The JFK Assassination Who killed JFK? Was there a government cover-up? What was revealed when formerly-secret files were declassified? Why has this event gripped the nation for so long? What relevance does a 45-year-old murder have to the 21st century? CONTEXT President Kennedy was murdered at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. While the mythology of a lost Camelot developed in the years since his death, the Kennedy era was marked by a variety of tensions and crises. The civil rights movement gathered momentum in the early 1960s and clashed with resistance, particularly in the South. Kennedy's brother Robert, as Attorney General, launched an unprecedented war on organized crime. Cuba was the most intense foreign policy hotspot - Castro had come to power there during the Eisenhower era and plots to overthrow and assassinate him continued in the Kennedy era. Vietnam was a simmering problem that would only bloom into full-scale war during the Johnson presidency. These domestic and foreign policy issues divided both the country and the Kennedy administration. There were many individuals and groups - Cuban exiles, mob figures, virulent racists, CIA and Pentagon hardliners - with a motive for murder. Over the years, document declassifications and personal accounts have added to the picture of a presidency beset from within and without. But the question remains with no consensus: which of these motives, if any, turned into an actual murder plot to assassinate President Kennedy? ASSASSINATION President Kennedy was murdered while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas at 12:30 PM CST on Friday, November 22, 1963. Several photos and films captured the assassination, including the famous Zapruder Film. JFK was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where a tracheostomy and other efforts failed to keep him alive. After he was pronounced dead around 1 PM, his body was removed against the wishes of Texas authorities and flown back to Washington aboard Air Force One with his wife Jackie and his successor, President Lyndon Johnson. An autopsy was performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetary on Monday the 25th. President Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One. Meanwhile, Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and defector to the Soviet Union, was arrested around 2 PM at the Texas Theatre in the Oak Cliff suburb of Dallas and charged with murdering a police officer named J.D. Tippit. Protesting that he was "a patsy," Oswald was paraded in front of the world's gathering cameras and accused of murdering President Kennedy as well. Oswald's defection and Marxist sympathies were quickly covered in the nation's newspapers, in part because his curious pro-Castro activities during the summer in New Orleans had brought him to the attention of local Cuban exiles. Oswald was interrogated throughout the weekend, though no recordings or transcriptions were made. During an intended transfer to county facilities on Sunday morning the 24th, Oswald was shot and killed on live television in the basement of the Dallas Police station. His murderer was a local nightclub owner with connections to organized crime named Jack Ruby. AFTERMATH Lee Oswald's New Orleans arrest photo. Within hours of Oswald's murder, federal authorities including the powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover moved to close the case. Others pushed for a blue-ribbon commission. Assistant Attorney General Katzenbach wrote a revealing memo which stated "The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial." The memo also noted the rumors of a Communist conspiracy based on Oswald's sojourn in Russia, but also noted: "Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat-too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.). The Dallas police have put out statements on the Communist conspiracy theory, and it was they who were in charge when he was shot and thus silenced." Were government officials merely acting to reassure the public and put a good face on terrible events? Or was the rush to "consign the whole business to oblivion as soon as possible," as a Soviet official put it to his superiors, indicative of something deeper? For instance, while no proof has never surfaced, there is circumstantial evidence to support the allegation brought by Texas officials that Oswald was an FBI informant, and possibly an agent of U.S. intelligence as well. The idea that such a person had killed the President would be embarrassing enough to cause a cover-up. And if instead there was a plot sophisticated enough to skillfully frame such a person, high officials might prefer to let sleeping dogs lie rather than take on such powerful forces. WARREN COMMISSION The Warren Commissioners deliver their report to President Johnson. Advocates of a blue-ribbon panel won the day, and on November 29 President Johnson signed Executive Order 11130 creating a President's Commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Soon dubbed the Warren Commission. this body's other members included Senators Russell and Cooper, Representatives Ford and Boggs, former High Commissioner of Germany John McCloy, and Allen Dulles, CIA Director for several years until forced into resignation by Kennedy following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The Warren Commission relied on the FBI and other agencies, particularly the CIA, Secret Service, and State Dept., using a staff of lawyers but no field investigators. Transcripts of executive sessions revealed problems with this approach, such as the Commission's failure to investigate the allegations that Oswald was an FBI informant. Mug shot of Jack Ruby. The Commission's seeming thoroughness has been challenged by critics who have pointed out the many important witnesses never interviewed, including Dealey Plaza witnesses who saw smoke on the grassy knoll. The President's personal physician, George Burkley, was never interviewed despite being the only physician capable of resolving clear discrepancies between the medical reports from Parkland and the Bethesda autopsy. Most disturbingly, Jack Ruby, arguably the Commission's most important witness, was interviewed but once in his jail cell, in June 1964 after the Report was already being written. Ruby's pleas to be taken to Washington to talk more openly were rebuffed by Chief Justice Warren. What would not emerge until later was the extent to which the FBI and CIA withheld important information from