Kennedy: 50 years on the conspiracies continue

Fatal moment: President Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy in their 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible.

The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 launched a flood of conspiracy theories, many of them crazy. Just why are they so enduring and what does it say about us?

John Fitzgerald Kennedy became president in the prime of his life. In those dangerous years, at the height of the Cold War between the capitalist West and the communist USSR, JFK (as he is known) had proved himself in a crisis.

It was a golden time. Kennedy had won medals during the second world war. He was young, handsome, intelligent and heroic. In poor Irish and Italian households there were often only two pictures on the walls: the pope and JFK, the first Roman Catholic to become US president.

On November 22nd 1963 Kennedy’s career was cut short. The president and his wife were being driven through Dallas, Texas, in an open top limousine. An amateur filmmaker called Abraham Zapruder had his camera rolling. In the grainy footage, Kennedy suddenly sags forward and clutches his neck. A moment passes. Then a second bullet strikes the President’s skull, killing him instantly.

After an exhaustive investigation, the official US verdict was delivered in 1964 by a government panel, the Warren Commission. It said Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired the bullets from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Two days after his arrest, Oswald was himself shot dead in a police station by a nightclub owner with possible Mafia connections.

Conspiracy theorists insist this is a cover-up and that at least one more gunman was involved. They argue that Oswald was hired by the CIA, the Mafia, Fidel Castro or another clandestine group – including aliens. One theory says that Elvis Presley killed JFK, racked by jealousy over Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe.

None of the conspiracies have ever been proved true but to this day fully 59% of Americans believe otherwise. Why?

The Kennedy assassination has often been called the end of American innocence. Innocence died, analysts say, not just because a promising president was murdered, but also because it would become apparent just how much the Kennedy myth depended upon the gullibility of the public. Americans embraced fantasy rather than admit they were duped.

End of Innocence

Some say that the conspiracy theories thrive simply because the story requires it. The truth is too dull. A life so large as JFK’s requires a death of equal magnitude – he was too important to be eliminated by a mediocrity.

Others go further. We know today that Kennedy was adept at fooling people. Behind the image of youthful vigour walked a man of poor health. His famous suntan, supposedly the result of yachting, was caused by steroids taken for Addison’s disease. He presented himself as a family man, but was in fact a womaniser. Millions would come to love Kennedy not for what he was but for what he seemed to be.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that the truth is often duller than we like to think?
  2. Do you think we are more cynical about our leaders than we used to be?


  1. Who are the most powerful individuals or organisations in the world? In groups, brainstorm a possible top five, then compare notes with the rest of the class.
  2. Write a fictional CIA report detailing the ‘truth’ behind the Kennedy assassination.

Some People Say...

“Truth can be scary, but it’s never as frightening as the power of a good lie.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does anyone still care about a murder from fifty years ago?
The Kennedy assassination has become a battleground for two competing points of view.
Go on…
If there really was a conspiracy around Kennedy’s death, then it looks much more plausible that there have been conspiracies around all sorts of other things too. And some people see conspiracies everywhere, from the Moon Landing and Area 51 to the death ofElvis Presley.
All very eccentric, but what does it matter?
Some conspiracy theories can be harmful. They can often be racist, for example, blaming world events on some particular ethnic group. Or take 9/11, an attack which many in the Middle East think was carried out by American agents. That belief has serious political consequences.

Word Watch

In a crisis
The year before his murder, Kennedy faced one of the greatest crises in American history, when the USSR tried to move nuclear missiles into Cuba, within range of every major American city. In public, Kennedy put on a resolute face, blockading the island of Cuba and threatening war if the blockade line was crossed. The USSR backed down. In private, Kennedy had sweetened the pill by offering to withdraw American missiles from Turkey.
Second world war
Kennedy captained a patrol boat in the Pacific during the second world war. On one patrol, his vessel was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy swam with his men to a nearby island, towing a badly burned crewman by holding his life jacket in his teeth. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for ‘heroic conduct.’
Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Cuba in a revolution in 1958, setting up a communist regime which still exists today. Kennedy had tried to oust Castro in 1961 by sending Cuban exiles to invade the island. The invasion was a disaster, and left Castro bearing a major grudge against the American leader.

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