Wednesday 18 September 2019

The weird and weirder world of JFK's Dallas assassination

The release of files on the presidential assassination is eagerly awaited by those who lapped up a vast array of wild theories, writes Michael Miller

JFK relaxing at sea in an undated picture. Picture: JFK Library/Reuters
JFK relaxing at sea in an undated picture. Picture: JFK Library/Reuters

Michael Miller

Long before there was 'fake news', there was the assassination of President John F Kennedy and the scores of conspiracy theories it ignited. One author estimated that conspiracy theorists had accused "42 groups, 82 assassins and 214 people by name of being involved in the assassination".

According to a 2013 poll, no less than 62pc of Americans believe there was a broader plot beyond just Lee Harvey Oswald. With US President Donald Trump due to release the final batch of secret files on the assassination, we look back on a few of the most prevalent conspiracy theories.

Multiple gunmen

Perhaps the most enduring conspiracy theory owes its origins not to some crank but rather to the House of Representatives.

A week after Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, newly sworn-in President Lyndon B Johnson issued an executive order, creating the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy - the Warren Commission, named after its chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Ten months later, the commission presented its findings: Oswald acted alone, as did Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who shot Oswald two days after Kennedy's assassination.

In 1976, the House voted overwhelmingly to establish a Select Committee on Assassinations to reinvestigate the killing, as well as that of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968.

Like the Warren Commission, the House investigation found no evidence of Soviet, Cuban or CIA involvement in Kennedy's assassination. But the committee did conclude that there was "probably" a conspiracy involving a second gunman on the now infamous "grassy knoll."

That conclusion has since been discredited, including by high-tech recreations, but the damage was done.

'Umbrella Man'

The most famous theory involving multiple gunmen centres on 'Umbrella Man', a figure seen mysteriously holding a black umbrella on that sunny day.

Oliver Stone's conspiracy-fuelling 1991 film 'JFK' showed Umbrella Man sending signals to his fellow assassins.

The reality, however, was banal. In 1978, 15 years after the assassination, Louie Steven Witt told the House committee that he brought the umbrella to heckle - not murder - the president.

Read More: Secrets could put some conspiracy theories to rest - or stir up new ones

Witt said he wasn't even aware of the conspiracy theories over his umbrella until years later, and that it was a "bad joke" aimed at Kennedy's father that had monumentally backfired.

(A black umbrella had been the trademark of Nazi-appeasing British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Joseph Kennedy had supported.)

An inside job

Another persistent belief is that American officials were somehow involved. One theory is that the fatal bullet actually came from the driver of Kennedy's own car as he attempted to fire upon Oswald.

"If you look at a really bad copy of the Zapruder film (the video of the assassination), it will look like William Greer, the driver, reached over his shoulder with a gun and shot Kennedy in the head," John McAdams, author of 'JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy' told The Daily Beast website.

However, he added: "But his hands were on the steering wheel the whole time. It only looks different in a very bad copy of the Zapruder film."

A more widespread conspiracy theory is that the CIA - and even Lyndon B Johnson - were involved.

Although experts have rejected it as "ridiculous" and "contrived," the conspiracy theory was nonetheless central to Oliver Stone's film.

It has also been pushed by another Stone: Roger Stone, the political consultant and Trump confidant, who lobbied the president to release the final documents.

"I realise that delving into the world of assassination research and a belief in a conspiracy will lead some to brand me as an extremist or a nut. But the facts I have uncovered are so compelling that I must make the case that Lyndon Baines Johnson had John Fitzgerald Kennedy murdered in Dallas to become president himself and to avert the precipitous political and legal fall that was about to beset him," Stone wrote in his 2013 book, written with Mike Colapietro, 'The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ'.

The book also accuses Johnson of complicity in at least six other murders.

Cubans and Soviets

Of all the conspiracy theories, there is one that is most likely to be boosted or debunked by the newly disclosed records.

Experts believe many of the 3,100 previously unreleased files relate to Oswald's six-day trip to Mexico City two months before the assassination.

Some believe Oswald received his orders from Soviet or Cuban agents there.

Oswald had moved to the Soviet Union in 1959, spending two and-a-half years there before returning to the United States when his minor celebrity as an American defector faded.

In September 1963, he travelled to the Mexican capital, visiting both the Cuban and Soviet embassies in apparent attempt to move to one of those countries.

According to some conspiracy theories, American intelligence agencies knew of Oswald's plot and allowed it to happen because they wanted Kennedy out of the way.

The Mob

In the days after his brother's assassination, Robert Kennedy had a horrible feeling that the killing was his fault.

"Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed," according to biographer Evan Thomas, "that Robert Kennedy's attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had 'blown back', as the intelligence folks say."

There is no public evidence of an organised-crime plot against the president, however, and experts again discount the idea.

Ralph Salerno, a former New York City Police detective, who investigated Mafia involvement in the assassination for the House committee, said he reviewed "thousands of pages of electronic surveillances of organised-crime leaders all over the United States" at the time of the assassination and had heard nothing suspicious.

"We even came across a few sympathetic remarks about the president," he told ABC, such as: "No, they killed the wrong one," "They should have shot his brother" and "That little SOB, he (Bobby) is the guy who's giving us a hard time."

Ted Cruz's Dad

Not one to shy away from conspiracy theories, the then candidate Mr Trump himself had a hot take on the assassination for Fox News last year.

Mr Trump, who was battling Senator Ted Cruz for the Republican presidential nomination, claimed that his opponent's father, Rafael Cruz, had been spotted with Oswald before the shooting.

Mr Trump appeared to be referencing an April 2016 'National Enquirer' article headlined "Ted Cruz Father Linked to JFK Assassination!"

The story contained a photo that, according to the tabloid, showed Oswald and Rafael Cruz distributing pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans in 1963. Even after clinching the nomination, Mr Trump stuck by the widely discredited story.

Irish Independent

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