I'm of the belief that you need to ask an American just three questions to ever figure out exactly who that person is: ask about the American's name; ask about what he/she does for a living; and ask what he/she thinks happened to JFK in Dallas Nov. 22 1963...
The assassination of John Kennedy remains one of the most traumatic moments in American history. Up there with the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, 9/11 attacks, and the rollout of New Coke.
As a librarian I can tell you the importance of a historical event by the number of books filling up the shelves. Civil War books, usually the biggest section of the 900s (DDC) alone can take up a full shelf (with six packed rows of books) in a small library, and take up an entire stack of shelves in a big library.
The Kennedy assassination is getting up there in the number of books written. It's been the cornerstone of conspiracy thought ever since the Warren Report came out and people hooked onto certain flaws found in it. It's been 50 years of arguing over the assassination, over the report, over how history got screwed (the number of What If plotlines and time-travel-to-save-JFK stories are pretty numerous).
For myself, I grew up in the shadow of the Sixties, a young child of the Seventies and a teen of the Eighties. I was engulfed with the conspiracy talk ever since we got to this part of U.S. history in the classroom. Having grown up reading non-fiction books about mysteries – UFOs, witchcraft, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle – the allure of conspiracy about JFK's death was pretty irresistible.
So. Shall we play a game of Whodunnit and argue over the various conspiracies over who shot JFK?
The official take. Oswald, ex-Marine who defected to Russia and returned disillusioned, acts alone in the planning of the assassination and is the only one pulling the trigger. He kills a police officer while fleeing on foot before getting captured in a movie theater. Oswald himself is killed by a lone gunman, a paranoid club owner Jack Ruby.
Why this theory works: all the official evidence points this way. What is known of Oswald fits into the psych profile of other assassins. There are other parts of Oswald's activities before the assassination – an attempted shooting of a retired right-wing general – that points to a man desperate to prove himself via Propaganda of the Deed.
Why this theory falls apart: the “official evidence” could have been manipulated: there have been enough complaints about the Warren Report having errors and unfinished tangents deserving of investigation to make that report suspect. While Oswald fits the profile of an assassin, he's unique among all of the other shooters and would-be assailants in that he refused to take credit. He's the only one on record saying he didn't do it, and that he was a “patsy”. Having Oswald killed prevents any truth of his actions from getting out. Considering the number of political enemies Kennedy acquired over the years, having some nobody be the one killing him just doesn't seem kosher.
The Russians/Commies Did It
The first possibility, considering we were at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy had just stared down the Russians from putting nuclear warheads in Cuba, and the Berlin Wall had just gone up. Eliminating a political opponent wouldn't be out of the question for the KGB.
Why this theory works: Oswald had defected to the USSR and had just returned, reportedly kicked out by a Soviet Union that found him useless. He could have been conditioned or encouraged by his Soviet handlers to pull the trigger on Kennedy.
Why this theory doesn't work: If this were true, we'd have started launching nukes at the Soviets inside of thirty minutes of finding out. This would have been such an act of aggression that war would be the only logical response. The Soviets may have been cunning, but they weren't crazy. They could deal with Kennedy, and they didn't need to kill him.
The Castro Cubans Did It
Independently of their Soviet allies. Castro had been surviving attempts on his life and was probably pissed off enough to turn the tables. Oswald had been positioning himself as a fan of communist Cuba, and may have shot Kennedy to curry favor with Castro.
Why this theory works: It actually doesn't. Because...
Why this theory doesn't work: There has never been any conclusive proof that Castro or Cuban communists were in contact with Oswald. The FBI and CIA made serious efforts to find one, but never could (the possibility of Oswald going to the Cuban embassy in Mexico is disputed with the fact that the documented photos of someone claiming to be Oswald doesn't match the real thing). Castro pulling something like this without the knowledge of the Soviets is unlikely; and if found out would have forced Soviet Russia to either cut ties to Cuba while the US invaded out of revenge, or else sign on to nuclear Armageddon.
The Anti-Castro Cubans Did It
While there were a lot of people angry at Kennedy, none of them were as driven as the exiled Cuban community. They considered themselves twice betrayed: first when JFK refused to provide air support for the failed Bay of Pigs, second when JFK refused to invade Cuba over the missile crisis. It hurt that Kennedy's deal with Khrushchev included a full stop to all covert attempts to overthrow Castro.
Why this theory works: As noted, these guys were PISSED at Kennedy. That fateful trip through the southern states originally had Kennedy stopping in Miami (the center of anti-Castro activity), but that was canceled when it was deemed security wouldn't be tight enough. Given some of the evidence of Oswald being involved with some elements of the anti-Castro covert ops, it's possible Oswald got recruited by a small band to assist either directly or indirectly with the shooting. As part of of this conspiracy theory, they then get Ruby to shoot Oswald to cover their tracks.
Why this theory doesn't work: There's little evidence that the anti-Castro Cubans had this amount of power to pull of an assassination like this. Or have this much control over the investigation. If it ever got out that the anti-Castro groups killed our President, the American people would have turned against the anti-Castro crowds and their government handlers like the CIA. The only way this theory works is if you add it to the larger conspiracy theory such as...
