‘No smoking gun’ in new JFK death files
Why are we still debating who killed John F. Kennedy? Today, over half a century on, the government’s last secret files on the assassination are being released. But they may not change much.
It was murder in plain sight: normally the easiest kind of case to solve. And yet, 54 years on, the facts surrounding the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Texas are still disputed.
Today, fuel will be added to that fiery debate. The last of thousands of secret government documents relating to the crime are due to be made public, thanks to a law passed in 1992. Some passages may be censored at the request of intelligence agencies.
Experts expect that the files will contain interesting details of the case. They could even confirm the CIA and the FBI knew Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, and mistakenly failed to act on their intelligence.
But those hoping for bombshell revelations will be disappointed. As one historian put it, “There's going to be no smoking gun in there.” The files may simply stoke conspiracy theories.
The official story, backed by the US government and most experts, is that Kennedy was shot dead by Oswald. Case closed.
However, a majority of Americans refuse to accept that a random 24-year-old could kill the world’s most powerful man. Around 60% believe that Oswald did not act alone. Even the authorities have mixed their messages: in 1979, a congressional committee found that Oswald was “probably” part of a conspiracy (but its conclusions were later discredited).
Thousands of scenarios have been proposed over the decades, all lacking solid evidence. Fingers have pointed at the Soviet Union, whom Kennedy humiliated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At Cuba itself, in revenge for the CIA’s assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.
At the mafia, on which the Kennedy administration was cracking down. At the military-industrial complex, worried that the president was about to end the Vietnam war.
Other claims are even wilder. President Trump accused the father of Ted Cruz, then his rival in the Republican primaries, of associating with Oswald. Some even blame aliens.
Why does “the mother of all conspiracy theories”, as it is known, persist today?
Dallas conspirers club
“Official incompetence,” say some. The authorities have done a terrible job of resting their case. Investigations have contradicted each other, and intelligence agencies have fuelled suspicion by keeping the files secret for so long. Trump’s comments do not help. Let’s hope this new batch establishes the truth once and for all: there was no conspiracy.
That’s naive, reply others. People love conspiracy theories. We have a natural urge to find order in chaos and randomness. Many of us instinctively distrust politicians anyway. These files will not change minds – especially if some of them are censored. The mother of all conspiracy theories will never die.
- Are you interested in who killed Kennedy?
- When (if ever) should conspiracy theories be taken seriously?
- As a class, list all the people you can think of who were assassinated. Then discuss: do assassinations change the course of history?
- Research a conspiracy theory that is unrelated to Kennedy. Give a presentation to the class, setting out the evidence for and against the theory.
Some People Say...
“Assassination has never changed the history of the world.”Benjamin Disraeli
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- As Kennedy rode through Dallas, Texas in an open convertible on November 22nd 1963, he was hit by two bullets. He died on the spot. Bullet casings and a rifle were found in a nearby building; the police suspected Oswald, who worked in that building but was nowhere to be seen. Hours later, they arrested him in a local cinema and charged him with the crime. Oswald protested his innocence.
- What do we not know?
- Why Oswald killed the president. Biographers portray him as a troubled, possibly delusional man. He may have had political reasons too: he was a communist who had lived in the Soviet Union. (Many believe that the new files will shed light on his Soviet links.) But we’ll never know for sure: two days after his arrest, Oswald was murdered in turn by a nightclub owner.
- The previous year, the movie JFK had made waves by suggesting that a government conspiracy was behind Kennedy’s death. In response, Congress passed a law stipulating that all relevant files had to be released within 25 years.
- Details that might put national security at risk could be omitted. The CIA has refused to say whether it is calling for this.
- Around 60%
- According to a recent SurveyMonkey poll, 61% believe in a conspiracy; 33% do not. That gap is slowly narrowing.
- Congressional committee
- The committee found no evidence for any of the theories mentioned in this article. It simply concluded that Oswald is unlikely to have acted alone.
- Cuban Missile Crisis
- A very tense two-week confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union in October 1962, triggered by the USA’s discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The two nations eventually struck a deal, as part of which the Soviets withdrew its missiles from the island.
- Military-industrial complex
- The armed forces and the industries that supply their weapons. The idea is that they have a vested interest in warfare.