The book is comprised of 1650 pages, plus a CD-ROM with 960 pages of footnotes. Bugliosi’s bottom line: It was just Oswald.

Yet, barely a year later Lamar Waldron published «Legacy of Secrecy». He claimed to be able to prove by means of newly released CIA documents that JFK and subsequently, his brother Robert, were murdered for wanting to topple Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The Mafia was pulling the strings.

kennedy11Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro are currently shooting a film version of «Legacy of Secrecy». In this story not only is the Mafia behind the Kennedy assassinations, but allegedly is also responsible for killing Martin Luther King Jr. and instigating the Watergate affair.

This is only one of many new JFK themed films. Tom Hanks produced «Parkland», referring to the hospital where Kennedy’s death was announced. The film is set to be released in theaters in October. Author/director David Mamet is working on the film «Blackbird» with Cate Blanchett. She plays a young woman who suspects her grandfather of having killed Kennedy.

Nonetheless, Oliver Stone remains the king of conspiracy theorists. In 1991 the director hit a nerve with his opulent three-hour feature film «JFK» with first-rate actors like Kevin Costner, Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek dismantling the theory of the lone gunman in a gripping tale. The movie is based on the true story of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. Investigating the murder, he encounters gay hustlers, corrupt politicians, ruthless Mafiosi and cunning Cubans along the way. Stone targets everyone as suspects: CIA agents, the FBI, even Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor.

kennedy12The film ends with the trial against businessman Clay Shaw, the only suspect to date to be prosecuted for the Kennedy assassination.

Garrison attempted to prove that Shaw and the CIA had orchestrated the killing and that an alleged six, not three shots, were fired at Kennedy. The jurors were not convinced. He lost the case.

Stone, however, won big. His movie made several hundred millions of dollars, won two Oscars – and made the idea of conspiracy theories socially acceptable.