JFK: the mystery we'll never tire of

It's been five decades since JFK was assassinated, and the theories about who did it still rage on. But, Nel Staveley wonders, what's behind our enduring obsession with the killing?

MINUTES FROM DEATH: Kennedy and his wife Jackie ride through Dallas

Press Association

WE all know the basic facts of that hot, fateful afternoon, November 22, 1963.

We know that at 12.30pm, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th American President, was hit by two bullets – one in the head, one in the neck – while his open-top limousine made its way through a crowded street in Dallas, Texas.

We know that half-an-hour later he was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and we know that a few days on, as the world mourned, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and charged with murder.

We also know that beyond these basic facts, things become a little less clear. Why was Kennedy killed? How did it happen? That's where things get a little murkier.

In autumn 1964, a presidential commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that questioned 552 witnesses concluded that Oswald had been working alone, and was a deranged individual.

But no one really accepted that analysis then, and they certainly haven't accepted it in the intervening decades.

Cue a quick round-up of the Most Popular JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories. Was JFK really shot by Oswald, or was he shot by his own government?


What if it wasn't Oswald's bullet that felled the president, but one from a CIA officer? Or what if Oswald was running a mission for the communists in Russia (or in Cuba)? Let's not stop there. Maybe the killer was employed by the New Orleans mafia, angry that Kennedy was trying to combat organised crime?

Believe whichever 'explanation' you like, but one thing no one can debate is that these conspiracy theories have become as infamous as the assassination itself.

Type "JFK conspiracy" into Google and it throws up 152,000,000 search results. A 2003 Gallup poll found 75pc of Americans still felt the assassination was a conspiracy. Figures like these come as no surprise to the academics who've studied theories.

"November 22 changed the world and it has since been difficult to accept that one man could have been responsible," says Mark Malcomson, principal and tutor of American History at London's City Literature Institute. "The enormity of what happened couldn't be down to one sad, misguided individual, could it?"

Actually, it could. There have been enough tragic stories in the past few years to show that "one sad, misguided individual" can grab a gun and inflict untold pain on any number of people, and we accept these events as fact. But that is not the point here. The point, says Malcomson, is "context".

In 1963 the world was on the brink of catastrophe – the Cold War was raging, the Berlin Wall was but two years old, the Vietnam War was dragging America deeper into its sordid mire.

And then, suddenly, amid all that swirling fear, seemingly out of nowhere, notes Malcomson, "the youngest person elected president in American history; a young man with a beautiful wife and little kids running about the Oval office" and the most powerful man in the world is murdered in broad daylight.

It's not surprising the public felt uncomfortable accepting the official Warren report that blamed one man, and turned instead to their conspiracy theories which blamed "bigger" powers.

Dr Jovan Byford, senior psychology lecturer at the Open University, says: "With Lee Harvey Oswald – or in an event like 9/11 – people turn to conspiracy theories because the fact that a small group of people or just one person can turn the course of history does not fit how they see the world. They want to assume all the evil in the world comes from the people in power. They don't want to believe evil can come from a few other random people.


"America's first major political conspiracy theories came after the French Revolution, in the 1780s, when American democracy was forming. Conspiracy theories were a way of articulating the fear of foreign intervention."

Every country has its conspiracy theories, but they are more ingrained in American culture than any other (JFK, Marilyn Monroe, 9/11) and, says Byford, "they tend to get international fame once they've broken the American market".

It's easy to think this 'market' must have received a significant boost in recent years, with the ongoing revelations about WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. But Byford argues that the scandals have had the reverse affect.

"It shows the government can and does have whistleblowers and that they are actually vulnerable," he says. "The internet makes it easier for conspiracy theories to be available, but it doesn't mean the level of belief is any greater. The scope for conspiracy theories will always be there."

Well, that's what the conspiracy theorists want us to believe.

Andy Halpin: page 17