The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is the most investigated murder mystery in world history. As a host of recent TV specials have demonstrated, much curiosity still surrounds the assassination, and speculation abounds, but the bottom line is this: There was one man who killed JFK and his name was Lee Harvey Oswald. No significant, credible body of evidence indicates that Oswald acted in concert with others. There was no conspiracy, foreign or domestic, that brought Kennedy down.
That conclusion is hard for some to accept; conspiracy theories based on half-truths still compete for attention in the marketplace of ideas. Why? Gerald Posner (in Case Closed) and Robert Dallek (in An Unfinished Life) have observed that many people drawn to conspiracy theories just do not want to accept that a lowlife like Oswald could single-handedly cut short the life of a charismatic leader like Kennedy. It despoils the myth of Camelot.
Yet four decades later, the key facts still support the conclusion of the Warren Commission, reached in 1964, that Oswald acted alone. After months of painstaking investigation and exhaustive interrogation, the commission authorized 26 volumes of public testimony to be published.
For nearly 40 years, the commission’s work has been scrutinized. After all, it’s methods were sometimes flawed, its evidence occasionally inconclusive, and its judgments at times spotty. A number of issues went unresolved. Did authorities in Dallas handle every piece of evidence according to the best crime scene investigation techniques? No. Were certain questions answered inconclusively? Of course. Is it possible that new evidence might surface that will shine a different light on the assassination? Possibly. But–the critical question remains: Did the commission prove with reasonable certainty that Oswald acted alone? Based on the best evidence assembled at the time, the answer is yes.
Flaws in the Warren Commission’s report notwithstanding, it is interesting how its findings have withstood the test of time, not to mention the likes of Oliver Stone. (President Gerald R. Ford, the lone surviving member of the Warren Commission, has called Stone’s JFK “a bunch of baloney.”) In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations reopened the case and concluded that the commission, in the main, got it right: that Oswald fired the gun that killed the president, and that he likely acted alone.
In 1992 Congress passed legislation that declassified thousands of additional pages of CIA, FBI, and Secret Service testimony. A host of scholars, medical experts, journalists, and others have pored over the material, and this has led to much interesting speculation. Yet not one conspiracy theory has been formulated that could withstand cross-examination in a court of law.
There are other indications that the Warren Commission got it pretty much right. Conspiracies require that every conspirator stay mum. Is that realistic after four decades, given the leaks and tell-alls that a place like Washington, D.C. encourages? Also, both Bobby and Ted Kennedy were in a position to use their authority and family resources to launch an independent investigation had the Warren Commission been totally off base.
Stripped to its essentials, the Kennedy assassination is a murder case. To successfully prosecute a murder case, one typically needs a credible witness, a murder weapon, and the motivation to kill. The most compelling facts about the Kennedy assassination are these. There was a credible witness to the shooting. Howard Brennan was present in Dealey Plaza. From his vantage point Brennan could see a man matching Oswald’s description in a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, firing a rifle into the presidential motorcade below.
The murder weapon was found. The Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that was used to assassinate the president was lying on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, near the nest the assassin had made out of stacks of boxes. It had Oswald’s handprint on it. Also, three shell casings were discovered in the nest. Ballistics tests confirmed that the two bullets that struck JFK were fired from that rifle.
The assassin had a motivation to kill. Lee Harvey Oswald was mentally unstable, a Communist who had a long history of associating with fringe leftist groups. He lived for a time in the U.S.S.R., was sympathetic to Castro’s Cuban revolution, and was a rifleman trained by the Marines. Clearly he was willing and able, if the opportunity arose, to kill a U.S. president who vowed to resist Communist threats to the free world.
Add to these facts Oswald’s behavior after fleeing his sniper’s nest. To this day President Ford places special emphasis on the murder of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit 45 minutes after the assassination. Oswald shot Tippit with a revolver purchased from the same Chicago outfit from which he had bought the rifle used to kill Kennedy.
Finally, it is a stretch to claim that Jack Ruby was part of a conspiracy to kill Oswald. Ruby arrived at the Dallas jail 30 minutes after Oswald was originally scheduled to be transferred to a different facility. Oswald was unexpectedly delayed, and Ruby seized the opportunity to shoot the assassin–not typically the way conspirators behave–and insisted to the end of his life that he acted alone.
Given the best evidence, it is difficult to refute the main conclusions of the Warren Commission: that the man who murdered President Kennedy was Lee Harvey Oswald, and that there was no conspiracy, foreign or domestic, that brought JFK down. Forty years later, that judgment stands.
–Gleaves Whitney is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Michigan.