On Friday 22 November 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated while riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s immediate succession and Kennedy’s sudden death spurred worldwide controversy and raised suspicions of conspiracy, that were increased by the nature of the investigations that followed.
This year, thousands of documents not previously released (many thousands were released in the 1990s) were published after a directive from President Trump.
President Kennedy’s purpose in coming to Dallas was primarily to reconcile divisions that had arisen within the Democratic Party in Texas before the 1964 election (the following is based on archives.gov).
Tensions had arisen between the current governor John Connally and Ralph and Don Yarborough (no relation). While meeting with the governor in El Paso earlier in June, the president decided to visit Texas again in November and it was agreed the governor handle the planning and details of the president’s visit, with presidential special assistant Kenneth O’Donnell acting as coordinator for the trip.
Originally the plan was for the president to visit four major Texas cities in one day. Later, the trip was extended to last from the afternoon of Thursday 21 November to Friday 22 November. It was also agreed that a motorcade through Dallas would be the best way for the public to see the president.
Initially, the governor was not in favour of this plan, since he thought there would not be enough time, but later agreed. ‘Once we got San Antonio moved from Friday to Thursday afternoon, where that was his initial stop in Texas, then we had the time, and I withdrew my objections to a motorcade’.
All the necessary security measures of the time were taken into account and local police and federal security officers were apprised of possible threats to the president. There had been no mention of Lee Harvey Oswald.
When the president made his visit to Dallas on that fateful day, thousands of people lined the street designated for the parade, awaiting his arrival. The planned route of ten miles meandered from Love Field, through suburban Dallas, and downtown to the Dallas Trade Mart.
As the president’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza at 12:30 CST, two shots (and many thought a possible third) were fired from the Texas Schoolbook Depository. The first shot passed through Kennedy’s throat, while the second shattered the right side of his skull.
‘Governor Connally sustained bullet wounds in his back, the right side of his chest, right wrist, and left thigh’. He had heard the first shot and turned to his right to shield the president, but never was able to, because the second bullet hit him in the back.
After the second shot, the driver accelerated the vehicle and drove to the hospital. ‘Other secret service agents assigned to the motorcade remained at their posts during the race to the hospital. None stayed at the scene of the shooting, and none entered the Texas School Book Depository building at or immediately after the shooting. Secret service procedure requires that each agent stay with the person being protected and not be diverted unless it is necessary to accomplish the protective assignment’.
The president was still breathing when they arrived at the hospital, but soon died in the trauma operating room at approximately 1.00 pm. It was surmised by the medical staff that ‘President Kennedy could have survived the neck injury, but the head wound was fatal’.
President Kennedy’s body was then taken to Love Field and placed in the back of the aircraft. Just before take-off, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States, with Jacqueline Kennedy looking on in shock at his side.
No one saw it coming. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who murdered President Kennedy, was not even on the list of suspicious persons before the president’s visit to Dallas.
Some 70 minutes after the assassination, Oswald was arrested near a theatre, for the murder of the president and of Officer J. D. Tippit, and was questioned by Dallas police and the FBI. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was held in custody for two days.
Upon being transferred to a vehicle that would take him to jail, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, shot Oswald in front of live television. This sequence of harrowing events, followed by the conflicting reports of witnesses of Kennedy’s assassination as to the number of shots fired, or the location from where they were shot (the depository or ‘the grassy knoll’), made the whole event seem like conspiracy.
The gun recovered on the sixth floor of the depository had indeed been Oswald’s, but no other shooters were found that may have shot from the grassy knoll. The Warren Commission, primarily responsible for reviewing and investigating the assassination, found that Lee Harvey Oswald:
‘(1) Owned and possessed the rifle used to kill President Kennedy and wound Governor Connally,
(2) brought this rifle into the depository building on the morning of the assassination,
(3) was present, at the time of the assassination, at the window from which the shots were fired,
(4) killed Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippit in an apparent attempt to escape,
(5) resisted arrest by drawing a fully loaded pistol and attempting to shoot another police officer,
(6) lied to the police after his arrest concerning important substantive matters,
(7) attempted, in April 1963, to kill Major General Edwin A. Walker, and
(8) possessed the capability with a rifle which would have enabled him to commit the assassination’.