The CIA/FBI/Shadow Government Did It
What quickly became the most prominent theory among conspiracy buffs. Somehow, Kennedy was a threat to their covert operations and overt attempts at starting World War III. It's common knowledge nowadays that the Joint Chiefs and other key government officials viewed Kennedy as soft on Communism (it was more that Kennedy refused to ignite a nuclear war, something the war-hawks viewed as survivable). Kennedy had threatened to dismantle the CIA after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, blaming them for misleading him with false intel.
Why this theory works: If Kennedy had enemies within the government, it was most likely here. The heads of the CIA and FBI both disliked JFK along with the upper echelon of the military. The CIA could have been in contact with Oswald as part of the theory that Oswald was an attempt to infiltrate the Soviet Union. The FBI had tabs on Oswald right up to the assassination. And the FBI basically had control of the whole investigation that created the Warren Report, meaning they could hide any incriminating evidence they didn't like.
Why this theory doesn't work: a conspiracy of this size and scope would have had to involve hundreds of people through various agencies, any one of whom could have slipped up on a detail or betray the secrecy in some fashion. Having this covert group pull off a very public assassination would have drawn too bright a light on their activities. And this shadow government would have had other means of killing Kennedy – through poisoning to make it look like a natural death. How many people knew about Kennedy's Addison's Disease? Did his Vice-President know...?
Johnson Did It
As part of the government conspiracy theory, where the CIA and FBI didn't do it, but Vice-President Johnson did and the government merely helped cover it up. There'd been stories that Kennedy was thinking of dropping LBJ from the ticket in 1964, that Johnson's ties to a crooked land developer was the key reason, although the Kennedys (including Bobby, Jack's confidant) and Johnson didn't get along very much to begin with. As Johnson desired the Presidency, if he got booted off the ticket that'd be the end of that hope, so killing Kennedy to get promoted sounds like motive...
Why this theory works: It really doesn't. Because...
Why this theory doesn't work: There's no direct or indirect link between Johnson, nor Johnson's people to Oswald. We'd be better off thinking it was a massive government cabal with Johnson on the side benefittng from the results. Kennedy may have disliked LBJ but he needed Johnson's negotiating skills to keep Congress in line. If Johnson knew about Jack's Addisons, he could have easily created a situation that would have triggered the illness and have Kennedy die of natural causes...
Cabal of Business Leaders Did It
Kennedy wasn't popular among various business leaders, especially the oil men in Texas. One major conspiracy theorist leaned on this as his go-to theory, even making a rather dull movie about it.
Why this theory works: These men would be far enough outside of government to avoid accountability, while having enough ties to various agencies to ensure they would cover their tracks. They would be able to hire the best assassins and covert ops types of the day.
Why this theory doesn't work: Again, there would be too many people involved in the planning, staging, and execution of the attempt, let along the hundreds more needed to cover up something of this scope.
The Mafia Did It
Stories abound of how Kennedy relied on help from mobsters to secure certain election results to win the Presidency... and then unleashed his brother Bobby as Attorney General to hunt the Mafia down. Feeling betrayed by someone who was literally in bed with them (well, in bed with one of the mob boss' mistresses), the mobsters would have felt the need to strike back...
Why this theory works: The Mafia tended to be a group that, when confronted with a problem, uses bullets to remove said problem. There were ties to the New Orleans mob with some of the more interesting characters in the various conspiracy theories, although ties to Oswald are tenuous at best.
Why this theory doesn't work: Again, anything on the scale of what the mob is accused of doing involves too many people, any one of whom could have blown the whole deal. The risks of trying were too high, even if they did succeed.
Aliens Did It
Why this theory works: Aliens hated Kennedy for some yet-unrevealed reason.
Why this theory doesn't work: Haven't found any aliens at all, let alone aliens with a grudge against JFK.
You and Me Did It
The Rolling Stones argument. WE are the ones who killed the Kennedys.
Why this theory works: Society is to blame.
Why this theory doesn't work: You first have to believe the Rolling Stones were capable of waxing philosophical.
We can never be really sure of it now. It's been fifty years: most of the people involved with that tragic day are dead, and while some documents have been released over the years there's still a ton of evidence locked away for a long time.
For myself, I tend to lean towards the Anti-Castro elements being the culprit as they had the greatest motive and opportunity, but to prove that would require getting to the bottom of whether Oswald was a serious attempt by the CIA to infiltrate the Soviets, and what ties Oswald might have had to any of the Anti-Castro groups operating along the Gulf of Mexico.
The more I've looked at the Warren Report, the more I see an investigation that was more cover-up than revealing, but not for sinister reasons: a lot of it seemed to be an attempt to hide any failures of inaction on the FBI itself. The conspiracy theory about the government behind it all doesn't the basic scrutiny test of Why? Why commit an action fraught with risk when simpler, more subtle methods were at hand?
Although I still have a question about one thing: when Oswald got kicked out of the USSR and came back to the US, why didn't anyone arrest him for desertion from the Marines when he fled to Russia? He was technically AWOL when he did that. The House UnAmerican Activities congressional committee was still operating at the time: why didn't any eager Congressman looking for media interest bring Oswald up on charges and make a public show of it? I'm still kinda bugged about this point. If someone can point me to a detailed answer to this question, I'd be grateful.
So, until next time, when we unravel the possibility that the emerging American Football League of that decade were in cahoots with Oswald after all...
ADDED: I know this is a bit sick to point out on the anniversary and all, but this bit from Red Dwarf just nails it...