the Commission. This included - but was not limited to - CIA plots, some involving the Mob, to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Warren Commission delivered its Report to President Johnson on September 24, 1964. It found that Oswald had killed Kennedy, alone and unaided, and similarly that Jack Ruby's killing of Oswald was an impulsive act and not part of any conspiracy. Media pundits immediately hailed it as a thorough and credible examination of the Kennedy assassination, and declared the matter closed. EARLY CRITICS However, a small group of private citizens read not only the Warren Report but also the 26 volumes of published testimony and evidence upon which it was supposedly based. What they found was a host of contradictions, implausibilities, and stories which never made it into the 888-page report. Many witnesses had heard gunfire emanating from the grassy knoll to the right front of the motorcade, whereas Oswald was allegedly in a sixth floor window behind the President. Indeed one policer officer had rushed up the hill and confronted a man behind the fence, who then identified himself as Secret Service and flashed a badge. The problem, as the Warren Commission uncovered, was that all Secret Service agents were accounted for and none were in that area. Many important matters - credible questions about evidence tampering, misidentification of the rifle and handling of other items found in the "sniper's nest," how Oswald's description happened to be sent out on police radio, how Oswald managed to teach himself Russian, defect to the Soviet Union, and return with State Dept. money, the handling of the "Odio Incident," and many more - raised questions which the Commission didn't adequately address. Some issues, like differing descriptions of wounds reported in Dallas (originating from the front) and Bethesda (originating from behind) were "resolved" though tortuous leading questions designed to elicit a particular answer. In general, it appeared to the early critics that the Commission had made its mind up early and molded the evidence and its investigation to fit a pre-ordained outcome. Mark Lane. Speeches by Mark Lane and early essays were followed by a crop of books in 1965-67 critical of the Warren Commission. These included Harold Weisberg's Whitewash, Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact, Edward Epstein's Inquest, Josiah Thompson's Six Seconds in Dallas, among others. A particular focus was the Commission's recreation of the shooting. With the Zapruder film as a "clock" of the assassination, and a bolt-action rifle that the FBI determined could only be fired every 2.3 seconds even without careful aiming, the Commission was forced to explain how Governor Connally could have been wounded so soon after JFK. This necessitated the creation of the "single bullet theory," which posited that both men were hit by the same bullet, and Connally suffered a delayed reaction despite having a rib broken and wrist smashed. Even more incredible, the bullet assigned to this task was Commission Exhibit 399, a "magic" bullet featuring nary a nick that had been mysteriously found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital an hour or so after the shooting. CE 399, the "magic bullet." The unbelievability of the single bullet theory, along with many other questions that critics raised about Oswald, Ruby, the Dallas police, and more, caused the public to question the Warren Commission's findings. By 1967, publications such as Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post were questioning the Commission's conclusions and raising the idea of a new investigation. Then came New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. THE GARRISON INVESTIGATION In late 1966, the New Orleans District Attorney, whose office had briefly detained an Oswald-connected pilot named David Ferrie on the weekend of the assassination, began quietly reinvestigating the New Orleans aspect of JFK's assassination. Oswald had spent the summer of 1963 in that city, engaging in strange pro-Castro activities which many have interpreted as "building a pro-Castro legend" rather than genuine. Local reporters soon discovered and announced Garrison's investigation, and the world's media descended on New Orleans. By early March 1967, intriguing leads had been developed, Ferrie was dead, and Garrison had indicted a businessman named Clay Shaw for conspiracy to commit murder. The DA boasted about making further arrests and solving the case - much to his later regret. New Orleans DA Jim Garrison. The film JFK presents Garrison as an earnest hard-working DA who famously remarked "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall." By the summer of 1967, however, the national media was portraying him as a charlatan, even accusing him of bribing witnesses and other abuses. Garrison fought back in the media with some success, but the damage had already been done. In the end, the case against Shaw connected him only tenuously to Oswald, and the murder plot came down to a single star witness, Perry Russo, who alleged a meeting where Shaw, Ferrie, and Oswald had plotted the assassination. It took the jury only an hour to return a verdict of not guilty. Some of Garrison's charges - for instance that a number found in both Oswald's and Shaw's address books was a coded form of Jack Ruby's unlisted telephone number - were irresponsible or downright silly. But Garrison had uncovered many suspects and leads. For instance, it was Garrison who discovered that the address stamped on some of Oswald's pro-Castro leaflets was the same building that housed the office of virulent anti-Commuist Guy Banister. Banister's wife and secretary later said that Banister had told them that Oswald was connected to the office. Garrison also produced witnesses tying Oswald to Shaw, and uncovered some of Shaw's connections to the CIA. Declassified files now show that the CIA was worried enough to hold meetings devoted to tracking Garrison's activities, and that the Justice Department and a close aide of Robert Kennedy's went to extraordinary measures to stop the D.A., and to later prosecute him in retaliation. Views of Garrison among assassination researchers were divided at the time and have remained so. But not in question is that the controversy and ridicule directed against Garrison had the effect of ending mainstream media calls for a review of the Warren Commission, at least for a time.
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