Who Shot JFK, and Why?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 11/22/13; UPDATED 09/25/14 AND 06/26/15; REVISED 06/27/15

On this, the 50th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy, I refer you to my recollections of the day (posted two years ago), and offer the following thoughts about the killing.

I recently watched the NOVA production, Cold Case JFK, which documents the application of current forensic technology to the 50-year-old case. The investigators’ give a convincing explanation of the shooting in Dallas. The explanation supports the original “verdict” of the Warren Report: Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter. He, and only he, fired the shots that killed JFK and wounded John Connally, then governor of Texas. The NOVA program moves me from “reasonable doubt” to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” with respect to who shot JFK and how.

What about the thesis advanced by James B. Reston Jr. that Oswald’s real target was Connally? Possibly, inasmuch as Oswald wasn’t a sniper-class shooter. Here’s a scenario that’s consistent with the timing of events in Dealey Plaza: Oswald can tell that his first shot missed his target. He got off a quick second shot, which hit JFK, who’s in line with Connally, passed through JFK and hit Connally. There was no obvious, dramatic reaction from Connally, even though he was hit. So Oswald fired a quick third shot, which hit Kennedy in the back of the head instead of hitting Connally, who by that time had slumped into his wife’s lap. (Go here for the Warren Commission’s chronology of the shots and their effects.)

Reston’s thesis is that Oswald went after Connally because Oswald’s discharge from the Marine Corps was downgraded from “honorable” to “undesirable” while Connally was Secretary of the Navy. The downgrading hurt Oswald’s pride and his ability to get a good job in those days when employers were allowed to hire whom they pleased. I have read Reston’s book and can tell you that it is a piece of padded fluff. Padded as it is, the book consists of only 183 pages of text, set in large type on small pages. Reston offers no evidence other than Oswald’s grudge against Connally and (supposed) lack of of grudge against JFK. Reston harms his case by ascribing unsourced and obviously fabricated words and thoughts to his characters. I say “characters” because Reston has fashioned something that reads more like a novel than a history.

Reston could be right, but we’ll never know if he is or isn’t. The truth of the matter died with Oswald on November 24, 1963. In any event, if Reston is right, it would mean that there was no conspiracy to murder JFK.

The only conspiracy theory that might still be worth considering is the idea that Oswald was gunning for JFK because he was somehow maneuvered into doing so by LBJ, the CIA, Fidel Castro, the Mafia, or the Russians. (See, for example, Philip Shenon’s “‘Maybe We Missed Something’: Warren Commission Insider Publicly Concedes That JFK Assassination Was Likely a Conspiracy,” The Washington Post, September 22, 2014, republished in The National Post.) The murder of Oswald by Ruby conveniently plays into that theory. But I say that the burden of proof is on conspiracy theorists, for whom the obvious is not titillating enough. The obvious is Oswald — a leftist loser and less-than-honorably discharged Marine with a chip on his shoulder, a domineering mother, an unhappy home life, and a menial job. In other words, the kind of loser with a gun who now appears almost daily in the news, having slaughtered family members, former co-workers, or random strangers. (This ubiquity is, of course, a manifestation of the media’s anti-gun bias, but that’s another story.)

Finally, after 50 years as a moderate skeptic of the Warren Report, I am satisfied that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter in Dallas, and that he wasn’t part of a conspiracy.  Given that, it is immaterial whether Oswald was gunning for JFK or Connally. He killed JFK, and the rest — for good or ill — is history.

That history still resounds with absurd claims that an “atmosphere of hate in Dallas” (right-wing, of course) was somehow responsible for the murder of JFK. How did this “atmosphere” — invented by the media to deflect blame from a leftist killer — cause Oswald to take aim at JFK or Connally? By “atmospheric” induction? There’s a conspiracy theory for you.