Kennedy killing spawned a cottage industry for conspiracy buffs

DPA , WASHINGTON

Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 9

The slaying of US president John Kennedy 40 years ago spawned not only a nationwide outpouring of grief but also a cottage industry that has sustained conspiracy buffs until this day.

Kennedy was in Dallas on November 22, 1963, attending Democratic Party fundraisers and meeting community groups during a long-planned, two-day tour of Texas with his 1964 re-election in mind.

On that fateful Friday, Kennedy's motorcade left shortly before noon from the Dallas airport with the president and Texas governor John Connally, their wives and two Secret Service agents in an open limousine. Another car carried vice president Lyndon Johnson, a Texas native whose ranch was the planned final destination that day.

The public procession was meant to show Kennedy receiving the adulation of crowds in Dallas, a city that had voted decisively against him in the presidential election just three years earlier. In an age before 24-hour news, an estimated 200,000 people thronged much of the parade route.

At precisely 12:30pm, with the crowd thinning as the motorcade approached Dallas' Dealey Plaza near the end of the drive, Connally's wife, Nellie, turned to Kennedy in the seat behind her and said, "Mr. President, you can't say that Dallas doesn't love you."

"No, you certainly can't," Kennedy replied, his last words.

A moment later, three shots rang out, the last bullet shattering Kennedy's skull, as captured by spectator Abraham Zapruder in history's famous 27-second home-movie clip.

Within 30 minutes, after last rites were administered, Kennedy was declared dead at Dallas' Parkland Hospital.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested within 90 minutes of the assassination after shooting to death a police officer. Oswald, 24, was a high school dropout who began studying Marxism as a teenager and, in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, went to the Soviet Union as a defector. He returned to the US in 1962 with a Russian wife and infant daughter.

Barely a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the president's killing by an assassin who had enjoyed the succor of America's communist nemesis, albeit as a lowly factory worker, seemed like an impossible coincidence. But it was only the first of many implications to feed conspiracies.

Within 48 hours of Kennedy's slaying, Oswald himself would die of a single gunshot wound, fired at close range in the basement of the Dallas city jail while being paraded in front of reporters on his way to the county jail. The gunman was immediately arrested and identified as Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub manager with links to organized crime.

Seven days after the Kennedy assassination, newly installed president Lyndon Johnson had ordered a panel headed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the events in Dallas.

Conspiracy theories sprouted nearly as quickly.

Oswald was revealed to have visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City just weeks before the assassination, seeking visas. It was easy to see the dark hand of communist intelligence services, although no evidence has ever shown that Oswald was aided by the Soviet or Cuban governments.

While Johnson always suspected Cuban leader Fidel Castro, others have cast a suspicious eye on the US-based Cuban exile community.

After the failure of the 1961 invasion at the Bay of Pigs, where 1,500 counterrevolutionaries were easily defeated by the Marxist regime in Cuba, Kennedy was blamed by many Cuban exiles for the lack of air support that doomed the US-backed operation.

Then there was the mob connection. Under attorney general Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, the US Justice Department had been investigating organized crime, but Ruby has never been shown to have acted on behalf of any mob bosses. After being convicted and sentenced to death in Oswald's murder, he was awaiting retrial after a successful appeal when he died of cancer in 1967.

Or could politics have been behind the killing? Johnson and Kennedy had been rivals in the US Senate, and Johnson lost the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to JFK. The coincidence of Kennedy's violent death in Texas left a shadow of suspicion on the vice president and his home state's famous oil industry.

The theory that has perhaps gained the most over time weaves the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the "military-industrial complex" into a plot to stop Kennedy from derailing the increasingly lucrative US involvement in Vietnam. Of course, no one in 1963 could have foreseen the Southeast Asian quagmire that would sap US blood and treasure, and all evidence from that time shows that Kennedy fully endorsed a widening policy to aid South Vietnam.

The Warren Commission investigation, which eventually concluded that Oswald was a lone gunman and that Ruby acted alone to avenge Kennedy, is widely scorned by conspiracy buffs. A congressional report in 1979 also found that there could have been a second gunman and speculated on a probable conspiracy.

But the Justice Department closed the Kennedy assassination probe in 1988 with a finding of no "pervasive evidence" of a conspiracy.

Hollywood director Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK dabbled in several theories before pointing a fictionalized finger at the CIA, cementing the conspiracies into the popular culture.

The 40th anniversary of the assassination has revived the debate. In a two-hour special, ABC News aired its own finding that Oswald acted alone, bolstered by a computer-generated reconstruction of the shooting.

In 1993's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, journalist Gerald Posner demolished many of the conspiracy theories.

"Most Americans, despite the strength of the evidence, do not want to accept the notion that random acts of violence can change the course of history," Posner wrote in an author's note to the book's 2003 edition. "It is unsettling to think that a sociopathic 24-year-old loser in life, armed with a 12-dollar rifle and consumed by his own warped motivation, ended Camelot (as Kennedy fans nicknamed his administration). But for readers willing to approach this subject with an open mind, it is the only rational judgement."