On the basis of these findings the commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin of President Kennedy (archives.gov).
However, the Warren Commission was not the only party involved in investigating the murder of President Kennedy. Other committees researched the assassination and provided other insights (some contradicting the Warren Commission’s report).
The ‘United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities’ (also known as ‘The Church Committee’) reported that there were many deficiencies in the information the CIA and FBI gave the Warren Commission, that therefore made their findings and conclusion incomplete.
Another committee, the ‘United States House Select Committee on Assassinations’, was also involved, but at a much later date (September 1976). This committee studied the deficiencies of the federal investigative branches in the assassination case in great detail and stated they did not rule out a conspiracy.
Their reasoning was because the CIA and FBI only gave information for specific requests and their findings were often inadequate. Furthermore, they concluded that the secret service did not adequately protect the president before or during his fateful November trip to Dallas. Four committee members wrote dissenting reports to the suspicion of a conspiracy.
A police dictabelt recording was re-examined, along with the facts, and the Justice Department made the judgment ‘that no persuasive evidence can be identified to support the theory of a conspiracy in … the assassination of President Kennedy’ (Letter from Assistant Attorney General William F. Weld to Peter W. Rodino Jr., undated).
Though their findings did not substantiate the likelihood of a conspiracy, the public was not convinced. Even since 1992, the date when records of the assassination were mandated to be released to the public, citizens were convinced that the case was not cold and that conspirators were to blame.
The federal government did not help sway public opinion on this matter, as the documents and substantial evidence for the assassination were held under lock and key, since it was deemed the documents were too sensitive for the public.
It was not until 26 October 1992 that the United States Congress issued a law, first, establishing the creation of files associated with the assassination, and, second, mandating final and total public disclosure in 25 years’ time.
About 98 per cent of the files were released to the public in the 1990s and still more were released after the JFK Records Act, in October 2017. Conspiracy theorist and historians are now able to review the tantalising documents for possible clues of conspiracy.
The New York Times described the files as ‘a treasure trove for investigators, historians and conspiracy theorists, who have spent half a century searching for clues to what really happened in Dallas on that fateful day in 1963. They included tantalising talk of mobsters and Cubans and spies, Kremlin suspicions that Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the killing, and fear among the authorities that the public would not accept the official version of events’.
However, there are nearly 3,600 files still held back, most of them privy to the CIA and FBI, who have requested the president keep them back for sensitive reasons. They are currently being reviewed for 180 days, and the president has stated that any agency wanting to continue withholding documents after 26 April ‘should be extremely circumspect in recommending any further postponement of full disclosure of records’ (Washington Post, 27 October 2017).
While the agencies involved, especially the CIA, have declared that nothing in the withheld documents purports conspirators, the fact that the documents have been withheld has only emboldened the hopes and assumptions of conspiracy theorists.
So what is to be learned from this history? First, it teaches that the heart of man ‘is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). Lee Harvey Oswald was utterly deceitful in his actions.
He murdered the president and he lied about that action, as well as about his possession of the murder weapon. We do not know what possessed him to murder Kennedy, since he never confessed his reasons to the authorities.
Second, we can remember that God is in control of all circumstances, even in horrible tragedies such as this one. John F. Kennedy strove to create and enforce laws that gave equal rights to all mankind, no matter what colour their skin was or whether they were a man or woman.
America was still groaning under the horrors or segregation and racism (as it is today) and many were brazenly opposed to freedoms for African Americans. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson subsequently passed the Civil Rights Bill, stating, ‘No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill, for which he fought so long’.
It could be said that, were it not for Kennedy’s sudden death, the Civil Rights Bill may not have been enacted so quickly. That enactment, at least, is something to praise God for.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA